It began as two words typed into a web search engine: hiking and Kauai. I was planning a trip to Hawaii and wanted to visit the island of Kauai in spite of it’s claim to being home to the Wettest Place on Earth (a close second is Barry’s pants moments before we sit down to a high stakes cribbage match). I was immediately inundated with search results describing the Kalalau trail as an ancient footpath that leads to a beautifully isolated beach. Stories included exotic characters such as Captain Zodiac, lepers escaping colonization and clothing optional campers. All indications were that this was a strenuous multi-day hike that required camping. Since Barry vehemently rejected the notion of camping (apparently due to a childhood fear of sleeping bags), we considered the possibility of attempting the trail as a day hike. Most trip summaries and official trail information estimated the trail required 9 hours each way. Based on these numbers, we figured that we couldn’t do the entire trail, but we could always head in until we reached a turn around time determined by the sunset. Then we independently stumbled across the same web site, DayHiker.com where Dave Wonderly claimed to have done the entire trail as a day hike in 1999.
Being on the Kalalau trail beyond Hanakapi’ai Valley (mile 2) requires either a special day use permit or a camping permit. The day use permit is free, but could only be obtained on Kauai. Since we were planning on visiting over the Easter weekend, the office where this permit would be issued would be closed. Barry visited his local office and discovered that our only option was to buy a camping permit since day user permits were not issued at the Honolulu office. So even though we had no intention of camping, we purchased a two day camping permit to ensure we weren’t breaking any laws. We were once again informed that if we planned to go to the end of the trail, we would have to camp since there is no way we could hike in and out in a single day. So the camping permit pretty much ensured the hike would be attempted, since the $20 investment would have to be recouped. The next stage was completing the logistics for the travel from Honolulu to Kauai. On a previous trip, I had purchased Aloha Airlines flight tickets from a seemingly fly-by-night operation called Magnum Tours. This place is above a McDonalds in Waikiki and upon walking in, you get the feeling that this place could be cleared out and abandoned in a matter of minutes should they feel the heat closing in on them. We purchased an air/rental car/hotel package from them and got ready to depart the following day. Travel to Kauai was a short 20 minute flight, in fact the “random” additional security screenings that we were both selected for took about as long as the actual flight.
The pre-hike meal was an inspirational experience as we were celebrity guests at the famous Camp House Grill.
It’s truly amazing what a stuffed rooster can do for business. Any potential entrepreneurs out there should take note: stuffed rooster = big business.
We returned to the hotel on a rooster high but then reality set in as we set the alarm clock for the next morning’s big event. We estimated an hour to drive to the trail head from our hotel in Wailua. We wanted to get on the trail by sunrise (6:32 am) so that our vanishingly small chance of success would be maximized. Somehow we settled on an alarm clock setting of 4:30am.
I have seen the outside world at 4:30 only on a few rare occasions. I usually experience it from the safety of a deep sleep. Amazingly enough, we were both up before the alarm went off in anticipation of what lay ahead. As we headed with our packs to the car, we observed the days first harbinger, it started to rain. We got in the car at 4:57 am and drove towards the trailhead, assuming that the rain would ease up. Bad assumption. The combination of the downpour and the narrow, winding road over the final few miles meant that no matter how daunting the sheer cliffs along the trail would seem, without question, our lives were most endangered by my driving en route. We arrived in the parking lot at the start of the trail at 6:00 am to be greeted by pitch darkness and heavy rain. Soon a welcoming party of roosters arrived, but even these songbirds could not coax us from the dryness of the car.
When the daylight started to appear, the bleakness of our situation set in. It was still raining and even though it had let up somewhat it was still raining pretty hard and the trail would be in brutal condition. This coupled with the fact that we had lost over an hour of valuable hiking time led us to postpone the hike until the next day, or as I preferred to call it: Summit day. No sooner had we made the decision, then the rain let up and the sun made sporadic, taunting appearances. It turned out to be a lucky move that we got the camping permit instead of a day use permit. That provided us with legal trail access for two days rather than just the single day we planned so when we scrubbed day one, we could implement the backup plan (codename Mahalo).
Since we were up still hours before our normal working hours, we decided to make the most of our rest day, but the weather had other plans. We made a trip to the Waimea canyon and drove up the winding road to catch some of the amazing views. The road started out with a decent, clear view but the view seemed to exponentially decay with height. As we reached the first viewpoint that overlooks the canyon, we ignored the disappointed looks on the fellow tourists returning from the viewpoint and went to check out the scene for ourselves. My crude calculations indicated that visibility was 3.7 meters.
Even the omnipresent musical roosters could not cheer us up. Instead of continuing further up the road until we reached a visibility that could be measured in centimeters, we turned around and headed back towards the hotel. We stopped for a pre-hike dinner at Pizza Hut. There would be nothing like the greasy cheese-dough mixture to fuel our second attempt. We were pretty much exhausted from our early wake up and were in bed by 10pm, this time with the alarm clock set at 4:45am to allow us to spend an extra 15 minutes in bed rather than in the car at the trailhead waiting for sunlight to arrive.
How does 4:45am feel? About as unpleasant as 4:30, especially when you experience them on consecutive days. Conditions were already looking much improved when we didn’t have to sprint from the hotel to the car to avoid getting soaked. The drive to the trail head was made somewhat less dangerous by the lack of rain and the familiarity of the road from the previous days drive, but I suspect this was still the most dangerous aspect of the day (except for a certain stream crossing that nearly felled Barry). We arrived at 6:10 am and were once again met by throngs of well-wishing roosters, and this time we were happy to get out of the car and acknowledge their greetings.
We quickly gathered our packs and after a few preliminary photos, hit the trail. The clock started at 6:26 am. The trail starts out fairly steep and rocky, but we were making good progress. Since we weren’t camping, I was able to travel relatively lightly. Barry chose to hike in his usual manner: with supplemental oxygen and a team of 27 sherpas. We were progressing well and after less than an hour we came to the first stream crossing (Hanakapi’ai Stream). For fans of the Canadian Sports network, TSN, this point would become the “TSN Turning Point” of the day. It would seem that all of the rain from the illustrious “Wettest Place on Earth” was channeled directly into this stream. In all of the pictures seen before and since, it did not appear as imposing as it did that day. There were a number of large boulders but each potential boulder top route across the stream seemed to be missing a crucial rock. The stream did not seem very deep, but it was fast moving and a concern for our lack of swimming skills. We scouted the stream and decided to drop in some large rocks to build up a launching point. This failed miserably and after about 45 minutes, we decided to jump for it. The hero in the story makes the first attempt and in Carl Lewis-like fashion, leaps over to safety. Barry makes the next attempt. It was at this point that he made a judgment call to implement Operation Lighten Load. In spite of his sherpa team, he was still lagging under the weight of his Camelback TransAlp so he jettisoned a 1.5 liter bottle of water. He’ll claim that it fell out accidentally while he was negotiating a treacherous rock hop. Anyway, if there is anyone stranded in the South Pacific, their life may one day be saved by this bottle of fresh water. Even with the lighter load, Barry still had the largest leap to make. He miscalculated, overshot his target and broke his fall with his shin on the rock.
Miraculously, Barry managed to summon the strength to go on. Our performance at this stream crossing had us questioning the likelihood of success given that there were at least two more significant stream crossings marked on the map. Our pace quickened as we tried to make up time lost at the mile 2 crossing. The trail was still wet and mucky in some sections. The sections with the red Hawaiian dirt were especially troublesome as this soppy mess quickly filled any useable tread on our footwear converting hiking shoes into bowling shoes. The first few miles along the trail are really jungle like with lots of coverage so we didn’t stop for many photos.
When we reached areas with more open and impressive scenery, the photo breaks became more regular. This probably accounts for the main time difference in time between the trip out to the beach and the return trip where we didn’t stop for any photos. The down side of a nice day is that the helicopters were out in full force, buzzing constantly overhead. At least they are banned from landing on the coast.
Technical note: if you are the first person on the trail in the morning and have arachnophobia you may want to let someone else lead, otherwise you will find yourself screaming girl-like (aka Kingdon-like) every 15 seconds as you break through web-after-web.
Around mile 6, Barry was once again struggling under the weight of the Camelback TransAlp and he had to once again unload more water. This time it involved stashing a 1 liter bottle just past the 6 mile marker. Up to this point on the trail, we had passed a few people on their way out of the trail. Some of these people looked like typical average hiker/campers while others seemed like they had been living in the bush for years and had reverted to a feral state. It was also shortly after this point that we started running into goats along the trail.
We arrived at Kalalau Beach shortly after 12:30 or just a little over 6 hours of hiking. We immediately encountered a (monk?) seal on the beach, but surprisingly, the beach seemed to be a rooster-free zone. After shooting the seal (with a camera) we sat down for a quick bagel lunch than kicked off the shoes to test the waters. After snapping the historic photos to document that we did in fact make it all the way to the end of the trail, we got back on the trail for the return trip. We were at the beach for less than an hour and that may seem like a waste of 12 hours of hiking. The beach is impressive enough and certainly could warrant an overnight stay to spend time just relaxing and exploring the beach area.
Even though nearly all sources save one claim the Kalalau trail cannot be done as day hike, it can be fit into a single day with an early start. Details of our times to various mile markers is included in the table and provides a good overview for timing. We were moving at a quick but reasonable pace, stopping for photos on the way out and for about 45 minutes on the Beach. The trail back seemed steep heading up from the beach but the lack of photo stops and the torrid pace set by Barry meant that we were over an hour quicker on the return trip. We had about 45 minutes of daylight to spare after arriving back at the parking lot at Ke’e Beach, where Barry was nearly sucked out to sea by a rogue tsunami while taking sunset photos.
Is the Kalalau trail a worthwhile day hike? Definitely. You could not ask for better scenery and the amazing views make the distance about the most rewarding 22 miles that could be packed into a single day.