In the winter of 2015, Bill and I started planning a trip to Hawaii. I was pumped about our first visit to the islands and started researching all the different places to see.
Along the way, I found the Nā Pali Coast on Kauai. The Nā Pali Coast is on the northern shore of the island and it’s beautiful and rugged and green, and there’s jungles and waterfalls and rivers and beaches, and it is picturesque Hawaii and I NEEDED TO EXPERIENCE IT.
The problem? It’s inaccessible by vehicle. There are no roads there. Now, if I were perfectly content with just seeing if from a distance, we could go to the Kalalau Lookout (we did), or we could take a sunset cruise (we did), but I wanted to immerse myself in it. I wanted to touch the trees. I wanted my toes in the sand. I wanted to swim in a pool that was fed by a great waterfall, that fell from the top of cliff so tall it may have never been touched by a human hand. I wanted to be a little speck of a person, on a little speck of a jungle-lined beach, on a little speck of an island, in the middle of a great, big ocean. I wanted the challenge.
There was only one way to do this. We had to hike the Kalalau Trail. However, we were traveling with our children, and our children would be miserable if I made them do this, which, in turn, would make us miserable, and NO THANK YOU to misery. So, here’s what happened instead: Our friends, Kelli and Brandon, and their kids joined us on our trip. Then, Kelli and I did what any two nature-loving, gotta see it-do it-live-it gals from Texas would do. We ditched them all and went on the hike by ourselves. (Don’t feel sorry for them. The guys were perfectly happy to drink beer on a beach while the kids did what kids do.)
The trailhead was a beautiful 30 minute drive from our home base in Princeville, with beaches on one side of the road, Kauai farmland on the other, and one-way bridges all along the way. We had done a little research about how to access it, but mainly we figured we’d drive until the road stopped. So, that’s what we did.
After parking along the road at Ke’e Beach and grabbing our packs, we encountered a man, who appeared official, controlling access to the trail. Looking back on this encounter, I’m not sure who he was or how much authority he actually held. We must have appeared confused, because he asked if we needed help. Now, I know I said earlier that we were going to hike the Kalalau Trail, and we did, but we didn’t have time to hike the entire 11 miles to Kalalau Beach. (Most people camp on the trail overnight to make the entire 22 mile roundtrip Kalalau hike.) We believed we could hike the two miles on the Kalalau Trail to Hanakāpī’ai Beach, and then take the Hanakāpī’ai Trail inland another two miles to Hanakāpī’ai Falls. So, that was our plan and we explained this to the “bouncer”. It was approximately one o’clock and he adamantly said NO. He explained there wasn’t time to complete the eight mile roundtrip hike before sunset. Then, he got distracted with other people, so we started the hike with his words of caution in mind. I’m glad we didn’t listen to him because he was wrong.
There is no easing into this trail. It immediately begins with a steep incline up dirt and rocks. The majority of the first two miles is dirt and it’s extremely well traveled. We were far from alone; we encountered quite a few groups of hikers along the way. We even saw some girls in flip flops, which I would not recommend. There’s some large rocks that help with footing and, in some places, strips of wood have been buried for better traction, but, because it rained off and on all day, it was quite slippery in places. So, just to reiterate, no flip flops.
The view is breathtaking and it makes the difficult hike a little easier. It was August and it was hot, so that rain I mentioned earlier was a welcome respite from the heat. For two miles, we climbed up and down trails, until, eventually, we reached a set of switchbacks that led down to the Hanakāpī’ai River. This was the location of Kelli’s first fall. The switchbacks were steep and muddy. There were a few tree roots that helped, but in between, we were solely dependent upon our own balance and shoe tread. I was ahead of Kelli and she hit a patch of mud that I had somehow missed. Her feet flew out from under her and she landed hard, right on her bum.
After recovering from her fall, we were faced with a river. We had to cross the river to reach Hanakāpī’ai Beach and the rest of the trail. We tried stepping on the rocks but they were slippery. About halfway across, I heard an uncharacteristic splash and turned around to see Kelli laying in the river, her backpack halfway submerged, like a turtle stuck on her shell. She was laughing, so I knew she wasn’t hurt. My phone was shining brightly in the portion of her pack that was sticking out of the water. Her phone wasn’t so lucky and she spent the rest of the trip without one. After helping her up from fall number two, we gave up on keeping dry feet. We trudged through the river and made our way down to the beach. There were other people there, but it wasn’t crowded. (Probably less than 20 people.) The beach, backed by a dense jungle and mountainside, had an area of rocks we had to navigate before reaching the sand. Then, there was the ocean. And it was angry.
Do not get in the water. It is extremely dangerous, there’s a strong current, and it’s responsible for over 80 drownings. I barely stepped in the water and, as a wave crashed in, the sand was sucked out from under me. I would’ve been in trouble if I had lost my balance and fell. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and my feet didn’t touch that water again.
After about 30 minutes at the beach, we started the Hanakāpī’ai Trail. It started out as a clear dirt path and it followed the river the entire way. After crossing through a clearing in the trees marked as a helicopter landing area, we came upon large clusters of bamboo where past hikers had carved their names, and just past the bamboo, the trail became nothing more than large, black rocks. At this point, we had to keep an eye out for red flags tied along the path. There were times when the trail seemed to disappear, and that usually meant it was time to cross the river by hopping across on large boulders. There was no one else on this trail and it wasn’t an obvious dirt path. We had to rely on the river and the red markers.
After another two miles of rock climbing, we arrived at Hanakāpī’ai Falls and swimming hole. The water was cold and refreshing and we were completely alone. Reaching this isolated place in the middle of a Hawaiian jungle felt fantastic. We took some time to soak it all up, but we also remembered the warning from that man at the trailhead. His words were ringing in our ears, and we were nervous to be on the trail after dark, so we prepared to head out. Now I know we could’ve spent a little more time at the waterfall, and I wish we had, but hindsight is 20/20.
We started our four mile trek out, and made great time getting back to the beach, but our bodies were wearing down. We had literally scaled the sides of rocks to get to the falls and we had to scale the sides of rocks to get back to the beach. Going back up the switchbacks and hiking out on the Kalalau was excruciating. We encountered the same ups and downs as we had on the way in, except now our muscles were screaming with every step up and our knees were giving out on every step down. We hadn’t brought trekking poles. We had nothing to help ease the impact on our bodies.
The moment we climbed into the Jeep, we were overcome with feelings of relief and accomplishment. We hadn’t needed to be rescued. The helicopter landing area may have be utilized that day, but not because of us. It was the hardest thing we had ever done, but it was worth it. Dinner was ready. We had stories to tell. And the hot tub shone like a beacon in our minds, guiding our aching bodies home.
-DO NOT swim at Hanakāpī’ai Beach.
-Take a pocket knife. At the least, you’ll need it to carve your name in the bamboo.
-Take trekking poles. Your knees will thank you.
-Carry enough water. (At least 2 litres per person)
-There is no cell service. Keep this in mind when attempting anything dangerous. The only way to get help is to hike out.
-The hike to this beach is not easy but, if you’re healthy, you can do it. It took us less than an hour to reach the beach.
-The hike to the falls requires a lot more climbing, using upper and lower body strength. It requires balance to cross the river rocks. The trail is steep. The added physical exertion required on the Hanakāpī’ai Trail will make the hike back on the Kalalau Trail even more difficult. Keep this in mind.
-Speaking for my children personally, I wouldn’t take them. I would recommend this hike for healthy teenagers and adults.
The total roundtrip hike took approximately 5 hours. 8 miles.
Disclaimer: Only you can judge your abilities and decide if it’s something you can do. Push yourself to achieve but don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation. I’m only offering advice based on my experience. It’s up to you to make smart choices for yourself.