Hiking Kalalau Trail along Kauai's Napali Coast
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.