A day hike, August 1997
To whet your appetite, click on he picture above. I took it on a helicopter tour around Kaua'i and it shows the Hanakapi'ai Valley. You probably will get an idea why some people describe the Kalalau Trail as the ultimate hiking trail in the world.
The trail winds along the cliffs from the left and comes down to sea level at Hanakapi'ai Beach in the middle of the picture. The Kalalau Trail continues on to the right side of the picture. Another trail leads into the Hanakapi'ai valley with the Hanakapi'ai Falls at the end of the valley, visible in the upper part of the picture. The distance from the trailhead near Ke'e Beach (at the end of the road) to Hanakapi'ai Falls and back is about what you normally can hike in one day, and it is what you are allowed to hike without a permit. You need a permit for any camping and even for hiking, if you proceed further than Hanakapi'ai Beach on the Kalalau Trail. Click here for a map of the trail and information about getting a permit.
The part between Ke'e Beach and Hanakapi'ai Beach and Falls is not too difficult, but the Kalalaua Trail as a whole, which means three to four days of strenuous backpacking, is surely not for beginners.
The story of our hike begins at midnight. We awoke in the hotel suddenly, because a terrible thunder shook the windows of the hotel room. Thunder and lightning were permanent now. Of course it rained, or, better to say, one had the feeling to be at the lower end of one of those Hawaiian waterfalls. For awhile we stayed awake, but after an hour we got used to the noise and fell into sleep again.
At the morning it still was raining, not quite the best conditions to go on the Kalalau Trail. But, as it was our last day on Kaua'i, we wanted to stick to our plan, hoping the weather would improve or, who knows, hoping it would not rain at all in the north of the island. We bought a newspaper in the hotel's shop to get more information about the weather. There was a tropical depression 200 miles east of Hawaii, and the weather report simply said: "Partly cloudy". Nothing of importance. After a quick breakfast of complimentary coffee and banana muffins we went to the car at 8 a.m. The newspaper reported that a man had been struck by lightning when he leaned against a fence on O'ahu yesterday and was in the hospital, but in good condition. The forecaster-in-charge of the National Weather Service commented that this was a very uncommon event on Hawai'i, because thundershowers were rare on Hawai'i, he said. A year ago a similar accident had happened on a military airfield, and before that, one did not remember the exact dates. Ok, no problem, we would try to keep away from fences and military airfields.
Without longer stops we drove to the trailhead and reached it at about 9.30 a.m. This place was just at the borderline between good and bad weather. It looked fine in the direction where we wanted to go, and at least we should reach Hanakapi'ai Beach.
We looked for new official informations on the board at the trailhead, but we already knew most of them. According to the labels on the bottles, exactly 2.838 liters of mineral drink were in our daypacks, one of these lightweight american-style breads and cheese in slices. The first part of the trail was very steep, partly rocky, and sometimes there were slippery steps, reminding of a staircase. Not more difficult or more dangerous than any staircase, I thought. After 300 feet of ascent the path flattened, and it became easier to proceed.
The first viewpoint, and of course we had to make a photostop. Our clothes were damp. Was it because of the light rain or was it sweat ? Did it make a difference ? Probably not. In our home country, getting wet from rain always meant that you feel cold after a while, but here in Hawaii one obviously just felt wet. The temperature was around 85 degrees with a humidity between 90 and 100%, and I did not dare to imagine how it would look like when I stepped up this trail with a 20 kg backpack, prepared to camp at Kalalau Beach. If ever, I would have to reduce weight to a maximum of 10 to 12 kg for such a tour.
The ascent continued, one had to be careful with tree roots, stones and mud and a lot of other things. I dislike those situations when you hike on an exposed path along the rim of a vertical wall of rock. Fortunately for me, the trail was protected behind vegetation most of the time. It is said to get worse, however, beyond Hanakapi'ai Beach.
After more than an hour, the highest point was far behind us, and we now were descending to Hanakapi'ai Beach. The black and yellow pole was a Tsunami marker, and in case of a Tsunami warning hopefully given by helicopter, hikers should retreat behind these markers to be safe from the wave.
After one and a half hour, around 11 a.m., we stepped down to the beach. We looked for a place to cross the river without getting wet feet. It was not easy, but finally we found a possibility, where we could jump from stone to stone. Once more, it started to rain again. We thought we would not miss anything when we retreated for awhile into one of the lava caves at the beach. Sitting in a kind of cave in the lava cliffs was more inviting at the moment than a hike to the Hanakapi'ai Falls, and so we sat in the sand, about 20 m from the surf, watching the rhythm of the waves of the Pacific Ocean and watching the rain. By the way, one should not swim at this beach, as more people died here than at any other beach on Kaua'i.
At the beginning, the floor was covered with guave fruits. I tried one and it tasted fine, but most of the contents were stones.
We admired a little forest of bamboo plants.
Except for the mud, the trail was easy to go. But it was time to decide whether we would go to the falls or not. The lunch break in the cave during the rain had taken an hour. We met a woman. She was on a hike with her friend, and her friend had crossed the Hanakapi'ai river, but she had found it not so easy and stayed on this side. The trail crossed the river three times. A new thundershower seemed to form in the valley. When thundershowers were such rare events on Hawai'i, why did we hear thunder since midnight ?
The mystic beauty of Hanakapi'ai Falls struggled against the imagination of a refreshing bath in the Pacific Ocean at Ke'e Beach. And we had to pack our luggage in the evening, we should not come back to the hotel too late. The Pacific Ocean won. We turned and hiked back. At about 1.30 p.m. we were back from the falls trail at Hanakapi'ai Beach. This time, we did not find an easy way back across the rocks in the riverbed, they all seemed to be too slippery for our muddy shoes.
When we had to put off shoes, we could as well walk across the beach, where the river flowed into the sea along a sandbank. Unexpectedly, the water was much higher than knees, but as there was no noticeable flow, it was still easy to get through it. Eventually I sat on a stone, my shoes with the socks inside stood beside me, when a sudden wave filled the shoes and socks with water and sand. I tried to wash them out , but it was impossible with the sandy water. So I put them on as they were, and having sea water or sweat in the shoes wasn't a big difference.
We did not make any longer breaks on our way back. When we were back at the steepest part of the trail, we knew that we had only a few hundred meters to go.
A promising view from Kalalua Trail down to Ke'e Beach. At about 3 p.m. we were back, and 15 minutes later we were in the water. It had rained continuously until noon at our hotel near Lihue, so we could be really pleased with our hike.