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.
"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.
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.