Kauai: Hiking the Kalalau Trail
Another picture perfect morning in Princeville! Our 4th day on Kaua’i, today was the day my brother, Mike and I hiked 4 miles of the Kalalau Trail. The trail is 11 miles long (which means 22 miles there and back!) so we opted for the shorter, but still very rewarding, 8 mile round trip to the Hanakapi ‘ai Falls.
When we first found out that we were going on this vacation, Mike and my brother both requested that they be able to perform some “Feat of Strength” while on the trip. I, however, am not particularly interested in “Feats of Strength” but when researching the Kalalau Trail it seemed that it would be enough adventure for them and something that I could feasibly accomplish as well. Add in the breathtaking views and multitude of photo ops and I was in. I was immediately regretting this decision about halfway through our return trip from the falls….we’ll get into those details shortly.
This is likely going to end up being a long post, there was just SO MUCH we saw and so much that happened that I decided I wanted to write a “Definitive Guide to Hiking the First Four Miles of the Kalalau Trail for a Moderately in Shape 28 Year Old Woman”. Quite the mouthful. We’ll start with a happy picture right before we started the hike.
I thought I would first start out with a few tips on hiking the Kalalau Trail.
*Start EARLY! The trail begins at Ke’e Beach and between the beach goers and the hikers, it gets crowded very fast. There is very limited parking right by the beach, but there is another parking lot only a short walk down the road. There are signs all along the road here that say No Parking Anytime, but when we returned from our hike around 3pm, cars were lined up and down this road, I guess they’re not big enforcers of their parking rules here on Kauai. Also, the trail can get very crowded. On our way back we definitely encountered a lot more people than our way in. We started our hike around 9am and finished around 3pm.
*Bring food and snacks! There are several spots to sit and refuel along the way-the main stops of Hanakāpī‘ai Beach and Falls being a great place to grab a rock, take in the stunning views, and enjoy your lunch-trust me, you’ll need that energy on the way back!
*Bring SUNSCREEN! The sun is hot everywhere in Hawaii, but when you’re up on those cliffs with no trees to offer shade, it feels like the sun may well be right on top of you.
*Bring at least 3 liters of water. Mike and I both had 70 oz. (2 liter) Camelbaks and we were done with this before we got back to Hanakapi’ai beach on our return trip. My brother just had water bottles in his backpack, so he drank less because his water wasn’t quite as accessible. I strongly recommend investing in a backpack with a water bladder as this was definitely the easiest way to stay hydrated-but you may want to get one larger than the 70 oz. we had.
*Wear hiking boots. I think that if Mike and I had just sucked it up and packed our hiking boots we would have had a bit of a better experience. If you have any way of fitting these into your luggage I would strongly suggest it. We both wore running shoes and while the traction was ok I think the sturdiness, ankle support, and padding in the boots would have made for a much better trip. The trail is so rocky everywhere that it is very easy to turn an ankle if you’re not paying attention to your every step-Mike did….3 times. My problem was that I kept stubbing the front of my foot on rocks as we were walking, they were everywhere so it was really hard not to. The hard toe of the hiking boots really would have saved me an enormous amount of pain.
*Bring or wear a swimsuit. You absolutely have to jump into the water at the falls. This is a must do. It is freezing cold and your legs and feet might be a little numb if you stay in too long, but it is beyond worth it. I wore my swimsuit under my clothes but Mike and my brother brought theres and changed with boxers underneath when we got to the falls-that way they weren’t stuck with wet shorts for the return trip. **A side note for guys, and even girls wearing loose fitting shorts (I wore yoga pants to avoid this)-wear SPANDEX under your shorts. Saves you from that lovely thing called chafing.
*Bring water shoes. The rocks by the falls are tiny and hurt and those that are underwater are covered with algae and are ridiculously slippery. Just stop into Walmart near the airport and grab a cheap pair. Again…. something that will save your feet from a lot of pain.
Ok….so I think those are all my little tips to take into consideration when planning your hike. Now we’re onto the good stuff. The Kalalau Trail is a difficult hike-even the 4 miles that we hiked was no joke. Towards the very beginning of our hike a teenage girl actually slipped and fell off the side of the cliff-luckily there is tons of foliage up there and she was able to grab onto a tree limb and they pulled her back up. Don’t let this scare you though, she was likely walking on the very edge of the trail and just hit a spot of loose earth and slipped. The trail is wide enough where you can walk away from the edge and have no risk of falling off.
I think that the best way to describe my version of our hike is to break it down into sections.
*Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi’ai Beach-2 miles
The first leg of the hike. The first mile is largely uphill and the second is mainly downhill. The uphill portion is challenging-lots of large rocks and tree roots to navigate across and your lungs get quite the workout. But at this point you’re still fresh and just taking it all in and enjoying yourself. One of the most difficult parts of this entire hike is that you really have pay attention to every step you take to avoid rolling an ankle or falling. When we made the hike we were very lucky that the trail was almost completely dry, with just a few spots of wet ground. If the path had been wet everywhere I don’t know if I could have done it-the parts where it was wet were stressful and you had to pay even more attention to your every step, which just takes that much longer and that much more brainpower. Just something to keep in mind if you begin hiking and have wet ground from the get go.
Hopefully I haven’t scared you off yet because once you get a little farther up the views you will see are out of this world! I strongly encourage taking all your pictures on the way IN, not the way out. I was so exhausted by the end of it that all I wanted to do was finish and I had no thoughts of stopping to snap a photo. That being said there are ENDLESS amounts of photo ops on this leg of the trip. The beautiful blue ocean stretches on forever along the impressive, green-lined cliffs.
For me the downhill portion is much easier than the uphill, but you still have to watch your step and it can be pretty taxing on your knees and ankles, some of the steps down you have to take are pretty large. However, once you finish the downhill mile you receive your first handsome reward in Hanakapi’ai Beach!
Unfortunately Hanakapi’ai isn’t a beach where you can go for a swim-the current here are very strong and there are caution signs everywhere advising against going in the water. We just dipped our feet in, snapped a few pictures, and relaxed and ate a snack on the rocks before continuing on to our next leg of the trip.
*Hanakapi’ai Beach to Hanakapi’ai Falls-2 miles
The first 3/4 of this leg of the hike were fairly easy, when you compare it to the first 2 miles. The trail is a little more narrow and you still have all the rocks and the roots to walk over, and you do have to rock jump to cross the river a few times, but there aren’t really any steep climbs like the first 2 miles. You are also shaded by the trees the entire time during this part of the hike, so you don’t have the sun to contend with.
The last 1/4 of this leg though was easily the most tricky part of the hike. As you got closer to the falls the ground was definitely a lot more damp and slick and there was quite a bit of climbing and maneuvering over big rocks and through tight areas. This was a bit stressful but you get to the point where you can see the waterfall from the distance and it keeps you going.
Now we finally made it through the clearing and the waterfall is in full view. Next to the view from the cliffs of Santorini, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It’s like something straight out of the movies. The most picturesque, impressive, breathtaking feat of nature you could ever lay your eyes on. This was worth every inch of the 4 miles there and even the painful 4 miles back. The water is freezing cold but you have to jump in and experience it up close. Pictures do not do it justice, so I’ve included a short video to give you a better view. Sorry for the shaky camera!
There was even a chocolate lab named Copper that made the hike up…we have a soft spot for labs, he reminded us of Ruby 🙂
*Hanakapi’ai Falls to Hanakapi’ai Beach
The thrill of the falls is over, we’ve eaten a quick energy bar lunch, and now we have to head back. I seriously wish there was a helicopter that could come and carry us out. My feet are killing me, partly from the hike in and partly from the rocks grinding into my bare feet at the falls. I’ve gotten my reward, my brain doesn’t want to work anymore, yet I have to navigate through the most difficult part of the trail right now. It sucked. The rest of the way to the beach sucked. Mainly because my feet were KILLING me. But I just kept going and once again we found ourselves at Hanakapi’ai Beach.
*Hanakapi’ai Beach to Ke’e Beach
This is by FAR the absolute worst part of the hike. I am exhausted, everything hurt, and now I have to go UPHILL for a mile. I did not remember there being this much downhill on our way in. Right after you cross the river from the beach and head back on the trail you have a steep uphill climb. I was going at about the pace of a snail. At one point I doubled over and started crying for a good 30 seconds before I got myself together. I just wanted to be done. My back, my knees, my lungs, my feet, my brain…nothing wanted to work anymore. I was out of water about 30 minutes ago and now is when I feel like I need it the most. It was a brutal journey back, thank goodness it was a beautiful view or I would have totally lost it.
My brother was in front, setting a pace I could never keep up with and Mike was behind me urging me forward. I could have never done it without them. Finally, after what seemed twice as long as the way in, we made it to Ke’e beach and the end of our 6 hour long journey. I got some water, kicked off my shoes, and made Mike go get the car to pick me up. I was spent. I didn’t feel like doing anything the rest of the day. It was a long, long last 2 miles but it was over, and we got to see some amazing things. Afterwards we stopped at Lappert’s for some Kauai Pie Ice Cream…that made my feet feel a little bit better 🙂
*The Day After
Today I’m feeling really great that I made it through that hike-but my body doesn’t feel quite as enthusiastic as my mind. My calves are tight, my hamstrings are sore, the bottoms of my toes are covered in blisters, and my knees can’t handle many steps up…but now I can say that I did it. Looking back at the pictures makes me even more happy that I made it through-the views from the trail and the waterfall are like nothing I will see again in my lifetime…unless we make it back to Kauai at some point in our lives…but who knows if I would be able to make the hike at that point. This hike is difficult, but definitely possible if you are in decent physical condition and well prepared. If you’re visiting Kauai and considering the hike, definitely get in touch with any questions, I’d be more than happy to help!