Iconic Haena State Park cracked down on illegal campers. Here's what happened.

Spanning 11 miles one way and following the iconic Napali Coastline, the Kalalau Trail frequently tops the bucket lists of many adventurers to Kauai. The trail offers backcountry hikers a rare view of pristine Kauai, taking them over sea cliffs and through a lush valley with waterfalls before ending at the secluded Kalalau Beach – which is reachable only via this trail or by boat.

Centuries ago, Hawaiians lived in what is now the current park. It's not uncommon to see remnants of their house platforms, irrigation ditches and heiau (temples or shrines.)

It has earned its spot as "one of the most popular park destinations on the planet, and competition for the limited backcountry permits is fierce," according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The park is one of the state's top attractions – in pre-pandemic times, it would see more than 2,000 visitors daily – and is considered a "tourism hotspot."

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For the past 60 years, illegal human activity has strained the natural resources and archeological sites of Kalalau. Officials have been struggling to manage the trail as campers and boat tours without permits leave large amounts of trash and overwhelm the composting toilet bathrooms, Curt Cottrell, Division of State Parks Administrator for DLNR, told USA TODAY. The area also has an issue with feral goats.

"The people coming in on boat without permits or even with permits, they come in with a bunch of stuff like food and alcohol that a hiker would never be able to carry in a backpack," he said. A few weeks ago, Cottrell said, maintenance crews helicoptered out more than 820 pounds of trash from the area.

"It's one of the most cherished places in Hawaii – and one of the most badly abused," he added.

Protecting Kalalau

As part of the state's renewed focus on managing its natural wonders from overtourism and irresponsible visitors, the government has been taking "more aggressive" steps to protect and recover Kalalau.

"(We're trying to achieve) a low level of use so the folks who pay for their camping units, they get the experience they want when they get here," Cottrell said.

So far, officials have seen a "huge improvement."

On Nov. 16, a team of officers swept the beach and valley and reported "glowing" feedback, with "aqua blue ocean water with sheets of sea spray filling the air, and streams and waterfalls," according to a press release.

The striking views of Kalalau Beach are only accessible by the hiking trail or boat.
The striking views of Kalalau Beach are only accessible by the hiking trail or boat.

Only two individuals were cited for not having the proper permits, while "seven or eight years ago, officers would often cite dozens of people during their periodic sweeps of the area."

A lack of permanent staff makes it hard to keep illegal campers out of the pretty remote area. It's not unusual for people to dismantle ancient Hawaiian structures to make space for their own gardens or camping sites either. To mitigate this, DLNR recently built a cabin for staff to be able to be permanently stationed there to check for camping permits and educate guests around the clock.

DLNR caps the campers at Kalalau at about 60 people per night. To even access the trail, you need either day-use reservations or a valid camping permit, and every visitor needs a parking reservation if they're driving in. People can obtain the permit 90 days in advance and can't stay longer than five nights. During the summer, the permits will quickly sell out.

A team of four officers from the DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE), flew into Kalalau yesterday to conduct a “sweep” of the beach and the valley.
A team of four officers from the DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE), flew into Kalalau yesterday to conduct a “sweep” of the beach and the valley.

Having more people at Kalalau has strained the composting toilets there, and DLNR has received complaints about too much human waste. . According to DLNR, defecating in the ground as an alternative to the toilets "can damage irreplaceable ancient sites, not to mention defiling sacred places."

Currently, it's a petty misdemeanor if you're caught illegally camping along the Kalalau Trail. Cottrell hopes it could become a civil penalty, where someone is issued a ticket and charged a big fine without giving them a criminal record.

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Unwelcome guests

Illegal human camping sites in Kauai's green valleys date back to the 1960s, according to Cottrell, with Elizabeth Taylor's older brother, Howard Taylor, created a "counterculture commune" called Taylor Camp. When the commune was shut down in 1977, "there was a migration of that same contents of lifestyle at Kalalau," Cottrell said.

Since then, there has been a cycle of sweeping squatters out of the area about two or three times a year, only to have them return until the next sweep. They have set up "sophisticated" encampments, according to Cottrell. There have been reports of queen-size beds and solar-powered lights in the camps.

Social media also plays a role in Kalalau's increase in visitors.

"A variety of social media sites perpetuate the myth that Kalalau is a (haven) of counterculture that you can live off the land," Cottrell said. "It's not – it's a state park that’s designated for the wildness. The length of stay is dictated by the permits, and it's not a place you can live for the summer and defecate on the land and inadvertently damage taro lo'i systems."

Ancient Hawaiians once cultivated taro at the bottom of the valley, and some of these fields have been restored.

Some trash left behind by illegal campers at Kalalau Beach.
Some trash left behind by illegal campers at Kalalau Beach.

About a decade ago, the trail was shut down for about eight weeks because of  a major rockfall mitigation project.

"We literally got everybody out of there," Cottrell said.

After another parkwide closure in 2019, the park introduced the state's first reservation system to track who entered and left Haena State Park.

"The front door of Kalalau is much better managed now," Cottrell said.

The pandemic also provided a much-needed moment of refuge for the valley. During this time, visitors weren't allowed in the park, and DLNR was able to bring in hunters to reduce the goat population. Following its reopening in 2020, the park introduced a fee increase for camping and lodging to non-residents.

Now that visitors to Hawaii are back to pre-pandemic levels, Cottrell said park staff is seeing a "resurgence" in "pretty aggressive behavior" from people who show up at the front gate of the park and insist they visit Kalalau on their trip to Kauai, even without a reservation.

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The community has also stepped in to help protect the valley, with local residents organizing occasional cleanups.

"They're Native Hawaiian stewards who want to see the place managed at a better level as well," he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kauai's Haena State Park: What to know before visiting Kalalau Trail