“Utility is when you have one telephone, luxury is when you have two, opulence is when you have three—and paradise is when you have none.”
You’ve probably seen pictures of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast. The crenellated, rainbow-adorned, ocean-plunging cliffs had starring roles in Jurassic Park, Thorn Birds, South Pacific, and one of the King Kong movies. Many folks who visit Kauai take an afternoon catamaran or helicopter tour to see this rugged 22-mile strip of undeveloped coastline, widely regarded as one of the prettiest in the world.
That’s all fine and good, and in fact everyone should get a glimpse of paradise. But what we’re recommending here is a hiking and camping trip to Na Pali’s Kalalau Beach, a remote postcard-perfect beach with a spectacular waterfall for showering and guava, mango, and papaya trees for dining. In the summer, when it’s dry, you can camp out in one of the many sea caves. Most people carry in tents; some string hammocks between a couple of gnarled koa trees. It’s devilishly difficult to get to—the 11-mile one-way hike is steep, often muddy, and shared by mountain goats—but Kalalau Beach is like no place else on earth.
Jackie Yellin, who has traveled across the globe, says a 10-day camping trip she recently took to Kalalau Beach was the most unusual vacation she’s ever been on, reminding her of the free-spirited days of the 1960s when people lived simple lives and had no use for modern conveniences. “We showered every morning in the waterfall, slept unencumbered on the beach, and met the most interesting people,” she recalls.
The narrow coastal trail that leads to Kalalau Beach was built through the dense jungle by native Hawaiians, hundreds of whom once lived in the remote coastal valleys, fishing or raising taro on terraced plots. Extensive stone walls, house platforms, and temple structures can still be found on the valley floors. The treacherous trail dips in and out of rain forest, through five valleys, and past dozens of waterfalls and 4,000-foot cliffs. At several turns, it spills out onto white sandy beaches.
The trailhead is located at the end of Highway 560 at Ke’e Beach, near a piece of land once owned by Elizabeth Taylor’s brother Howard. After being denied a building permit, he let a bunch of hippie friends build tree houses there, and the place became known as “Taylor’s Camp.”
The first few miles of the Kalalau Trail are widely used. The majority of hikers stop at Hanakapiai Beach, 2 miles in, and a few go the next 4 miles to Hanakoa Falls, a stunning 100-foot falls and pool. Only the hardy continue on to Kalalau Beach.
To camp or even hike the Kalalau Trail, you have to get a state permit. It’s advisable to secure one as early as possible, because two-thirds of all camping permits to Kalalau for the summer are issued a full year in advance. You’re also required to sign a statement promising that you’ll use “good judgment”—not a bad vow to make, considering that the trail is only inches wide in some places with sheer 800-foot drops to the sea. Signs along the way will remind you of your promise, saying, for example, “Tidal Wave Marker” or “This lifesaving equipment was donated by family and friends of Dr. Ulf Tahleson, a strong swimmer, who drowned here in March 1979.” Each permit is marked in bright red letters “Swimming Not Recommended.”
Camping permits can be obtained for $10 a day.