Na Pali Coast State Park, Hawaii
On the beautiful island of Kauai, in the state of Hawaii, there is an unforgettable trail—the wild, raw, and unforgettable Kalalau Trail—eleven miles of switchbacks, cliffs, and beautiful tropical scenery. The trail begins where the road ends—Highway 560 takes you to the trailhead near Haena, which is as far as you can drive. Here you will also find the spectacular Ke'e Beach—the perfect place to rest either before or after your hike. Once you arrive at Ke’e Beach, you will find the Kalalau Trail on the inland side of the road, near a large kiosk. From here, the Kalalau Trail hugs the Na Pali Coast—a massive windswept coastline overlooking primeval emerald green valleys with towering cliffs that plunge nearly 4,000 feet to the sapphire pacific below. Many people hike the 11 miles to Kalalau Beach (permit required), camp, and then hike back the next day for a total of 22 miles roundtrip. As an alternative to this strenuous route, you can opt to hike to just the first beach along the trail—Hanakapi'ai Beach, which is a mere two miles from the start. Hanakapi'ai Beach lies snuggled at the mouth of Hanakapi'ai Valley, the first valley leading to the island’s interior, and if you are pressed for time, this is an excellent way to enjoy the Na Pali Coastline. We opted to follow this route, since we didn’t have time for the entire trail—someday we vow to return and do the whole trail, but until then, here is our account of the four miles we hiked in paradise.
Cupcake, Pick, and I (Weisey) arrived at Ke'e beach on June 14, 1999—excited and geared up to hike the 2 miles down the trail to Hanakapi'ai Beach. We began our hike at around noon, feeling no pressure to start out early, since we knew the hike would not take too much time—we paused briefly to have our photo taken at the trailhead sign, and then set off into the tropical splendor. Right away, the uneven lava rock path, which is often muddy and sometimes slippery, begins climbing through the lush tropical vegetation. In the first 0.5 miles, the trail provides numerous vista points that overlook Ke’e Beach, and the scalloped Na Pali cliffs. Kalalau follows an ancient route formed by the early Hawaiian people, and as you hike along the path, pause and ponder the fact that you are walking on some of the very stones placed here by those native islanders. As mentioned, the rewards of hiking this trail come quickly, and after only a few minutes of hiking the trail provides you with an open view of the Na Pali—the name given to this area by the Hawaiians, meaning "the cliffs.” Be prepared to be awestruck—views of rugged, jagged, green cliffs plunging into the turbulent blue waters of the Pacific Ocean await the able-bodied hiker! Could hiking get any better? From this point, the trail climbs steadily uphill until you reach the 1 mile marker, where it levels out for a bit—mostly it follows the ridgeline, meandering in and out of the forest—passing a few tsunami warning signs, before descending towards the sandy beach via a series of steep switchbacks.
On our way to the beach, we were able to see so many beautiful plants and interesting sites—all along the trail, you will encounter Pandanus trees, which have a really cool root system—they commonly have many thick prop roots near the base, which provide support as the tree grows top-heavy with leaves, fruit, and branches. There are also guava and banana trees, and many species of flowers, including orchids and heliconia. Some of the other interesting sights we saw, included a drinking fountain that someone had fashioned out of a leaf, and a few "offerings" tied to trees. There is certainly never a lack of visually intriguing sights along this amazing trail—a trail through one of the most incredibly beautiful landscapes ever created by nature.
At a little past 1.5 miles you get your first view of Hanakapi'ai Beach—a white sand beach which might not be there at all if you are hiking in the winter. In winter, the ocean waves are so strong that they wash the beach out to sea, and then in the summer the waves deposit the sand back on the shore, recreating the beach.
The trail now heads downhill towards the beach, and it is steep so watch your footing. Once you reach sea level, you must cross Hanakapi'ai Stream—do not attempt this crossing if the water level is high, many people have drowned. If safe, cross the stream by hopping across several boulders and then scrambling up a little bank on the other side—once up the bank there are a few small boulders to scramble over, and then you are at the beach. Your first inclination might be to take a swim, but the currents here are dangerous—best to stay out of the ocean here, but if you must venture in, be very attentive to what the ocean is doing and stay close to the shore.
Hanakapi'ai is as far as you can go without a permit, so unless you are going on to Kalalau this is the place to stop and take in the scenery. The beach is absolutely beautiful, but if you need more, you can take a side-hike to Hanakapi'ai Falls. The trail to the falls leaves the beach, where you follow it through the forest for 2 miles—we decided to just sit at the beach and relax before heading back.
Our hike back to the car was leisurely and quite pleasant—stopping along the way to take many photographs and to identify the flora. In fact, Pick even noticed a coconut that was sprouting into a tree—an interesting find. When we got back to the car, the parking lot was very full and Ke'e Beach was pretty crowded, but despite the lack of solitude, we threw our backpacks in the car and changed into our swimsuits to do a little snorkeling. As we made our way towards the beach, we encountered an obstacle—a wild hen and her chicks were digging around in the dirt in quite a comical manner—comical unless you have a fear of chickens. Cupcake has an odd phobia of chickens (aka peahawks—his childhood term for all birds) stemming from a life-altering encounter at a zoo, but he was able to pull himself together and bravely walk past the chickens to the beach—we were so proud! We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the beach and exploring the reef—the perfect end to a hike through paradise.
If you ever have the great fortune to visit Hawaii, and you are up for a hike, this is the trail for you! If you have the time and the stamina, be sure to apply for a permit and hike the entire 11 miles to Kalalau Beach—we can only imagine how spectacular the rest of this hike must be, but we can say that based on the trek that we did, you will not be disappointed! Regardless of where you end up, the gorgeous beaches, cascading waterfalls, and fantasy cathedral-like mountain backdrops make the only thing harder than getting to Kalalau Beach, leaving Kalalau Beach.