Thu, Apr 20, 2006
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The Kalalau Trail on the Napali Coast of Kauai is one of those legendary places that everyone says you have to do when you're there. Only one guide book I've seen had the honesty to admit that the trail is overrated and that the coastline is best viewed from afar, either by helicopter, boat, or kayak. And it's true. But it's still a very impressive locale and the scenery quite beautiful. I had hiked the trail to Kalalau Beach some 19 years earlier as an overnighter with a friend who has since died of Leukemia. Going out there again gave me a chance to do it as a dayhike, and spend the day thinking about my friend and the good times we shared.
The hike can be divided into three sections, the first being the trail to Hanakapiai Beach. It is two miles from the TH to the beach, very popular, and consequently the part of the trail in the worst condition. Soon after leaving the trailhead the trail grows muddy. Then it gets muddier. And then it gets muddier still. Almost every person hiking it makes the mistake of trying to keep their shoes or boots as dry and clean as possible. They dance around the mudholes and skip over rocks and take twice as long as it otherwise would to negotiate the trail. All the while they see folks returning caked in mud and yet somehow think they will be able to do better. It isn't worth the effort - just hike through the mud and revel in it. Become one with the earth and Kauai.
I did just that. My boots were already muddy from the previous days so I didn't care all that much. Leaving Poipu around 4:30a, I was able to get started on the trail shortly after 6a. Dawn was just breaking, and it was looking to be a beautifully dry day along the coast. Clouds overhead colored the sky as the sun opened the new day. It took an hour to reach Hanakapiai, where I was greeted by the first of many signs along the trail warning visitors of all the horrible dangers that lie in wait for the unsuspecting. Treacherous tides and surf, rockfall, crumbling cliffs, dangerous waterfalls, eroded trails, even tidalwave warnings. And don't forget the myriad of signs warning you not to drink the water without boiling it - Leptospirosis or other nasties will get you! It was almost as if the State of Hawaii was trying to make sure you didn't get complacent and actually enjoy your visit. The trick seems to be to ignore the lot of 'em.
A feral cat hid from me in the bushes along the trail just after I'd crossed the stream. He didn't want to come out to investigate, but he didn't run away either - I think he was just waiting around to see if I had a handout for him. I clumsily took the wrong trail and started following the stream towards Hanakapiai Falls. I was well over a mile up the trail before I realized my error and turned back. I sheepishly passed the same pair camping along the trail not far from the trail junction. I waved - they waved. Then I found the right trail and continued along.
The second section to Hanakoa Camp is still a bit muddy, but far better than the first two miles. This section is about 4mi in length and passes through three of the smaller valleys along the coast. Halfway to Hanakoa a sign reminded me that I needed a permit to go any further, even if just for a dayhike. Like the other signs, it was easy to ignore. I came across the second party of the day, a solo hiker on his way out, walking barefoot. He carried no more than a denim jacket over his shoulder, and where he was going to, or had come from, was impossible to say. By contrast, I had long pants, long-sleeve shirt, boots, gloves, a hat, backpack, and sunglasses - we could hardly have had more different approaches to the trail. His feet actually looked to be in decent shape though I'm sure he must have had much practice and thick calluses to negotiate the trail, littered with sharp rocks and sticks. At Hanokoa Camp I was greeted by a large white sign indicating the trail beyond this point was closed until further notice. I wasn't surprised, having seen a similar sign at the trailhead. I no longer took any sign along the trail in the least bit seriously, and simply crossed the creek and continued.
By now it was 10a and I was on the third leg of the trail, the final five miles to Kalalau Beach. This is undoubtedly the most beautiful section of the three. The lush, overgrown trail gives way to drier, more open country with steeper hillsides and more impressive views. Feral goats seem to rule this part of the coast and I found far more of them than I had on my first visit. They all scattered when I got too near, but if I kept my distance they would go about their business, munching grass and a bit of knocking horns. After the first 3/4mi of this section, the trail emerges to the steepest hillsides along the coast, offering dramatic views down to the crashing surf. Fierce storms had batter the island some months before and eroded portions of the hillside, taking the trail with it. But since then visitors had beaten a new use trail through this section (and the reason the trail was closed) and made it relatively easy with mild exposure.
I arrived at the entrance to the enchanting Kalalau Valley and walked to the end of the trail at the far southern end of Kalalau Beach where a waterfall drops into a small pool not far from the beach. There were a couple of tents set up in two of the sites there, with a pair of nude sunbathers lying on the sand as I took a break at the pool. More signs warned of dangers within the waterfall (don't linger - falling rock!), but I stripped and took a refreshing shower in the cold stream anyway. In fifteen minutes I felt completely renewed, put my clothes back on and headed back. I ran into several other parties in the closed section, evidently I'm not the only one to ignore the signs. Another solo dayhiker, a few hours behind me, was a little concerned he'd get back before dark. Since he started around 8a and had gotten similarly off-track as I had, he was going at about the same pace. We juggled the numbers for a minute and figured he ought to get back before 8p - no problem. We parted. I ran into more parties (two more in the closed zone), and a regular party of parties for those last two muddy miles. Having covered a few more miles than most of them, I was a good deal muddier - probably looking to be the clumsiest of the bunch in negotiating the muddy trail. Back shortly before 6p, I changed into some clean clothes before the long drive back around the island to our condo in Poipu.
Next up - a day of rest and then Kawaikini!
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