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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

America's 10 Most Dangerous Hikes - Kalalau Trail, Kauai, HI

Killer coastline

by: Kelly Bastone


The Hike Pictures of the dramatic and lush Na Pali Coast stir hikers' wanderlust, but the Kalalau Trail hugging this dramatic coastline also triggers something far less romantic: terror. "People have a hard time with some of the dropoffs," says Kathy Valier, a Kauai resident who's written guidebooks on hiking the island. "The trail bed is narrow and crumbly, and I've talked with many people who have either fallen off the trail or seen it happen." The footing is twice as treacherous after the island's abundant rainfall turns the track into a greasy slip 'n slide–not amusing when you're edging along a 300-foot cliff that spills straight into a rocky surf. But despite such dangers, tons of locals and visitors continue to make the 11-mile (one way) pilgrimage to Kalalau, one of the world's most paradisical beaches.

Exhibit A "Surprisingly, we have not yet had a single confirmed fatality from somebody hiking or backpacking on the Kalalau Trail," says Alan Carpenter, an archaeologist for Hawaii State Parks. But there have been countless close calls: Hiking the trail with his daughter in 2006, a man slipped on an exposed section of trail and tumbled head-first down the slope, gaining speed as he neared the 300-foot cliff that would've dumped him into the surf. Lucky for him, his head smashed into a rock and arrested his fall. "The impact separated his nostrils from his face, but he survived," says Carpenter. Falling rock is also a risk at the various waterfalls along the trail: At Hanakapi'ai Falls, Hanakoa Falls, and near the campground at Kalalau, tumbling water erodes the volcanic rock and occasionally loosens boulders from the chasm's steep walls. On Oahu, the state closed Sacred Falls State Park after falling rocks near the cascades killed eight hikers, and Kauai, the oldest, most weathered of Hawaii's islands, generally experiences even more erosion. Flash floods can turn the many small streams you cross into raging torrents. And the beaches you pass offer no relief from your trials: Nearly 100 swimmers have perished in the dangerous currents at Hanakapi'ai.

Survival Plan Stay steady on the trail by using trekking poles, wearing deep-lugged shoes, and loading heavy items at the bottom of your pack to lower your center of gravity. Stay out of streams when it's raining, since debris jams can burst and release a sudden wall of water on hikers downstream. Floods on Kauai drop as fast as they rise, so wait out sudden whitewater rather than fording it–even if that means missing your flight.




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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star

READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Ricky
Feb 19, 2014

I did the trail with a friend last week. February 2014. We took it in sections so we could explore and stare off every so often at all there was to take in. Sure there are dangers (Goats, cliffs, weather, mud and more) but it was worth every step of those 22 epic miles. It was nice to enjoy some humidity and moisture for a change! Cheers!

Star Star Star Star Star
Skye
Jan 21, 2014

I went to Kauai last February and had an amazing time. The highlight of the Kalalau trail was the highlight of the trip. We packed very light and did much better than others. We started at seven as everyone on the trip were early risers. We began hiking and enjoying the beautiful views. Each step was scenic and we saw new wildlife and plants around every corner. When we arrived at the beach. We went snorkeling and basked on the beach. We ate a lovely dinner and decided to sleep under the stars.That night we watched constellations from our bags. The next morning we watched a beautiful sunrise and got going. At one of the amazing views we spotted the glistening tail of a whale and continued on. It was an amazing trip and we all agreed worth the risk.

Star Star Star Star Star
Skye
Jan 21, 2014

I went to Kauai last February and had an amazing time. The highlight of the Kalalau trail was the highlight of the trip. We packed very light and did much better than others. We started at seven as everyone on the trip were early risers. We began hiking and enjoying the beautiful views. Each step was scenic and we saw new wildlife and plants around every corner. When we arrived at the beach. We went snorkeling and basked on the beach. We ate a lovely dinner and decided to sleep under the stars.That night we watched constellations from our bags. The next morning we watched a beautiful sunrise and got going. At one of the amazing views we spotted the glistening tail of a whale and continued on. It was an amazing trip and we all agreed worth the risk.

Star Star Star Star Star
Skye
Jan 21, 2014

I went to Kauai last February and had an amazing time. The highlight of the Kalalau trail was the highlight of the trip. We packed very light and did much better than others. We started at seven as everyone on the trip were early risers. We began hiking and enjoying the beautiful views. Each step was scenic and we saw new wildlife and plants around every corner. When we arrived at the beach. We went snorkeling and basked on the beach. We ate a lovely dinner and decided to sleep under the stars.That night we watched constellations from our bags. The next morning we watched a beautiful sunrise and got going. At one of the amazing views we spotted the glistening tail of a whale and continued on. It was an amazing trip and we all agreed worth the risk.

Star Star Star Star Star
Skye
Jan 21, 2014

I went to Kauai last February and had an amazing time. The highlight of the Kalalau trail was the highlight of the trip. We packed very light and did much better than others. We started at seven as everyone on the trip were early risers. We began hiking and enjoying the beautiful views. Each step was scenic and we saw new wildlife and plants around every corner. When we arrived at the beach. We went snorkeling and basked on the beach. We ate a lovely dinner and decided to sleep under the stars.That night we watched constellations from our bags. The next morning we watched a beautiful sunrise and got going. At one of the amazing views we spotted the glistening tail of a whale and continued on. It was an amazing trip and we all agreed worth the risk.

Star Star Star Star Star
KathyK
Dec 19, 2013

My boyfriend and I hiked this at the beginning of rainy season last week (December). We only did the first two miles to the beach. We wanted to do more, but I knew it would take me a while going back. I have some issues with my arches so I take a while negotiating downhill sections, especially the end (or beginning), where the steep incline is with many rocks and boulders. Hiking sticks really helped me and I was (half-way jokingly) offered $300 for them by a passer-by. I would definitely try this again, but only during dry season. I was definitely nervous about falling, but I never did, but probably because I went pretty slow. My boyfriend did have good hiking shoes on and he slipped and fell 3 times. It's probably important to check out the tabis that everyone recommends for this trail in the wet season. Although they have no arch support, they are great for slippery surfaces. One fellow fell in front of us, right near the beach (so 2 miles in) and we later saw him in a cast being wheeled around by his girlfriend. I couldn't help but think that he must have been airlifted out. So, be careful if you are not that experienced. And bring some poles. I think the suggestions for packing light are good as you want to be nimble on your feet for this very technical trail. It's hard to cross the streams with a huge pack that can shift your weight. It is a beautiful trail and we didn't even see the majority of its splendor.

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Anonymous
Apr 23, 2013

My sister died on this hike trying to cross the river, this place is deadly. She was fit and too young to die. How many more need to die before the Parks department seasonally closes these places during winter months? Will you be next, or someone you love?

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Justin
Aug 20, 2012

Just got back from the hike of a lifetime. The most beautiful place ive ever seen. The hike was a 7/10 in my opinion due to the continuous up and downs and mile 7-8 can get pretty scary the first time. Its all worth it when you get there...heven on earth= Kalalau Valley!

Hawaiian Lady
Jul 17, 2012

Yea did this trail this weekend in on saturday out on sunday. The cliffs shook me up real good going in but like the others say, give it time and extra respect. Hiking out I breezed through it and didn't even realizing it. I asked someone going in how much longer til I get to that part and was told that I was past it. ??? Ok but I still have the same respect for it. Going back soon. Views are fabulous. I couldn't sleep in the caves worrying about falling rocks but slept like a baby after moving out to the beach under the gorgeous starry sky. Yes pack light and bring water filter or tabs. I think summer months are better time to go but many have done it during other parts of the year. A must do for sure. Enjoy and take lots of pictures!

Pete
May 27, 2012

Cool trail, but I definitely wouldn't do it again without hiking boots or shoes (I actually saw some people wearing flip-flops). Even on a nice day, there are so many slick spots that can send you flying off the trail into the trees or rocks. Not for the skittish.

David
May 22, 2012

I did the Kalalau a couple of weeks ago as a dayhike. Took about 3.5 hours to do the 11 miles in, roughly 5 hours to make it out. Definitely not a dayhike if you're not in shape. The secret is traveling light. I passed many people with heavy packs, boots, etc -- I had a fanny pack and trail running shoes. You'll need to refill water at the streams in Hanakapiai, Hanakoa, and Kalalau, so bring a filter or purifying tablets. I was lucky to find the trail completely dry, so was a breeze compared to the more typical wet, slippery surface. I had hiked the trail to Hanakapiai and the falls at least a dozen times, so didn't feel bad about speeding through the first section. Made it to Hanakapiai in about 35 minutes, and Hanakoa in about 2 hours. I wouldn't recommend as a dayhike for first-timers -- you'll miss too much of the scenery trying to hurry. Highly recommended as a dayhike if you're up to it -- an experience I'll never forget. Don't believe the people who say that it can't be done -- I'm fifty years old.

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