The World’s 10 Best Hikes: Kalalau Trail

Potterfield's Picks: Booming surf, sacred sites, and the most beautiful beach on the planet

Photo by beatonian via Flikr

Trek: Kalalau Trail
Destination: Kauai, Hawaii, USA
Length: 22 miles round-trip, 3-5 days
Difficulty: Strenuous

The 11-mile long Kalalau Trail provides the only foot access to the spectacular Na Pali Coast of Kauai and the hidden beaches along the way. The rugged trail, steep and eroded in places, traverses five distinct valleys before ending at a final one, Kalalau. The trail contours around the heavily vegetated cliffs, or fluted ridges—pali in Hawaiian, hence Na Pali coast.

This journey from lovely Ke’e Lagoon, at the trailhead, to the secluded valley of Kalalau, cuts through the heart of this rugged coast. It’s an intoxicating landscape but a challenging walk. In the first few miles, when the trail rounds the flank of the first impressive jungle-covered ridge, and the canopy opens to reveal an endless expanse of blue Pacific, you know you’re in for something special. A thousand feet straight down the big surf booms and thunders, even cracks like howitzer fire as it crashes ashore. All the water in the North Pacific barrels down on this exposed north coast of Kauai, and at times the very ridges seemed to shudder under the onslaught.

It's fitting the Kalalau Trail is found on Kauai, a quirky place. This enchantingly beautiful island harbors a spirituality that is so palpable it’s kind of scary. For Hawaiians both ancient and contemporary, Kauai is famous for this big medicine, called mana in the native tongue. The entire north end of the island, in fact, reverberates with mana, evidenced by the pair of sacred hula sites, called heiau, just yards from the trailhead. And what better place to begin a journey of discovery than the incomparable Ke’e Lagoon, often called the most beautiful beach on the planet. 

Logistics: Most hikers fly to the international airport at Lihue on the island of Kauai. The Kalalau Trail is on the north shore at the very end of the road. Pack as light as you dare, but bring a tent, as the coast is infamous for rain. The best strategy is to get an alpine start to beat the heat, and stay as long in Kalalau Valley as your food allows. Reserve your permit through the state park system well in advance.

Adventure journalist Peter Potterfield has hiked more than 10,000 miles in search of the greatest backcountry routes on the planet. As he researches his iconic hiking books, such as Classic Hikes of the World, Potterfield is always on the lookout for the best hikes on all seven continents. Here, just months before the release of his next book, Classic Hikes of North America, Potterfield offers up his current list of favorite hikes. 

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