Visitors to the Garden Island of Kauai, following the Highway north, discover the winding scenic road comes to an abrupt end at Ke’e Beach. Beyond lies the impassable rugged Na Pali Coast and the trailhead for the world-famous Kalalau Trail.
Ke’e Lagoon, dominated by imposing cliff faces, sheltered by a protective reef, is a small cove that provides an ideal location for swimming and snorkeling in calm waters. Lengthy secret stretches of white sandy beach extending beyond the right side of the lagoon offer a secluded retreat. This section of the sandy beach is a great place to beach comb and look for seashells, but the water is rough, and swimming here is less protected.
Off to the left side of the lagoon, a hidden clearing within the dense jungle vegetation marks the site of Ka Ulu o Laka Heiau. The sacred heiau is dedicated to Laka, Pele’s sister and the patron of hula. Although the rocky remains of heiau have weathered considerably, one can still sense the ancient mystic power of the site. Traditionally, Hawaiians have held night rituals at the site, banishing flaming torches that are thrown off the cliff, providing a primitive fireworks display. Hula halaus continue to return to the heiau in the clearing to leave floral offerings and to renew their commitment to the ancient art in this sacred spot.
The extreme dangers encountered in hiking the Kalalau Trail cannot be emphasized strongly enough.
Three major streams, Hanakapiai, Hanakoa and Kalalau cross the trail. These streams can change from a peaceful trickle to a raging torrent in a matter of minutes, rising rapidly with no warning, swollen by rains upstream. The danger of flash floods cannot be ignored. Hikers are urged to practice extreme caution when waters rise. Do not risk crossing rain-swollen streams; one slip could cost you your life. Wait until the water recedes before proceeding along the trail.
The steep, rugged, slippery and rough 11-mile trail leading from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach provides the only land access to this section of the Na Pali Coast. Traversing five valleys, the trail ends at Kalalau Trail where it is blocked by a sheer fluted palus (cliff). Although most of the Kalalau Trail is a gradual grade, it is never level as it crosses towering sea cliffs and wanders through lushly vegetated valleys.
The dangers of Kalalau Trail, a part of the Hawaii State Parks System, are significant and should not be underestimated. There are several narrow sections of the trail where the soil caves off around Hanakoa. Mile seven of the trail is especially hazardous and includes the infamous “crawler’s ledge” a treacherous, twisting path following a narrow ledge against the cliff face. The convoluted trail is very dangerous when it has recently rained, leaving the red clay soil slick, slimy and unstable and prone to mudslide. On this section of the trail, as well as the switchbacks immediately proceeding, one wrong move can result in serious injury or death.
Experienced hikers claim the breath-taking vista are worth the risk, having survived the trail, a testament to their skills. A physically fit and highly skilled trekker can make the 22-mile round trip to Kalalau Beach in a single day. All others will require an overnight stay. Camping permits are required. There are no water stations or services on the trail and hikers must carry adequate water, food, foul weather gear, and sleeping sacks. The hike, considered one of the most spectacular, yet also one of the most dangerous in the world, requires preparation and planning and at least two to three days. Beside the main trail, there are several side trails, so a waterproof map and an accurate GPS are helpful tools.
The Kalalau Trail has been the scene of countless disasters and deaths over the decades. Do not be one of them. The trail is not where even the most confident should overestimate their level of physical fitness, agility or extreme-adventure trekking experience. Physically fit novice hikers are advised to only hike the first half mile of the trail for a taste of adventure and a glimpse of the beautiful Na Pali Coast, then turn around and head back down to Ke’e Beach for a bit of Hawaiian style rest and relaxation.