Hiking Kalalau Trail along Kauai's Famous Napali Coast

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Hiking Kalalau Trail along Kauai's Famous Napali Coast

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Jul 13, 2012

I went for a hike along Kalalau Trail with friends last week, and shortly past the half-mile mark--after stopping to pose for photos with the dramatic Kee Beach as our backdrop--I looked up and caught my first glimpse of the distant Napali coastline. The cliffs stacked up like dominoes in the glaring, late afternoon sun, one after the other fading into the light. My feet stopped moving while my finger rose to point. My mouth opened and one word came out. “Look,” I said.

My three hiking partners strode ahead of me, heads down. Hiking Napali takes some concentration. You can’t let your eyes wander far from the path, least you risk a) walking off the path and down a cliff face; b) tripping on a rock; or c) slipping in the mud that periodically bisects the trail thanks to trickles of streams that make their way from mountain top to sea.

We stopped to exclaim at the scenic beauty and take more pictures. Napali Coast would rank near the top of Hawaii’s list of natural wonders, if there were such an official list.

Hawaiians once lived along this coastline, populating the valleys and clearing native forests, terracing land, and diverting streams in order to grow their hundreds of varieties of kalo, known as the staple crop. 

Each piece-of-pie-shaped valley comes with its natural-made fortress of walls, some rising thousands of feet on each side. The backs of each valley meet up in the center of the island, much likes spokes of a bicycle wheel. And, of course, all the valleys open up to the ocean, some at sea level—with sandy beaches running the length of the valley mouth—and others—known as hanging valleys—sitting elevated high above the ocean. 

The dramatic landscape of Napali owes is beauty to erosion, in a strangely similar way to how Michelangelo created the masterpiece David by chipping away what wasn’t David.

It took millions of years to create the spectacular landscape of Napali. Wind, waves and rain combined to shape the valleys, cliffs, caves, arches and beaches. Nature’s handiwork continues today with each heavy rain that carries boulders and whole trees down rivers. The fluted ridges so characteristic of Hanakoa and Hanalei Valleys are themselves cut by water running down their slopes and flushing out the softer basalt layers within the rock. Massive landslides at the backs of the valleys create steep-sided amphitheaters.

Standing anywhere on the 11-mile Kalalau Trail is like being a subject in a work of art, roaming through nature’s masterpiece. You might even feel like you've stepped through the brick wall at platform 9-3/4 at King's Cross train station and entered another world. 

A little further down the path, at the one mile mark, nature’s never-ending staircase topped out at 400 feet of elevation. A woman sat on a rock, a hefty backpack propped against her. She’d spent five days camping at the trail’s end in Kalalau Valley, and she looked like she was ready to chuck that backpack over the trail’s edge just to see how big a splash it might make in the turquoise blue waters below.

The trail bent inland here, into a leafy tropical rainforest, skirting a gulch with one of those trickling streams.

My thoughts went back to something Keola Beamer had said to me at Keauhou Beach Resort on Big Island. He was wrapping the Beamer family Aloha Music Camp and sat with me after breakfast to talk story. I think I had asked something about the importance of setting—or place—in choosing where to have the camp, and he said:

“I’ll give you an example. My wife is a hula master and when they study a song or hula, they go to the forest to see the flower that they’re dancing about. They see where it grows. They understand how it smells. So, when she dances the hula and she performs the motion of picking and smelling the flower, her whole being lights up. If you see that same dance in Japan with the same choreography, it just looks like the dancer is smelling her hand. Hawaiian learning is a lot about what we call contextual learning.”

I thought I understood what Keola was saying when he shared that story. It made perfect sense. But, then, as I walked Kalalau Trail, I understood his sentiments in another way when my girlfriend Laura asked me, “So how many others have you introduced to this trail?”

Laura and her son Billy were visiting from California. This was Laura’s first trek along Napali and although the Kalalau Trail went some 11 miles, our day’s goal was Hanakapiai Beach, a four-mile round-trip.

I’ve seen hundreds of photographs of Napali Coast. Shoots, I’ve taken hundreds myself. But enjoying the replica is nothing like hearing the sound of the waves crash ashore hundreds of feet below you, feeling the burn of your quadriceps as you climb the first half mile of uneven rocks that were laid back in the 1930s, and seeing cliffs stacked up one after another through a window of ironwood and hala trees. Especially seeing it, smelling it, feeling it and hearing it for the first time. I’ll bet Laura remembers this hike for the rest of her life.

Do you suppose that’s called contextual memory?

I remember the first time I hiked Kalalau Trail. It was 23 years ago, and the pathos vines sprouted leaves as big around as dinner plates. I remember the paved rock path. I remember the vista of coral reef-limned Kee Beach that I’ve spotted on numerous glossy magazine covers ever since. I remember the sonic boom of waves. I remember the completely inappropriate, strappy, black sandals I wore. And, of course, I remember my hiking partner—my brand, spanking new husband. We were on Kauai for our honeymoon. That same man hiked Kalalau Trail with Laura, her son and me last week.

After the one mile mark, Kalalau Trail started its descent, switch-backing into the valley of Hanakapiai, and all that elevation earned, all 400 feet of it, disappeared with every step. The view of Napali grew closer, and when I stopped again to take pictures, I heard the pitter-patter of feet behind me. I turned to see a young woman in a bikini running barefoot.  “Excuse me,” she said. “I am so excited to see the beach.” 

The Kalalau Trail is full of stories and characters. And Kauai is full of fabulous beaches. Some are good for swimming. Some for snorkeling. Others for surfing. Hanakapiai is best for viewing—with your feet planted firmly on the ground behind the beach. In winter, high surf gobbles up the white-sand beach of summer here. Year-round, the currents and periodic rip tides make Hanakapiai a beach best for picture-taking.

(Another caution: To reach the beach, you must cross a stream. It was slow-moving last week, but in winter during heavy rains, the stream turns into a raging river, carving out the valley and transporting Volkswagen-sized boulders to the sea. Please do not try to cross.) 

I could continue to write about Kalalau Trail, and, hopefully, I’d do so in a compelling way, painting the picture of the coastline in words and capturing the essence of the place. But Keola Beamer shared something else with me.

“I was teaching workshops,” he said, “And I’d throw a piece of paper down and by the end of our three hours, everyone would be playing the song, but I felt uncomfortable about it, because something was missing. So I told my mom [Nona Beamer]. I said, ‘I don’t feel right about this,’ and she said it’s probably because you don’t have the time to get into the context of the piece. We believe that you have to play from the heart, and in order to find that you need the grace of a little bit of time and place.”

And I suppose that’s my point. I can tell you about Napali Coast. I can take decent photographs. But to really experience the place, you have to get on a plane to Kauai. You have to drive to the very end of the road on the North Shore. You have to hike 400 feet in elevation in one mile. And you’ll want to remember to stop at the one-mile mark, lift your eyes from the dirt trail and gaze at the coast. 

 

Have you ever hiked any portion of Kalalau Trail along Napali Coast? What was your experience like? And if you have photos, feel free to share them on our Facebook page.

Responses:

Christa | Jul 17, 2012 02:26 AM

You are so right! I've tried to describe this very hike a million times, how beautiful, breathtaking, and sometimes harrowing it is. You have to experience it for yourself to grasp how majestic the Napali Coast is! My husband and I were in Kauai for the first time last September, and it's one we will never forget.

Susan | Jul 18, 2012 01:50 PM

What a great piece, Kim. NaPali truly is indescribable! Your link to contextual thinking was perfect. I'm ready to hike that trail this fall... again!

Brandi Garcia | Jul 19, 2012 10:09 AM

We (husband and I) did 12 miles in about 8 hours in Nov 2011 (6 miles in and out). We planned to go the whole way permits in tow but everywhere was sold out of pills to clean the water so we packed as much water as we could and started our hike before 6 am. We drank just under 3 gallons of water by mile 6 and had about a liter each, so we turned back, moved quickly and ate a few guava along the way. It was scary, amazing, breathtaking, beautiful and a priveledge to be a part of this experience. We had only ever hiked to Papakolea (green sand beach BI) and Queens Bath before so we trained and educated ourselves extensively. The first mile was brutal and the second better but after that the trail is tiny and we never did see another mile marker. I was bummed we had to turn back but in reality we hiked 12 miles that day which I later reflected on that meant we would have finished and got to the end in one day. Def. not for the faint of heart and you have to pay attention, no pictures unless you stop, we took very few as we knew we would carry the memories forever. My mantra was one foot in front of the other. We had a couple slips, 2 falls and moments that only God got me through (2nd to last mile back) but for the amazing experience we had it was all more than worth it. Want to go back and finish again someday! I suggest a walking stick this helped me tremendously and a very good stretch before you start. Also drink plenty of water along the way as it gets hot up there! We met wonderful people all with kind and uplifting words of encouragement along the way there and back. Kalalau is simply magestic and full of Aloha.

Larry T | Aug 20, 2012 01:42 PM

I was in Kauai last year January with my son's hawaii band tour and we went on a sunset sail on the Napali coastline. It was breathtaking. I forgot the name of the sail but our entire group travel was booked through Hawaii State Tours (www.hawaiistatetours.com). I'm not much of a hiker so it seems a bit hard what you were explaining but I can imagine how amazing the view was. Although I couldn't conquer Napali's hike, we did do a fairly easy one of Oahu. Diamond head, very close to our hotel in Waikiki. Kauai was beautiful and relaxing. Oahu was a lot more going on for sure. Our guide, Dave from HST, took us around Oahu every day on different tours. He was great! He even brought us malasadas from Leonard's (www.leonardshawaii.com) twice. You have to try these!! Our trip to Hawaii was awesome!

Leslie Price | Jul 18, 2013 11:55 AM

Kim, This was a wonderful piece and has gotten us very excited for a first-time trip to Kauai for 4 of us this fall. I'm sure that a couple of us will totally enjoy this hike, but I'm curious to know if there are other, more accessible areas to view this section of coastline for one of us with arthritic knees and poor lungs from breast cancer radiation? We would dearly love for all of us to see these wonderful sights but know that some may not be able to make the entire trek. Can you give any recommendations on other hikes or access points to see some of the wonders of Kauai? Thanks.

Kim | Jul 18, 2013 02:13 PM

Hi Leslie, there are really only three ways to see Napali Coast: 1) By foot; 2) By air (helicopter); and 3) By water. There are a variety of boat tours available. And there are many more hiking and walking trails on Kauai, as well. You'll find more information on all of these options right here on this website, so sit down with a cup of coffee or tea and have a look around;-)

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