On my family's vacation to Kauai this year, I had my sights set on backpacking the Kalalau Trail that hugs the along the Na Pali coastline. I've been to Kauai 3 or 4 times now and every time I've gone I've had this trail on my mind. The last time we vacationed here, I brought along my overnight pack and sleeping bag so I could attempt the trip, but due to the rains we experienced that year, I decided to forgo the hike. This time, being better prepared and looking at more favorable weather, I went for it.
The October 2008 issue of Backpacker magazine, rates the Kalalau Trail as one of America's Ten most Dangerous Hikes. I'll admit, the possibility of doing one of Americas deadliest trails held a certain mystique for me, and I'd be a liar if I said that article wasn't part of the reason I so badly wanted to hike it, even though I know Backpacker can be over the top sometimes. My interest in Kalalau might have also had something to do with the proximity of where the trail was in relation to where we were staying on the island in Princeville. Or maybe thinking the hike was a once in a lifetime thing even though I'd been to this island several times now. I mean, one of the hikes on Backpacker's list is in my home state and I have never hiked it or really given it more than a passing thought. The Muir Snowfield on Mt Rainier in Washington is on the list. What makes Kalalau different? Why have I been so drawn to it?
Most information I could find on Kalalau seemed to be either misleading or outright false. I am used to being able to research a trail, be it online or in a book and come away with a general idea of what to expect. With the Kalalau Trail, a simple search for something like "Kalalau Trail total elevation" yielded everything between 600' to 10,000' of total elevation gain! Probably the best and most up to date info I could come up with is The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook's description which if memory serves correctly states 5000' feet of gain. What they left out is that it is 5000' round trip, not each way. One thing I knew for sure was that even though this trail starts at a beach and ends at a beach, a flat trail was not to be had. These kind of trails rarely follow along the level shoreline but more usually will undulate up and down over bluffs, around ridges and into valleys where steam crossings are usually to be found. These types of trails are mentally tough, because unlike a mountain top where you know when you have reached your objective and the return will be all downhill, these trails are just up and down all day long. Most of the info I could find on this trail warn of deadly cliffs, overgrown and hard to follow trail, tricky stream crossings. Generally, I found the trail to be in pretty good shape and for most of the warnings to be overblown, but for your typical tourist types of which a lot of the hikers on this trail seem to be, the warnings may be a good thing. Probably, the conditions I experienced on the trail had more to do with the work Bill Summers did during his stay there than anything the state of Hawaii has done.
My hike started around 8:45 am on the morning of the 27th of November. The trail starts from Ke'e Beach and goes straight up from there. At around the half mile mark you start to get some good photo opportunities from the higher cliff-side views. At around a mile, the trail levels out a bit for a short distance before starting to head downhill again towards Hanakapi'ai Beach. Most hikers on the trail up to this point are day hikers and Hanakapi'ai is their destination. Because of this, this section is a veritable freeway of hiking tourists. I made good time to Hanakapia. Several guidebooks and websites will warn you to be very careful crossing Hanakapi'ai and the other steams that flow across the Kalalau trail due to flash floods and hazardous crossing conditions. Since it was sunny and there was no rain in the forecast, the crossing was fairly simple. Some folks I saw were able to rock hop, while others simply took their shoes off and waded across. There is a trail at this point that branches off to the left and heads 2 miles up the valley to Hanakapi'ai Falls. I vowed to return someday and dayhike up to the falls.
After Hanakapi'ai beach, the trail started climbing again. I also noticed that the trail was narrower and more grown over, proof that most tourists turn around at Hanakapi'ai. The trail as well as being narrow and sometimes muddy also hugs along the side of the cliffs in places making a fall undesirable. I remember when I set out this morning that my father-in-law warned me to be careful of the wind. It was indeed windy, especially when facing the water. There were white caps on the water. It was very warm out, at least to this Washington boy, who just days prior was in 30 degree weather. The wind, thankfully, was very refreshing. The trail, after gaining most of its elevation again, curved around into the valleys and back out to the cliffsides a couple times before dropping a long way down into Hanakoa valley, the imagined halfway point. You make it this far and its closer to Kalalau than to go back to the trailhead.
At Hanakoa, I stopped to fill my water bottles. I filtered and added a couple drops of clorox bleach to each bottle to ensure any leptospira present in the water was killed off. Acording to the CDC: "Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals. It is caused by bacteria of the genus Leptospira. In humans, it can cause a wide range of symptoms, some of which may be mistaken for other diseases. Some infected persons, however, may have no symptoms at all. Without treatment, Leptospirosis can lead to kidney damage, meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord), liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death." In the high mountains of Washington state where I live, I rarely treat my water. In this case, I figured I better play it safe as Leptospira is common in the creeks and rivers of Kauai.
Moving on from Hanakoa, the trail once again goes up to regain the elevation it lost. Right after you get to mile 7, the fun begins. Up to this point, the trail has been very lush with vegetation. Right after the mile 7 marker, you come to a point where you see the water in front of you and the trail descends down a rather steep, dirt slope on some tight little switchbacks. You pass a sign that says hazardous cliff and you know you are at the scary part.
At this point, I feel like I should clarify my point of view on this section of trail, since every site that talks about the horrors of the Kalalau Trail are ultimately talking about this section. The secret? It is really no worse than a lot of the rest of the trail in that is has a very steep drop off that will be unpleasant (probably die) should you go over. Whats the difference then? There is no vegetation below you in this section should you fall giving the appearance that it is worse in some way than the rest of the trail. I have been on sketchy terrain before, such as the knife ridge between Elk Pass and Old Snowy on the PCT in the Goat Rocks Wilderness back home. Why does this trail get so much attention then? I believe it is because tourists that are unaccustomed to hiking, let alone backpacking 11 miles in a day probably get freaked out by this section and talk it up quite a bit. Thats just my opinion though. I didn't think it was that bad. I did however have one thing in my favor. The trail was dry. Trails on Kauai can be very slippery when wet due to the almost clay like composition of the dirt there. If I was to hike this trail when it was wet, I am certain I would have walked away with a different appreciation of its difficulty.
The wind whipping around this last headland was pretty ferocious and was doing a good job in trying to knock me on my butt. Once past this section, miles 7-8, the trail seemed to be pretty tame for the last few miles. In fact, upon reflection, I think the last three miles going in to Kalalau were the most enjoyable for me.
Finally at mile 10 you come to a sign for the Kalalau Valley and what is known as Red Hill. The trail winds down Red Hill along a path that looks like a trough you could slide down when it is wet. Again, I was thankful for the dry weather on my hike. When I was going down Red Hill, I could see someone laying down on a bluff near the beach. Up to this point I have neglected to mention all the helicopter traffic. It is pretty non-stop the whole hike in and I had read somewhere that the tours start at around 8:00 in the morning and don't stop until just before sunset. So when I approach the bluff this person was laying on, a helicopter was going by and the person lifted their middle finger to the chopper in objection. I got closer and another helicopter went by and she did it again. I figured judging by her appearance and demeanor that she was one of the infamous Kalalau Outlaws who live illegally in the valley. The helicopters were surely annoying, but flying the bird to each one? C'mon!
Once down to almost the beach, the trail levels out and enters a wooded section. You soon cross Kalalau Stream and then the trail finally parallels Kalalau beach. On one side of the trail are all the designated camp spots with the beach on the other side. I stopped at the far end of the designated sites and set up camp. After setting up camp, I took a stroll down the beach with my water bottles to find the waterfall so I could fill up. Well I found the falls and there were two dudes taking a shower together so I backed off and walked down the beach further to its end near the cave. Not being so smart, I was in my shoes while walking the beach and a big wave almost got them wet, so I backtracked to the waterfall which was now deserted and filled my bottles.
Back at camp I made dinner. Before too long I was back on the beach taking pictures. My picture taking up to this point was a little disappointing as the light was just too harsh most of the day.
The setting sun and the waves were a great end to the day. I could see down the beach that a bunch of folks were getting together for some volleyball. They even had a volleyball net set up, my guess was it was set up by the outlaws. I was a little irritated with the fact that here I was, paid my $22 bucks to camp here, and I set my self up in a legal spot to camp which kind of sucked by the way and there were all these people camped all over the place in non designated spots. What does my $22 pay for? Upkeep on the trail? Or is it a toll of sorts to use the trail? Just a money maker for the state as far as I'm concerned.
After photos, the darkness came quickly. It was still kind of windy. The roar of the surf was pretty loud. I had my MP3 player with me so I jammed the headphones in my ears to blot out the sound. It was a long Hawaiian night on the beach.
By the middle of the night, the wind subsided and by morning it was quite calm. I made breakfast and quickly tore down camp. I was packed and on the trail by 8:00 am.
I attacked the trail, determined to make better time on my hike out than the day before. I'm probably in the minority of folks who do the entire Kalalau trail as an overnighter as opposed to spending multiple days there. I do wish I could have spent more time to get to know Kalalau better. I would have enjoyed exploring the valley and maybe even getting to know the locals or Outlaws as they're called to see if they could persuade me to buy into their way of thinking about Kalalau.
The hike out was much like the hike in, only in reverse. It was hot and not as windy. One difference in the hike out was that I discovered guava fruit. I probably ate 6 or 7 small guavas on the way out. They were soooo good. When I arrived at the trailhead around 3:00 pm my family was just pulling in to the trailhead parking lot to pick me up. Great timing!
Click images to view full size.
In closing thoughts about this trail, I'll say that in my opinion, the hype on this trail is overblown. Yes its beautiful. Yes it is a tropical paradise. On the other hand, if you are looking for solitude, this is not the place to go. The constant drone of the helicopters buzzing overhead will drive you nuts. Maybe I'm spoiled by the wildness of all the places I hike right here in Washington or maybe I'm just not a beach guy. Whatever my reasons, its still a great place to visit, just not my favorite.
If you would like to learn about the Outlaws of Kalalau, a guy by the trail name freebird has a trail journal that describes his trip to Kalalau and his personal experiences with the Outlaws. People have differing views about these folks. Read his journal and make up your own mind. I personally don't agree with them. On the other hand, they didn't bother me either so I cant complain too much. What do I care? I only really saw three or four of these folks here during my whole trip so I can't say I got to know any of them. At any rate, read freebird's journal, it is very informative about the trail and the people who live out there, I found it to be a very good read with a lot of history on Kalalau, from the lepers who lived there in the 1800s all the way up to 2010 when most of the Outlaws were rounded up and kicked out of Kalalau Valley. Make sure you click the 'next' link at the bottom of each page to be able to read his whole journal.
In researching trails and hikes and adventure in general for the Island of Kauai, I stumbled upon a great website dedicated to all extreme hiking in Kauai including exploring the Alakai swamp and climbing Mt Waialeale (the rainiest spot in the world) and the true high point of Kauai, Mt Kawaikini. When I say extreme, I mean the Kalalau trail isn't even on the author's radar. Still, this website has given me hours of armchair/seat of my pants adventure. Give the site a look. Waialeale Basecamp