I may have never been backpacking, but I wasn’t about to go to Kauai and miss out on Kalalau Trail, the iconic Na Pali coast experience. After all, Hawaii seems like an awfully nice place to get your feet wet (literally, it turns out!) in backcountry adventuring, so I was up to the challenge.
In the months leading up to the trip, I spent hours learning about the hike, reading backpacking tips, contemplating all sorts of contingencies, booking permits, and concocting a detailed packing list. On the advice of a few articles I’d read, I decided to reserve permits for 3 nights. We embarked on our hike in mid-late November.
Into the wilderness
We had a hearty breakfast at our bed and breakfast the morning of our hike before a staff member drove us out to the trailhead. We hit the trail feeling fresh and ready to go at 9:30am. It was a decidedly late start and therefore not really ideal, but we didn’t have many options. Sundown wasn’t til 6, so I felt like we had plenty of time to crank out 11 miles all the way to the beach, even at a slower-than-usual pace.
I didn’t weigh my pack, but I stuffed my 24L Osprey to the brim and guesstimated it was around 15-20 lbs. It definitely felt heavy, but not impossibly slow.
Miles 1 and 2 flew by, boosting my confidence that our pace would work out. The trail starts off with a big climb followed by a big descent. This would be a recurring theme. The trail was also extremely muddy in places, which would also very much be a theme. In the descent toward the stream (the second mile), there were more slide marks than regular footprints. A sled would’ve been handy. Although the trail is popular as a day hike and therefore crowded at this point, it’s plenty wide enough for everyone.
We reached the first stream crossing at Hanakapa’i in no time. Arizona has warped my expectations of running water, so the stream crossings were more of an undertaking than I expected. I’m not sure what’s considered low flow, but even under these nominally normal conditions, the streams were swifter and deeper than I expected. I opted to take my shoes off and cross barefoot rather than attempt rock hopping. Since time was of the essence, we skipped the side trip to Hanakapa’i Falls.
Immediately after the split to the falls, traffic dropped off and the trail narrowed dramatically from wide and spacious to a tiny single-track. Despite being a heavily trafficked trail, the area is so lush that the trail is extremely overgrown. The brush crowded the trail and grew taller than me in many places.
The morning started off sunny and blue, but as we weaved in and out of the coast, rain came and went about a half a dozen times throughout the day. There was a constant dampness anyway, so a little drizzle wasn’t really a bother.
The trail itself was an impossibly muddy squishfest, with frequent puddles that spanned the entire (narrow) width of the trail. Soon, my shoes had a half-inch halo of mud caked to the soles. This photo is actually my shoes and legs looking relatively good. It only got worse from there.
Besides the mud, there was the smell to contend with. Fruit trees are everywhere and that means unfathomable quantities of rotten fruit. The trail was carpeted in one particular intense purple fruit that I believe was a java plum. The sweet but decidedly rotten scent permeated my head. Since it’s warm and humid, the fragrance hung heavy in the air.
Gradually, our pace slowed. Rocks are marked with the mileage up to mile 9, which we used to keep track of our pace. Our breaks were infrequent and we stayed steady, but those numbered rocks came so slowly. We settled in at around 40 minutes per mile.
I’ve heard skepticism cast on the mileage claims of Kalalau Trail, and I can see why. I’ve done many strenuous hikes and I have a good sense of my pace relative to total distance, and when I consider my pace vs total time on this one, it just doesn’t make sense. Even if the posted mileage true and it really is 11 miles, it’s the slowest 11 miles you could imagine.
A few miles in, the “plenty of time” mindset I started with turned to “just enough time” as we trudged on.
The mist cast a beautiful mood on the inland portions of the trail while the sun lit up the more coastal bits. Although the coastal bits are particularly photogenic, the variety in scenery and microclimates throughout the day was striking.
In the afternoon, we arrived at mile marker 7, the most dreaded mile of them all. After a plunging series of switchbacks, we’d arrived at Crawlers Ledge. I’d been legitimately terrified of Crawlers Ledge for months leading up to this trip and had spent the entire hike with the prospect of traversing it looming in the back of my mind.
It’s pretty clear how Crawlers Ledge got its name. The trail narrows to a rough bit of rock that hugs a cliff face. There’s nothing to catch you between the trail and the ocean roaring a few hundred feet below.
The rumors are true in that this portion of the trail is pretty freaking sketch. Admittedly, photos and videos make it look a bit more treacherous than it is (after all, I felt safe enough to snap these photos), but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more on alert than usual. I gathered myself and kept moving slowly but surely. I’ve dealt with exposure before, so even though this wasn’t the easiest to navigate, I felt ok about it in the end.
With the most exposed segments happily behind us, we were almost home free.
At last, we rounded the bit of trail that revealed Kalalau Valley laid out before us, resplendent in stormy, late afternoon light. No amount of photos could have prepared me for how arresting it was.
(Click through for higher-res on these, if you’re so inclined.)
We made our final descent and as we reached the bottom, we confronted the less fun side of that stormy view. A drizzle progressed into a torrential downpour. By the time we reached Kalalau Stream, I was so drenched that I didn’t care anymore and trounced straight through the stream, shoes and all.
The rain let up just as we neared the trail terminus. Drained and frazzled, we’d made it.
Camping at Kalalau Beach
Since we arrived late in the day, we didn’t exactly get first dibs on campsites, but we got pretty lucky. We chose a spot just a few steps from the beach, the ocean stretched out in front of us. A couple of tropical trees provided generous layers of protection from the rain. We set up a clothes line (must have for this hike!) and the tree cover helped with drying, even though nothing was ever really dry.
All told, it was a primo spot. We were only a stone’s throw from neighbors on either side (the tent next to ours in the photo was actually an unoccupied satellite of a neighbor a bit farther away), but the campsite is popular enough that a feeling of isolation was not really an option anyway. We managed to get camp set up with mere minutes to spare before losing daylight.
The first night was surprisingly cold. I layered up in leggings, wool socks, a tank, and a long sleeve tee, then slipped into my sleeping bag liner. Even with all that, I was never quite warm enough. I thought I had researched and prepared adequately for the weather, so either the forecast was estimating high or I’d misjudged my needs. I only slept for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. Wake up, flip over, sleep for a fleeting moment, repeat for 8+ hours til the sun rose. Hardly the restful backcountry doze I hoped for.
The next morning, we decided to try a day hike. Prior to the trip, I had searched for information on what to do in Kalalau Valley, but I couldn’t find much. I found some references to some swimming holes and waterfalls along Kalalau Stream, so we trekked up the trail to see what we could find.
Once we departed Kalalau Trail and headed up the valley, things got a little confusing. There were tons of junctions where I couldn’t distinguish which path was an actual trail versus a short spur. And out of the actual trails, there was no indication of which might be the ones worth following. We followed our best intuition, but ultimately didn’t really know what we were doing.
We hiked up into the valley along what I believe was Kalalau Stream. The hike was completely forested with no panoramic views. Eventually, as we traced the stream, we reached a large boulder in our path with no way around it. I knew I could get up the boulder but I wasn’t confident I would be able to get down. At that point, we decided to cut our losses and turn back. I have no idea what lay beyond the boulder, but we were getting a bit demoralized and it was starting to drizzle. On top of that, I was starting to develop some knee pain and thought it best to take it easy back at Kalalau Beach.
On our way back, the sky opened up on us. We quickened our pace, but by the time we arrived back at camp, we were drenched.
Once we got back to our tent, we stayed inside to dry off and warm up as it rained for a couple hours. I was glad we’d turned back when we did since the rain was fierce and persistent. It only let up a little bit before sundown.
After a rainy, uneventful day, we were treated to a wonderful sunset over the rocks and the ocean that night. I spent the better part of an hour standing on the beach just watching, taking photo after photo as the colors progressed. Not like I had anywhere else to be anyway.
Escape from Kalalau: to Hanakoa
Since we didn’t have anything else on the agenda in Kalalau Valley, we decided to break up the exit hike into two parts by camping at Hanakoa. Hiking all the way in at once had been pretty punishing, so we thought a more relaxed pace would do us good.
This decision was further reinforced by the knee pain that wasn’t subsiding. It felt like ITBS, which I’d experienced a couple months prior. Though I was in pain, I was more or less confident that I wasn’t taking too much of a risk by hiking out on it. I popped some ibuprofen in the morning and steeled myself for what lay ahead. With the full weight of my pack and the constant elevation change, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. I took the need for rest and ample time as an opportunity to take more pictures since I hadn’t had time for many on the way in.
This photo looking into Kalalau Valley from red dirt hill is one of my favorites. The morning light the day of our departure was exquisite.
We finally had a lucky break with weather: it was an absolutely gorgeous day. Compared to the last two days, it was relatively dry with almost no rain. The sun lit up the coastline in full splendor. It made me a little sad to leave, but happy that leaving meant we’d have plenty of time. After a hit-or-miss couple of days, I was admittedly relieved to be on the tail end.
Since we had extra time, we decided to make the extra 1-mile roundtrip spur to Hanakoa Falls. The trail is narrow and barely visible, but we didn’t have any trouble keeping track of it.
Hanakoa Falls appeared before us suddenly, falling in wisps down a high cliff face. Many people say Hanakoa Falls are more striking than Hanakapa’i, but few venture there since it is so far from the trailhead. We didn’t see another soul on the entire trail. It was absolutely worth the extra jaunt.
We returned from the falls, set up camp, and settled down around 4p. We tried for the third night in a row to start a fire, but since we had no fuel (we opted for no-cook meals to simplify) and only matches, everything was just too wet. Disappointing, since every night the promise of a warm, dry fire sounded heavenly. With nothing left to do but wait, I passed the time by swiping through photos of my dogs on my phone and listening to some podcasts we had downloaded on our phones.
That night was the coldest of all. I wore as much clothing as I could, but I was so cold that at times I was nearly shivering. Just like the nights before, the rain came and went all night. I quietly thanked my past self for remembering to pull my shoes into the tent’s vestibule. The night was so, so long. I was cold, sleepless as ever, and anxious to get moving again.
Escape from Kalalau: the last hurrah
Finally, the alarm I’d set on my phone went off at 5:30. We packed up the campsite and were off just after there was enough light for us to make our way without headlamps.
The past couple days hadn’t been as rejuvenating as I’d hoped. I was sleep-deprived, almost perpetually cold, and I missed my dogs. We were definitely ready to be done. But with only 6 miles to go, relief was tantalizingly close so we were in very good spirits. Plus, we had another day of beautiful weather. As we hiked, I must’ve brought up the burger I was craving a hundred times.
We had plenty of time and plenty of light, so we took it slow. My knee was roaring and burning as much as ever and I took the downhills at a decidedly glacial pace. The pain meant another 2 miles each way to see Hanakapa’i Falls was a non-starter. I was really bummed to have missed out on the falls, but I knew I had no choice.
We finally made it to the last mile, where the trail is marked by the 1/4 mile. The frequent markers made progress feel faster.
At long last, we descended the last hill and spotted the trailhead. After 4 days and 3 nights in the Na Pali Wilderness, we’d made it back.
But we weren’t done yet. There’s no cell reception at the trailhead, and unfortunately, the pay phone we had intended to use was broken. We had to walk nearly a mile from the trailhead to get reception to contact our ride back to civilization. We sat in a patch of grass near Canons Beach and waited, ready to be back to hot food, a shower, a flushing toilet (omg), and a bed, but grateful to be done. My shoes were virtually unrecognizable at this point.
And check out those flawless beach waves.
Although this trip was harrowing at time, it’s certainly one I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Although in the stress of the harder moments I swore up and down that once was enough, this kind of beauty makes it hard not to feel a pull to go back.