This was our last family vacation together before our son Daniel heads off to college. Hawaii was the chosen destination and I was charged with figuring our the what-to-dos and where-to-goes. I knew two key things going into this: 1) we weren’t interested in chewing up a lot of valuable vacation time actually travelling from place to place to place, and 2) we like to “get out into it,” enjoying day hikes and wandering around on foot. So it was decided to limit our vacation to one island: Kauai. It has a well deserved reputation as a hiking mecca. And it’s sparsely populated and thus somewhat more rural/remote. In fact, Kauai is braceleted by only a single “highway” on its perimeter and it doesn’t even go all the way around. The Na Pali coast prevents the highway from closing the northwest quarter of the circle. Getting around takes a bit of patience as 25 miles can take an hour or more to drive. To minimize our time on the road, we split our lodging time between the south and north shore of the island. We did south and west shore stuff while staying in the south and north shore stuff while up north. I’m glad we did.
In planning and executing this trip, I relied heavily on The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook–an indispensible resource.
Here’s all we did:
Day 1, July 24: Depart Atlanta, fly to Kauai via LAX
That was the plan. But the flight was late leaving Atlanta and so we missed the connection out of LAX. Amazingly, even though every single flight nowadays is overbooked, the Delta rep managed to book us on to a flight to Honolulu and then on to Kauai. And we still arrived the same day, much, much later than planned. But–another big surprise–our luggage was there waiting for us. So even though we were exhausted, we were just happy to be there.
The initial days on the island were spent at the Sheraton Kauai Resort.
Day 2, July 25:
Sometime during one of the legs of our flight the previous day, I learned that it’s a six hour time difference between Hawaii and Atlanta. Go figure. I thought it was four. So, needless to say, (but here I am saying it anyway) our internal clocks were messed up.
We started our vacation with an easy and beautiful hike from Shipwreck Beach to Mahaulepu Beach.
It’s 4-6 miles round trip. We went about four miles. The trail starts at Shipwreck Beach, next to the Grand Hyatt. There’s not much change in elevation and you hike along these very cool, lithified sandstone cliffs and ledges, enjoying great views the entire way. We even saw a bunch of sea turtles swimming around in the surf.
Later in the evening we did the obligatory Luau. We opted to attend the one run by Smith’s Tropical Paradise. To be honest, it really wasn’t our “thing,” but the food was good and the show waned and waxed between interesting and slow. Still, I’m glad we went, because we had the opportunity to taste poi: something everyone should experience–once.
Day 3, July 26:
On Day 3 we stepped it up a few notches and drove up Waimea Canyon all the way to the end to the Pihea Lookout. This is also the trailhead of the Pihea to Alakai Swamp trail (7 miles, difficult): this skirts the Kalalau valley rim before heading through the forest and picking up a boardwalk through the swamp, another unique ecosystem on Kaua’i.
On that day, there were many stretches of mud. There are also plenty of roots to climb over, plus some elevation loss and gain. An added bonus: the humidity of the forest will make you sweat. The object of the hike is the reward of great views of Hanalei from the lookout at the end. Unfortunately, we were met by impenetrable clouds. The extensive muddiness made this a difficult and time-consuming effort. Despite this, Daniel said he enjoyed the challenge. And the mud hiking was a good initiation, sort of a rite of passage, to hiking in Kauai.
Day 4, July 27:
We were all a little stiff after yesterday’s muddy hike on the muddy’mud’mud trail to cloudland canyon. And we all agreed serious modification was needed for our planned 13 mile loop hike also near the end of Waimea Canyon: the Nualolo Trail to the Nualolo Cliffs Trail to the Awaawapuhi Trail. This would’ve been a great hike, but a very long day. Hiking is very slow in Kauai because it’s mostly up and down with few areas of level, dry terrain to open the throttle. So we opted to just do the 6.2 mile round trip hike in and out the Awaawapuhi Trail. The views of the Na Pali cliffs (which is redundant, because “Na Pali” means “the cliffs”) meeting the ocean and the sky at the end of the trail were just wonderful.
We checked out all the lookout points throughout Waimea Canyon as well.
Day 5, July 28:
This was a transition day for us as we checked out of the Sheraton on the South Shore and headed to our North Shore base in a condo in Pu’u Poa up in Princeville. The condo was great. It sits up on a cliff with commanding views of the Pacific Ocean. It was a relaxing location with a garden level lanai. We used www.vrbo.com to find and reserve our condo.
On the way north, we stopped at Jack Harter Helicopters in Lihue for a helicopter tour of the island. We had booked an hour-long flight in one of their open-door Hughes 500 helicopters. It’s a great way to see the island and get access to areas that are impossible to reach without dynamite, a pick ax and a machete. On the way to the helicopter tour, we visited the Spouting Horn, a blowhole where the surf shoot up with dramatic effect. After the flight, we also stopped to view Wailua Falls and Opaeka’a Falls.
Day 6, July 29:
One of the “must do” activities we planned was to hike a portion of the famous Kalalau Trail during our time on the North Shore. But to hike beyond the initial 2 mile stretch–the Hanakapi’ai Trail–requires a day use permit from the State Office in Lihue. We planned to hike on Sunday, 7/31 so I called the office to find out what was needed. It’s a good thing I did call because I learned their offices are closed on the weekend and if you want to hike on Saturday, Sunday or Monday, you need to get your permit on Friday, in person, in their Lihue office. Oh and they’re only open from 9:30-11 am and again from 1:30-3 pm. I immediately hit the road because it takes over an hour to drive the 30 miles from Princeville to Lihue. When I found the office I next learned that you need to present a photo ID for each person to be listed on the permit. That would’ve been nice to know BEFORE I made the drive–alone–to Lihue. Anyway, I stated flatly that I only had my ID and no one told me I needed other IDs for my group and I was a 2 hour round trip away. They then allowed that I could simply provide the drivers license numbers for each member of the party. Easier said than done as cell phone service up in Pu’u Poa is spotty at best. After multiple calls and using the white pages to find the landline number, I reached my family and obtained the necessary information. Armed with the driver’s license numbers, I was able to obtain (again by pleading) a day use hiking permit to go as far as Hanakoa Falls. The permit actually spanned 2 days: Sunday, 7/31 or Monday, 8/1. They gave me this flexibility because I said I knew it was not advisable to hike the trail when raining and I needed the flexibility to change our planned hike to Monday if it was raining on Sunday. Because, I pointed out, if it turned out to be raining on Sunday there was no way for me to get another permit for Monday, since they are closed on the weekend. They agreed to this, even though it’s “against policy.” It’s as if they really don’t want people hiking this trail.
Anyway, that was my morning activity.
In the afternoon, we took the very steep, 5-10 minute walk down from Pu’u Poa to the secluded Hideaways Beach below the condo.
We did a bit of snorkeling and swam with a sea turtle.
Day 7, July 30:
On Day 7 we engaged in shoreline hiking activities beginning with the Kilauea Lighthouse, then on to the Pools of Mokolea. The Pools was an interesting shoreline hike along a lava bench where several small pools exist that you can sit in and relax, if the surf’s not too high. All along the way there are rusting metal parts left behind from the days when the sugar companies dumped their worn out parts there.
After the Pools, we visited the nearby Secret Beach and Secret Lava Pools, just off to the left of Secret Beach. There are some nice, natural black bottom bathing pools there where you can sit and relax and drink in the views. Aside: note to the nude guy on Secret Beach: if you’re the only naked person on the beach, perhaps you should consider that it’s not a nude beach?
Day 8, July 31:
The rain held off on Day 8 and we were able to get up and out early to hike the Hanakapi’ai and Kalalau Trails. Because we got there early, there was still ample parking at the often full parking area located at the trailhead at Ke’e Beach. From the trailhead, we began with the initial 2 mile portion called the Hanakapi’ai Trail, which leads to the beach of the same name. It’s recommended you hike this and most Kauai trails with hiking sticks, and while I had them with me on each hike, we only used them once: when we waded across the Hanakapi’ai river to get to the beach.
Another observation: we were just amazed at the large number of people hiking this and other trails throughout Kauai either barefoot or in flip-flops. Maybe I’m just old-school, but I think you’re just an accident waiting to happen if you don’t wear adequate footwear: a twisted ankle, a busted toe, a gash in your foot, a broken wrist… you get the idea. We wore our trusty (non-Gortex) Salomon trail runners everywhere: on the trail, on the beach, in the mud, crossing rivers and streams. They’re light, they breathe, dry fast and have great traction. I love good gear.
From Hanakapi’ai Beach, the day hiker has the option to hike upstream about 2 miles (4 miles, RT) to Hanakapi’ai Falls. I’m told the falls are beautiful, but we opted to hike on to the Kalalau Trail, rather than boldering over wet, slippery, muddy rocks for 4 miles. The effort/risk of a knee or ankle injury wasn’t worth the reward for my party.
Anyway, we hung out at the beach for a few minutes before continuing on to the Kalalau Trail proper. While the first two miles of our day was on the densely populated, well maintained, 3-4 foot wide “road” leading to Hanakapi’ai Beach, the Kalalau Trail immediately presented itself as a sparsely hiked, more challenging and narrow path. To hike this portion beyond Hanakapi’ai requires the permit I droned on extensively about earlier.
We hiked along the Kalalau Trail for about another 2.5 miles, passing the high point of the Trail–Space Rock–at mile 2. We were blessed with beautiful weather and the views all along the way were fantastic. We didn’t make it as far as Hanakoa Falls (13 miles RT), but did log in about nine miles for the day. With an overnight camping permit, many hikers opt to hike the entire 11 miles of the Hanakapi’ai/Kalalau Trail and camp for a day or two at the end of the trail at Kalalau Beach before returning. That would have been fun, but we had too many other things we wanted to do with our time on this vacation.
Much of what you’ve heard about the Kalalau Trail is true. Depending on your level of fitness, it very well could be the most challenging hike you’ve ever done. And–especially if you grow tired–it can be dangerous as you walk along a path that narrows to 12 inches, with a sheer cliff off to the side. Like anything else, it requires your good judgement and a sober assessment of your and your group’s abilities. That said, I recommend visiting because it’s got some of the best view/effort ratios of any hike I’ve done. Plus, you can always turn back at any point.
Day 9, August 1:
We slept in on Day 9 because we were tired from the prior day’s hike and our activity for the day didn’t start until noon. And it was a great activity: an ocean tour along the Na Pali coast with Na Pali Sea Breeze. It was a 5 hour tour with lunch and snorkeling. We were able to get inside various sea caves (old lava vents, actually) and cruise along the cliffy coast past Kalalau Beach out to Miloli’i beach, which is accessible only by boat/kayak. It was windy and tough swimming, but we did manage to get some snorkeling in there and swam with another sea turtle.
Day 10, August 2:
On day 10 we hiked up the 2 mile ridgeline of the ‘Okolehao Trail in Hanalei. It’s a steep, but short trail that offers expansive views of 1/5 of the island, including Hanalei Bay and out to Ke’e, the Hanalei River valley and the Kilauea Lighthouse. Well worth the effort.
Day 11, August 3:
On Day 11–our flight home was at around 8:30 pm–we packed and left Pu’u Poa and drove back down to Waimea Canyon to burn time and attempt yet again to get a view at the Pihea Lookout. Well, as it turns out, the third time was indeed “the charm.” We enjoyed a great view down to the Na Pali Coast.
We also asked another vacationer to take a rare photo of the three us us together in one shot:
As you can probably tell, we had a great time. It was a relaxing, fun-filled adventure in an exciting, tropical paradise. If you like hiking and don’t mind getting muddy, I recommend it!