The lure of palm trees, rugged volcanic cliffs, the smell of the Pacific Ocean, and fresh island fish guaranteed to make your mouth salivate. Yes, this is the land of aloha! The fiftieth state integrated into the United States. When you think about Hawai’i, I can guarantee that you’re thinking of white sandy beaches, palm trees speckling the coast, or surfers dominating the gigantic ocean swells up on the famous North Shore of O’ahu. Yes, this is what Hawai’i is to most people, but there’s another side of her that offers something more spectacular for those with an adventurous spirit. Imagine a place on the islands that offers dips in freshwater pools, incredible trail views, and the reward of near-total isolation on your very own beach.
Welcome to Kalalau Valley on Kaua’i. It’s not a trail for a novice hiker or the faint of heart. There will be times when you’ll ask yourself why you decided to obtain that stinking camping permit when there is a perfectly comfortable hotel room with room service waiting for you. You’ll see the remnants of naked hippies roaming the trail, living off of the land, some still transplants from the sixties. Even with all of these questions and curiosities lingering in your mind, you’re guaranteed an epic experience, one that will likely change your life, or at least how you see the world.
Kalalau Valley starts the very tip of Kaua’i’s north shore at Ke’e Beach. This beach itself used to be a haven for hippies in the 1960s, when they started living on Taylor Camp. Howard Taylor (Elisabeth’s brother) opened up his property for hippies to live on after a dispute with the state regarding a building permit. The state ruled that the property should be condemned, yet they taxed Taylor heavily on the property afterwards. In protest, he opened up the land to the hippies. By 1972 there were 21 permanent houses at Taylor Camp. Just recently, filmmaker John Wehrheim released a documentary on Taylor Camp.
With so many people flocking to Hawai’i to escape the Vietnam War or the political upheaval on the mainland, it’s no wonder that people found the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast. It’s an 11-mile hike from Ke’e Beach to the valley. Along the way you’ll see native flora and fauna, invasive species of plants (like the guava tree, which grows rampantly along the coast), and pesky goats eating mountainous landscapes away.
It all sounds so romantic and alive, doesn’t? Before you decide to go tramping into the valley, though, you’ll want to know a few things first. The first thing that you need to do is contact the state to obtain a permit to the valley. The permits are only valid for one week, so make sure that you prepare your trip well in advance. The state has gotten extremely strict on obtaining permits, as the hippie population has exploded in the valley. If you’re caught without a permit, you’ll be flown out of the valley and given a hefty fine. Don’t be surprised if you see helicopters flying overhead and landing on the beach for raids. Be smart. Get a permit.
If you don’t think that you can make the 11-mile hike, I suggest either hiking to the two-mile marker at Hanakapi’ai for a day hike, or the four-mile marker at Hanakoa. Hanakapi’ai is a beautiful place to visit, but camping there is forbidden. It’s a strenuous hike, and you should always use extreme caution when crossing the Hanakapi’ai stream. When it’s raining, there’s always a flash flood. More and more people every year are swept out into the ocean to their deaths because of poor decisions to cross the stream when it’s high. If it’s above your ankle, stay out!
The first place that you can camp is at Hanakoa (but only if you’re hiking to Kalalau Valley). While Hanakoa is really nothing too exciting, it does offer a rest for those who are trekking to Kalalau. It’s four miles from the start of the trail and has steep switchbacks, exposure to the heat, and beautiful views. Make sure that you bring plenty of drinking water and a water purifier. I can’t tell you how many times hikers run out of water before reaching the four-mile marker. Hanakoa is known as “the hanging valley without a beach.” That explains why there aren’t any views when you camp there overnight. However, you’ll be so tired that setting up your tent and going to bed will be all that you’ll want to do when you arrive. Hanakoa can get very wet, especially in the rainy season, so make sure that you bring a lightweight rain jacket. Also, make sure that your tent doesn’t have any holes in it. If in doubt, buy a new one for this hike. This trip is worth the expense of the new gear.
From Hanakoa to Kalalau is another five miles. Start early in the day. This is a much more open and dry area of the hike and can leave you susceptible to heat stroke and sunburn. Again, before you start your hike make sure that you have plenty of water. There’s a stream in Hanakoa from which you can get water. Make sure that you purify your water with a water purifier or iodine tablets, which you can get at any camping-supply store. (My favorite is REI.) Don’t let the cascading waterfalls fool you; there are plenty of bacteria in the streams that will make you seriously ill. Some folks have died from drinking the water. The other must is sunblock; you shouldn’t need anything more than SPF 50. My first time in to the valley, I neglected to use sun block. I was so burned that I would cry myself to sleep at night. Sunblock is your friend and your protector; you’ll still get a tan. Don’t be foolish and ignore those two necessities: water and sun block.
You’ll know that you have reached Kalalau when you reach the infamous red hill and a sign welcoming you to Kalalau Valley. Once you’re down in the valley, make sure that you camp along the beach. You may only camp behind the sand beach under the trees. In the summertime, there’s plenty of beach to be enjoyed. In the winter, you’ll have a lot less beach as the waves roll in. It’s best not to go in the ocean, unless you’re experienced with the local sea. At the end of the beach is a waterfall where you can rinse off from the day. Don’t loiter for too long under the waterfall, as debris has been know to come loose from above and seriously injure people.
My last word of advice is to remember some basic rules:
- Pack out what you pack in.
- Use the outhouses available on the beach at Kalalau.
- Pack light! If necessary, buy lightweight camping equipment; you’ll be glad you did.
- Buy dehydrated food; it’s easy to cook after a long day of hiking.
- Buy a water purifier and/or iodine tablets.
- Bring SPF 50 sunblock, along with bug spray.
- Most importantly, remember to respect the land. You are a guest on these islands. Remember that showing a bit of kokua will go a long way.
What you come away with after this incredible hike is a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. I’ve hiked this trail six times, each time with a new feeling of achievement and absolute awe over the beauty of this precious landscape.
Sarah Corell was born and raised in the midwest. She is an avid camper, hiker, photographer, and nature enthusiast. She has hiked her hometown trails of Michigan, rugged parts of the Appalachian Trail, the majestic Rockies, the arid deserts of the southwest, and the tropical rainforests of Thailand, Cambodia, Peru and Hawai’i. Sarah currently lives in Honolulu with her husband and their cat, Akasha. Read her personal blog and check out her Sarah Corell Photography Facebook page.