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The Hiking Guide: Kalalau Trail, Kauai

    By Kara Jernigan. April 18, 2012 - 2:27 pm

Hiking the Na Pali Coast on Kauai is a challenging and life changing experience.

Getting to the Kalalau Trailhead was the first challenge we faced after landing in Lihue, Kauai. Not knowing anyone on the island to give us a ride, my friend Justin Smith and I took the bus – which is really more of a rickety old shuttle – for an hour and a half to the last stop in Hanalei.

Still seven miles away from the beginning of the 11-mile trail, we began to walk down the side of the red dirt road.

I threw my thumb out to the first truck that was going our way. The driver of the old red Toyota was a haole fisherman from Hilo named Jared who took one look at our giant backpacks and smiled. He took us the last seven miles “to the end of the road.”

Across from a shallow reef frequented by spear fishers and snorkelers, we were at the trailhead.

Without any cell phone reception, I turned my phone off for the first time in three years.

The first two miles of the trail were heavily trafficked by families, locals and tourists. The wide trail overlooked breathtakingly blue-green water as it wound along the jungle coastline.

This part of the trail was muddy and rocky but not challenging. Two miles in, there was a break in the trail at Hanakapiai beach, where the majority of hikers stop.

Going near the water at Hanakapiai Beach is not recommended. Over 80 visitors have been swept out to sea by unseen current, according to a warning sign on the trail.

We continued on. Seeing fewer and fewer people on the trail, I knew we were out of the average tourist hiking grounds.

The trail dried out and narrowed; we had to walk single file. Climbing and plummeting down the valley edges, the trail was crossed with small freshwater streams every few miles.

The next break in the trail was the six-mile campsite, nestled in the back of a valley. Covered in mud, we washed off in a nearby river before setting up camp for the night.

The campsite was just a designated clearing of trees with a compost toilet house and a picnic table. The ground was slightly wet and covered with roots and rocks – not exactly what I’d call an ideal campsite, but for one night it would do.

Waking up the next morning to the sound of songbirds and rushing water in the middle of nowhere was the most refreshing change from the police sirens and morning traffic that usually wake me up at my apartment in downtown Honolulu.

After a quick breakfast of granola and stream water, we packed up and began the last 5-mile stretch of trail that we knew ended in Kalalau Valley.

About half an hour down the trail we met an older man and his son headed back to Hanalei. When we asked how far it was until the end, Uncle smiled and said, “Not too far. The trail’s about to get fun.”

Curious, we hurried around the bend to see what awaited us. The warning sign read “Dangerous Cliff Side.”

The trail disappeared into sheer cliff face with a tiny ledge to scurry across. Looking down the cliff into the monstrous waves below, I tightened the clips on my backpack.

The roar of the wind and waves crashing made it hard to hear anything else, and Justin almost lost balance when the wind was tearing at his 30-pound pack.

It was a relief when we were off the cliff and back onto the eroding, washed out trail. Entering the forest again I heard a loud snort, hooves cracking sticks and saw the bushes move only a few feet away. I thought for sure it was a bloodthirsty boar. I had to laugh when a little gray mountain goat emerged from the bushes instead.

Several valleys later, we descended a rocky red hilltop to a green meadow and looked out on our final destination.

The speckled sandy beach, undisturbed by modern civilization, a cascading waterfall into a rocky pool above the sand and beautiful barreling waves – this was Kalalau.

It was awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

There were less than a dozen other people in the mile wide valley, many of whom reside in Kalalau permanently (though not legally).

That afternoon we set up camp, collected wood for a fire and refilled our water bottles from the waterfall. The sand on the beach was so fluffy that our feet sank in it.

Waking up with the sun and playing in the moonlight, we explored the beach, forest and caves of Kalalau for days.

Leaving this paradise was heartbreaking.

Five days later back at the trailhead, we sought a way back to Hanalei and the airport. Faced with a modern day problem – no cell phone reception and no vehicle – we began walking towards Hanalei. A little ways down the road we saw a familiar red truck parked by a swimming hole. It was Jared. He recognized us and offered to take us to Hanalei.

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