A blog about outdoor adventure and Vanlife

Reports from Kauai- Hiking the Na Pali Coast (Kalalau Trail)

The Na Pali Coast (Kalalau Trail), on Kauai’s North Shore is widely considered to be one of the world’s top hikes (at least in the magazines).  It is also Hawaii’s most popular hike.  During our week long trip, we made two trips out the Kalalau Trail, to each of its noted waterfalls, Hanakapi’ai and Hanakoa Falls.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to do the whole 22-mile out and back and surf the same day (we “settled” for 9 and 14 mile hikes plus a morning surf session).

Like many popular trails, the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail are heavily impacted.  Like any really popular trail (and in life), the best sights are found once you push a bit farther than the crowds.  The Kalalau trail was no exception, and reminded me a bit of the crowds in Yosemite Valley.  The first mile of the trail was like an obstacle course of day hikers, backpackers, and ill prepared tourists in flip flops.  Then the crowds began to thin out.  Seems like most people stop at Hanakapi’ai Beach, if they make it that far.  We were happy to get beyond the two mile point where the trail instantly became much prettier.  Unfortunately, along with heavily used trails comes trash from people with lousy trail ethics.  I picked up a few candy wrappers along the way.

Parking at the trailhead can be, well, very impacted. Both times we went out, we were parked close to 1/2 mile away (not a big deal).  Some know-it-all made it a point to tell us we’d be the first car towed (we were parked legally, completely off the roadway).  There were numerous cars parked well into the road.  Police were actively writing tickets for the people who parked stupidly rather than walk a bit.  Start looking for a space about 1/2 mile away, and make sure you are completely off the pavement.  The trailhead is also the parking area for a very popular beach.



Warning Signs (literally and figuratively)

Sadly this number went to 83 in March 2012

Hawaii has lots of awesome warning signs, and the Kalalau trail was particularly packed with them.  I suppose they are necessary though, since people keep getting killed and injured.  The week before we arrived, a hiker from the Bay Area was killed when trying to cross a swollen Hanakapi’ai stream.  Her body was recovered four miles out to sea.  According to the warning sign, Hanakapi’ai beach has killed 82 people, and counting.

When we went, crossing the Hanakapi’ai stream was an easy hop, skip, and jump across a few rocks.  Many hikers chose to take off their shoes and wade across instead.  Since the water all funnels through the canyon, this stream could come up very quickly with a bit of rain.

Hanakapi’ai beach looked pleasant enough, but I don’t doubt that there are extremely strong currents in the little inlet.  Looks like it’s got a serious ledgy shorebreak, too.  Lots of cool stacked rocks!






The Na Pali Coast

I took few pictures of the first two miles of the Kalalau trail.  It was crowded, and we blazed through quickly.  Immediately after crossing the Hanakapi’ai stream, the trail became narrower and prettier.  The trail switchbacked up and down from valley to valley along the coast.  The spines of volcanic rock climbed dramatically from the ocean, covered with lush jungle greenery.

“Wow!” we kept saying as we rounded from one valley to the next.  The scale was so large, that it just wouldn’t fit into my camera lens.

At around 5 miles we began to hear the “Maaaaaaaa” of goats, but couldn’t see them.  The sound was echoing through the valley.  In addition to zillions of feral chickens, Kauai has feral goats as well.  H was the first to see them, perched high on a cliff above us.  We counted 6 of them, meandering happily on impossibly steep slopes.




We counted 5 goats on the cliff







Hanakapi’ai Falls

Hanakapi’ai Falls still gets a lot of visitors, but crowds thin out dramatically since it’s 8 miles round trip from the trailhead.  Route finding through the valley was pretty straight forward because the trail is well used.  There were a few more stream crossings along the way.  There is a “End of Trail” warning sign at least 200 yards from the waterfall.  We went up to the falls anyway.

I’ve mentioned in other posts about the unwritten rule that you are required to swim in beautiful Alpine lakes that you hike or ride to.  Swimming in waterfalls is no exception.  Another couple told us that there was a ledge under the falls to stand on, but H and I stayed a healthy distance away from the wall, in case there were falling rocks.  The cool mist and surprisingly cool water was invigorating for our hike back to the car.

Rock hopper on Hanakapi'ai Falls Trail

Hanakoa Falls

Figuratively speaking, Hanakoa Falls blew the freaking doors off Hanakapi’ai Falls!  First, it’s about 6.5 miles from the trailhead, so gets much less foot traffic.  I found the Hanakoa valley (more like a box canyon) to be much prettier than Hanakapi’ai.  The falls were beautiful and had a way of collecting and surging down the cliff.  Of course, we swam under the falls.  We had the place to ourselves.

The required swim. (Taking pics while treading water leads to funny looking people).

Route finding to Hanakoa falls can be a challenge, since the trail is tiny, and there are several crisscrossing trails.  Fortunately someone put bits of pink flagging here and there to guide us.  We nicknamed Hanakapi’ai Falls “Ghetto Falls” on the way back.  While it was pretty, it had the feeling of being overused and abused (trash and graffiti/vandalism on the Hanakapi’ai trail, not so on the Hanakoa trail).

The "trail" to Hanakoa Falls.

Evidence of Civilizations Past

Dozens of terraces and hand stacked lava rock walls, being reclaimed by the jungle.

One of the unexpected and cool things about the trail to Hanakoa Falls was the subtle evidence of past inhabitants of the valley.  As we were hiking up the canyon to the falls, I began to see remnants of intricately stacked lava rock walls.  Terraces began to reveal themselves.  On the way back from the falls, we had a better vantage point when looking down.  There were dozens of terraces, made from hand stacking walls of lava rock.  Lots of strenuous work, and I’m sure we only saw a fraction of them.

Trees were actively growing through all the terraces, and the jungle was actively trying to reclaim the valley.  I wondered about the lives of the past residents in this valley, living in a box canyon on an isolated coast without many hospitable beaches to land.  Why here, in one of the most difficult places to eke out a living?  The only history I’ve found of the Hanakoa valley was that these were taro farming terraces until about 1920.  I took a few pictures, but it was really difficult to capture the scale of it because of the density of the jungle.  It’s just something you need to see to appreciate.


While I think a helicopter tour would be an interesting way to see Kauai, I really began to hate them while hiking the Na Pali Coast.  The helicopters buzz overhead almost like clockwork, and we’d hear the noisy drone of a tourist helicopter echoing through the valleys every few minutes.  More importantly, it has a profound effect on the wildlife.  We would be hiking through lush jungle surrounded by singing birds.  As soon as the noise from the tourist helicopter reached us, the birds would stop singing.  Helicopter tourism may be a great economic boost, but it detracts from the Kauai experience for everyone on the ground forced to listen to them.


Was it worthwhile?  Absolutely, and was one of the highlights of the trip.

If we ever get the chance to do it again, we would skip Hanakapi’ai falls altogether and revisit Hanakoa Falls, or do the entire 22-mile out and back (either in one looong day, or camp 1 night at the end).  We were both carrying lightweight hydration packs, and ran out of water about 2 miles from the end on the 14 mile day.  Hiking in humid 80-degree temps makes you sweat a lot, so bringing enough water and food is key.  H and I talked about packing collapsible containers of water part way, topping off our hydration packs, and stashing them to refill and pack out on the way back (2 gallons/person on a 22-mile day is probably about right).  Filtering water would be an option as well, but personally I’d filter water first, then treat it with a Steripen (a strong UV light pen that kills viruses and tiny bugs) before I drank out of any streams along the trail.

I’ve since learned that the trail becomes even more epic past Hanakoa Falls, so I’d really like to do the rest of the trail as well.  We just didn’t have enough time this trip.

Hiking in Hawaii is generally slow because of the large amount of roots, rocks, and slick mud.  I’d recommend adjusting your normal hiking pace down accordingly.  We were able to run very few sections of the trail.  The Kalalau trail is either uphill or downhill, with lots of steep switchbacks and narrow sections.  I don’t recall seeing anything flat in the section we hiked.  A good pair of aggressively lugged trail running shoes, or lightweight hikers is strongly recommended.  Some people are studs in flip flops, but the terrain will definitely slow you down.  Why worry about stubbing your toe on one of the zillion roots or rocks?  Bring good shoes and a daypack and go light and fast!

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Categorised in: Kauai, Trails

3 Responses »

  1. Man you guys hiked everywhere – LOVE YOUR POSTS!


    • Thanks! We actually ran out of time, and needed another week to get to all the trails we wanted to see. In 7 days, we spent about 2 hours sitting on the beach. The rest of the time was on the move. 10 surf sessions, and about 50 miles on foot.


      • Sounds like a great vacation. Sometimes, sitting at the beach can be overrated when there’s so much to do! What a great trip


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