Summary: Illustrated story about the author's experience hiking the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast of Kauai, Hawaii
The Kalalau trail ends at the beautiful Kalalau beach. Scroll down to see more Hawaii pictures.
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After 10 miles of hiking the Kalalau Trail, a sign welcomes hikers first in Hawaiian then in English "Kalalau: This is sacred land. Give it your utmost care & respect. Leave knowing that you have preserved it for future generations." The sight of the beach from the top of Red Hill was a relief. I couldn't hardly wait to be finished. (show Kalalau Trail map).
It all started several hours before at the Ke’e trailhead, the starting point for hiking the Kalalau Trail (Kauai’s premier trek along the beautiful Na Pali Coast). I parked the car, moved things into the trunk and took care of remaining last minute details. Everything was going fine until I tried on the backpack. It was really heavy. Past experience told me that if it’s heavy now, it’ll be REALLY heavy later. I knew I was in trouble. I spent some time trying to identify things to leave behind but decided to tough it out and get started. Among the unnecessary items were my Palm Pilot with batteries, a primitive (big) cell phone, leather wallet with lots of extra crap and a pair of trekking poles that I thought I lost; but found later at the beach. Why carry so much stuff? Because all the reading that I’d done suggested that hikers should leave nothing in vehicles at the trailhead lest it get stolen. I had consider renting a locker at the airport (are there some?) but it was getting late in the morning and I needed to get started soon. Additionally, my camp menu choices were not optimal: canned chili, tuna and ravioli - probably an additional 3 to 4 pounds. It was going to be a long hike.
Na Pali Coast (Kalalau) DVD. The video runs about 30 minutes and includes footage from Ke'e, along the Kalalau trail, Hanakapi'ai Falls, (a still photo of Hanakoa Falls), Kalalau beach and the valley. It's well suited for Kalalau visitors who want a keepsake or for those of you thinking about a trip. Quality is similar to the Supai DVD (comments about quality, see what customers say).
[DVD no longer available for sale]
Kauai, Hawaii pictures from a Feb, 2004 trip including several of the Na Pali Coast and Kalalau.
I started around 10:30am after staying in Lihue the night before. I had planned to start earlier; but got around slower than expected. Backpackers usually average around 2 and 3 miles per hour depending on the terrain. At this pace, I would optimistically finish in 5-6 hours. More than likely it would take between 7 and 8 hours. This wouldn’t normally be a concern; but it was February and the days were short. If it got dark at 5, I probably wouldn’t finish in time. I had to hurry.
It was sunny and humid. The hike started with a steep uphill climb and I was immediately drenched in sweat. The trail winds in, out and around the rugged cliffs of the Na Pali coast. Scenery along the route ranges from vegetation-covered island interior to high vistas with remarkable views of the coastline.
Views of the Na Pali coast along the Kalalau Trail. Show me the next picture.
Kalalau Trail Elevation Profile, Track Log file and waypoints
The hiking was hard. Several factors combined together to make the trek even harder. First, the hike is rated strenuous. Strenuous means it's either very long and/or has a significant elevation change. In this case it was case both. The trail climbs from sea level to 1000 feet and then descends back to sea level. Over the course of eleven miles, it does this at least 3 or 4 times if not more. One source estimated the amount of climbing in the range of 5000 feet. Second, my pack was heavy. Third, I started late so had to go fast. Fourth, I didn’t keep snacks or a sports drink handy for energy.
I kept trudging along and eventually ran across a man stopped to rest. I greeted him while we mutually complained about the weight of our packs. Later he said: "Yeah, I was planning to bring along a slingshot and take a few chickens; but I left it behind."
"Hmm" I said.
"But I did bring along a big nail about so long" he said as he held his fingers apart about 8 inches. "I thought I'd tie it to the end of a stick and try to take a goat. I'll share some with you if you're around."
"Oh, uh huh.... well good luck." I said and started walking. "I'm getting the heck out of here" is what I was thinking.
I kept up a pretty strong pace until there was sufficient distance between us.
Even sweaty and tired, the landscape of the island is overwhelmingly beautiful. Millions of years of rainfall flowing back to the sea have carved dramatic valleys in the volcanic rock. Cliff walls climb steeply on both sides of Kalalau Valley for three thousand feet in places. The cliffs are covered with vegetation and appear, from a distance, to be coated with a soft, green felt. A second valley (Honopu) lies beyond the far wall of Kalalau. Honopu is reachable in the calmer, summer months via kayak or by very strong swimmers with fins.
Views of Kalalau beach. Show me the next picture.
I met Jason hiking along the last mile of the trail. Jason was from Alaska, no doubt enjoying the break from the cold winters. I was nearly exhausted but enjoyed the company. Jason had camped on the beach for 3 weeks and was planning to stay three more. He would hike out within the next couple of days to change his airline ticket and get food.
Jason was carrying a fire grate from another campsite. It would prove useful in cooking meals. We walked together for a while and he pointed out the toilets, the waterfall, the shack where the rangers stayed (when they were there) and a few other points of interest. Jason helped me pick out a prime campsite conveniently located between the toilets and the waterfall (source of drinking water). I left the main trail for the campsite and Jason went on his way. A short time later, Jason came over and gave a piece of fruit. It was plum-size, round, yellow fruit with a wrinkled skin filled with slimy black seeds. It was sweet yet sour, kind of like a lemon and provided a much needed energy boost. I think it was a guava although Jason called it a passion fruit.
All of the outbound hikers that I’d met earlier in the day had really good things to say about their stays. General consensus seemed to be "You'll have a great time. Stay as long as you can."
One guy was extra talkative and claimed to have stayed for 8 days after only packing 4 days worth of food. "It's very intense" he said, "stay as long as you can. It'll change your life." He told me of people living in Kalalau Valley and how he'd survived by eating pureed mango. I started seeing more people as I got closer to the beach. A couple greeted me with “Aloha”. A lady on the beach waved. Everyone seemed really friendly.
There are two official camping areas along the trail before you get to the beach at miles 2 and 6. Permits are required by regulation to stay in these spots. The prettiest spot is at mile 8 but is not an official site. At times when the trail is patrolled, you might not be able to stay there. A couple of side trips to waterfalls are options during summer months when the days are longer or if you’re planning to camp en route. The first waterfall is a popular destination for dayhikers.
One portion of the trail around mile 7 is exposed with steep drops and unsure footing. I had read about the trail occasionally becoming impassable due to heavy rains. The rain can either raise river levels to the point where crossings are dangerous or can wash out portions of the trail. This narrow section of trail consists of soft, loose dirt and precariously follows the edge of the cliff. I proceeded with caution and emerged at the next vista where two other hikers rested. I stopped and chatted with them for a while. They looked exhausted and were dripping with sweat. As we continued talking, one of the guys gave me enough clues to figure out that his friend was afraid of heights and was having trouble getting past this section of the trail. I began to offer some positive encouragement. We had a nice chat and I started hiking again after I thought we might have gotten the guy motivated again. I turned around later to see them following. I was happy to see them moving. It would not have been fun to have come this far and not make it… especially this late in the day. At about mile 8.5 or so I ran into an outbound couple who were planning to camp at mile 8. They offered me some encouragement… "Keep on going. You're doing great. That pack looks heavy! It's not too much farther. You should make it before dark. Just when you think you can't go any farther, you're there. It's worth it!"
Exposed portion of the Kalalau Trail. Show me the next picture.
I finally finished setting up camp and cooked dinner around nightfall. Jason had dropped in and thoughtfully offered to fill up my water bladders; but I declined so I could search out the water source for future reference. He also mentioned showing me where to find more guava tomorrow or the next day.
I finished dinner and ended the night with a walk along the expansive and beautiful beach watching the sunset while listening to the surf as it rolled onto the sand.
Kalalau Beach. Show me the next picture.
I woke the next morning, had some oatmeal & coffee and planned to hike up Kalalau valley to an area called Big Pools where you could swim.
I started hiking and it wasn't long before I met a fork in the trail. I thought it better to go straight when in doubt. The decision to continue onward ended up taking me away from the main trail and into an area known as Ginger Pools. Ginger Pools is a series of small pools and waterfalls along the stream. The trail was not well worn or marked and I ended up getting lost in a thick stand of bamboo. I'd never seen bamboo before and it was kind of cool; but I needed to turn back before I got really lost. I back-tracked until I found the trail and continued following it until I had some different choices. Shortly thereafter I ended up back on the main trail and met up with Jim and a friend, both from Honolulu. I got the complete scoop from them. They were familiar with the area and were the ones that told me I'd been back by Ginger Pools. They also told me how to get to a remote waterfall; but it would be another 4 hours round trip bushwhacking (no trail) from where we were and I wasn't prepared for that long of a hike.
We continued on to Big Pools while Jim told me some history of area. The valley used to be home to thousands (one source quoted 100's of thousands; but that sounds like a lot to me) of natives. They built terraces of rock for the purposes of agriculture and grew tarot as a major food source. Tarot root, which is characterized as potato-like, can be ground into poi. Most people I talked with didn't care for poi so I never tried it.
Remains of the terraces were visible quite often as we continued along the trail to Big Pools. Jim had a friend that lived in the valley but wasn't home when he stopped by for a visit. We arrived at Big Pools a short time later. It was a nice area and a pleasant spot for a relaxing break. The water was very cold but refreshing. We each found areas to lie in the sun for a while. It was nice. Jim and his hiking buddy headed back a while later. I didn't stay too much longer before heading back myself.
Show Kalalau Valley map.
Kalalau Valley. Show me the next picture.
It was much easier to follow the trail back to the beach. There weren't any forks in the trail going that direction (or at least they all merged to lead you out). I ended up back at the beach in the middle of the afternoon. It was a nice day and a few people were out enjoying the sun. I saw a flowering tree as I continued along the trail to my campsite and went over to check it out. Suddenly, I came upon a woman sunbathing nude. Ooops! Moving on, I could see several other people out enjoying the sun without clothes. A couple of guys were heading for the water and a ways further down the beach were a couple of women (too far away). ;-)
I walked back to camp and made up some Ramen noodles, stirred in a can of chicken and finished off the last of the Doritos. After lunch, I went to fill up my water bladders in the waterfall. Two naked guys were showering so I decided to wait 'til they were done and headed back to my campsite. On the way back I passed a man with a topless woman. I would suspect that they lived in the valley from their unkempt appearance. They were nice and we greeted each other in passing.
I went down onto the beach and chilled. I read for a while and listened to the surf. I was the only person on the beach the whole time. I went and got my camera and tried to take a couple pictures of myself for entertainment. I saw Jason again. He had decided that he’d hike out tomorrow to change his airline ticket and get food. He asked me what I had been up to and I told him about my hike to Big Pools. He smiled and said that he enjoyed it up there. I asked him about his plans and he was going to do some laundry and hang out on the beach. Not much to worry about here.
The hike back to Big Pools resulted in a somewhat surprising discovery… there are goats all over the place. The goats are exotic meaning they’re not native to Hawaii. They have most likely destroyed the habitat of native animals or are at least competing with them for survival. As a result, it is legal to hunt the goats and many people do. I encountered several hunters on the hike out. The people living in the valley occasionally eat goat; but not often. One of the hunters I encountered used a bow. When asked about how he planned to carry the goat all the way out he said he’d field dress it and take out only the meat in plastic bags.
Back in the valley the residents got their water from the waterfall at the west end of the beach. Many drank directly from the falls without boiling or filtering the water. Signs posted at river crossings and other water sources (e.g. waterfalls) indicated the possible presence of a bacteria called Leptospirosis and that you should boil all water before drinking.
Just before dinner on the first night, I went over to fill up my water bladders and met a guy filling up a jug. "Is the water safe to drink unfiltered?" I asked. "Seems to be," he replied "I've been drinking it for months." Jason was also drinking the water unfiltered and after I confirmed with a third person, I went ahead and began drinking the water straight from the falls. Not the smartest thing to do and I would later use my filter after becoming sufficiently paranoid; still not before drinking several gallons of untreated water.
to the Center for Disease Control web site, “Leptospirosis is a bacterial
disease that affects humans and animals. It is caused by bacteria of the genus
Leptospira. In humans it causes a wide range of symptoms, and some infected
persons may have no symptoms at all. Symptoms of leptospirosis include high
fever, severe headache, chills, muscle aches, and vomiting, and may include
jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), red eyes, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or a rash.
If the disease is not treated, the patient could develop kidney damage,
meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord),
liver failure, and respiratory distress. In rare cases death occurs. Outbreaks
of leptospirosis are usually caused by exposure to water contaminated with the
urine of infected animals. Many different kinds of animals carry the bacterium;
they may become sick but sometimes have no symptoms. Leptospira organisms have
been found in cattle, pigs, horses, dogs, rodents, and wild animals. Humans
become infected through contact with water, food, or soil containing urine from
these infected animals. This may happen by swallowing contaminated food or water
or through skin contact, especially with mucosal surfaces, such as the eyes or
nose, or with broken skin. The disease is not known to be spread from person
to person.” Mental note: use the filter from now on.
As I talked with Jason later that night, I learned that there were people that had lived in the valley for years. The longest being somewhere between 15 and 20 years. Jason often spent time over at Greg's, camped a short distance away. Greg had been there for a while and had hiked out the day before. Earlier that morning a boat dropped Greg with 22 heavy bags full of supplies tied to his ankle. There was going to be a feast at Greg's later that night.
Jason had said that while rangers often patrol the area in the summer; but they hadn't been around for months. No need for permits, stay as long as you want.
When the rangers resume patrols of the area, long time residents retreat into the valley. A spider web of trails makes it difficult to find remote camp sites and Vietnam War veterans living in the valley have all but made it impossible to track them with a maze of false trails and decoys.
It was still mid afternoon when I laid down for a nap. I got up a bit later and made a cup of coffee and looked out onto the beach. I watched a sight-seeing boat cruise by. It wasn't unusual to see these boats; but this one was nearer to shore than most. They generally tend to go right by but this one turned around and stayed stationary with it's engines facing the beach. I watched as people started throwing gear over the side and jumping into the water. 7 people swam ashore. It was quite a spectacle for those camped on the beach. Jason and others rushed to assist the swimmers coming ashore. The surf can be quite dangerous particularly at some of the beaches along the trail where signs warn hikers not to swim. Names of drowning victims are listed as a grim warning.
I walked down to the beach out of curiosity but returned after seeing that everyone made it out of the water okay. I met Jason heading back to camp afterwards. 5 women and 2 guys, he said. "The women are beautiful!!" he said smiling. I wasn't sure if Jason had been on the beach too long or if we were going to witness a cover model photo shoot.
I ran into the group on the beach a short time later and again while getting more water. They invited me to come over later for a drink. After a dinner of canned chili and tortillas, I gathered up a few pieces of firewood and headed over.
The women (Karen, Stacy, Julie, Sara & Amber) were traveling nurses working under contract in Oahu. Joe was a dive boat captain and met Amber when she and a group of friends chartered Joe's boat. Bill was a friend of Karen's from Philadelphia. Stacy went to school at Mizzou and has a sister (Tara) in Kansas City (where I’m from). Joe had just quit his job and had talked his now former co-worker into dropping the group as a favor. Joe was heading to Australia in a few days to captain a boat there. He would head straight to the airport after hiking out 2 days later.
I walked down to the beach where the group sat around a fire. As I approached they said hello and offered me a toasted marshmallow. We sat around the fire, talked and drank tequila.
Eddie walked up a short time later. Eddie was raised by a career Navy father and traveled a lot as a kid. He still travels constantly between special engagements as a saucier (chef specializing in sauces) for rock stars, celebrities and wealthy people. He does odd jobs when not cooking. Eddie had been camping on the beach for 2 months, away for 5 years and lived in the valley for a year and a half before that. Anywhere between 5 and 25 people live in the valley according to Eddie, some of whom are Vietnam vets who purposefully construct dead-end trails to thwart pursuing rangers.
Eddie told us of a library with 200 or so books and of the procedure used by valley citizens to check them out. Trails branching from the main valley trail often lead to permanent camps. "Anyone hardcore" says Eddie "is way the hell back in there." Eddie said there was a party in the valley tonight with beer, wine, etc for someone's birthday. 60 or so people were expected to attend. They sometimes even have kegs lowered from cliff walls at the back of the valley. According to Eddie, some wealthy people have taken a liking to the place and will occasionally fly supplies into the valley for the residents. "We live well" Eddie claims "primitive in some ways but luxurious in others."
There's a person who's lived in the valley for 18 years with the 2nd longest living there 16. One guy retains the title of 'mayor of Kalalau.'
Eddie and some others are planning to explore an area of the canyon that nobody seems to know anything about later in the week. I asked Eddie about a nearby beach just down the coast that you can supposedly swim to. Eddie said he'd just kayaked over to it and brought back a bunch of coconuts. I found out later that King Kong was filmed in one of the neighboring valleys.
Eddie also worked for a heli-ski operator in Crested Butte. We all had plenty of questions for Eddie about life in the valley including what happens if someone gets hurt. Eddie said that they write HELP in big letters on the beach. Passing tourist helicopters will stop or send assistance.
Remember the talkative guy that I met on the way in… the one who stayed for 8 days with only 4 days worth of food. He apparently wore out his welcome. Those living in the valley were upset because he was eating all the mangos.
It was now the morning of day 3 and I would need to either begin hiking out soon or stay another night and hike out with the others tomorrow. The group had offered me some food if I wanted to stay and I decided to stick around.
We all hiked back up to Big Pools that afternoon. We encountered several goats along the way and found a few mangos. We got to Big Pools and relaxed while a few people decided to go for a swim. I jumped in for a quick dip; but the water was cold so I didn't swim for long. A few minutes later Karen and Stacy jumped in. In spite of it being so cold, everyone was acting like it was “no big deal” in a wink-wink-nod-nod sort of way. Everyone wanted to see everyone else swim. Each time someone prepared to get in, everyone would stop and watch to see how the person reacted to the cold. Karen and Stacy were among the last to jump in and it was hilarious. Karen could hardly breathe and both were alarmingly surprised. Each instinctively surfaced as quickly as possible and scrambled for the nearest exit. Actually, to give them proper credit, they both swam for a while after getting over the initial shock.
We were there for a short while when Kyra walked up and introduced herself. Kyra could hear us from where she was living upstream and came down to check things out. She was in bare feet, wearing a yellow sarong and was carrying a couple of bananas. She also had these strings with metals pipes on the ends. We found out later that these were used for fire dancing and that she was going to practice later. I would imagine she did this as part of the parties we'd heard about. Kyra, from Canada, had been living in the valley for "quite a while" and talked of maybe having her mom or one of her guy friends who was recently divorced come and visit her; but she wasn't counting on it. Kyra showed us how to identify watercress of which we all sampled and talked of other food sources available including the various fruits found in abundance in the valley. Kyra didn't care too much for goat and ate primarily beans and rice packed in from outside. We talked a bit more about life in the valley including the parties and how people interact and get around. We were also curious about the library and Kyra told us how to get there. We talked for probably a 1/2 hour or so with most of the group interested in what she had to say. Others weren't so interested and didn't appear to respect the lifestyle chosen by Kyra & those living in the valley. While trying not to be presumptuous, it’s hard not to try and figure out why people choose such a lifestyle. I suspect something they all have in common is the need to escape an emotionally stressful situation whether from perceived societal pressure or bad situations at home. Regardless, it would be hard not to find peace in the valley. I found out later that Kyra's only sixteen.
We bid Kyra farewell and went in search of the library. After a few brief detours to take pictures and a quest for mangos, we found it. The library consisted of a few shelves with probably 100-200 books and magazines. There were also message boards displaying poetry by valley residents, anti-drug messages, messages of healing, cosmic energy and others. Tarps covered the shelves and mats and pillows lay on the ground. Hammocks were strung between trees. The tarps were partially camouflaged with branches and leaves so as not to be easily spotted by passing helicopters. We looked around, relaxed and then headed for the beach. I helped build a fire and make dinner (various Lipton noodle and rice packets all mixed together).
Views of Kalalau Valley from Koke'e lookouts & "the library". Show me the next picture.
James, a solo hiker and organic meat salesman, joined the group for the hike to Big Pools and came down after dinner to socialize. James brought an armful of firewood and joined us as we sat around and talked. We all planned to be heading out by 7am. We all agreed that this was one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen.
The hike out was easier than the hike in though still challenging. Julie and Stacy opted to stay backcountry with James another night at mile 8 while the rest of us would hike all the way out. The hike was mostly uneventful. We stopped a few times to take pictures. We also found a stalk of bananas along the trail. Karen was delighted and insisted that she'd never been happier. I ate 3 on the spot and carried 2 more in my pockets for later. It rained on the way out and the trail was slick. Karen and Sara both fell a couple of times. Later in the hike I began to pull away from the ladies. I waited for them at a river crossing and then we began the home stretch. A short time later I reached the parking lot. Karen and Sara followed not far behind. Sara was having a hard time on the hike but kept her composure the whole time until the end. She broke into tears after reaching the parking lot claiming it was one of the "hardest things she's ever done. Anyone got a cigarette?" ;-)
Hiking the Kalalau Trail (outbound).
Trip Planning Resources
Obtain camping permits well in advance from:
Dept of Land and Natural Resources
State Parks Division
3060 Eiwa St. Rm 306
Lihue, HI 96766-1875
Kalalau State Park Brochure
Hawaii State Parks home page
|I found this book to be
excellent and used it to plan
my trip: The Ultimate Kauai
Guidebook. Andrew Doughty & Harriet Friedman.
I have recommended this book to friends who also thought it was an "awesome" book. It is well organized, includes a lot of color maps & photos and utilizes a simple, visual ranking system that helps you figure out where to stay, where to eat and what to do. Sections include Activities (hiking, golfing, camping, SCUBA, helicopter rides, etc.), Adventures, Dining, Lodging, Beaches, The Basics and a list of highlights for each area of island. 215 pages of easy reading and pictures.
Feb '04 update: I returned to the island in Feb '04 and wholeheartedly endorse this book. The author tells it like it is and led me to some great spots that I didn't have time for on my last visit. Kudos to them. I met a couple traveling and we were discussing our plans. Not long into our discussion, Gene pulls out a copy of this book and we both raved about it for a while. I have the author's book for the big island and Gene has copies of the big island and Maui. I'll put links in for those when I'm finished catching up from the trip.
Click the picture to buy it from Amazon.com.
Online topographic map.
Sample Backpacking Checklist
Thank you for visiting.
Story and photos by Kevin Venator
Travel took place in February 2001
Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
Give feedback to author
Disclaimer: information provided in good faith with no warranty or obligation attached. Be prepared for your adventures.
Your safety is your responsibility. Explore with respect.
Copyright 2002 K. Venator