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The Kalalau Trail

The Kalalau Trail, Kauai

This is the Kalalau Trail. 11 miles of hiking along the Na Pali Coast on the North Shore of the island of Kauai. All the while carrying a 30-40 pound pack of camping supplies. This is one of the most famous hikes in the world and last weekend, we finally got to experience it.

Near the end of the Kalalau Trail

The Kalalau Series:
This post is the first in a five-part series on Kalalau. Upcoming posts:

But the hike is really just a means to get to the real reward. That reward is getting to experience this special place called Kalalau. See that sliver of sand in the photo above? That’s the beach and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Beyond the beach is an incredible section of the Na Pali Coast that feels like a prehistoric land. And if you head toward the mountains you’ll be inside the huge Kalalau Valley filled with forest, boulders, streams and waterfalls.

Last Thursday, Cory, Jennifer, Jenelyn, Seth, Troy, Reanne and I traveled to Kalalau. We hiked in, camped for 3 nights and hiked back out. This blog post is the first in a 5-part series that documents a small part of what can be done in Kalalau. There’s plenty more adventure to be had in Kalalau, but here you’ll see what we were able to experience on our brief stay.

It all starts by hiking the Kalalau Trail…

Actually, if you’re from Oahu (like us) or the mainland, your Kalalau journey starts at the airport. I don’t own a scale so this was the first time I weighed my pack. 32 lbs doesn’t include water so my pack weight on the trail was closer to 37 pounds. Last time I checked at the gym I weighed 155 lbs so 37 lbs is a decent amount of weight for me. But, I felt like I could have carried more. I should’ve brought more snacks.

The airport was nice an empty. We booked the first flight out so we could make it to Kalalau in time for the sunset.

The flight was at 5:30am.

Watching the sky get light as you fly to a neighbor island is a beautiful sight.

In just 30 minutes we were in Kauai.

Jen’s pack we loaded up our packs and picked up our rental car.

The airport is in Lihue on the Southeast side of Kauai. The trailhead is in Ke’e Beach in the middle of the North Shore. So, be prepared for a scenic hour long drive.

You’ll want to park the rental car down the road a bit at an inn. Drop your crew off at Ke’e Beach first though. It takes a while to gear up for this trip. You gotta get your hydration pack bladders filled, apply sunscreen, check your bags again and strap on your pack. This trailhead sign is right off the beach parking lot.

Right away you start going uphill.

You’ll enter the forest and climb uphill again.

You quickly reach the coastline and get your first glimpse at the ocean.

But you won’t have that ocean view and breeze for long. After that brief hike along the coast you enter the valley.

And now you’ll descend to a stream via a set of switchbacks.

Cross the stream and then you’ll ascend a set of switchbacks back to the coast. This is the Kalalau Trail: hike down into a valley, cross a stream, hike up out of the valley, contour around a ridge (where you get your ocean views) and then hike into the next valley. Repeat this over and over for 11 miles.

Throughout the hike you’ll experience small victories in the form of beautiful views. As the air temperature grew hotter our packs felt heavier and heavier. Trudging through the forest in these conditions is tough. Views of the ocean help to wake you up.

Just remember that it will all be over eventually, Kalalau will be well worth the effort and the pack will be lighter on the return hike.

This is the stream crossing at Hanakapiai Beach. Kauai had experienced heavy rain before we arrived. The streams were pumping and it was near impossible to cross them without getting wet. On our return trip we were able to cross by simply rock hopping.

Hanakapiai Beach. The water looked so inviting but we were on a tight time frame. I believe the shore break here is gnarly anyway so we may not have missed much.

The trees at Hanakapiai Beach.

We continued on up the valley walls, contoured a ridge and got more views of the ocean. Again, use the blue water to give you energy. Pause for a second, pop your head up and soak it in.

On the hike in, we took many impromptu breaks to rest our bodies as the packs were getting cumbersome. On the hike out, we breaked as little as possible and shaved 2.5 hours off our time.

This pool was filled with tadpoles and humping frogs. It was like an orgy in there.

The Hono O Na Pali reserve. The reserve was set up to protect Kalalau Valley. We took a short break here on the rocks. Use the rocks to prop your pack up and take the load off your hips. It’s amazing how much of a pain in the butt it is to take off and put back on a 40 lb pack.

Onward into another valley.

But first, as we rounded the bend we got a great view of the picturesque Na Pali Coast. This is the first view from the trail that really looks like the stuff you see in magazines.

Then as we headed to the valley we were treated to a sight of a towering waterfall.

The ocean view is gone at this point and your plodding through the forest. The air is thicker and your walking on a trail laden with rocks. I wished I had hiking boots at this point. I have nice hiking shoes but they were not rugged enough for this terrain. I could feel every rock under my shoes with every step and my feet were aching at this point.

When we popped out of this forest, the dirt trail felt luxurious under my toes.

This is Hanakoa Valley, the halfway point. We’re 6 miles in and quite tired. Many people camp here (permits required) overnight to break up the Kalalau Trail into 2 days. You can hike along this stream to a huge falls but again, we were on a mission and only stayed for 20 minutes. If you bring some, and I suggest you do, this would be a good time to down a 5-hr Energy shot.

The rest in Hanakoa felt great. Energized, we hiked up a set of switchbacks out of the valley and here we are coming down a switchback as we contour around a ridge.

This is one of the coolest sections of the Kalalau Trail. You’re walking on narrow trail on a cliff side made of lose dirt. Look closely and you can see Seth (green), Jenelyn (white) and Cory (black) on the trail. The trail looks like a faint thin line but it’s actually pretty wide once you’re on it.

You can see there’s plenty of room to walk. Compared to the hikes we’ve done on Oahu, the Kalalau Trail felt very safe. For less experienced hikers though, I could see how this section would be unsettling.

Trekking poles come in handy here, by the way, as your bag will probably be top-heavy. The poles help you keep your lateral balance as the pack shifts from side to side as you walk.

We’re really close at this point. Only a couple more miles to go.

But a couple miles of switchbacks is not exactly easy. My feet were aching even more at this point. Going downhill was the worst as my knees were shot as well. I actually looked forward to the uphill switchbacks to give my knees a break from the impact force. My legs surprisingly still felt strong.

I think someone is trying to tell us something. Like, “I had goat for dinner.”

We took one last break in the shade before completing the journey to Kalalau Valley.

The trademark ridges of Kalalau are majestic. As we approached Kalalau, the sun was getting lower and casting a golden tone over the mountains.

After about 8.5 hours on the trail we were finally there. We made it to Kalalau. Sweaty, aching and weary, this sign was a sight for sore eyes.

Troy comes over the hill to join us. As it turns out, there’s still about a mile to go after the sign so don’t dilly-dally too long there. You’ll want to have time to set up camp before the sun sets.

From the sign, you hike down the hill to get to sea level. Walk along the beach until you reach the edge of the valley.

Once you hit the valley there are several camping areas to choose from.

We found a nice empty one where someone had already built a stone fire pit. Most of the camping areas right by the main beach were pretty full. This spot was a little further from the beach but it gave us plenty of space for our three tents and some privacy.

Once camp was set up we immediately walked to the beach right in front of our camp area to rest.

We were just in time to see the sunset. Later on we would shower up and when night fell, we walked down to the main beach, Kalalau Beach, to watch the moonrise.

Tips for hiking the Kalalau Trail:

  • Time frame: The hike in took almost 9 hours. The hike out (with lighter packs) took 6.5 hours. Plan your daylight accordingly.
  • Permits: Every one in your group will need a permit to hike this trail. The permit gives you permission to camp as well. (Get a permit here.)
  • Footwear: I highly recommend hiking boots. My hiking shoes are lightweight, rugged and grippy, but the soles did not hold up well over the 11 miles. My feet were tender by mile 3.
  • Knee braces: This trail is rough on the knees. Most of us were wearing at least one knee brace. I could not have done the trail without the two I had on. Hiking downhill with a heavy pack on puts a lot of impact on your joints. I’d bring an ankle brace too just in case you roll it on the trail.
  • Clothing: Shorts and a t-shirt are fine. We didn’t encounter any sections that require bushwhacking or pushing through thorny vegetation.
  • Rain protection: Cory recommended that we scotch guard our bags to help sheet rain off. He mentioned that your pack will soak up water and become even heavier. We also all carried ponchos to cover ourselves and our packs if heavy rain hit us. But we got super lucky and it any rain we felt was gone in a matter of minutes.
  • Trekking poles: If you are bringing camping gear your pack will be heavy. Trekking poles help you balance and take some load off you legs as you ascend and descend the switchbacks. They also help with stream crossings. This was my first time using trekking poles and I found them to be super helpful.
  • Fluids: 3 liters of water and a Gatorade was enough to get me through the hike. And a 5-Hour Energy shot at the halfway point was awesome.
  • Snacks: I highly doubt you’ll be in the mood for a full lunch on the trail so a few protein or Cliff bars will do. Those electrolyte shot blocks the you can get at 7-11 are great too.
  • Mosquitoes: We didn’t encounter too many mosquitoes on this trail but I would still recommend spraying up. Each stream crossing, especially Hanakoa, has some mosquitoes.
  • Advil: Bring a lot. During and after the hike you might even be able to sell it to your less prepared friends like crack.

The Kalalau Series

This post is the first in a 5-part series on Kalalau. See more from this series:

See also:

External links:

This story was last modified on July 29, 2015. (Originally published in July 2011.)

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