Na Pali Coast’s Eleven-Mile Kalalau Trail – Kauai, Hawaii

Dan and I are two very healthy and athletic individuals. We wanted to do something adventurous and amazing at the same time. We spent months reading and researching on which one of the eight Hawaiian islands to visit. We narrowed it down to Kauai and its infamous 11-mile Kalalau Trail hike on the Na Pali Coast. We picked March because it is a low travel season with few tourists.

Getting ready for Kalalau Trail was not an easy task. We spent a month in the gym, mainly leg workouts to prepare us for the harsh trails. The 11-mile Kalalau Trail is for advanced hikers – long, tough and wet. None of it sounded amazing. We read how beautiful it was to see the waterfalls, the coast lines and the many different plantations of Na Pali Coast.

We packed a tent, enough food for three days, some clothing and cooking equipment. This was the lightest backpack we had ever carried on a trip. We were allowed to choose between two campsites, even though we found out later there were actually four. The first one was only two miles into the hike, not recommended by the ranger because it was used extensively by tourists on day hikes. The other one, at Kalalau, was at the end of the 11th mile.

We arrived at the Lihue, Kauai airport early morning. Sunny from Island Cars picked us up in a cheap-looking vehicle. We wanted that so no one would break in or steal the car while we were out on a three-day hike with our possesions in the trunk.

We ended up with the most awful looking car on the lot – no front mirror, no horn, no airbag, no button to open the trunk, broken radio, jammed doors, windows that wouldn’t roll up or down, broken side mirrors, spider webs and sand all over – definitely a car no one would want. But it served our purpose. We drove to Kekee Beach where the Kalalau trail begins.

We started our journey and noticed the many walking sticks set at the first post for people to use. My initial thought upon viewing the trail was, “This is going to be tough. I can’t believe I’m doing this.” After our first step, we were climbing huge rocks and old stems. The trails were steep and narrow.

All the books we read stated the first valley was full of bamboos, the second valley guava trees and so on. We did not see any of these plants or, at least, we did not recognize them. We recommend picking up a book with pictures of the plants. That would have helped us recognize many of them. The trails were clearly marked from one mile to the next but there was no trail map.

There were signs at the end of the second trail with a warning not to go into the ocean – many deaths occurred there. The first stream we passed came up to our knees and was fairly easy to cross in low tide. For some reason we decided to keep our boots on and walk across – not a good idea. We ended hiking the next nine miles in wet boots and socks.

The hike was hard for a five-feet tall person, especially when I had to climb rocks higher than my waist. The only way to get down on some of them was to sit on my behind and slide down. I needed frequent breaks, sweets and water at the end of every mile. Peanut butter, trail mix and chocolate were my saviors.

We did get into a routine of an hour per mile. So we expected to reach the final destination no later than eight in the evening. There were many side trips we could have taken along the way, but we opted not to so we wouldn’t be on the trail when it got dark.

Every time we got to the edge of the cliffs, the scenery ahead amazed us. The dangerous steep cliffs, and how easy one can fall, also amazed us. By the time we reached the seventh mile, the wind was blowing so hard, it was knocking everyone over. Luckily it was pushing us towards the mountain and not away.

We literally had to duck down and lean against the mountain to keep moving. The wind was so strong we were being hit by rocks and sand, which made it painful and difficult to move forward. Many times I wanted to turn around. Bad thoughts came through my head – getting knocked off the cliffs, dying, stuck in the middle with no way to turn.

The trails became narrower and narrower after that. I was no longer able to walk facing forward. I had to face the mountain with my back towards the ocean grabbing onto whatever I could. I dug my fingers into the dirt, and prayed that was enough to keep me stable until the trail became visible again. Twenty minutes felt like a lifetime.

I wanted the day to be over with as soon as possible so I could sit down, rest, take off my wet boots and eat a warm meal. It was around the ninth mile when red dirt accompanied by a swarm of windy sands was thrown into our faces.

When we were finally at the 10th mile, we saw people gathered at a stream, collecting water for their campsite. Most travel books recommended not drinking the water in the stream, but there was no way we were going to carry all that water either. Surprisingly, we didn’t get sick from and it was sweeter than normal drinking water.

We reached the last mile which ended on a beach. It was beautiful, like everyone said. That was the point where we felt the last 10 hours of torture was worth it. We set camp that night, ate a little and went to sleep. We couldn’t sleep a wink the whole night, though. The sound of the ocean made it seem as if it were only a step away from our tent. We were afraid we were going to get sucked into the ocean any minute.

We woke up exhausted and sore. But we were also mesmerized by the beauty surrounding us. We walked to the end of the beach. There was a small, romantic lagoon but the forces of nature had made a tornado-like funnel with sand that blocked our path to enter the lagoon. We tried going back later. We couldn’t enter. We were disappointed we didn’t get to swim in it.

There are several trails you can take that will lead you to the top of the mountain right behind the campsite overlooking a waterfall. We knew we only had a short amount of time, and we did not want to hike 11 miles in one day again. We packed and hiked to the sixth mile campsite.

We were not looking forward to passing that 7th mile death road again. Because we were expecting it, we kept going without stopping or thinking about it. Once we got to the point where we could see the death ledge, we stopped for 20 minutes, sat, ate snacks and watched others. One couple turned around, afraid to keep going. That’s when we braced ourselves for the worst.

The next day we planned to go all the way so we could relax at the hotel – a lot harder said than done. One part seemed like a never ending switchback. It just kept going up, up and up. We thought of hell. Once that was over, we imagined we detected the beach where we first started, but it was just an illusion. Only until we saw tons of people hiking without backpacks did we know we were close to the end.

This three-day excursion on Na Pali was deadly but beautiful. We knew it was going to be difficult, but not to that degree. We never expected it to be as beautiful as it actually was either.

For More Information
To get the camping permit, contact The Division of State Parks (808-274-3444 3600 Eiwa Street, Lihue, HI 96766-1875) a month in advance. The permit costs $10.00 per day/person.

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