May 25, 2011 – Watch your step!
I have been intrigued by the 11 mile Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast (‘The Cliffs’ in Hawaiian) since I first visited Kaua’i with my friend Melanie several years ago. We had hiked the first 2 miles to Hanakapi’ai Beach and at the time, I couldn’t even imagine wanting or being able to hike 9 more steep, slippery miles. When Chuck and I were here for our wedding, we got to see the Na Pali Coast by air (helicopter) and by sea (snorkeling boat). And now, we were ready to see it by land. Remote and beautiful Kalalau Beach looked like it would be well worth the challenge and a perfect place to spend our 2 year anniversary.
The Sierra Club ranks the Kalalau Trail a 9 out of 10 on the difficulty scale. Throughout the trail, there are extremely narrow and eroded sections, steep switchbacks (up to 5,000 ft of elevation gain/loss), river crossings, loose rocks, and large step-ups (ones that I had to literally crawl up, which was difficult with my backpack and the cliffs spinning below me). There is vegetation on parts of the trail but it only provides you with a false sense of security – on some sections, it’s masking sheer cliffs below.
I did a lot of research to prepare for the hike: read blogs/Facebook pages about the trail, watched ‘You Tube’ videos of people hiking the scariest sections – and watched the movie ‘A Perfect Getaway’. In my research, the most common words used to describe the hike were ‘strenuous,’ ‘challenging,’ ‘treacherous,’ hazardous,’ and ‘dangerous’. The more positive comments (which outweighed the negatives for me) were ‘majestic,’ ‘magical,’ ‘dramatic,’ ‘breath-taking,’ and ‘jaw-dropping’. And we would find it to be all of these things.
On the trail, you literally have to watch every single step that you take. Chuck and I had numerous close calls – slipping, tripping, twisting, and almost falling down a cliff (or 2). Also, I am horribly afraid of heights – I get vertigo, my feet go numb, the whole bit. Chuck also voices trepidation when it comes to heights but as far as our past hiking adventures go, I’m usually the one crying while he’s trying to ‘talk me off the ledge’ so to speak and I haven’t seen his fear firsthand. Before our trip, and all the way up to the end of the trail, Chuck kept saying that we could turn around whenever we (or I) didn’t feel comfortable – but I kept saying that wasn’t an option – we were going to make it to the beach. This was definitely going to be a big challenge/accomplishment for me – or ‘my own personal hell’ as Chuck kept saying throughout the hike. All in all, it was really rough at times but I didn’t cry once and the scenery is absolutely STUNNING.
Miles 1 – 2 – Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi’ai Beach
The first 2 miles of the trail were in good shape and much less muddy than the last time I hiked it. There are beautiful coastal views along the way – very well worth a day hike.
Miles 2 – 6 – Hanakapi’ai Beach to Hanakoa Valley
We hung out at Hanakapi’ai Beach for about 45 minutes and then continued on. Next up was an 800 ft climb up steep switchbacks out of Hanakapi’ai Valley, then onto traversing through Ho’olulu and Waiahuakua Valleys, and entering Hanakoa Valley. Lots of ‘up the trail’, ‘down the trail’, with some sketchy cliffside sections in the mix to keep us on our toes.
Based on my earlier research and not wanting to push ourselves too hard on the first day, we decided to camp at Hanakoa Valley and then continue on to Kalalau Beach the next morning. The camp at Hanakoa was nice and had cool agricultural terraces to check out – but it had a lot of mosquitoes. The highlight here was Hanakoa Falls – absolutely gorgeous!
We made friends with our camp neighbors Glenn and Deena – they were full of Kalalau tips, which we very much appreciated, as they have hiked the trail every Memorial Weekend for the past 5 years.
May 26, 2011 – Don’t look down!
Miles 6 – 11 Hanakoa Valley to Kalalau Beach
I had woken up at 3 AM – partly due to my slow ease into Hawaiian time, but mostly nervous about the upcoming section of the trail: the infamous ‘Balcony’ or ‘Crawler’s Ledge’. I kept visualizing myself easily hiking through but I knew that might not be the case – sometimes my fear of heights takes over my whole body and it just won’t cooperate.
We started hiking at 7 AM and shortly thereafter, we made it to ‘The Balcony’
The hike down to this section was my very least favorite terrain – very steep with loose rocks. Did I mention that the trail isn’t level either? It slants toward the sea in a lot of spots…
Glenn and Deena caught up to us before ‘The Balcony’ and after some encouraging words to us, we watched them hike through. Glenn was such a gentleman that he had gotten up super early that morning to hike Deena’s backpack to Mile 8 so that she could hike the narrowest section without it. Chuck said that wouldn’t happen in our case… chivalry is dead.
After we saw Glenn and Deena make it safely, off we went, with Chuck in the lead. I got in my horse-blinder mode: focused on the trail ahead, head down, step, hiking pole down, step, hiking pole down, humming the first soothing song that I could get in my head (a song sung by Steve Gold that is always played during yoga practice – yes, I’m earthy). I was feeling fine until, all of the sudden, I started to see and hear rocks crumbling down around me – we had seen some goats earlier above the trail but thought nothing of it. The next thing I know, something large hits the top of my backpack – mere inches from the back of my head – and bounces off the cliff. Chuck just happened to turn around at that moment to give me some encouraging words and saw the softball-size rock hit my pack and bounce over the side. I stopped dead (or luckily, alive) in my tracks and I’m sure my mouth was hanging wide open – the urgency in Chuck’s voice to hurry up was enough to shift my focus from my fear of heights to hightailing it out of there, while rocks were falling down around me. I didn’t have time to think about the fact that I could have been knocked off the cliff by a rock kicked down by goats frolicking above us.
We celebrated at the next valley with water and snacks – onto more beautiful vistas/scary sections ahead…
We caught sight of gorgeous Kalalua Beach around Mile 9 and were instantly rejuvenated.
We arrived at the beach around noon and met up with Glenn and Deena. They had saved us an idyllic campsite overlooking the beach and next to Hoolea waterfall, which would be our source of water and showers (and lots of frog porn – it’s mating season, apparently). After a Top Ramen lunch (to replenish our salt) and a waterfall shower, we walked the beach, explored caves, and played cribbage at sunset. Our day ended with the ocean and the waterfall lulling us to sleep.
May 27, 2011 – Our 2nd Anniversary!
The next morning, our camping neighbors told us that instead of hiking out, they were going to catch a boat back to Hanalei. Since the opportunity presented itself, we weighed our options for the following day: 1. getting up before dawn and hiking 11 miles in one day, muscles aching or 2. taking a boat back in the morning and enjoying Hanalei for the day. The boat ride option seemed a lot easier (albeit less hardcore), especially after a day of extreme relaxation. Plus, it would allow us to fully enjoy our last day in paradise without having the nagging thought in the back of our minds that we would have a very hard 11 mile hike to look forward to.
When the boat arrived offshore to pick up our neighbors, Chuck swam out past the waves to talk to the boat captain and he agreed to come back the following day. Once word got out around camp that we were getting picked up, all sorts of people came out of the woodwork to inquire about the boat – people with knee injuries, twisted ankles, wounds, etc – as we saw, the trail can be brutal. I don’t think that there is a way to track but I’m very curious to find out: of the permits issued to camp at Kalalau, how many people actually make it to the end? From the people we talked to on the trail (several of which had turned around) and others who had made it to the beach (usually without their full group), I’m guessing it’s a little more than half.
Our anniversary was perfect; we laid on the beach, swam (when the waves were low), read ‘National Geographic’ magazines, picked fruit (limes and guava aplenty), and just stared at the pali above – which to me, is a more spectacular view than the ocean. Glenn and Deena shared a few tequila shots with us to help celebrate our anniversary. We finished off our day by watching another amazing sunset.
May 28, 2011 – Na Pali by sea
I had woken up in the middle of the night and heard the waves crashing loudly – I asked Chuck what time it was (2 AM) and hoped that the waves would die down by morning for our swim out to the boat. I had carefully packed my camera and our other electronics in drybags and had my backpack in a garbage bag. Chuck decided to channel McGyver and had the idea of wrapping both backpacks in a tarp (wonton style) and ‘floating’ both backpacks to the boat together. Luckily, Glenn volunteered to help Chuck get our backpack-wonton contraption past the waves and swim them to the boat as he would be swimming out anyway (to arrange a ride out for him and Deena on Monday).
The waves were about 6 – 7 feet; not horribly large but they were breaking very hard onto the shore. We were waiting with a group with various injuries and many other campers had gathered to watch the upcoming spectacle. One particular British camper was hilarious; he was hoping to secure a ride back the next day and was regaling us with stories on how the trail ‘made grown men cry’ and other great quotes.
Our boat captain arrived a little before 8 AM and motored about 20 yards off the shore, just past where the waves were breaking. We waited for a few large sets to roll in and the captain and his 2 passengers waved us in. I immediately dove into a wave and immediately felt the strong current start to pull me – I then proceeded to panic. I feel fairly comfortable in the water but I couldn’t believe how strong the current was! I turned to look to the shore just in time to see Chuck, Glenn and our tarp-wrapped backpacks get pounded back onto the sand – the wave was too tall to push the packs over the top. I swam as hard as I could to get to the boat and was so exhausted when I go to the ladder that I could barely pull myself up.
Luckily, Chuck and Glenn persevered and reached the boats with our packs. A few of the remaining potential boat passengers started to swim theirs and other’s backpacks to the boat; a majority stayed on the shore, probably a little hesitant to get into the water after seeing our struggle. The 2 existing passengers on the boat (besides the captain) actually had signed up for a tour so we took a quick jaunt farther down the coast to check out the scenery – a Kalalau pick-up and a tour? Awesome.
It was so cool to see the trail by the water and seeing where we had hiked. About a half an hour into the journey, the sea got pretty rough and it started to pour. The further along we went, the happier I was with our decision to go for the boat ride. I can’t imagine hiking some of the steep, muddy sections in the rain as you would have no traction whatsoever.
Once we returned to Hanalei, we rinsed off the salt water at Black Pot Park and changed from our swimsuits into our damp clothes – the wonton-tarp idea didn’t work so well and our backpacks and contents were soaked. Luckily the drybags did their job and the electronics stayed dry. We headed to Hanalei Gourmet for burgers and beers and then to Dale and Joan’s house to pick up our luggage and hose down anything that was soaked with salt water (which was pretty much everything).
May 29 – 31, 2011 – Epilogue in Hanalei Town
We spent our last few days on Kaua’i relaxing in Hanalei. We visited Makua (Tunnels) Beach and spent most of our time hanging around Hanalei Bay: beach cruiser-riding, swimming, cribbage-playing, and sunset-watching.
Aloha and Mahalo Kaua’i! A hui kaua…
Trip Details –
Where we stayed:
Where we ate (restaurant highlights):
Java Kai, Kapa’a and Hanalei – we visited almost daily for their Acai Bowl (but why don’t they have it at their Hanalei location?) and Surfer Sandwich
Polynesia Cafe, Hanalei – Acai bowls while in Hanalei
Lighthouse Bistro, Kilauea – revisited our ‘after wedding’ dinner spot; Love, LOVE their Coconut Crusted Pork and Ginger Crusted Fresh Catch
Monico’s Tanqueria, Kapa’a – great mexican food
Brick Oven Pizza, Kapa’a – tasty pizza but a little expensive
Restaurant Kintaro, Kapa’a – amazing Japanese food; I even liked the sushi
Some images available for purchase here.