The Nā Pali coast on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai is one of the most rugged and spectacular meetings of land and ocean on earth. Millions of years of erosion have created soaring cliffs, knife-edge ridges and hanging valleys rising immediately from the pounding surf that relentlessly smashes into the rocky shore. This stretch of picturesque coast is protected by Nā Pali Coast State Park and is inaccessible to motorized vehicles but the famous Kalalau Trail enables access on foot. The rugged 11 mile trail stretches from the end of the road at beautiful Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach, which is the turnaround point where the coast becomes even too precipitous for a trail. The full Kalalau Trail is a 22 mile out-and-back but I highly recommend the 1 mile roundtrip side hike to Hanakoa Falls and the 4 mile roundtrip side hike to Hanakapi’ai Falls. Thus, the grand tour of the Nā Pali is around 27-28 miles. Hanakoa Falls is a taller and thinner falls while Hanakapai’ai Falls is a shorter (but still quite tall) and higher volume falls. Hanakapi’ai Falls is closer to the trailhead at Ke’e Beach (4 miles each way; 8 miles roundtrip) and is accessible without a permit so it is very popular with day hikers. Meanwhile, Hanakoa Falls is much farther beyond the point where permits are required and therefore sees much less visitation with a more wild and peaceful feeling. Both falls have their merits and if you can I would make the side trips to see both. As the Kalalau Valley and Beach are fragile and sacred lands, a permit system limits the number of visitors beyond Hanakpi’ai beach. These permits are easily obtained online but must be reserved well in advance as the quota can fill up months in advance. The vast majority of folks beyond Hanakpi’ai beach are backpackers headed for overnights at Hanakoa Valley and Kalalau beach. The park seems to have a policy against day trips in the permit zone, undoubtedly due to hikers and/or trail runners that were ill prepared for the rugged trail and/or conditions and had to be rescued. However, if weather and trail conditions are fine it is very possible to hike the entire trail in a day and run the entire trail in a matter of hours. A more casual trail run that allows one to fully enjoy the surrounding scenery and make side trips to the waterfalls might be an ideal itinerary. Either way, a permit is required for all trail users beyond Hanakapi’ai beach so advance planning is necessary to obtain the permit before the quota fills up. The first two miles of the trail from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi’ai Beach are wide and well trodden. After crossing Hanakapi’ai Creek the trail forks with the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail going straight and the Kalalau Trail heading right and up the hill. Both trails become much narrower and more rugged than the first two miles. The four mile out-and-back to Hanakpai’ai Falls from Hanakapi’ai Beach is a wonderful walk in a lush jungle including bamboo groves, a lush under story of ferns, (often) wet creek crossings and some rock scrambling. The falls itself is in a spectacular amphitheater and one of the classic sights of Kauai. Back on the Kalalau Trail, the four mile stretch from Hanakapi’ai Beach to Hanakoa Valley is probably the most rugged of the entire trail with some encroaching brush, slippery sections, and several climbs up and over ridges. Most of this section is under beautiful forest canopy but there are still some amazing vistas.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Kalalau Trail is the changing flora, which starts out with tropical rainforest and progresses to a drier regime as one progresses toward Kalalau Beach, particularly after Hanakoa Valley (at mile 6). In addition, the trail becomes easier after Hanakoa Valley with more gradual ascents, less overall climbing and less brush. The final three miles to Kalalau Valley and Kalalau Beach are a pleasure with wide open trail and continuous amazing vistas with open red rock surface and grassland versus the thick forest canopy of the first 7 miles. While the entire trail is gorgeous, it seems to get better and better as one moves toward Kalalau Valley, which is a magical and special spot with amazing views in all directions and towering ridges immediately overhead. This area is a treasure and worthy of high levels of protection and conservation. As such, state parks has implemented the permit system to limit the impacts of humans. If you wish to continue beyond Hanakapi’ai beach, it pays to plan well in advance and reserve a permit at least a month or two before you plan to hit the trail. The main destination for backpackers on the Kalalau Trail is Kalalau Beach. The park recognizes that setting up and using a camp is perhaps the highest impact activity of backpackers so they have designated a specific area for camping near Kalalau Beach and explicitly prohibit camping beyond this point. Unfortunately, some selfish people either feel that the signs and regulations don’t apply to them or that their camping activities will not have the same impact as others (not) and choose to camp in illegal spots. All of these folks are missing out on the tenets of respect and utmost care for the Kalalau Valley and are not doing their part to preserve this magical spot for future generations. Please don’t think you’re entitled; make your camp in the designated camping area! Perhaps the most important advise for the Kalalau Trail is to monitor weather conditions and resist the urge to the do the trail in poor weather conditions (even if you had planned a specific date long in advance). First and foremost, the whole point of the trail is to see the amazing vistas. If the coast is being battered by a storm you can’t see anything and it will be miserably wet. As the lush vegetation manifests, it rains a lot here! Second, the trail is slippery enough as-is and doing it on a rainy day would be a sucky slip and slide. Third, heavy rain can make the trail dangerous and life-threatening. The park closes down the trail during and after heavy rain since flash flooding is a real danger as Hanakapi’ai creek becomes impassable. By selfishly ignoring the closure signs you put yourself and rescuers in danger. If you are planning a backpacking trip and you decide to embark with rain in the forecast, prepare to spend an extra night or two with sufficient additional food since you may not be able to exit the trail until waters have sufficiently receded after a rain. Kauai is an extremely popular tourist destination and not everybody can or wants to hike the Nā Pali coast so this has a created a thriving helicopter tour industry for folks to see the coast from the air. Unfortunately, these helicopters create substantial noise pollution and they travel much too close to the land. It’s sad that the ethos of respect and utmost care for this sacred land is being challenged by the reverberating noise of helicopters on a daily basis. If anything diminishes the Kalalau Trail and Nā Pali coast compared to some other iconic wilderness trails it would be the unnerving sound of the barrage of helicopters that traverse the coast during peak hours. If it were my decision I would ban the helicopter entirely. Otherwise, I strongly believe Hawaii should implement regulations that extend into the airspace above the land to keep the helicopters from traveling into the canyons which amplifies the sound and diminishes the experience for tourists on the ground. In addition, just as there is a limited quota for hikers there should be a limited quota for helicopters. Assuming there is already a quota for helicopters, it is WAY too high. Again, I would ban them entirely but if there must be a “balance” the helicopter numbers should come way down. Unfortunately, the draw of tourist dollars may be too much to force meaningful change 😦 There is also a lot of boat tour traffic along the Nā Pali, but the boats are less of an eye sore and don’t make much noise. My gripe is with the helicopters. As it stands, it appears there is a morning session of helicopters with greatest frequency from around 9 am to 11 am and then an afternoon session from 2 pm to 4 pm. This is based on experience in early February and flying times may change depending on the season. When the helicopters are not buzzing overhead one can best enjoy the spectacular scenery in peace and quiet.As with any spectacular and accessible trail, there are unfortunately some side effects of the popularity. In the case of the Kalalau, it’s loud helicopters and some backpackers that feel entitled to camp in illegal spots. Despite these issues, the Kalalau is still one of the most amazing trails I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing and I look forward to my next visit!