What may be the best way to experience Kaua‘i’s Na Pali Coast is the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which begins right at Ke‘e Beach. Mother nature dictates what condition the trail is in, so hikers may find a somewhat dry and firm trail or a narrow trail so steep, wet, and crumbling that they must scoot along on a cliff’s edge while leaning into the earth and digging their hands deep into the dirt to hang on. Upon reaching Kalalau Beach, hikers may be welcomed to the beach by nude campers, as some people take advantage of the remote location and leave swimwear in their packs.

It usually takes a full day to get to Kalalau Beach, and it’s really the best hike in the whole state.The path was originally created as a land route between Kalalau Valley and Ha‘ena. It was rebuilt in 1930 for horses and cows to pass over. To experience the trail is to experience what old Hawaii must have been like, when people lived off the land and close to nature. It usually takes a full day to get to Kalalau Beach, and it’s really the best hike in the whole state. The trail is well worn from decades of use, so you’re not likely to get off track and lost. Yet roots weave through it, and it gets extremely muddy and slippery when there’s been rain, a frequent occurrence out here. Small streams fill up to flooding rivers after a heavy rain but they drain out rather quickly, so instead of crossing a dangerous stream it’s usually best to wait it out. Mountain climbing out here is a risky and dangerous idea because the dirt crumbles and falls easily. The trail is filled with continuous amazing views. From the impressively tall mountains to the coastal views and lush foliage, this is not a trail to forget the camera on.

Travel map of West End of Kaua‘i, Hawaii

West End of Kaua‘i

The currents along the coast are dangerous too, so stay out of the water from around September through April, when the surf mellows out for the summer. In summer, the sand is usually returned to Hanakapi‘ai, the most commonly visited part of the hike, after being swept away by the winter’s large surf. Hanakapi‘ai, like Queen’s Bath, has a list of the names and ages of people who have died at this beach due to the pounding surf often washing over bare rock.

Hanakapi’ai Beach and Hanakapi’ai Falls

It’s about two miles and a 1.5- to 2-hour hike from Ke‘e to Hanakapi‘ai Beach. The first mile goes uphill to about 800 feet, with the last mile going down and ending at the beach. Depending on the season, you may get lucky and see some brave and slightly crazy surfers out here. During low tide only during the summer, caves on the beach are good for camping, but on the far side of the stream up from the beach is the best place.

From the west side of the stream at Hanakapi‘ai Beach, the Hanakapi‘ai Trail starts, leading two miles inland up into the valley to the wonderful Hanakapi‘ai Falls, passing old taro fields and crumbling rock walls. You will cross the stream several times on the way up, so if the stream looks full and rushing, just turn around and head back. It can be dangerous during high water. If the stream is low, keep going. The hike to the 300-foot-high falls is rewarding and worth it. There is a wonderful ice-cold swimmable pool at the bottom, but don’t swim directly under the falls. From Hanakapi‘ai Camp near the beach, the hike should take around 2-3 hours, and it’s about 5-6 hours from Ke‘e Beach.

The best way to experience Kaua’i's Na Pali Coast is the 11-mile Kalalau Trail.

The best way to experience Kaua’i’s Na Pali Coast is the 11-mile Kalalau Trail. Photo © brewbooks, licensed Creative Commons Attribution & ShareAlike.

Hanakapi’ai Beach to Hanakoa

It’s a strenuous 4.5-mile, three-hour trek from Hanakapi‘ai Beach to Hanakoa. The trail climbs steadily and doesn’t go back down to sea level until Kalalau Beach nine miles later. You are taken about 600 feet out of Hanakapi‘ai Valley through a series of switchbacks, and although the trail is heavily utilized, it can be very rough in certain spots. You will walk through the hanging valleys of Ho‘olulu and Waiahuakua, both parts of the Hono‘onapali Nature Area Preserve and loaded with native flora, before arriving at Hanakoa.

In the past Hanakoa was a major food-growing area for Hawaiians, and many of its terraces are still intact. Wild coffee plants can be seen here. Hanakoa is a bit rainy, but it’s on and off and the sun usually dominates throughout the day. Numerous swimmable pools are born from the stream here. To get to Hanakoa Falls from here, you’ll need to take a worthwhile half mile detour inland. Cross the Hanakoa Stream and hang a left at the trail near the shelter. Walk for about 150 feet or so and take a left at the fork and continue for 15 to 20 minutes.

Hanakoa to Kalalau Beach

From Hanakoa to Kalalau Beach the trek is less than five miles, but it’s a tough one and takes around three hours. It’s important to start this one early in the morning to get as much time as possible in before the heat sinks in. The trail gets drier and more open as you approach Kalalau, but the views along the way make it all worth it. Out here the mana of the island is strong. Try to clear your head of thoughts and concerns of the outside world and soak in the invigorating beauty and peace of the valley. Around mile marker 7 is land that until the late 1970s was part of the Makaweli cattle ranch. After Pohakuao Valley is Kalalau Valley, spanning two miles wide and three deep. Freshwater pools dot the area and look inviting after the long hot hike. The area was cultivated until the 1920s, and fruit trees are abundant in the area.

Camping is only allowed in the trees along the beach, or in the caves west of the waterfall, not along the stream, its mouth, or in the valley. The falls have a wonderful, refreshing pool. On the far side of the stream is a heiau on top of a little hill. If you follow the trail here inland for around two miles you’ll find Big Pool, which is really two pools connected by a natural water slide.

Honopu, Nu’alolo Kai, and Miloli’i

If you somehow have it in you to keep going, other destinations include Honopu, Nu‘alolo Kai, and Miloli‘i. Honopu is less than a half mile west of Kalalau Valley, and is known as “Valley of the Lost Tribe” due to a legend that says the small Mu people lived out here. The beach is separated by a big rock arch that has been used in at least two movies. You can get to Nu‘alolo Kai by staying on the Kalalau Trail, and it is right after Awa‘awapuhi Valley, about nine miles down the coast. It has a lovely beach and dunes right up against a tall cliff. There’s a pair of reefs here that provide good snorkeling opportunities when the water is calm.

A community of Hawaiians lived out here until 1919, and their archaeological remnants still exist as stone walls and heiau platforms. Taro was cultivated out here in the adjoining Nu‘alolo ‘Aina Valley, and fishing was good too. The reef out here was utilized as a rest stop by canoeists, who would anchor out here while going between Hanalei and Waimea. Another mile west is Miloli‘i, another ancient site that was inhabited by Hawaiians. Here there is a very basic camping area with restrooms and a simple shelter, and down the beach is another heiau. Miloli‘i only gets about 20 inches of rain a year, a big contrast from the rest of the wet Na Pali Coast.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.