Hike Club tackles the Na Pali coast of Kauai


I had been hearing about the Kalalau Trail on the Na Pali coast of Kauai for a few years. I remember my first reaction to the description of the trail was, “Why would anyone do that?” But the more I heard about the beauty of the beach and valley, the waterfalls and ginger pools, the spiritual vibe, the mangos, the less crazy it seemed. I was still intimidated, but totally determined to do it. The opportunity suddenly arose a few weeks ago – and was probably a good thing that I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it and psych myself out. Just threw together a backpack and went.

Despite the short notice I felt pretty well prepared with my tent, groundpad, water filter, dried food and camp stove. Checked my backpack and was sitting at the interisland terminal at HNL waiting for my flight on go! airlines (this is the airline that overshot Hilo by 15 miles because the pilots were asleep), when I was overhead paged to the TSA counter. Everyone looked around like, “Oooooooo, who’s in trouble?” I slunk to the TSA counter where I was informed that they would be making a report to the government because I was carrying an explosive substance – a gas cannister for the stove. Oops. I was told that someone would be calling me to follow up. Nothing so far.

Made it to Kauai and stopped at just about every store en route from Lihue to Limahuli Botanical Garden, where I was meeting my hiking companions. No gas. My carefully laid plans were already fraying. Oh, well, surely someone else would have brought gas… Arrived at Limahuli where we were lucky enough to be able to spend the night in a real bed next to a very soothing babbling stream. Here’s the pillow I slept on (courtesy of the super cute daughter of Limahuli’s director)…

Limahuli was the perfect starting point, just a short walk from the trailhead at Ke’e Beach. So many things seemed to just fall into place like that, including transportation appearing when needed in the person of Uncle Matt and Coast Guard Barney. (Mucho mahalo!)

We all thought that it would be great to hike the entire 11 miles of the trail in a day, but weren’t sure how we would hold up carrying heavy packs in the sun on a challenging trail. By mile 5, I was thinking that camping at mile 6 sounded like a fine idea. Arrived at the Hanakoa Valley campsite at mile 6 around 3 pm, hot and tired. The most notorious section of the trail is after mile 6. Friends told me to camp at Hanakoa and do that section in the morning when “fresh.” But after a rest and a snack, we all decided to push on, with me thinking, “Am I crazy?”

The trail was indeed challenging and more than a little scary with narrow, slippery spots along the sea cliffs, but after so much anticipation and terror, it didn’t seem so bad. I was super tired, though, by the time we started the descent to the beach at Kalalau. Asami and I were the first of our group to reach the beach where I threw myself right into the water before claiming a prime camping site under a shady tree.

Kalalau is full of characters, and I met lots of them, including Bill, Gray and Surfer Chris. Bill was a Marine, but now he lives at mile 8 and works his ass off to maintain the trail. He cleared the emergency helipad. He widens the trail with a pickaxe. And he carries huge buckets of water to the rare plants along the trail. He probably looks younger than his age, but up close you can tell that he’s had a hard life. The same goes for many of the longterm residents that have chosen to escape from our consumer culture. I woke one morning on the beach to the sight of a bronzed and beautiful man strolling the shore in nothing but a homemade straw hat, his body accented by the warm light of the rising sun. I’m perfectly happy to keep that vision intact without approaching more closely, since I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t have looked so god-like at close range.

Kalalau’s beach is a gorgeous wide stretch of sand backed by dramatic ridges. A huge cave at one end provides shelter for those without tents and amplifies the booming of the surf. One of my companions had been there some years before, sitting in the mouth of the cave watching the surf, when suddenly a goat came dropping from above the high arch of the cave mouth onto the beach. (I always wondered if goats fall sometimes…) The poor goat died, but the lucky campers had goat curry that night.

As you sit on the beach and contemplate how far you are from “civilization,” a catamaran tour boat will periodically cruise by off shore. They don’t land at the beach, but all the tourists line up at the rail with their cameras to take pictures of the beach, and consequently of the campers on the beach as well. You feel sort of like a zoo animal. “Here’s a fine example of the naked hippie hiker…” I took some pictures of the boats, just because I felt like I should retaliate in kind.

A trail – or rather many interwoven trails lead up into the Kalalau valley along two small streams. The trails are confusing but it is fairly hard to get lost in the narrow valley where you are always somewhere close to a stream. We got off the well trodden trail a few times and did some rock hopping and bush whacking in slippers, but nothing too hairy. The streams form a picturesque series of pools and small waterfalls surrounded by thick stands of white ginger that smells like every wonderful thing in the world. The smell is so nice it makes you dizzy. One pool is surrounded by thousands of tiny bright pink flowers. You almost have to blink a few times to make yourself believe how pretty it is.

As it turns out, only one person that came with us had brought cooking gas and didn’t really have any to spare. Fortunately, Kalalau is generous and I didn’t find myself needing or wanting much of anything during our 4 days there. I discovered the morning after we arrived that I had chosen a campsite next to a thicket of tomato plants laden with hundreds and hundreds of sweet little cherry tomatoes. About 20 feet away was a lime tree. Many of the other fruit trees weren’t in season yet, though. Massive mango trees were covered with green fruit and the mountain apple trees were full of beautiful fringy pink blossoms that carpeted parts of the trail with hot pink petals. A nice couple in a nearby tent let me borrow their gas a few times and we worked on our fire building skills. The end result was a pot of hot brewed coffee every morning for Asami, Alex and me and hot oatmeal with nuts and dried cherries. And the box of wine that I toted all the way from Oahu was worth every last ounce. I didn’t even miss my shower thanks to the waterfall on the beach.

Heck, I even had a book to read – Andre Norton’s Key Out of Time. I picked it off my shelf on the basis of slimness, but the cover blurb sold me – Time Agents “aided by a Polynesian girl and her team of telepathic dolphins probe the mystery of the sea planet men have named Hawaika.” Nothing too heavy, either literally or metaphorically.

I was not at all anxious to go home, but we eventually had to face the return trip. It was much faster on the way back – knowing that we were going to do the whole 11 miles made us keep up the pace. Left the beach around 8:30 and we were back at Ke’e a little after 4. We had planned to stop at Hanakapiai to swim (2 miles from Ke’e) but decided to push on since we were so close and then relax at Ke’e. I had just finished my water and having done 9 miles already, I saw no point in stopping to pump more from the stream at Hanakapiai since we were so close. Bad idea. I had forgotten that the last two miles have quite a bit of altitude gain, and the cloudy weather that had blessed us with a little shade gave way to full sun. I was dreaming of the water fountain at Ke’e – but when we got there the “comfort station” was beign renovated! Alex generously shared her last bit of remaining water and then we threw ourselves in the ocean which was the perfect temperature and very sparkly. The most annoying thing about the last two miles was all of the day hikers that clog the trail and have to ask if you hiked the “whole thing” and then act impressed.

Laura easily gets the award for most impressive hiking adventure – her boots started to fall apart in the first mile. Many miles and many applications of duct tape, straps and string later, here they are….

When we met up back at Limahuli later, we heard how Laura and Aaron had provided water to several people earlier that afternoon when they stopped to pump from the stream at Hanakapiai, including a young military couple and a solitary guy. Fast forward a few hours later and I’m waiting to see if folks will get their act together to go into Kapaa to get dinner at Blossoming Lotus, one of my favoritist restaurants ever. Finally, I got tired of waiting and it was starting to get dark so I decided to hitch. A car immediately stopped and gave me a ride all the way to Kapaa. The driver, Coast Guard Barney, turned out to be one of the people that got water from Laura and Aaron!

Thanks to the ride, I made it to Kapaa in time to have a fabulously yummy meal of mung dahl and spanakopita and German chocolate cake and white sangria. It eased the transition back into society. Spent the night at the cute little Coral Reef Hotel in a room full of heavy wooden furniture and the sort of remote controlled air conditioner that I associate with being in Fiji or Samoa. There’s a small beach fronting the hotel and the next morning when I strolled down to put my feet in the water, I found that I had only one companion on the beach – a monk seal. I sat and watched him (or her) snort and stretch contentedly for quite some time without anyone else showing up. Very very cool.

Which reminds me that about halfway back from Kalalau, we spotted a group of dolphins off shore. That seemed sufficiently exciting in and of itself, but then we spotted a plume of water and realized that there was also a whale with them. After watching for a couple of minutes, we realized that the small blue spot in the midst of the activity was a lone kayak far offshore. Wow. If you were that man or woman in the kayak, I’d love to hear the firsthand story!


3 Responses to “Hike Club tackles the Na Pali coast of Kauai”

  1. amanda Says:

    How awesome! Great pictures and wonderful commentary. I wish I could have been there.

  2. conrad Says:

    had to make the first pic my desktop…awesome pic

  3. Naughty Uncle Chris Says:

    Wow. I am impressed to the nth degree. Not only that you hiked it in a day but also that you managed to write it up in a way that almost took me there. I could almost smell the stinky hippies! Nice work and beautiful pictures Kate.

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