14 Jun Hiking The Kalalau Trail Changed My Life
The Kalalau Trail in Kauai is recognized as one of the most beautiful hikes in the world. This 22-mile round trip hike takes you across the rugged and untouched Napali coast. Along the trail, you’ll come across spotless beaches, impressive cliffs, colossal mountains, and jaw-dropping waterfalls. But all of this beauty comes at a cost, considering it has been called one of the most dangerous trails in the United States. It is also recognized as one of the most dangerous trails on Earth. It ends at Kalalau beach, which is one of the most stunning sights you could ever imagine. Personally, the entire experience of hiking the Kalalau trail changed my life.
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The Island Of Kaua’i
Kalalau Trail is located on the oldest of the Hawaiian islands, Kaua’i. Kaua‘i has a very varied landscape as it consists of over 550 square miles of desert, rainforest, beach, mountains, and plains. There are plenty of places in the world you could visit, but no other place offers the incomparable beauty, lushness and serenity of Kaua‘i. Many claim it as a power spot with more “mana” (Hawaiian for “life force”) than any other destination on the planet.
Visiting the island of Kaua’i wasn’t something that I prioritized until I met a man in Boston from the island who described it to me. The way he depicted his home was poetic, and I remember when he detailed the jungles, valleys, and mountains it sounded fictional. Soon after, I visited the island and knew I had to live there.
As strange as it sounds, I was addicted to the way Kaua’i made me feel when I was there, and it gave me a rush of energy the likes of which I had never experienced. I went home, planned for several months, sold all the items I had, and moved to Kauai with one suitcase.
Once I arrived in Kaua’i, this time no longer as a tourist I had one goal in mind. I was set on hiking the Kalalau trail. I had learned about it from conversations with locals on the island, and I became fascinated. The biggest lure for me was the rumor that there was a valley there teeming with fresh fruit like mangoes, java plum, guava, bananas, and more. As a kid, I had always wanted to go camping and be able to forage for my food. The whole concept of the Kalalau gave me the perfect mix of adventure and challenge that I yearned for.
I packed a forty-pound camping backpack and got a reservation for the shuttle to Haena State Park, where the trailhead is located. I was incredibly excited for the journey ahead. Everyone has a different strategy for tackling the Kalalau, but mine was to do the 11 miles to Kalalau Beach in seven hours. I would camp there for however many days it would take until I felt satisfied to return. So after arriving at Haena I went to Ke’e Beach and set up a tent in the woods there near a stream. I set my alarm for 5:30 AM and fell asleep to the faint sounds of crashing waves.
The Start Of Something New
The next morning I woke up and hit the trail. Before the start of the trail you can see Makana Mountain also known as Bali Ha’i. In ancient Hawaii, this was the place where they would have the magnificent Ohai fire ceremony. This was a special ceremony performed to celebrate special occasions like students’ graduations or a high chief’s visit. The skilled fire throwers would climb the peak of the mountain at 1,115 feet and hurl flame torched spears off towards the ocean. This was their sort of version of a fireworks display for special occasions.
The trail was unique in that it bends in and out of several valleys. You’ll be walking along the coast and then you bend into the jungle and back out several times, all the while changing in elevation. In total for the 22-mile round trip, there has a combined elevation gain of 10,000 feet.
As I trekked deeper onto the trail, it soon became apparent that this was going to be much more difficult than I anticipated. After all, I am not an experienced hiker. Right around mile four, I really started to feel the pressure from the weight of my backpack. I took breaks every so often to give my body some rest, but if you stay still for too long you will soon have mosquitos making their move on you.
However, the challenging parts of the hike were completely counteracted by the beauty that surrounded me. In addition to the spectacular scenery, I enjoyed the smell of ripe guavas and the indescribable smell of the tropical rainforest. I picked several guavas and java plum off trees along the hike and ate them as I roamed forward. I did not have to deal with any rain (which you do not want on this trail) and I was blessed with sunny weather around 70 to 75 degrees the entire time.
As I continued forward, right around mile six I was truly exhausted. I always considered myself to be in good shape from exercising at the gym routinely and using a macro diet but this was different. I was not fully prepared for this hike, not experienced, and my forty-pound bag felt more like sixty pounds after going up and down elevations and weaving in and out of valleys.
It was at this point in my hike where I had a brief thought to just go back. I had reached a small stream where I took some time to rest on a rock and eat two cliff bars. I had a huge decision to make, would I go back to the trailhead at Haena or would I journey on and get to the campsite. The game-changer was that I was at mile six, I was over halfway there.
At that point in time, I made a crazy decision. I decided I would drop my heavy backpack off to the side of the trail, I would continue to the beach, take some photos, and then come back and camp where I was at mile six. It was only about noon so I figured I would have the time to execute all of this.
I took off my backpack and moved forward with nothing but a walking stick, a pocket knife, cell phone, and my GoPro. One thing I was not aware of was that I was about to head to an area of the trail known as Crawlers Ledge. This starts right around mile seven and consists of a section of switchbacks that can be very treacherous. There are some steep cliffs that you walk alongside, so if you lose your footing you surely won’t survive.
Although this area can be scary, the best views come from the hardest climbs. I was moving very quickly now that I wasn’t burdened with a large backpack. At mile eight I met another hiker my age who was from Colorado named Tom, but he said everyone called him “Wetsuit Tom.” He told me he was with his two friends who were ahead of him, and we agreed to hike to the beach together.
Tom told me that he and his two friends were fully prepared with gear and that they intended on staying out there two nights. I told him my plans of going to the beach and then heading back to get my backpack. He offered to let me sleep on his extra insulated matt and that I could hang with him and his friends and then return in the morning.
After what seemed like forever, Tom and I finally reached the beach. There were several other campers there and they seemed to be in great spirits. The backdrop of this beach was absolutely absurd, it looked like it was photoshopped. There is a large waterfall that everyone uses for showers and for a freshwater source. I was literally laughing, probably from a mixture of relief and shock at the steep cliffs behind the beach.
After meeting Toms two friends and helping them set up their camp, we all ventured around the beach. There are two massive caves there, one of which has a pool of water you can swim in. As someone once said about Kalalau beach, “This is the closest that mankind has come to making Eden.”
If you want to see more than just Kalalau beach, you can go to Honopu Beach. This requires swimming a good 300 or more yards to access it, but it can also be dangerous. Just like the Kalalau, only the strong and brave can get to this stunning tropical oasis. Honopu neighbors Kalalau, and this valley is just as phenomenal. There is great mystery surrounding the departure of the native people who lived there until the mid-19th century, so it is sometimes referred to as “the valley of the lost tribe.”
After some research, I found this video showing that some of The Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was filmed there. Personally, I didn’t visit Honopu Beach out of respect for Hawaiian sacred land, but evidently there are some that do. Instead, I went into Kalalau Valley by myself to discover if the rumors were true. I discovered the wild mangoes and even walked by some people without clothes who seemed to be living there. One guy struck up a conversation with me and introduced himself as “Coconut James.” I was starting to feel like I was the only one without some sort of ludicrous nickname.
Ultimately, my plan to return to get my backpack was forgotten. I ended up staying in Kalalau Valley while eating wild fruit, drinking valley water, and sleeping in a cave for three days straight. Some people will call me crazy, but I never felt more alive. The one thing that no one can deny is that the valleys here make you forget about the rules and turmoil of modern life.
Back To The Real World
When I felt satisfied with what I had set out to do and see, I started the 11-mile hike back to Haena one morning. This time I saw several goats on my way back which was really cool. I was able to retrieve my bag which was untouched and also eat some snacks that I had packed. After eating fruit for so long I was eager to get some variety.
Without the bag I was agile, but now that I had it again I remembered how arduous it was. As I trudged along, I remember thinking how much harder it seemed to be on the way out. I took several breaks wherever I could, because my whole body was exhausted and depleted of energy. There were several times where I contemplated going into the woods and camping. After several hours, I had reached mile marker three and I knew I was very close to being back. That is of course until it started raining.
I mentioned how dangerous the trail is, but it isn’t because of predators – there are none. It is due to falling rocks, weather conditions that make the trail slippery, but mostly because of flash floods. There are three streams on the trail you must cross, and they can rise quickly and lead to drowning when it rains.
I was pretty terrified by the time I got to the last stream, because there was a big difference in the current this time. I had to hold my backpack above my head and cross it, now with the water up to my waist. I managed to get across safely, but the trail was slippery and hard to walk on. I was also out of water so I folded large leaves and drank the rainwater that collected.
The last three miles were hell for me, because of my low energy and less than ideal traction. I remember becoming absolutely overcome with emotion as I neared the final half-mile of the trail. As I finally reached the trailhead and ended my journey, the emotionless person that I have been for so long slipped away. I crutched to a tree at the origin of the trail and stood there crying my eyes out.
It was a mixture of emotions; relief from exhaustion, pride in what I had done, and an area discovered that was so peaceful. In retrospect, for me it wasn’t about finishing, it was about a contract I made to myself. On so many other occasions throughout my life, I started something and didn’t finish it. I realized that I had deep regrets about the decisions I had made in my past, primarily about quitting.
When I think back to that duration of time in the valley, I had never felt that way before. It is difficult to articulate how hiking the Kalalau trail changed my life, but it did. This sacred place made me realize what real survival was, leaving the rest of my petty concerns to just slip away. It was worth every second.