Hiking the Kalalau trail

There was only one thing I had my heart set on doing when I went to Kauai: hiking the Kalalau trail.

Meandering along the north coast of Kauai for 11 undeveloped miles, the trail offers access to remote beaches and breathtaking vistas. An overnight stay (and a permit) is generally required to complete the 22-mile round trip, so I opted to do a shorter hike and see Hanakapai’ai Falls, an 8-mile journey.

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Originally, I planned to do this hike earlier in my stay, but a stomach bug meant that my body wasn’t doing anything more strenuous than laying on the beach for several days. Friday was my last full day on the island, so if I was going to see the Kalalau, I knew I was going to have to muster up some strength. I stopped at a gas station on the way and bought some Gatorade and water and then made my way to the trail.

For what it’s worth, the Kalalau trail is one of the most popular hikes on Kauai. If you arrive at the trailhead much after 9 a.m., the parking lot will be full and you’ll end up parking in a crater ridden lot down the road. Many people seem to ignore the no parking signs and leave their cars by the side of the road as well. It was a swath of humanity when I went: church groups and families, people with children, and people with selfie sticks… generally just a lot of people, many who appeared to be in much worse shape than me. While I knew I wouldn’t be running this trail (my original plan), there was a part of me that felt like even in my weakened state I had to be in better shape than the retirees in sport sandals. Not the most charitable thoughts, but it got me motivated.Kalalau9From the get-go, I got the sense that people may show up unprepared for this hike, because there were constant reminders that “YOU ARE ENTERING NATURE AND IT MIGHT NOT BE SAFE.” A collection of signs just past the trailhead warned of cliffs, flash floods, and falling rocks. Later on, signs warned of hazardous waters and rip currents, with hash marks detailing the number of visitors killed. Two days before my hike, 32 people had to be rescued when rising waters made the Hanakapiai Stream impassable.

The trail went up for the first half mile or so and then leveled off at what was essentially the side of a cliff. From there, it was another 1.5 miles to Hanakapiai beach. I tried to pass as many people as I could on this stretch and avoid getting stuck behind groups. I like hiking alone, with nothing to distract me, but Kalalau was far from remote. Still, each vista seemed more beautiful, and I even saw some humpback whales swim by in the waters below.

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Pretty soon, the trail was descending and I was at the infamous Hanakapi’ai Stream river crossing.

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On a good day, this crossing requires hikers to remove their shoes and wade across thigh-deep water. On a bad day (i.e. when its been raining), the stream swells, making crossings deadly. Fortunately, crossing was no problem on this day.

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For many, the rocky, cairn covered beach at Hanakapi’ai seemed to be the turnaround point. Couples snacked, played with feral kittens, and watched the powerful surf. No joke, you do not want to swim here. I stayed long enough to snap some photos and then continued on.

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From the beach, the trail turned south towards the interior of the island, following and eventually crossing the Hanakapi’ai stream a few times. One crossing had ropes to help keep you above the water, but another was just rocks. It was easy to see how one could get stuck if it rained.

The trail started to get crowded at this point; solitude was no longer an option. I listened to a surfer guy give his girlfriend lessons in Hawaiian and tried to stay a few steps ahead of two brothers from Philly. The trail was pretty level; I wished I had it in me to trail run, but I was still feeling pretty terrible. Finally, I caught my first glimpse of Hanakapi’ai falls.

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I arrived at the base of the falls about 30 minutes later. The air there was cooler thanks to the mist; the water was downright frigid. After a 2.5 hour hike in 80+ degree heat, I was surprised to find that I didn’t want to go swimming.

Traveling solo (and being in crowded quarters), it was hard to capture how truly tall and majestic the falls were. They were movie quality. One of the brothers from Philly tried to take a photo for me, but warned that he couldn’t get the whole waterfall in the picture. I tried…

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I didn’t stay long at the falls. The air was cold, it was kind of crowded, and my bad stomach meant that my picnic consisted of a yellow Gatorade, which I sipped while walking. I passed even more people on the way down than I had on the way up… I wished I’d started earlier.

But before I knew it, I was back at Hanakapi’ai beach and warm enough to take a dip in the stream. It felt delicious.

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Shoes back on, I booked it back to the parking lot, pausing every now and then to take photos of the vistas. Before I knew it, my glorious hike was over. Though, between the traffic and the heat, I couldn’t wait to get out of there and head to town for a shave ice. But I have a feeling that I’ll be on Kauai again, and that when I am, I’ll venture to Kalalau.

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