Hiking the Kalalau Trail on Kauai

The Kalalau Trail was the most adventurous thing we did on Kauai. It has been ranked by Backpacker Magazine as one of the 10 most dangerous trails in America. The 11-mile (one way) trail starts at sea level and ascends the cliffs of the Napali coast. Then it winds and undulates, twice dropping all the way down to a beach. The views and the challenge of the terrain are breathtaking. We originally hoped to do the whole trail and back in one day. Most people said it was impossible, but a few said go for it. We intended to drive the two hours and be at the trailhead at sunrise. If we hiked full-gait, we should have made it back to the car by dark.

The lady at the Department of Land and Natural Resources office thought otherwise. Anyone is allowed to go the first two miles of Kalalau. There, you can see Hanakapi’ai Beach and hike a side trail 2 more miles to the 330-foot-tall Hanakapi’ai Falls. To continue from there requires a permit. She would only issue us a day-use permit for the first 6.5 miles, to the Hanakoa Valley. From the Hanakoa Valley, there is a short hike to 500-foot-tall Hanakoa Falls. Any hiking past that point requires an overnight camping permit. It’s another 5 miles from Hanakoa to the trail’s end at Kalalau Beach. Kalalau Beach is extremely remote – it can only be reached by this trail. Apparently she didn’t think we could make it there and back in one go. We acquiesced and got the day-use permits. It’s a good thing we did.

We started much later than our original plan since we’d shortened our goal. We didn’t get on until almost 9:30. The trail was tiring. It went up and dropped down, only to climb back up again. It’s not the kind of trail you want to rush. Often, the path was only a few feet wide. To our right, one misstep would send us plummeting 300 or so feet to a watery death. To our left was sometimes jungle, sometimes rock walls. We crossed a few streams and picked our way over rocks and roots.

The Napali coastline is renowned for its views. People charter yachts and catamarans to see it from the ocean. We climbed it and were rewarded with the views from above. The cliffs are jagged, but they look soft for their lush coat of greenery. The ocean is different colors. It’s a patchwork of shades of blue and green and white. The birds provide the soundtrack of jungle. Lizards were constantly fleeing our feet. We heard a mountain goat crying like a baby or a faraway man in distress.

Coastline isn’t the only thing to see on the Kalalau. There are also people. The farther in we went, the fewer people we saw. The type of people also changed. Near the trailhead were the tourists. Even there, most of them looked like decent hikers. Near the two-mile mark, it was mostly seasoned hikers who really planned for the trek. About four miles in, it was us and the hippies. Michael thought I was making up stories about the hippies at first. There’s a group of squatters who live illegally along the trail, mostly at Kalalau Beach. They’re far from civilization and easily hide from rangers who might try to flush them out. They have their own sort of commune. Many live completely naked. Our first couple of hippies could have passed for semi-normal people. We first noticed that the guy was hiking barefoot. He carried a fairly large load under a tarp-type backpack. Throughout our trip, we passed the guy and girl and they passed us several times. Sometimes they hiked together and sometimes they separated. They were friendly and we had a few small conversations. The girl said we hiked fast and we told her we wanted to get to Six Mile and back before dark. She said we could camp and we told her we couldn’t. I read in an article that the hippies try to convince people to stay. I don’t know if it’s true or not. They showed us a sweet spot to sit on a big boulder and we asked if they were “from here.”

“We’re just visiting,” the guy answered quickly. But he didn’t say where from. “We went down a couple days ago and now we’re coming back with more supplies.”

Uh huh. More supplies. For a good long visit. A while later, we stopped at at stream for a snack. They stopped, too, and were soon joined by two more barefoot men who came from the other direction.

“Redbeard! My friend!” our original trailmate called to the one who did in fact have a red beard. His companion was grizzly. These two looked like they’d been out for a while. They carried a large jug of less-than-clear water.

“Heeey! You got any tobacco?” Redbeard asked.

“For you, my brother, of course.”

“I’ve got some medicine, if you need it.”

We moved on. When we were out of earshot, I turned to Michael. “If you didn’t believe me before, you do now.” He did.

Closer to six miles in, we came upon even more hippies. They were camped here and there in a valley along the trail. These looked less friendly than the ones we’d encountered earlier. Less friendly and more entrenched. We made it to the Hanakoa Falls trail, but we accidentally passed it the first time. We doubled back to look for it or give up. Michael had set a mandatory 2 pm turnaround point to ensure we’d be back to the car by sunset. It was slightly past 2. Just before we came to the side trail, we passed two more hippies. The man had long blond dreadlocks. He wore a shawl that looked like it was made of alpaca wool. The woman wore a backpack. And nothing else. I didn’t notice if she wore shoes, but she was definitely not wearing any clothes. I tried to not to look, and I tried not to look like I wasn’t looking. Like, sure, I’m totally cool with this. She said hi and I said hey as we passed each other and kept on our separate ways.

“Everything I tell you is true!” I whispered to Michael. I had already told him the hippies might be naked. He claims he didn’t see her. He was too busy watching his footing so he wouldn’t trip and die. I’m glad if he didn’t, but it’s hard to believe. How could you miss a thing like that? Naked hiking. How…natural. I wore capris and my legs got scraped up and bitten. That was probably one tough chick. (As a side note, I looked up capri to double-check the spelling and found out that kapri (the first way I spelled it) is a porn star. Oops.)

We found the trail to Hanakoa Falls at 2:15. I let Michael make the decision to go up it, breaking his mandatory turnaround time. I regretted it as we sprinted up the trail. It was narrow at times, steep at times, I slipped twice and got whipped in the eyeball with a plant. I let grumpy get the best of me. I offered such encouragement as: “this is taking way too long” and “I hope it’s worth it when one of us dies” and “we’re probably not gonna see a damn thing!” I was probably also moody about the prospect of Michael finding more naked hippie women at the waterfall. Let the record show, I was wrong. There were no naked women and the waterfall was the best we’ve ever seen. A heavy stream fell 500 feet to a pool below. Swallows flew in and out of the surrounding cliff. It was phenomenal.

We wolfed our lunches, snapped some pictures and headed for the car. Our return trip was double time. We hiked as fast as possible without seriously imperiling our lives. I did not want to be on that trail in the dark. The jungle is pretty, but unpleasantly humid. The afternoon got very hot and muggy. Near the end, I was needing frequent water breaks. I’m a little out of shape compared to my norm and have some sort of horrible congestion going on. My hike included huffing, puffing and coughing up phlegm. But Michael said he was impressed with me given my sickness and proclaimed lack of fitness. And we made it back to the car just before sunset.

We met one more interesting group on the last leg of our descent. We heard them before we saw them: the sound of yelling up ahead. I said we should keep going in case someone needed help, but we agreed it sounded more angry than scared or hurt. Michael instructed we should proceed with caution. It was an Asian family. The mother and two small children were about 500 feet ahead of the father, who was the source of the yelling. He yelled in a language we didn’t understand, but the argument became clear.

“Excuse me, do you know how far to the waterfall?” the mother asked us. Michael estimated it to be about an hour and half or two hours to the first waterfall, Hanakapi’ai. “Hour and a half,” she repeated to herself and kept going. Her husband was irate. He didn’t want them to go. He was right. They wouldn’t make it there by sunset, much less there and back. They weren’t dressed for hiking and carried nothing with them, not even water. He kept yelling at her to come back, but she kept going. He seemed infuriated and terrified as we passed him and he started picking his way up the rocks after his family. As we kept walking, Michael realized he was wrong. It would probably take them at least 3 hours to get to Hanakapi’ai. We should have just told them it was impossible. He began to worry that he was somehow responsible for dooming this family. I assured him that it wasn’t his fault and that they would be fine. They would run into someone else who would convince them to turn around. Or the husband would prevail. Worst case scenario, the sun would start to set and they would turn back. They clearly had no idea what they were doing. I wonder what happened to them.

It was great bliss to get back to the car. We were both sore for the next few days. We stopped in a small town on the way home for dinner. In keeping with our wilderness “first meal out” tradition, we had burgers, fries and onion rings. I kept mine Hawaiian – the teriyaki burger with grilled pineapple. Showering that night and sleeping in a soft Sheraton bed with the sounds of the ocean was glorious. I may have a farmer’s tan and scraped-up legs, but I’ve experienced paradise in my own way.

The Kalalau Trail was one of the most memorable things we did on Kauai. I’m glad we didn’t try to do the whole thing. But I hope someday we’ll go back there with our backpacks and a light tent. I want to make it all the way to the end. I wonder what the hippies are like there.

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About Nicole

Daughter of God, wife, mother, volunteer youth leader, substitute teacher, aspiring writer, rabbit owner, nature lover. These are some of my titles.
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One Response to Hiking the Kalalau Trail on Kauai

  1. andrew says:

    Hello. My name is Andrew and I’m working with National Geographic on a potential story about the inhabitants (hippies) of Kalalau Valley. I was wondering if you could share a little more about your encounters with them. Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

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