We have simply been enchanted with these islands. It’s not only the spectacular beauty and fantastic weather. There is an energy and spirit here that soaks into your bones and cuts through any stress you may have been carrying. Our approach to Hawai’i* has been to research like hell, and then just go with the flow with very loose plans and open minds.
After the pleasant surprise stopover in Atlanta, we landed in Lihue, Kaua’i approximately 24 hours behind schedule. The two-mile hike to the bus stop at, of all godforsaken places, WalMart, confirmed that we simply had too much shit. The addition of food for five days on the trail and a full four-liter sack of water would require some creative repacking.
As the tiny Kaua’i minibus silently wound its way through the darkened countryside, we settled into that special state of relaxation known only to the backpacker who has all his stuff packed and in his possession and knows he is on the right bus. You are secure in the fact that you are where you should be and you don’t have to think or lift anything or be hassled at all for the next hour or so. These are the moments when you let your mind wander and contemplate where you’ve been and where you’re going.
After picking up some more supplies at Big Save, Brandy scoped out a sweet stealth spot in a grassy nook between a stand of trees and a taro field where we could pitch the tent. The stars were brilliant in the new moon sky and we could see the faint outline of mountains in the distance.
Our goal the next day was to wake early and thumb it to the trailhead to hike in as far as our energy or daylight lasted. Our rest was punctuated in the nether hours by one douchebag rooster who kept going berserk every hour or so, for some unknown roostery reason. Turns out Kauai is overrun with feral chickens. Of course, once one goes off, all cocks in the general vicinity erupt in a cacophony of bullshit. Despite our restive night, our early morning aspirations were met as we were reawakened near sunup by crunching gravel and bunka bunka shockingly near our tent (bunka bunka is the term Brandy’s grandmother and mother use to describe any vehicle with pounding bass). Running into irate property owners is always a risk with stealth camping, but a bunka bunka car is probably the type I’d least like to encounter. Brandy was less concerned, but it’s easy to be cavalier when your face isn’t the one most likely to be punched. Actually, it was probably just some kid working at the neighboring factory who wouldn’t have given a flying F. Nevertheless, we crouched low and packed in a hurry, slipping away along the field verge.
After repacking our mess of crap and stashing some surplus pounds under a stairwell, we ventured back to snap a pic of our camping spot from the road. We hadn’t even put the camera away when someone had stopped on the other side to offer us a ride to the trailhead. More great hitchhiking vibes have followed us all over the islands.
I had read quite a bit about the hike we were intending to take. It has been ranked as one of the most beautiful and most dangerous hikes and really turned out to be one of the most incredible I’ve been on.
The 11-mile Kalalau Trail can generally be split into four distinct sections – mile 0-2: heavily-trafficked walk to Hanakapiai Beach; mile 2-7.5: super strenuous, unrelenting up and down roasting in the sun or slipping on thick mud through ridiculously beautiful valleys; mile 7.5-8.5: Sketchy McSketcherson, hope you’re not afraid of heights awesome part; mile 8.5-11: additional, but less brutal ups and downs with mud and/or sun and more beauty. What about the dangerous stuff? Ok, I’ll get to the intrigue in due time.
The first section is wide and filled with day hikers who will be asking you if you’re going all the way in and telling you how they wish they could still do that/had the time/etc. You’ll also run into people who turned back from the sketchy part, which will not fill you with a lot of confidence. It ends at the lovely Hanakapiai Beach, with a view of your first stunning valley.
The water is inviting and many people will be swimming, but be careful, lots of lives have been lost to strong rip currents here. This will also be your first river crossing, which gets me to the danger. A lot of people are concerned about the sketchy part of the trail, and yes, that part can be dangerous depending on conditions. Some people have been killed falling off cliffs, but the real danger comes from the river crossings. Many people underestimate the power of moving water, and those streams can swell quickly from upstream rainfalls. Just this past April, 121 people were airlifted out of Hanakapiai Beach because of high water. I strongly recommend to anyone hiking all the way in to give themselves a buffer of at least a couple days to wait for streams to go down if needed, especially in the winter. The specter of missing an impending flight can cause even the most cautious person to make stupid decisions on a flooded stream.
The second part of the hike truly brutalized us thanks in part to unrelenting sun and lack of the typical trade winds, and in part from the fact that we hadn’t done any real hiking in over a year.
After the first insane climb out of Hanakapiai, we crossed a fence at the ridge and BAM! ridiculous view of a stunning valley surrounded by cliffs jutting up to narrow spines, with golden rays of the afternoon sun blazing through huge notches onto the jungle foliage. The silver strings of distant waterfalls streaked down the backs of each of the valley spurs. Cue the Jurassic Park orchestra (indeed, that shit was filmed here).
Each further punishing climb was rewarded with an even more spectacular valley, and I almost fell to my knees from both exhaustion and awe upon entering Hanakoa, our final breathtaking valley of the day. None of our photos really do any justice to these valleys.
In the depths of one of the many valleys, we passed through a magical grove of fuchsia flower trees we later found out were mountain apples. The late afternoon sun was slanting through the trunks, lighting up the carpet of fallen petals. The deep hum of dozens of bees ensconced our heads as we slowed our pace to absorb the beauty of the place in that time.
We were utterly sacked and daylight was waning as we slouched into Hanakoa Camp at mile 6. It was not the ideal camping spot as it was a bit damp, smelly and buggy, but all in all, it was still quite nice and is well situated at the halfway point. The toilets waft a despicable scent through some of the sites, but we wandered downstream a bit, and found several nice spots under some massive old trees.
We stashed another pack of superfluous crap under some rocks near the camp and got an early start the next morning. Over the first ridge was where the sketchy part began. Down the next side we came to a steep, narrow switchback with plenty of loose gravel and a steep drop to rocks and crashing waves. We had no problems here, but we suspected we’d feel a little different after a bit of rain. Next came the infamous Crawler’s Ledge. The path reduced to a narrow stretch of rock with a vertical wall on one side and a sheer drop to the rocky surf on the other. The ledge turned out to not be as narrow as we’d envisioned and was actually a breeze to traverse. Conditions, of course, could change this. For example, a stiff gust from the Trades could and has been known to whip a burdened hiker off. (On our exit hike we met another couple that had turned back here when confronted with a wall of water pouring onto the ledge from above. Oh hell no!)
Crawler’s Ledge ended at an easy ten-foot rock climb with our backs to the cove. Brandy summited first and I handed her our walking sticks as a boat full of tourists pulled into the cove, no doubt being regaled with stories of the dreadfully scary hike above. At that moment, Brandy turned and raised both sticks above her head in a Dune-like pose of triumph and received a roaring cheer from the entire passenger list.
The next and last part of Sketchy McSketcherson was a 40-foot traverse across a hard-packed path, covered in loose granules of soil. Oh yeah, it was also slanted about 10 degrees toward the drop-off, where you have about 100 feet of 45-degree slope on which you might be able to starfish to arrest your fall before plummeting off another hundred-foot drop onto, you guessed it, rocks. With great boots and walking sticks, this did not pose a problem for us, but I classified that one as something I would absolutely NOT want to mess with in the rain. Naturally, we would get a chance to test that theory on the way out.
The Kalalau Valley had been a rather impressive city in ancient Hawaiian culture, but was abandoned after the Europeans showed up. It is a state park now, but has become a home for several people who tend gardens and set up long-term camps in the ancient terraces. Most people come for some weeks or months at a time, but there are a handful of residents who have lived there almost continuously for many years, despite periodic raids by parks authorities who destroy camps and gardens and issue citations to those without permits. We’ve heard estimates of 15-30 people living there at any given time, but nobody really knows. It’s a very isolated spot and aside from the raids, people are generally left alone to live as they wish, as long as they don’t bring in bad vibes. Even down on the beach the short-term visitors feel pretty free to bathe in the nude and let the outside world fade from thought.
As soon as we entered the valley and reached the river, we were met by a girl wearing nothing but a ukulele. As she passed, she said, “Aloha, welcome,” and began strumming the uke as she continued on up the trail.
The official camping area extends in a grove of trees far along the length of the beach, so we tossed our packs in a suitable spot and went off to explore and see if there were any “super sweet spots”. We ended up getting into a conversation with Cooper, a guy who has been traveling around the world for the last couple years and had just hiked in barefoot. Time got away from us and suddenly the skies opened up and dumped a deluge. We were sheltered and relaxed, but Brandy reminded me that our packs were lying uncovered on the ground. We sprinted back and hunkered down under another camper’s tarp. The rain went on and on (Brandy used this opportunity for a much needed natural shower) and when we finally caught a break, we quickly set up the tent and climbed inside to dry out. It was early, but by the time we’d dried, we were ready to call it a night.
The next day we were informed of an impending storm and so we relocated down to the caves at the far end of the beach, as recommended by a regular visitor to the valley. Although the storm never materialized, this turned out to be a great move. We met a bunch of great people and everyone pitched in a little something to make a delicious stew based around a huge squash picked from the valley. Later on, this older Hawaiian guy came by with a boogie board full of Ahi he’d caught and cooked. Another group had hiked in a bunch of handles of liquor the night before, but abandoned them to the community when they left early in advance of the projected storm. Good times for all.
Our second night in the caves brought even more crazy windfalls. This dude, Bird, who had just hiked in for an extended stay, was staring at the goats roaming around on the cliffs above the beach when he said, “those goats fall all the time”. Almost immediately a kid goat made a false step and plummeted to its death and Bird ran over to clean and dress it for a luau on the beach in these massive cast iron skillets some crazy fools had hiked in. Upon returning from collecting firewood and wild veggies for the stew, I could see the entire cave group silhouetted in a line against the ridiculous sunset over the Pacific. When I rejoined the group I turned and saw why they had all come out. The falling sun had painted a brilliant rainbow over the valley and beach.
The cave cleared out the next day, so we moved to a peaceful spot we found in an old terrace upstream and spent the next two nights exploring the valley barefoot and swimming in the pools up the river. Our camp came complete with a large rock especially suitable for stargazing.
We had waited a couple extra days not just because we loved the place, but we were trying to hold out for some nice weather on the hike out. Unfortunately, that was not to be. The rain started coming down as we were breaking camp, and continued throughout the hike. It kept the temperatures down, but visions of a muddy mess on the sketchy stretch dogged our thoughts through the morning. Indeed, when we got to the sloped spot, things did not look good. We watched from across the valley as an older man well experienced with the trail attempted the traverse. We waited with baited breath as he slipped and fell onto his pack twice before crawling the last few feet to safety. Our fears had been confirmed; the trail was about at its worst.
As we approached, we thanked our luck on picking up great walking sticks on the way in as they would be essential tools for our safe passage across this stretch. I would enter the slant first. My heart was beating hard, but my focus pinpointed down to each step as I used my boot to create precarious footholds in the slimy red muck. I had no thought of the precipice, training all thought on each step. I finally put my boot on level ground and breathed a sigh of release, only to turn and feel even more tension as Brandy made the crossing.
We were feeling the pressure of time this day, but I’m uncertain that we would have proceeded had we encountered these conditions on the way in. After surpassing this challenge, the ledge and following switchbacks were a piece of cake. We mucked through massive quantities of mud and rain to Hanakapiai where we set up just off the beach under the serene gaze of another spectacular sunset. Here we met Maddi and Jon, a sweet couple from Wyoming. They gave us a hot meal, which was a delicious reprieve from our limited cold fare of peanut butter, trail mix and dry tuna. They also had a couple small bottles of wine, which was simply AWESOME.
The two-mile hike out the next morning was no problem and we got to look all dirty and badass in front of the day hikers. We took a well-deserved snorkeling break at Ke’e Beach while our sodden gear dried on the rocks.
The last two nights on Kawa’i were relatively uneventful as we holed up in a hostel in Kapa’a and took advantage of the internet and kitchen. Ok, my wallet was lost, then returned to the police, more hitchhiking went down, and we went to a great open mic night, but I have to check my desire to be thorough to a point of absurdity.
Stay tuned for a slideshow of more pictures from the hike.
*The grammatically super inclined will note here that I am butchering the ‘okina by using a close quote. As much as I’d like to do it correctly, I don’t have time to figure out how. If anyone knows a quick and easy way to do it, please let me know.
Here is a brief interlude of photos from my final commute from downtown Manhattan. I treated myself to a ferry ride on my last day.