starting off --- 6AM at the trailhead. But dang, I wanted to bring my camel!
You may well discover that absorbing Hawaiian culture is addictive, but the easier attraction is the natural splendor of these islands. So let’s get to back to the travel blog and my original motivation to return and hike Kalalau. I began researching the trail and found you have to apply to the State Park for permits to camp at Kalalau Beach or to day hike beyond Hanakapia Stream, about 2.5 miles from the trailhead at Ke’e Beach. I learned the hard way that the camping permits are generally snapped up as they become available (one year in advance). If you want to experience the total Kalalau adventure and camp out, be forewarned it is requisite to apply about a year before you depart!
The brighter news was that the day passes are unlimited and don’t cost anything (although it is only $10 per night per person to camp), but you will need to fill out an application and share a photocopy of a picture ID, such as a driver’s license.
I completed the application process for my brother-in-law, Jeff and myself. Our families would congregate on Kauai with the two of us excused for a day to hit the trail.
In the beginning, the trail is quite rocky with a lot of up and down.
Both of our families resided at condos in the delightful south shore village of Poipu, which garners a strong recommendation if you visit Kauai. Desiring to maximize available daylight, Jeff and I departed Poipu at 4:30AM to make the hour-and-a-half drive to the Kalalau trailhead. We reached the starting point as planned at 6AM. Our itinerary was to go as far as allowed with our day hike permits --- Hanakoa Valley, 6 and 1/2 miles down the trail.
The coolest part for me was when we pulled up to the trailhead. “There it is” I exclaimed, recognizing the wee log structure marking the trailhead from five years ago. Another car pulled in right beside us and two fellows in backpacks emerged, bound to go the distance to Kalalau Beach.
Any other questions why this is such an incredible hike???
Warmed by the day’s first light, we trudged the first mile to the splendid Ke’e Overlook, one of the premiere vantage points on the trail. This initial section has a respectful elevation gain (about 500 feet) and is quite rocky. The second leg takes you to Hanakapia Beach, the terminus for day-hikers without any permit.
Here is a campground that has been closed for some time, as well as an inviting beach, although swimming is not recommended due to vicious undercurrents.
Hanakapia Beach Warning!
A pivotal concern of this trail is crossing Hanakapia Stream. One of the alluring nuances of Hawaii is how you seem to get rained on several times each day, though the sun quickly returns. Unfortunately for Kalalau hikers, heavy rainfall may make this stream impassable and strand you on one side or the other. Since our dates were in the middle of the dry season, however, the stream flowed languidly and even though Jeff slipped while rock hopping across and got wet, we encountered no significant peril.
It is easy to see why Hanakapia Beach is a popular daytrip destination.
A pristine beach nestled in a glorious setting, its allure was reinforced by the chatter of several folks plunging into its dangerous currents as we climbed out of the valley. Hiking out of Hanakapia is a steep endeavor with many switchbacks, and the time requirement allowed others to reach the beach and dive in despite our early start.
This is why people swim (and perish) here...an incredibly inviting beach!
The rise was exceptionally beautiful and we became acquainted with the majesty of how every time you round a pali, you were presented with another new valley. Each valley was unique and a treat for the senses. There are four valleys between Ke’e Beach and Hanakoa and it is remarkable how they vary. Hanakapia was the only valley with a bona fide beach and the rest are “hanging valleys”. Over the eons, erosion has caused the entire base of these volcanic mountains to tumble into the sea…leaving a valley suddenly appended by steep cliffs.
Native trees at Hanakapia Creek
I would not have been terribly surprised to glimpse a dinosaur in the prehistoric surroundings. Every valley seemed to present us with the grandeur of nearly mile-high peaks smothered by a canopy of lush tropical vegetation, dropping precipitously to the ocean. It is these surroundings that have made Kauai the location for a multitude of movies…including “Jurassic Park”, of course!
Pressing on, we attained the highest elevation of 850 feet, which afforded another terrific panorama. By this time, however, we were disappointed by the whir of helicopters and numerous watercraft plying the waters…which seemed an unearned intrusion given our intensive physical investment to enjoy this landscape. Salving our wounds were clusters of kayak tours, making a similar muscular effort to enjoy the environs with no noisy intrusion.
Hanakapia Beach view - you can see Jeff's hiking poles in the lower left and this pic was snapped from the next switchback --- reinforcing how steep the ascent was!
Around midday we reached Hanakoa Valley, the most expansive of the four we had traversed. Although we could see three separate waterfalls of enormous proportions, I’m sure their majesty was rather diminished by it being dry season. In this grand valley there is a trail to the base of one of the waterfalls, weaving past ancient terraces constructed in the valley. It is difficult to fathom that when natives inhabited this valley they had conquered the tropical vegetation and cultivated terraces of taro here. Rather than the seductive mass of green now blanketing Hanakoa, this parcel looked like ‘vertical farmland’ before Western intervention. Further evidence of how productive native Hawaiians were!
We sprawled out upon rocks in the middle of Hanakoa Stream to enjoy lunch and refill our water bottles.
When the trail veers inland and you aren't worrying about plummeting to your death, it's a treat to enjoy the lush vegetation!
Though just a daytrip, we were carefully prepared to treat stream water with chemicals and a filtered hand pump to eliminate any leptospirosis, a potentially fatal bacteria that thrives in the waterways here. This nemesis persists throughout the trail and you need to be properly equipped before attempting Kalalau.
The return was arduous. Typical of Hawaiian weather, we experienced a ping-pong match between rain and sunshine. The rain made the trail very slick, slowing our progress. As you approach Hanakoa from Ke’e Beach the trail transforms to pure dirt, and when a downpour is added this equals loose mud. At one point Jeff tramped his foot down and the trail dissolved beneath his imprint. He went down hard, although I was relieved how he seemed firmly planted and in no danger of continuing on downward into the ocean.
A pali view - look real close where the pali meets the sea and you might be able to make out the thin dirt passage that gets you to the next valley.
When he arose, his knee was a grotesque combination of red blood and the red dirt for which Hawaii
is famous (iron rich from lava).
There were more tumbles before we finally concluded the endeavor. As mentioned at the beginning of our hike, the trail gets rocky nearing Ke’e Beach and when slick with rain it is a real recipe for disaster. But once we had crossed back over Hanakapia Stream, day-trippers trotting the opposite direction constantly greeted us. There was no dismissing the pride I felt fielding questions from each encounter, for now I was a triumphantly returning explorer who could supply knowledgeable answers (bearing news of these uncharted paths like Captain Cooke!). For a while I was amazed that virtually all the day-trippers were only in swimsuits and sandals.
Rounding a pali...I'm on that thin dirt pathway mentioned in the previous photo...and trying to to my best Old School Bill impersonation!
I was thinking how crazy they were for attempting this trek so unprepared, until I realized this was myself five years ago!
My return to Kauai was a defining experience. I relished hiking Kalalau and will be rewarded with a lifetime of memories. But the deeper experience was learning about the trampling of Hawaiian culture. The reward here will only be realized if I can help rally support for the Akaka Bill and I urge your help for this cause. If you are an American citizen, please contact your Congressional representatives in support of the Akaka Bill to help rebuild Hawaiian culture.