Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Hiking The Kalalau Trail

This October I'll be returning to Kauai to hike the Kalalau Trail for the second time. I hiked the Kalalau Trail for the first time in 2014. For a sense of the wonder you'll experience on the hike check out my video.

The Kalalau Tail was a hike that I had wanted to do for a long time and I researched it heavily. With all my research I must say it was more than I had expected in the way of difficulty. Even in good physical condition this trail kicked my butt! Read on for info about the Kalalau Trail and my personal advice on how to make your journey less difficult and more enjoyable.

DANGER! Exercise Extreme Caution!
The first thing that should be stated is that the Kalalau Trail is very beautiful but it is also very dangerous. If fact it's rated at the 10th most dangerous hike in the America by Backpacker Magazine and one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. You'll be hiking in
intense heat and full sun, there's falling rocks, potential flash floods on river crossings, steep slippery hills, and hazardous cliffs.  This hike is not for the novice hiker! Hikers have died on this trail. In addition to being very dangerous it is also very strenuous. At the Kalalau Beach there were people offering to pay locals to ride them out on a Jet Ski because they didn't want to endure the hike back out. FYI, it's illegal to land a motorized vehicle on the Kalalau beach but some still do it. There are many ways to get injured on the Kalalau Trail. Before you decide to conquer this trail be sure and do your research and by all means! There is no cell phone coverage on the trail should you encounter trouble.

There is a permit required to hike to the Kalalau Beach. While I'll admit that I didn't see anyone enforcing permits along the trail I have heard of rangers showing up at the Kalalau Beach and there's a fine if you don't have proper documentation. So head over to the State of Hawaii website and purchase a permit (it's the one for Napali Coast State Wilderness Park). The permit will cost you $20 per day per person and it's best to procure the permit well in advance because there's a limited number sold for each day. The permit allows you to camp at Hanakoa or Kalalau.

The Trailhead
The Kalalau Trail runs along the Napali Coast on the west side of Kauai. The well marked trailhead is on the north side of the island at end of Kuhio Highway (Hwy.56) in Ha'ena State Park at the Ke'e Beach parking lot.

kalalau trail trailhead marker kalalau trail trailhead marker

Trail Conditions
The Kalalau Trail is a myriad of up and down elevation changes with little relief from the sun as you travel down the coast line. In total the elevation changes are estimated at 5000 feet in 11 miles (each direction), some of them 600-800 feet at a time within a short distance, usually with a switchback. The trail was created by ancient Hawaiians, it's literally cut into the cliffs.

The first section of the trail is a very rocky trail and feels like you're climbing up and down on stairs. It won't take long, maybe a mile in, and you'll start seeing the beautiful views and get your first look down the Napali Coast.

At the two mile mark you'll be at the Hanakapi'ai River which you'll have to cross. This river has a pretty good trail of rocks to hop across but be careful. The rocks can be very slippery and I did encounter one hiker that had slipped crossing the river and injured his knee effectively ending his hike after only two miles. You'll see signs warning of the potential for flash floods. From what I've read... although it may not be raining at the crossing the rain in the mountains can cause the river to swell rapidly, A muddy river means large amounts of water are washing down from the mountains and a flash flood is likely about to occur. It is said that you shouldn't attempt to cros the rivers if they're more than knee deep. Don't take this lightly, there have been hikers swept out to sea by the rivers on the Kalalau Trail. In my photo the river is at a normal level exposing the rocks you'll use to cross. At this junction you may chose to take the side trail up to the Hanakapi'ai Falls but this will add two more miles onto your journey. It is only beyond this point that a permit is required so the hike to the Hanakapi'ai Falls can optionally be done at a different day of your vacation.

The views are spectacular, you'll just be amazed by the views and all the beautiful tropical plants you'll see along the way.

The trail beyond Hanakapi'ai starts to get less rocky and turns into more of a dirt trail. If you started at sunrise you'll likely be seeing the sun coming over the mountains by now lighting up the beautiful scenery. For the next several miles the vegetation will still offer some relief from the sun.
When you leave Hanakapi'ai you'll encounter the largest elevation change of the hike which I believe is about 700 feet, at the summit you'll see space rock and the pig fence around mile three.

As you make your way down the coast you'll look ahead wondering where in the world the trail will be on the upcoming cliffs. In these next photos you get a good idea of your proximity to the vertical drop you'll encounter when hiking the trail between Hanakapi'ai and the Hanakoa Valley. 

When hike south down the coast don't forget to look back to the north once in a while for some equally amazing vies of the Napali Coast.

Just before mile 6 you'll start to make an descent down into the Hanakoa Valley. You'll see a sign posted on a tree to the right side of the trail. The Hanakoa River is the 6 mile mark and a good place to stop for lunch. There aren't as many rocks to hop across on the Hanakoa River so you may just wanna take of your shoes and walk through it. The same precautions I mentioned earlier should taken when crossing this river as well. Camping is allowed at the Hanakoa Valley and there's a side trail here to the beautiful Hanakoa Falls about a mile inland. Note, if you take the side trail to the falls it will add two miles onto your original 11 mile hike to the Kalalau Beach. Hiking to the falls here might be a better idea if you're splitting up the hike by camping one night at Hanakoa. Be sure and fill your water bottles before you get back on the trail.

After you make the steep ascent from Hanakoa Valley you'll see the terrain ahead covered in less vegetation and taking on a baron more desert like appearance.

As the vegetation dwindles the path becomes more eroded, less sure footed, and more dangerous than you've encountered up to this point on the tail. There's a huge, steep switchback down to the area seen in the next photo showing the approach to Crawlers Ledge. 

Between miles 7 and 8 is where you'll encounter the infamous Crawlers Ledge aptly named because it makes people want to get on their hands and knees and crawl along this ledge with a 500' near vertical drop to the ocean below. As you can see in the photo the trail is pretty rocky and solid but watch your footing here. This is not a spot you wanna trip! See the GoPro footage of me hiking on the eroded cliff section approaching and then crossing Crawlers Ledge in my Kalalau Trail video.

I captured this next photo of some hikers approaching Crawlers Ledge heading north on their return trip. You can see that there's some eroded trail on both sides of Crawlers Ledge. 

Just beyond the eroded cliffs around Crawlers Ledge was what I considered an even more dangerous section of the trail. It was a fairly steep red dirt hill switchback. The path itself was angled, very un-level and covered in a fine rice to pea sized gravel.

You can see that if you were to fall in this section there is virtually nothing to stop you from sliding or tumbling down to the ocean. I wouldn't even consider crossing this area in the rain. 

Beyond this point the trail, although still physically demanding, was a mix of rock and dirt. I didn't feel it was very dangerous even with the trail in close proximity to a steep drop to the ocean.

When you get about a mile and a half from the Kalalau Beach you'll see an old wooden Kalalau sign urging you to preserve the area. 

From here you'll start your descent down a steep red dirt hill. Many have been injured on this hill. Due to erosion and the slick clay like texture of the path here there have been some improvements made by volunteers to ease the descent on this section. They've add some boards to break up some of the steepest slopes turning it into more like stair steps.

And this photo is prior to my ascent up the red dirt hill on my return trip. The path is level from here to the Kalalau Beach but there's one more obstacle to pass after the red dirt hill and that's the Kalalau River. The river isn't very fast moving or wide but there are long hops across the rocks so you may opt to take off your shoes and walk through the river here as well.

After crossing the Kalalau River the trail returns to the shoreline and you'll get your first good view of the Kalalau Beach. 

 The first section of beach is covered with large lava rocks but transitions into a pure sand beach.
Once near the sandy beach area you'll see signs to the left (inland) identifying the camping area in the trees. Most people use tents but if you choose to use a hammock like I did you'll have no trouble finding a couple suitable trees.

The view of the mountains and eroded razor cliffs and ridges above the beach are just stunning. The waterfall seen in the photo is your source of drinking water as well as your shower. Hiking the Kalalau Trail is intense but amazing sights you'll see along the way coupled with the payoff of your destination at the Kalalau Beach make it all worthwhile.

Advice For Hiking The Kalalau Trail
Travel light!
Probably my most valuable lesson. Some articles I had read advised to travel light but I still overestimated my gear requirements. I thought I had narrowed my gear down enough but in the end carried more on my back than needed, As I mentioned this trail has a serious amount of elevation changes and the last thing you'll want slowing you down is a huge backpack with a bunch of things you'll never need or use. You don't need much gear on this trail. This isn't your typical backpacking trail so don't bring your typical backpacking gear.

Some things you'll definitely need:
  • Light backpack - I currently use the Osprey Exos 38 weighing in at only 2lbs 2oz. The Osprey has a nice mesh back panel to keep down moisture build up which will come in handy while hiking the sun and heat of this trail.
  • Hiking shoes - something light but durable with good tread. Trail running shoes are a good choice. The trail is very dangerous in some areas. You'll be traveling on the edge of cliffs (ie Crawlers Ledge) and some of the steep downhills are a fine gravel or slick clay. You'll definitely want to have good footing. On my return trip I saw a discarded pair of Nike sneakers with the sole peeled off so get yourself something made for the trails. 
  • Shelter - a light tent or even a hammock and tarp. I didn't experience any mosquitos and at worst a light rain camping at Kalalau Beach. My first hike I used a homemade hammock and tarp which you can see in my Kalalau Trail video from 2014. Recently I purchased the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 2 (2lbs 5oz.) which I'll be using this year. I saw people camping there that literally just slept under a piece of thin plastic suspended between a couple trees.
  • Food - bring dehydrated meals and snacks (granola, beef jerky, etc.) to cut down on weight. General backpacking guidelines of about 2lbs of food per person per day are sufficient. There are plenty of resources on the web that you could use to prepare your own meals but I find the Mountain House bag meals more convenient, just add boiling water to the bag, let it rehydrate, and eat it right from the bag with no dishes to clean other than your spoon.
  • Cooking gear - if you bring dehydrated meals you'll need to rehydrate them with boiling water. There are no campfires allowed along the trail or at Kalalau Beach so you'll need a cheap burner and small cookpot to heat a couple cups of water. My cookset is the Halulite Minimalist which includes a spoon and insulating cozy in addition to the cookpot and lid which also doubles as a coffee mug with a sippy lid. I will say the spoon that comes with the kit is kinda flimsy so I use my Toaks Titanium folding spoon.
  • Water bottles and a water filter - There are rivers or streams every couple miles where you can replenish your water supply, and a waterfall at the Kalalau Beach, but you should filter it to protect yourself against Giardia and Leptospirosis. My recommendation for a filter is the Sawyer Mini which can be screwed right on a water bottle if needed or used inline with a hydration bladder. The water filter also comes with a squeeze bag which can be used to fill your other bottles. I'd recommend enough vessels to carry at least 2 liters of water. I prefer multiple small vessels rather than one large in the event of a leak. I use Platypus one liter collapsible bags, they weigh less than on ounce each empty, roll up nice and small when not in use and are less than $10 each but any plastic bottle would be sufficient.
  • Sunscreen - if you leave the trailhead at sunrise you'll have some shade for the first couple miles but by the time the sun comes up over the mountains you be at a point in the trail that has little, if any, relief from the sun. Some SPF 30 worked fine me but if you're fair skinned you should consider something with a higher level of protection.
  • Insect repellent - while you won't likely experience any mosquito on the second half of the trail which is more dry and desert like, you will deal with mosquitos on the first half which is more damp with lots of vegetation.
  • Minimal clothing - depending on the number of days you'll be camping at the Kalalau Beach  you can probably get by with just the clothes on your back. One exception....
  • Extra socks - bring a few extra pairs of socks that you can switch out along the trail. Moisture leads to blisters. Your feet will be sliding around in your shoes with all the ups and down on the Kalalau Trail and believe me the last thing you need is a tender open blister. For hiking I use Ininji Toe socks because I found that they cut down on blisters between the toes due to reduced friction.
  • Small flashlight - far from city lights it is darker than dark when the sun goes down on this side of the island. The trail is dangerous so get off it before nightfall but be sure and bring along a small flashlight for camp or a nighttime run to the bathroom which leads me to the next item...
  • Toilet paper - there is a composting toilet at the Kalalau Beach but you'll need to bring your own toilet paper unless you prefer to use tree leaves.
  • First aid kit- on every hike I bring along a basic first aid kit, better safe than sorry! Some items in my first aid kit include small bandages, an ace wrap (great for sprained ankles or sore knees), Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Immodium AD, and antibiotic cream to name a few things.
  • Good camera - if your cell phone has a good camera it may be all you need but if you have a good quality camera bring it along, it will be worth the extra weight! This might be a once in a lifetime event for you so make sure to take lots of photos and videos. There are magnificent views around every turn.
Things you can probably leave at home:
  • Sleeping bag - at best you'll need a very light blanket but I won't even be bringing that with me this time. When I was camping at the Kalalau Beach in 2014 I slept shirtless in a pair of shorts.
  • Extra clothes - you don't need long underwear and probably won't need long pants or a long sleeve shirt other than if you want them for protection from the sun.
  • Rain jacket - I'll call this one optional. Unless you really hate being wet you can leave the rain gear at home. On the northern part of the island you might experience some rain but once you get more south you'll not likely to see any or very little rain (depending on the time of year). On my return hike it rained on me for the last couple miles and personally I found it refreshing as I trudged along in the heat.
Before embarking on this journey make sure you are physically fit. The elevation changes on the Kalalau Trail will push you to the limit. I was in good physical condition when I took on this challenge but still I found myself wishing I had trained more appropriately. My recommendation is that you prepare by using a stairmaster for long periods and a treadmill on a max incline. You'll be doing major elevation changes for hours on the Kalalau Trail so don't slack on the fitness training!

Contingency Factor
Plan for possibly spending an extra day on the trial just in case of an impassable flooded river or God forbid an injury. In other words... don't book your flight for the day you expect to be off the trail just in case.

Do Your Research
There are a ton of website with information about the Kalalau Trail, use them. My experience is only one of many. Learn from the mistakes of others so you don't have to suffer them yourself. Below are a few good links about the Kalalau Trail to get you started.