Hanakapiai Falls and Kalalau Trail in Kauai
There aren’t any roads that make it all the way around the beautiful Hawaiian island of Kauai. The rugged Na Pali coast on the northwestern quarter of the island has not yet been conquered by civil engineers, and hopefully it remains that way. The only way to see some of the amazing terrain on that section of coast is by foot or boat. I had a very limited time on the island and an even more limited selection of camping gear, but luckily, hiking shoes and a rain poncho are all one really needs to make it to Hanakapiai Falls. So, on a slightly rainy day in January, my pals and I set out to explore the trail.
The trailhead for the Kalalau Trail starts at the end of the Kuhio highway, west of Hanalei Bay. It’s roughly 2 miles to Hanakapiai Beach, and another 2 miles inland to get to the falls, so about 8 miles round-trip. We saw several groups of people with backpacks on, prepared to complete the full 11 mile Kalalau Trail hike along the coast (22 miles round trip with an overnight camp), but the waterfall hike is easily doable in a day. Supposedly the views further down the coast are awesome, so I was definitely jealous, but that will have to happen on a future trip to the islands. Plus, the views on the waterfall hike are spectacular.
The trail started off fairly abruptly with an ascent through some rocky stair-steps, and this quickly transitioned to slightly muddy clay. But after only 20 minutes or so, we were rewarded with some awesome views of the coast. The island seemed unsure whether or not to rain on us, but the rain cleared out for some good photo opportunities.
We had decided to eat lunch at the beach two miles in, since it was already early afternoon, and I was pretty thankful for that. The mud had become increasingly slippery as we progressed, and it made for a slow going caravan of hikers. I managed to stay upright, just barely, thanks to a dramatic air guitar motion which I pioneered to balance myself while sliding. By the time we reached the beach, I was ready to destroy my PB&J sandwich with a vengeance.
There were lots of signs telling us not to swim here, and from the look of the surf, I wouldn’t have done it anyway. But it made for a nice spot to rest and dry out a bit after getting drizzled on.
Just after the beach, we reached the fork in the trail where we turned inland toward the waterfall, leaving the coast behind. The trail wound up the canyon along the river, meandering through trees, ferns, and an occasional bamboo grove. At one spot in particular, the trail completely disappeared, and it took us a bit to figure out that we had to cross the river. On the way back down I noticed little pink ribbons tied into the trees, and I think if we had spotted those on the way up, things would have been much easier.
At this point I was pretty adept at negotiating the muddy trail, but it was like walking up a plastic playground slide covered in peanut butter. The color of the clay-rich mud really wasn’t too far off, either. But suddenly I looked up from my feet, and Hanakapiai Falls was right before me. I honestly had low expectations – but the falls were on-par with some of the best I’ve ever seen in the Sierras, including those in Yosemite. It was tremendous, and as I got closer, the falls just seemed to grow.
One thing we all found strange on the hike was the absence of animals. I saw a few chickens, which Kauai is swarming with, but on this particular hike I didn’t even see any birds. At the base of the falls, though, we found a rock with some little mewling kittens underneath it. I know there are feral cats on Kauai, so that’s probably where they came from, but it was a strange find. Mama cat was probably just brilliantly putting the kittens where hikers would feed them little bits of Clif Bar. I was not swayed by their cuteness, though, and I just frowned at them until they cried to drive home the fact that I was not going to adopt them.
We waded a bit in the water, but we didn’t swim all the way into the falls this time. After about an hour of hiking in the rain, we were actually pretty chilled, so we posed for a few pictures and refueled a bit before heading back down the canyon.
The hike home went a lot more quickly, but the rain picked up and the mud only grew worse. The section back to the beach was absolutely treacherous, and as our legs grew tired, we definitely started to misstep more often and make mistakes. I really did almost fall into the river a couple of times, but it wasn’t flowing strongly enough to be too dangerous. I definitely would have been soaked and embarrassed, though. One member of our group, Derek, definitely won the Mud Stomper award – he fell quite a few times, but he kept getting back up and trudging forward.
All in all it was a beautiful a hike, and the waterfall was absolutely worth seeing. If I get a chance to go back to Kauai, I really would like to check out the rest of the Kalalau trail and some of the others that come toward the Na Pali coast from inland. Until next, time, Kauai – it was great! Mahalo.