|Backpack||29.65 Miles||3 Days |
|8,513 ft AEG|
|This was the highlight of a nine-day, 25th anniversary celebration trip for my wife and me. And wow, what an adventure!|
We did several other hikes while on the island, but Kalalau Trail is definitely the crown jewel.
This was my first time to any of the islands, but I've known for a long time that Kauai was the island for hiking junkies, among which I proudly include myself.
Watching the weather forecast in the lead up to our trip had me convinced that the Kauai forecasters simply spin a wheel of options every hour or so and just plug in whatever it lands on--sunny, partly cloudy, overcast, rain, stormy, etc. And, after having spent some time there, that's probably a fairly accurate description, as it can be raining hard one minute, and then sunny skies are out 15 minutes later. Forecast aside, Kauai and rain are essentially synonymous (the center of the island gets an average of 30 FEET of rain per year), so you plan to get at least a little wet while you are there. That said, it's a bit more rainy in the "winter." The daytime highs were mid-70s, with nighttime lows in the upper 60s, and even when it rained it wasn't cold--just wet.
Ok, enough of the wind up ...
Day 1: Kalalau TH to Kalalau Beach + Side Trip to Hanakoa Falls (13 miles)
We arrived at the trailhead next to Ke'e beach shortly after sunrise and hit the trail around 7:15 a.m. Although the area had received rain over the previous few days, the first couple of hours of the hike were sunny and pleasant (albeit a bit humid--especially for us AZ types). The trail showed the evidence of the recent rains, as we were constantly navigating puddles and muddy sections.
Within the first 1/2 mile, the trail climbs to a lookout where the Na Pali coast opens up to view and the non-hiking tourists can get their social media snapshot without having to get their shoes too dirty ....
Two miles in, we came to Hanakapi'ai stream, which presents a frequent flash flood risk and can be very dangerous. Luckily, when we arrived the stream was calm and we were able to cross by rock-hopping and without getting wet. We briefly checked out the Hanakapi'ai beach area, though this time of year the surf is strong and the powerful waves ate up most of what typically is beach area in calmer times of the year. Watching the powerful waves crash in from various angles helped me understand why swimming in this area would be a very poor decision. Signs abound warning hikers not to do so and noting the deaths of many who have ignored that advice.
We briefly contemplated a side trip up to 300-ft Hanakapi'ai Falls (a popular four-mile round trip side excursion from the beach--and destination for most serious day-hikers), but ultimately decided against it, as we wanted to make sure we made it to Kalalau Beach before nightfall. Adding 4 more semi-bushwhacking miles would probably force us to camp at Hanakoa campground instead. So, we marched on.
Shortly after making the climb out of Hanakapi'ai valley, the rain set in and came down steadily for the next 2.5 hours. The result was a cornucopia of waterfalls, hundreds of feet tall, cascading down the lush, jagged mountainsides in every drainage we passed in and around. By the time we reached Hanakoa Stream, six miles in, the rain had stopped, but the stream was swollen and turbid. That said, it wasn't too deep and looked passable, so we swapped out our hiking boots for "tabis" (basically shoes with a felt layer on the bottom that is amazingly effective in keeping you stable on otherwise slippery, wet rocks) and carefully made our way across. Having trekking poles was also very useful here (and in many other spots along the muddy and exposed trail).
After successfully traversing the stream, we again contemplated whether to make a side trip upstream to Hanakoa Falls. At 500 feet, Hanakoa is taller than Hanakapi'ai falls, but generally has a weaker flow. On the upside, it is only about a 1/2 mile side trip, so would only add about a mile to our overall hike on the day. Plus, with 2.5 hours of rain and what we saw in crossing the stream, we knew that "flow" would not be an issue.
We decided to go for it. We dropped our packs and ponchos and headed upstream on the use path. The stream below got more impressive as we climbed, with strong cascades all along the way. When we finally reached the falls, it was absolutely raging! Even though the rain had stopped by then, it was a mistake for us to leave our ponchos with our packs, as the spray from the bottom of the falls created a windy, horizontal rain storm (think: Niagara Falls) that made it impossible to get too close--and also made it very difficult to get any decent photos, as the camera lens would immediately be covered with droplets as soon as you raised it to take the shot. When I comb through my photos, I'll see if I was able to capture anything worth posting, but as with many views on this trip, the camera is simply inadequate capture the real-time experience.
After returning from the falls, we strapped the backpacks on and continued another mile before we descended to the exposed area about 7 miles in, known as "Crawler's Ledge"--a narrow strip of trail that traverses around a rocky outcropping, with the ocean crashing against the base of the cliff, 100 feet or so straight down. Given the rain and trail conditions, extra caution was in order here. I'm not particularly squeamish with heights, and found the tales of terror I had read about this section slightly overblown, but my wife on the the other hand didn't particularly enjoy this section --and, in parts, she helped it live up to its name.
After successfully traversing Crawler's Ledge, I made the mistake of telling her that I thought that the really exposed sections were now behind us. Oops. As it turned out, the trail over the ensuing mile and a half was, in my view, more sketchy--involving several stretches where the muddy, 12 to 15-inch trail sloped towards sheer drops to the ocean hundreds of feet below, and was washed out in spots here and there. Again, I didn't find it particularly un-nerving, but can understand why others (my wife included) get a little jittery. That said, she managed like a champ , but was glad when we arrived at the famous "Big Red Hill" around mile 9.5, where the trail opens up and descends rapidly (but with no sketchy drop offs) back towards the ocean.
At the bottom of the Big Red Hill is a relatively flat, grassy "meadow" area that fronts the ocean. We came across a herd(?) of about 40 billy goats out for a late afternoon frolic. Kind of a cool sight. From there, it was one more stream crossing and a relatively flat, but muddy, hike along the shoreline to the campground.
We arrived shortly before dark and set up camp right at the edge of the beach, near the waterfall that provides fresh water and a "shower" for campground visitors. The waves on Kalalau Beach were incredible, with 20+ foot swells crashing into the beach and into each other--one on top of the other. The sight and thunderous sound were mesmerizing, and entertained us throughout the evening.
As the tide came in, we realized that our prime, beach-front campsite might be a little too prime. So, just as nightfall set in, we made a decision to relocate to higher ground. Turned out to be a good call, as we could tell in the morning that the high mark of the tide would have lapped up against our tent.
Day 2--Day Hike up Kalalau Valley. (5.4 miles)
After a great night's rest and the unusual (for us) backpacking experience of sleeping in, we prepared for a day hike up into the Kalalau Valley. As we were eating breakfast, a young orthodox Jewish couple from Ohio approached us looking for one of the locals, who purportedly could arrange for a boat to come in an ferry out folks who were prepared to pay a pretty penny. They were exhausted and didn't think they could make it back--and were prepared with the requisite pretty penny. Unfortunately, given the size of the surf, there was no way any boat was coming for several days, so we offered them some Excedrin/ibuprofen and a shot of encouragement and sent them on their way.
The day hike up Kalalau Valley was delightful. Along the way, we checked out the sprawling and lush "garden" that the illegal residents maintain, and it truly is amazing, with several terraces, streams, and pools throughout. In the center of the Garden is a very large/tall tree-of-life-esque tree that completes the "Garden of Eden" picture. The locals have installed a climbing rope that allows them to climb up into its lofty branches--a lookout perhaps for patrolling rangers? At the base of the tree we found several modern gardening implements.
On our way to the Garden, we crossed paths with a couple of friendly "residents" (they tell you that they simply "vacation here often"), who offered us a stalk of freshly cut sugar cane and pointed out some wild orange trees where we could shake some fruit loose from the high limbs. I'd never had fresh sugar cane--pretty cool, and the oranges were absolutely delicious--not sure what variety they were, but different from anything I've had here in AZ or on the mainland.
After our side trip to the Garden, we made our way to the Big Pool, which marks the "end" of the official trail. We enjoyed the rope swing and swimming, made our way back down the valley.
After returning to camp, we found out that the rangers had helicoptered in while we were out, causing the locals to scatter into hiding. Apparently, the rangers were going to return the following day. I spoke with one of the locals who keeps several tents and simply relocates from one camping area to another camping area, setting up different tents each time to avoid suspicion. He called it a necessary cat-and-mouse game. He claimed he owned a construction business, but comes out to Kalalau when there is a big break between jobs. He mentioned a multi-millionaire named Don who comes out every October for a month and goes around offering coffee every morning and popcorn every evening to whoever is in camp. Kind of surreal ....
Other than food from the Garden, our local said he gets plenty to live off of from what he called the "offering table," which is a table located (ironically) next to the government shack at the far end of the campground, where backpackers unload food and other items they don't want to pack out. On the day we left, there was a full, glass bottle of salad dressing. Who backpacked that in?!!
Day 3 Kalalau Beach back to the TH (11 mi.)
The forecast was for high winds (50 mph gusts) on the day of our hike out, so we got an early start, hoping to get past the exposed sections and Crawler's Ledge before the winds whipped up. We did catch some gusts mid-morning that made some of the trail a little more tricky, but managed fine. By the time we got to Crawler's Ledge, the winds had died down substantially. In fact, as my wife finished off Crawler's Ledge on the return, and I congratulated her, she said: "Was that the section that almost made me cry on the way over?" I confirmed, and she said: "I did awesome!" Yes, honey, yes you did.
The rest of the return was uneventful--as long as you define "uneventful" as: incredibly amazing views of soaring knife-edged mountains, jungle in every shade of green, crystal blue ocean garnished with the famous "North Shore" surf crashing against the cliffs below, and the sights and sounds of tropical forest an in and around every turn in the trail.
After arriving at the trailhead, rinsing off muddy shoes and legs, and slipping into my Oofos sandals--aka "victory shoes"--we headed into Hanalei for some well-deserved, and delicious Hawaiian shave ice. Perfect way to cap off a magical trip in paradise.
My wife frequently reminds me that going on adventurous trips like this is a true sign of her love for me. I can't disagree! Gotta love a woman like that!
To all who read through this entire triplog--man, you are true die-hards! Congratulations!