The Tropics Next Door

Trailing Off on Kauai

Jun 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

Hawaiian punchdrunk love: Kauai's Kee Beach from the Kalalau Trail    Photo: PUSH/Index Stock


The Kalalau Trail is a 22-mile round-trip recommended for experienced backpackers. Camping is allowed in designated sites at Kalalau Valley, at the 6.5-mile mark on the trail, and at some points along the beach. A backcountry permit is required to hike beyond Hanakapi'ai Beach. Permits to camp cost $10 per person per night and should be booked at least a year in advance. For information, call 808-274-3444.

It was our first morning in paradise. The deserted white beach at our tent flap stretched a quarter-mile out to the breakers. The backdrop was a sheer-walled green valley—some oo aa birds flitting over ancient taro terraces thick with wild guava trees, orchids, and vines. Off to our left, nubile twentysomethings splashed naked under a beachside waterfall. It was almost too much to take.
So why were the neighbors packing up already?
Most who make the grueling, full-day 11-mile trek to the Kalalau Valley, an isolated outpost at the far eastern end of Kauai's spectacular Na Pali Coast, rest on the sand for at least a day. Many take time to explore the lush highlands and visit with the dozen-odd "full-timers" who, dodging Hawaii State Parks regulations, have formed a tropical microsociety straight out of a certain Leo DiCaprio box-office flop.
But these two hikers were acting like they were late for work. We'd met them the day before on the hike in; now they were hoofing it in toward Red Hill, a steep, sun-scorched 360-foot slope that you must descend into the valley, fully aware of the work it will take to climb back up it on the way home.
"Wait, didn't you just get here?" I asked.
The boyfriend came over and lowered his voice. "Don't you know how it works here?" We didn't.
"First they invite you in on a game of chess, right?" He looked around, fidgeting. "Next thing you know, the afternoon is gone, and someone's offering you roast wild goat for dinner. And then you're waking up the next morning and that—he motioned toward Red Hill—looks like a lot of work. So you hang around for another day. And play some more chess. And the day turns into a week . . ."
His girlfriend rolled her eyes. She clearly wasn't buying his Aloha Moonies theory.
Neither were we. My wife, Elle, and I were savoring our first taste of wild Hawaii. Our mud-and-sweat adventure had begun after we crossed the Hanakapi'ai River—the Kalalau Trail's two-mile mark and the mandatory turnaround point for day hikers. We ascended 5,000 feet, seesawing in and out of five valleys along the only hikeable stretch of the Na Pali Coast.
Protected by steep pali, or cliffs, the Kalalau Valley is the perfect hideout. It was here in this jungle in the 1880s that an ailing fugitive and his wife eluded authorities for years—Jack London immortalized them in his 1908 story "Koolau the Leper." Taro farmers populated the valley until the early 20th century. The hippies came later.

We found much to like in this Eden, including a series of deserted waterfall pools deep in the forest. After leaving our beachside homestead, we blew hours goofing off, swimming, exploring, sticking our noses into wild lilies. Heading back, we met one of the residents, dragging a folding chaise lounge—how the heck did he get that in here?—along the sand.
"Jay" is a high school gym teacher who lives in Kalalau during the off-season. He's terribly mellow and powerfully muscled, sporting a shark-tooth necklace and not much else.
How does he survive here? "I have friends all over the island who help me out," Jay said, adding that he also pulls papio and moi fish from the surf and hunts goats in the backcountry. After a few minutes, the conversation wound down, and Elle and I headed off to explore the nearby sea caves.
Then Jay called after us. "Hey . . . do you play chess?"