Kauai’s Kalalau Trail: Rain or Shine

Hawaii’s oldest island, Kauai, is one of the wettest places on earth, receiving nearly forty feet of rain annually in places.

Most of the dousing occurs December through March, which creates a generally pessimistic aura on travel websites regarding outdoor recreation on this sopping Eden during the off-season. But as seasoned off-season travelers know, where there be weather, there be adventure. And what better place to find adventure than Jurassic Park?

For obvious reasons, Kauai’s Na Pali Coast has served as an idyllic backdrop for some sixty-odd feature-length films since the 1930s, including “South Pacific,” “King Kong” and “Jurassic Park.” Even without dinosaurs and giant gorillas, the jagged green cliffs, hanging valleys, silver slivers of waterfalls and endless stretches of blue water provide enjoyment for film mongers, sailors, surfers and landlubbers alike.

Kalalau Trail

And since forever, the Kalalau Trail, a narrow red-dirt ribbon laced along the north shore, has made this scenery accessible offscreen to hikers and runners, too. The 11-mile one-way path leads to the fantastically secluded Kalalau Beach at the mouth of Kalalau Valley.

Those with more time typically trek one-way in a day and camp overnight or even stay for weeks, enjoying such primitive amenities as a makeshift volleyball net and all the swimming you could ever desire.

Kalalau Trail

But the Kalalau Trail didn’t make Trail Runner magazine’s “10 Trails That Should Be on Every Bucket List” just for ending at paradise. It’s much more than a walk in the park; it’s a character builder.  

And rainy season on the trail creates its own unique challenges.

For starters, persistent natural hazards, such as flash floods, landslides and merciless melees with muddy rocks abound for hikers and runners; one misstep could lead to a tragic slip towards the roiling Pacific one thousand feet below the eroding coastline. These conditions have led to the Kalalau Trail’s reputation as one of Backpacker magazine’s “America’s 10 Most Dangerous Hikes” while Outside Magazine rates it as one of the “20 Most Dangerous Hikes in the World.”

On a trip to Kauai in 2014 in the heart of wet season, my husband and I decided to take our chances and run the trail in a day.

January rain dripped on giant jungle leaves outside our window the night preceding the alpine start. We hesitated a moment before rousing and gratefully accepting my dad’s offer to drive us to the trailhead.

At 6:30, the mid-winter sky was still dark but clear with stars and barely a chill from the rain that fell overnight. We grabbed two walking sticks propped against the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park sign.

Before departure, we examined the trail signage. Missing-person fliers and warnings about high surf, falling rocks and the presence of leptospirosis in untreated water made us happy we’d brought iodine.

Our dim headlamps lit the first mile through a canopy of jungle steam. It was too slick to run deftly in the dark so we used our primal sticks to help balance and bound through mud, trying mightily to not squish the hundreds of frogs enjoying their morning choral practice in the middle of the trail.

A perfect day-hiking destination, Hanakapiai Beach sits two miles in from the trailhead. We didn’t have time to investigate the current conditions but passed a wooden sign with 82 tally marks, one for each of the people who have died trying to swim in the surly waters of this otherwise dreamy beach.

We flicked our headlamps off and headed into the permit-holder-only section, unbeknownst to us until our run-in with a ranger at the end of the journey. He made no big deal of it but asked that we tell the world that permits are required for anyone traveling beyond the two-mile marker. Check. Kalalau Trail permits are not only required for campers but for non-campers as well.

Kalalau Trail

We quickly tackled the biggest climb of the day: nine-hundred feet of rock-hopping as the sky lightened and the sound of frogs was replaced with ceaseless waves and helicopters starting another day of flight tours of the USA’s southernmost state. There are no roads to Kalalau Beach so most visitors see it either from the air or by boat.

The trail became drier and drier the farther west we moved and the higher the sun rose. In and out of five valleys we ran, stopping at each high point to take in the colors of the coast and mammoth waves smashing against the sea walls below us.

After refilling and treating water near Hanakoa, the slightly-more-than-halfway campsite, we scared a tribe of goats. This made for our fourth great animal spotting since arriving on Kauai: Nick had swum with a sea turtle while snorkeling; I got inked by an octopus on the same outing; and later that day from our hot tub, we watched humpback whales giving real-world life-insurance-commercial performances featuring their lofty jumps and playful fin-splashing.

Kalalau Trail

An hour later, we reached Kalalau Beach and joined the motley crew of campers, volleyball players and vagabonds. Slipping off our sweaty trail shoes and drenched duds, we entered the shallow end of the angry Pacific. After refreshing dunks and a few minutes of getting pummeled by the relentless waves, we plopped down on the sand and discussed never leaving as we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and saluted boat tourists offshore taking photos of the sun peeking over Jurassic Park’s towering set behind us.

But we knew we couldn’t stay. The mountains of Colorado hold too strong a hold on our hearts. So a few minutes later, we donned shoes, sighed and returned the same way we’d come. The whole outing took us just under eight hours.

Kalalau Trail

Splattered in mud and sweat, we still managed to thumb a ride back to Hanalei where we indulged in chocolate milk and jalapeno chips and relaxed into recap about the time we ran the Kalalau Trail in the middle of rainy season and nothing happened. It was simply a perfect day spent running to the end of the line and the beginning of the Lost World on America’s most dramatic coastline, our pale-skinned, snow-deprived, stir-crazy souls full of mahalo.