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Firsthand Report: Hiking the Kalalau Trail
By Lou Botta, DCSki Columnist
November 12, 2007

Winter is my season. Despite being born in the Caribbean, I grew up in New England. That’s home. I love the cold and the snow and the winter sports associated with below-freezing temperatures. Most of my vacation time is spent in winter sports pursuits. However, with the passing of the seasons and once warm weather arrives, my thoughts drift to getting in shape for the ski season as well as enjoying the beauty and joy of warmer temperatures. I am not a fan of torrid, uncomfortable humidity and the threats of abominable weather prevalent in Florida or the Gulf Coast, so I look towards either my second home at Snowshoe, the New England coast, the Northwest, or Hawaii to suit my summer activities.

I’m not an adrenaline junkie but I like strenuous activities that involve both physical and psychological challenge. After several marathons, serious whitewater rafting, numerous 500-mile bicycle trips, sailing the Caribbean, and a myriad of oversea ski trips, I was looking for a pre-ski season challenge that would be both enjoyable and strenuous enough to be part of the getting-in-shape routine. So when I saw the pictures of several friends hiking the Kalalau Trail in Kawai’i , I began to think seriously about it. My friends were going to do the trail again this year, following a wildly successful adventure the year prior, which had followed a not-so-good expedition the year before when one of the guys had to be evacuated by helicopter.

I decided to give it a try. My decision to go survival camping needed a change in paradigms; after an almost four-month stay in a tent in a Siberian-like South Korean winter as a young Air Force pilot, I had sworn off camping forever. But paradigms are made to be changed, and after many trips to REI, Hudson Trail Outfitters, and the venerable Patagonia store, I was ready. At least in the gadget category, I was. Creature comforts galore. New color, high sensitivity GPS, new digital binoculars, solar shower, high-tech tent, quick dry clothing, even the espresso maker.

After a four-month preparatory of hiking at Snowshoe with and without backpacks, running the permit gauntlet with the Hawaiian Department of Natural Resources, and gathering together with some of the hikers, it was go time. Six of us, three from DC, two from Oahu and one from California, met in the “Garden Island” of Kawai’i, one of the true gems of the Hawaiian chain from October 4 to 11, 2007. Most of the group had already experienced what is probably one of the most strenuous hikes in the US. Still, for the uninitiated as well as for the veteran, this would still be a hike to remember. The combination of the rigor, the adventure, the friends, and the spectacular beauty of the Kalalau trail would make an unforgettable trip.

Leaving National Airport in DC is a hassle. The First Class line was slow as molasses. The other lines were interminable. A quick, two hour trip to Atlanta was followed by a nine - yes, nine -; hour trip from Atlanta to Honolulu. The Delta Crown Clubs are nicely appointed, so the three-hour wait in Atlanta was actually quite productive. Upgrading in these long flights is an investment, not a profligate activity. Even then, as nice as the seating was on the Airbus, I am looking forward to when American flag carriers catch up to European and Asian carriers in the quality of upgraded accommodations. Three meals and lots of wine and coffee later, we arrived in Honolulu to a gorgeous day and mild temperatures. Following a one-day stay in Waikiki’s Marriott and another one with a good friend in Wahiawa, I flew to Lihue to meet our group, staying at a wonderful Bed and Breakfast in Kapa’a until the day where we rented a van to take us to the trailhead.

The Kalalau Trail, otherwise known as the Napali Coast Trail, rounds the Northwest part of the island of Kawaii. Kawaii is roughly the shape of a ball, with an extinct volcano range in the center which is high enough for the trade winds and the high humidity of the insular atmosphere, once colliding with the island’s orographic features, to create several island micro climates. The immediate area to the north of the central range is one of the wettest places on the planet. Yet, the southern coast is semi arid. The Napali Coast is a geographically forbidding zone of eroded massifs rising from the water and extending several thousand feet up, connected by deeply eroded valleys shaped like amphitheaters. The trail extends from the wet part of the island to the North, down to the arid area, providing for a most diverse and beautiful hike. At the end, Kalalau Beach, over a mile long, offers solace and beauty beyond words.

There is a stringent permit procedure for the Kalalau trail. The Napali Coast has no roads, no boat landing sites on the trail, and besides emergency helicopter landing pads, no other way to get to the beach than to kayak (a dangerous procedure when the surf is high) or to hike the entire length of the trail.

The trail is only eleven miles long, but in that relatively short distance, the ups and downs, switchbacks, mud and trail challenges take a strenuous physical toll on anyone. There are very few level gradients, as a matter of fact, and in the eleven miles of hiking, my trusty GPS accrued eight thousand feet of vertical change. Add to that the unrelenting sunshine of Hawaii, broken only by bursts of rain coming out of nowhere, and it makes for a grueling expedition. Top it off with the fact that this is bare base camping and every human need has to be brought over and taken out, and this translates into a heavier-than normal backpack.

Desert part of the trail. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

Despite the physical exertion, the spellbinding beauty of the Napali Coast was everywhere from beginning to end. To our left, we saw the lush and verdant flora made up of tropical trees and shrubs lining and sometimes obscuring the monumental massifs joined by amphitheater-like valleys common to the area. To the right, a captivating view of the ocean and the coastline. The constant singing of tropical birds was often overcome by the trade winds blowing through the trees and rock formations, creating a cacophony of natural melodies. As far as the eye could see, the ins and outs of the coastline provided a nature show forever clipped to my memory.

On the trail. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

We left Ke’e Beach, site of the trailhead, around 0800 to take advantage of the daylight. The trail went up vertiginously six hundred feet, then down three hundred feet, then up two hundred feet, down four hundred… get it? All along, the trail conditions varied from slippery rock to compact sand, to vegetation mush. There were only three constants in the first half of the trail. The first, every step was either climbing or descending on trail switchbacks. The second constant was the ever-presence of mud. Lots of mud. Reddish, thick, wet mud that got in your boots, socks, hair, underwear… The last was the aroma of guava. Guava everywhere. On trees, on the ground, falling on people. The good thing about guava is that it makes a great carbohydrate source. And it is darn tasty.

With a heavy load, we arrived in Hanakapiai Beach two hours later. This was a welcome respite from the hike. The weight of my backpack was enormous. I left the trailhead with over 70 pounds. I didn’t want to leave my creature comforts, but finally I decided that discretion was the better part of valor… or physical limitations. Several college kids became the grateful recipients of a gallon of wine (10 pounds off my shoulders) A camper got my old-fashioned emergency radio. The rest of the 20-or so pounds were hidden in a cache that I would be able to find on the return trip. The only other creature comforts I allowed myself to keep included my espresso maker and 2 pounds of coffee. And my three Petzl headlamps.

Lou huffing up the mountain. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

Leaving Hanakapiai is the most difficult part of the trail. An immediate 800 foot climb greets the hiker, all the while the mud, humidity and heat make the switchbacks dangerous and more difficult. The trail follows this up and down routine for another two miles, and within the space of a half a mile, the weather changes. The sun is out, shining and bright. The humidity begins to dissipate. The trail becomes dryer, narrower, sandier, slippery and more dangerous. The caked mud gives way to a red dust that again, gets everywhere. Only entering an amphitheater valley allows the hiker to encounter forest conditions with the corresponding abundance of water.

We had to bring our own water filters as the stream water available was possibly contaminated with bacteria as well as leptospirosis due to the feral pig and goat population. We had two large capacity Katadyne filters which suited us just fine. No one got sick. We were certainly careful to separate the different hoses to prevent cross contamination.

View of the ocean. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

We set camp at mile 6 in Hanakoa. While there, one of our party fell in the rocky trail by a stream and suffered what appeared to be a concussion. We kept an eye on him and set camp. Everyone brought their freeze-dried food and tried each other’s selections. Amazingly, some of the freeze-dried food items are quite good. Some of the others, well…

We slept like babies in a crib, and morning came all too quickly. We broke camp and set out again towards Kalalau around 0900. The ups and down in this part of the trail are not as pronounced, but as the trail became drier and narrower, the danger increased. Three more miles and the trail began to descend a little, which soon became a two-mile long descent into Kalalau.

We set up camp towards the end of the beach, up on a promontory and within easy walking distance of the main water source that would be our bathing, drinking and washing area. The two-level waterfall came down a rock face like a natural shower, and downstream a bit there was room for washing clothes on the rocks. Almost like being on a movie set.

Photo provided by Lou Botta.

I needed this trip not only for the sheer pleasure of traveling and seeing something new, but also for the stress relief. I’ve spent eight years traveling with little chance of catching up to my own thoughts and my own metaphysical being. There was plenty of time for that. I spent needed time vegetating, contemplating or meditating. The spectacular scenery lent itself as a wonderful background for this activity.

There are several permanent residents of the Kalalau Valley. The Hawaii Department of Natural Resources has been waging an uphill battle to get them out of there. I am not going to pass judgment on people living off the land but the fact of the matter is that they are there, living off the land and enjoying the mild weather and incredible scenery.

The next four days were a fog. Four days in bliss. I remembered waking up, relaxing, losing track of time, being with friends, walking on the beach, taking the sun, watching the spectacular scenery and thanking God that I am alive to watch such grandeur. The weather was delicious. The sun shone all day. The friends were great. The ocean was a delight. We adopted a lone backpacker, Gabriel, and shared our food. These were four days of life-changing meditation, realizing and rediscovering what’s important in life. Every human being deserves a vacation like that once in a while. Accompanied when I needed company, seeking and achieving solace when I needed it. Besides the daily health and hygiene activities, everything else was volitional. Shaving was optional. Reading was optional. Clothes were optional. Almost too good to be true.

We slept very comfortably, even though the fresh ocean breeze would make the weather a bit chilly at night. A few of us slept on the beach one night. Some of the hikers slept in caves carved out of the lava flow tubes by the ocean. The ocean was calm in the morning, getting rougher throughout the day until the surf exploded on the sand in the late afternoon. The waves, sand and wind had a poetic rhythm that dovetailed into any activity, whether hiking, reading, or just relaxing.

A view from Hanakapiai. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

Like all things, there is an end. Packing and setting trail day came all too quickly. Then we were off on the trail. This time, much lighter, well fed, full of energy, both physical and mental. We hiked 9 miles amidst one of the most beautiful days ever. We camped at Hanakapiai one last night, and enjoyed one last night on the trail. Next day we hiked the last two miles and met our transport at the appointed time. After two more days in Kawaii, a short flight back to Honolulu followed by an eight hour back to Atlanta and a shorter hour-and-a-half trip back to Washington National. All along thinking, as I do still now, that this was undoubtedly one of the best vacations in my life.

Tired hikers at the end. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

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gatkinso
10 years ago
I used to work on Kauai out at PMRF - would go out about 6 times a year. That area is no place for novices that is for sure: it is forbidding a place as you will find.

To bad the mountains of Kauai don’t have snow - that would be awesome… if you could find an area that wasn’t too steep to ski that is.

As far as the air travel goes, United is the way to go: IAD and BWI - LAX or SFO - LIH. Stopping in HNL is for the birds. It is an easy flight about 12 hours out and 11 back - really not too long (but I am flying Asia and the Middle East now so all things are realative).
Lou Botta
10 years ago
Agree with you on the transport. And HNL is a zoo of an airport. LIH was going back to an era of gentility. Next time I go direct to LIH.
robbie a
10 years ago
This is an amazing place! I have hiked to the first beach probally less than a mile but was one of the hardest hikes I have done. Mud, rain, steeps and lots of smelly Guava abounds.

The waterfalls are amazing….
Lou Botta
10 years ago
Robbie, it’s actually two miles from Hanakapia’i to Ke’e Beach. You lose track of time on the trail though because of the difficulty level. Serious, measured by GPS.
sb.
10 years ago
What a wonderful backcountry trip. Thanks for sharing your story, photos, and experience. I loved every line.
xoxoxoxo
sb.

Post Script:
Happy New Year :-)
Snowcat got your tongue?
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