First and foremost thing I have to say is don’t mistake Hawaii as American. It is a different land and a different culture. Respect the land and respect it’s people. If you do not have respect for it, Kauai won’t respect you. And you will know it.
There is no electricity and no running water in Kalalau (the waterfall seen in the pic above is where you shower, and get water from).
Kalalau is known to most as part of the Na Pali coast on the north side of the island of Kauai. It is usually seen from afar, from boats of the coast or helicopters from the air. I lived there for quite a few months. I have been lucky to live in some neat places.
Kauai is known as the “garden isle” and is the oldest of the Hawaiian islands. It is the island that actually looks most like what you envision Hawaii to be, waterfalls cascading down sheer cliffs, wide open, beautiful valleys, and lovely, wild beaches. This pic is the Kalalau valley from above. (the beach is on the other side of those hills).
Which brings us back to Kalalau. To get there requires some physical effort. You have to hike 11 miles along sheer cliffs, or you have to use a kayak. Boats larger than a kayak thankfully are not allowed there, and would find a hard time approaching the beach anyway due to the rough break. Kalalau beach is almost exactly in the center of the northern, road-less portion of Kauai. The rugged coastline and soaring sword like cliffs make it impossible for roads to exist there. In fact, to hike there you will find yourself in some places on the trail where a few inches is all that lies between you and a shear drop to the sea far below. As you hike that trail, you will almost certainly see a few schools of dolphins go by. They do so every day, jumping out of the water and spinning before flopping back down, often to the dismay of the slow moving and massive sea turtles lumbering by who look at anything around them with a funny face that sorta says “Is it really necessary to bother me?”.
I had heard about Kalalau through other backpackers, it is sorta legendary among those who travel around the world with tents and hammocks instead of hotels and rental cars. While living in Honolulu, I had the opportunity to have a week off from my job, so I went to Kauai and hiked that trail.
I didn’t leave Kauai for nearly two years.
The job and life I had in Honolulu ceased to exist, I was hooked. Before I started on the trail, I set up my tent (legally) at Haena beach park. This currently costs five dollars a night. It is a solid investment. You see the pointy looking hill thing in the photo? right behind that is where the roads stop. It is the furtherest north you can go by car on this side of the island. The road ends at Ke’e beach (you say it like “kay-aye”). Ke’e is where the trail to Kalaulau begins.
The Kalaulau trail…
This pic is from above Ke’e beach and is the first real glimple you get of what is ahead of you. The trail itself is a magical place to me. It feeds you when you are hungry, and it gives you water when you are thirsty. As you hike it, you must be careful. You do not want to slip on the passion fruit that have fallen from the trees, nor the mangoes. Really. You must watch your step. Fruit is slippery.
Most people have experienced the first two miles of this trail. I feel sorry for them. The number one thing I say to anyone about this trail is this…
Do not stop at the two mile point.
But stop they do, and for good reason. There is some rugged hiking ahead, and the two mile point and back is popular because it is a lovely day hike. And the break there on Hanakapia’i beach there is friggen crazy sometimes, whether you like to watch, like to surf, or just like to play in some really crazy break.
It is also illegal to go beyond this point without a permit. After you hit this beach and continue the trail you go almost straight up, and it is a serious climb. Once you almost reach the top of the first (of many) climbs, you get to a ominous sign that says “Do not go past this point if you do not have a permit.” Permits are hard to get and if you are planning to do so you have think in terms of, literally, one to two years prior to your trip.
I never had a permit, and there do exist “raids” once or twice a year, where helicopters come swooping down and boats rush up to the shore. Luckily boats and helicopters are loud, so you have alot of warning to get up into the valley before anyone can find you
That being said, it really isn’t a joke. Hawaiian cultural sites and it’s natural resources are obviously very important. There is alot more than the simple “Pack out what you pack in” required. Respect on all levels is required in this place. Don’t be an ass. Most people who take the effort to hike in all the way are very nature orientated people, for whom this respect is second nature.
Those first two miles are almost half up and half down, along some slippery rocks, and you have to be careful right before the two mile beach, there is a river to cross. Several people have died in that river crossing it. Sometimes it is just a small creek, other times, it is a rushing river. There is usually a rope across to help you, but it can be strong that current, and you can not get across dry, though I have seen many people studiously studying the various rocks and coming up with crossing strategies in there head. Give it up. You will get wet. The safest way to cross that first river is the natural place where the trail stops at it’s bank. You will get wet to your waist or higher, most people like this, cause it is refreshing. But if there is a rope up.. Use it. This isn’t the only river you have to ford. Don’t hurt yourself on the first one.
Also of note… This beach has a side trail going from it to the waterfall. There are some bananas nearby if you hit this trail before going up the main trail to Kalaulau. Food is available in community gardens, I once was in Kalalau valley for three months straight. You won’t starve. Oranges, mangoes, papaya, passion fruit etc. is everywhere. There are also huge ass squash that after chopped up and cooked taste just like hash browns. Yum.
As you explore the valley, you will encounter very, very old man made rock formations that are part of an ancient and massive irrigation system. It is pretty amazing, the scale of it, and the precision of those walls, now mostly hidden by overgrowth. Ancient Hawaiians were early pioneers in irrigation and seawater farming, to the tune of 1500 years ago.
When I was there a few years ago, we had to take extremely difficult measures to clean it up. For decades it has had different communities of people living back there. Some were respectful, others were not. In one three month period we removed most of the crappy remnants of what was left behind. One month we removed over 2000 pounds of trash. I know those efforts went on, and literally tons of trash has been removed. It is getting back to it’s pristine state. But a new danger for it exists now.
The Kalalau trail needs some help.
Because of the tv show Lost, this place has been seen by alot of eyes now. The trail is almost gone in some places.
There is some funding for the actual trail restoration, and I am going to be funding some of that as well, but the trail is deteriorating, and in some places can no longer even be seen. Trails are pretty important things. If I had it my way, no one would ever go back there except the locals when they are hunting. But that is not reality. People always find this place, and other beautiful places, and proper trails are one of the biggest ways to keep such places beautiful. Trails also keep to a minimum the damage we humans tend to inflict on such places.
Parts of the Kalalau trail are on rocky lose terrain and when someone mistakenly veers off of the trail (which is easy to do right now) they cause rock slides, which mess up the ways water flows down the hills, which ends up literally changing the shape and contour of this place. Arrgh.
This video is wonderful and informative but I must give you two warnings about it.
1) If you used to live in Kalalau when you see how bad the trail is in some places, you will hurt, I did. It is heart breaking.
2) For anyone who has not hiked this trail it is very important to watch this entire video. You will learn and you will also see why you should not do this trail if you are scared of heights or are not accustomed to cliffs. Also of note, the ocean for most of the year is not usually as timid as you see in this video, nor are the streams! Be prepared to ford them.
Thank you guys for making that video.
I wanted to highlight a couple of neat resources for Kauai on the web.
I am amazed by the quality, accuracy, and responsibility of Kauai Explorer where, in addition to their gresat content, some real good people who know these places well will answer your questions. Here is their Kalalau Trail page.
Another, and someone I owe a great deal of gratitude to, is someone who actually went all over Hawaii creating an amazing set of virtual tours of not just the famous places, but the backwoods places too. He lives on Kauai, but to take that camera equipment on your back and document the trail the way he and his partner did is simply amazing. Here is the Kauai set of virtual tours. He has created a massive amount of content, which can be used for websites for a small fee.
Another good resource for trails in Hawaii is Na Ala Hele, here is their Kauai trail map.
If you do end up going there please Contact the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (808-274-3444) and arrange permits prior to going.
Okay, I am done now