Saturday, August 31, 2013

Hiking the Kalalau Trail

The Kalalau Trail : Backpacking in Paradise

Hanakapi'ai Beach 2 miles into the trail
As part of my preparation for the Pacific Crest Trail next year, I decided to try something local (neighboring island) and hike the out and back along the Kalalau trail on Kauai.This is a stunning cliff (pali) hugging trail that extends for 11 miles in each direction and provides the only land access to the beautiful Kalalau Beach and valley along the Na Pali coast. Due to time constraints I planned to hike in one day, camp overnight and hike out the next, which according to friends and acquaintances who had done it before would be quite strenuous but that was fine with me as I also wanted it to be a training and conditioning experience.
A glimpse of our destination

My hiking partner was my 20 year old daughter, Sian who had never done anything like this before and she proved to be the best possible trail buddy ever. I learned so much about her during the hike and it was awe inspiring to discover how fit, nimble, sensible and how strong in both body and mind she is. That's what being in the wilderness can do for one, it can bring out the very best in people.
Best hiking buddy I could imagine

The first 2 miles of the trail is a very pleasant route used by a lot of day hikers to Hanakapi'ai Beach and waterfall. We hit the trail at 7am, so there were not a lot of people on it yet. We did not linger at the first beach and kept going at a good moderate hiking pace, I carried the heavier pack with the tent and most of the food and the very bulky although light weight sleeping pad which we decided will have to be exchanged for something more compact in the future.
Me in my element

The trail goes up and down towering cliffs through five lush valleys before reaching the Kalalau Valley and there is a camping site at the halfway point at Hanakoa Valley, which lies adjacent to a waterfall and forrested area with camping spaces, old stone walls which were apparently used as terraces by Hawaiian taro growers and then coffee plants in the past, wild fruit and plenty of mosquitoes.
Ancient rock terraces at Hanakoa

 Historically the trail was first built in the 1800's, linking ancient Hawaiian settlements and was redone in the 1930's. Many people opt to break up the hike by spending the night camping at Hanakoa but we continued on and from here on out the trail became noticeably steeper, narrower and had sheer drop off's along most of the remainder of the trail.
That middle section of rock wall is where the trail is

Then we arrived at "Crawler's ledge"...well this experience actually starts before the ledge on the steep, dry, loose gravel switchbacks that lead up to it. I was concerned for Sian's safety as she was wearing worn out running shoes with no tread on them. I had my lovely new Salomon trail/hiking boots on with excellent tread and I found myself slip sliding down the switchbacks, sending small avelanches of loose dirt over the edge of the sheer dropoffs. Added to this was the fact that the wind was blowing stiffly and buffeting our backpacks.
One of the gnarliest sections of Crawler's ledge
Crawling along the ledge

I found myself scooching down the switchbacks on my butt in places because I didn't trust my balance and did not feel like plummeting to my death at this moment in time.

One false step and you plummet to your death

It was here that Sian took control and took my heavy backpack, she then proceeded to calmly take the lead along Crawler's Ledge and didn't even break a sweat. I, on the other hand was clinging to the cliff face for dear life and shuffling along, one step at at time, bracing against the wind and feeling as though one false step would end it all due to my moderate fear of heights. Once we reached the edge of the ledge and climbed over a huge boulder, ducking down to lessen the impact of a wind gust, Sian said to me " Do you want to continue or not? I think it's just going to get worse from here because I don't think that that was even Crawler's Ledge". Well if that wasn't the ledge then I don't know what could be! There was absolutely no way I could turn around and go back along that ledge right now and we decided to just continue on and deal with whatever we had to when it occurred. We soon found out however that we had passed the most difficult section and that it was the ledge, much to my relief. Sian had in her mind's eye a skinny trail with sheer dropoffs on both sides, so what we had just done was not too bad in  comparison to her expectations! Oh man, the psychology of it all. Nothing like facing your fears head on and conquering them, it definately puts the rest of life's little problems into perspective. Now we only had 3 more steep miles to go.
The start of Crawler's ledge (the ledge is around the corner)

On reaching the sign saying that we were entering the Kalalau Valley we were elated, We came to quite a fast flowing river which we had to wade across and past the remnants of an ancient Hawaiian Heiau.

Kalalau Beach framed by the Pali

 Following a gentle foot path we came to Kalalau Beach which is a spectacular white sand beach framed by the incredibly beautiful, jagged pali (cliffs). At the far end of the beach are sea caves which are dry in low tide and summer conditions.
This is mostly how the second half of the trail looks

 We were aware beforehand of the "Outlaws" who lived in the valley, basically a group of people who had opted out of mainstream living and now lived a very simple existence off the land and sea in this isolated and difficult to get to part of paradise. They basically live off the fruit in the valley, fresh water from the river and waterfall and hunt wild goats and pigs and catch fish.A boat also brings tourists and supplies to Kalalau, so they do have access to things that can be bought.One of the outlaws we encountered as soon as we arrived there was a naked woman in her late 50's or so that came marching out of the sea towards Sian while I was photographing a cave, then she politely said "welcome" and marched into the cave and disappeared, Gollum style without asking us for her "precious".

Sea cave at Kalalau Beach

 We then saw a younger woman frolicking on the very far end of the beach in a flowing white dress and decided not to even venture there.
Walking back to camp with our water supply
Showering and washing clothes at the same time

 Now we needed to clean off and get water, so we found a fabulous waterfall that plummeted down from the mountain tops in a heavy stream and we took a shower here, washing our hiking clothes in the process. I asked one of the outlaws who was filling up their water bottles if they treated their water and she said no, so we decided not to treat ours either and it was the best water I had ever tasted in my life!
Kalalau Beach

It was now time to set up camp and we found a delightful clearing and I popped up my Big Agnes 1 man tent without any problem. It was big enough for 2 skinny chicks. Our neighbors were an awesome couple from San Francisco and we struck up a friendly conversation with them, trading some ibuprofen for mosquito repellent.

Solar cooking

 I had not brought a fuel canister for my Jetboil cooker, but is was so hot and the rocks along the beach were absolutely boiling hot, so I decided to just put cold water in our Mountain House freeze dried food and place the packets on the black rocks for a couple of hours and hey presto...we had a warm cooked meal! The same principle applied to our hot chocolate, by placing cold water and the packet contents into a bottle we had and placing it on the rocks, we drank lovely hot chocolate later.
Sunset on Kalalau Beach

 There is a composting toilet at Kalalau beach but these never smell too good. Basically whatever you bring into the valley, you need to take out with you. We slept on and off throughout the night, after watching a spectacular sunset and then doing some star gazing on a clear night of a trillion stars. We woke up at the crack of dawn to break camp and set off to beat the wind at Crawler's Ledge on the way out which proved to be an excellent decision as the ledge was far less daunting without the wind gusts.
My Big AgnesUL1

Throughout the hike we each had a 2 liter water bladder in our packs as well as 4 extra liters in bottles. I only had to use my water filter on the way back at the river in Hanakapi'ai and I used it with glee, as it worked so well, providing us with lovely clean, cool, uncontaminated drinking water. We also ate the wild fruit along the way including mountain apples and guavas. Sian got a few blisters on her feet and opted to hike barefoot for the last 4 miles...what a toughie! We had hiked for a total of 14 hours (7 hours each way) which included our stops to snack, purify water and take photos.
Contents of the pack: Sleeping mat, stuff sack with sleeping bag and sleeping clothes, tent, dry sack with food, multiple bars to eat, jetboil, water filter, water bladder, bottles of water ULA backpack, Salomom hiking trail shoes

Back at Ke'e Beach at Haena, we swam in the ocean and drank coconut water from a freshly chopped coconut whilst waiting for our friends to pick us up. What a feeling of elation and accomplishment. We had had an awesome experience and had learned so much about ourselves and each other in one of the most spectacular settings on the planet. I had learned a lot about my gear and I must say that I'm very happy with my ULA backpack, my Big Agnes tent, my sleeping bag, my water filter, my dry stuff sacks and the food selections I had brought with. I definitely need a new sleeping mat as mentioned and still need to try out my Jetboil....loving the learning curve!
On the trail heading back in the early morning

The Kalalau trail is extremely beautiful and rewarding. I would recommend getting the required camping permits to avoid the $500 fine you could get if you were caught without it. It is not an easy hike and I would not recommend it for people who have a strong fear of heights. It is rated #6 in Backpacker's magazine for being amongst America's 10 most dangerous hikes, but all in all if you approach it sensibly you will be fine. Live aloha, take photographs only and leave only footprints!
Ke'e Beach, the end of the magical adventure


  1. You will need to write a travel book. Your descriptive writing makes me feel that I hiked with you. Well done.

  2. That is a really great hike, haven't done it in about 10 years but would love to go back.