I am no slouch. I hike, run, bike, kayak, ski, and when I am idle, mentally pace about thinking about what I am going to do next. I say this because, despite all of my activities, backpacking the Na Pali Coast was a significant challenge of which I will not repeat.
Kauai is the northern most developed island in the Hawaiian chain. It is mountainous and beautiful and famous for its rugged landscape.
Hanalei and Haena are the two primary towns on the north side, and they are close to the trailhead for the Na Pali Coast. While they are my recommended places to stay, keep in mind that it does rain here more often. If you are the type that prefers golf, resorts, and sun bathing you might like the south side more.
For the trip, I was joined by my wife, Julia, my stepbrother, Winslow and his wife, Katharine. We were all in shape and confident that we could tackle the 11 mile hike, which would lead us to the desired campsite situated at the base of fluted cliffs, ribbons of waterfalls, and the type of tropical scenery that one dreams about.
We would camp for two nights and then return to see the rest of Kauai equipped with little else except for a rental car, flip flops and bathing suits.
We were told that it was a good idea not to bring hiking shoes that you really cared about. There was red clay to contend with on the Kalalau Trail, and it would stain your shoes a permanent orange. Noted. We were also told that you could experience intermittent showers, and it was a good idea to bring a pack cover and put your clothes in a trashbag inside your pack. Noted. However, there were a few other things that were not impressed upon us.
We loaded up our packs, strapped them on our backs and began the the hike in high spirits. There is nothing more fulfilling than beginning a vacation with the knowledge that you have nothing but free time devoid of work and responsibilities ahead of you.
The scenery along the Kalalau Trail was gorgeous. Tropical foliage gripping the sides of mountainous terrain with the big beautiful Pacific gleaming blue as far as the eye could see. The trail fluctuates quite a bit as it makes its way around the steep sides of the island where it plunges into the sea. Up and down and around the trail goes offering beautiful new views at each bend.
Hiking in the Sierras where I live involves high elevations, piercing sun, and difficult terrain; however, there is something about hiking in high humidity and heat that can be draining. When it started to rain I quickly put on my pack cover and rain jacket. But I was sweating. Straining with my pack and jacket on in the rain made me feel like I was in some tortuous sauna with no hope for escape. I removed my jacket and resigned myself to being wet but cool.
The trail quickly takes on a different character when it begins to rain. Despite the fact that your feet get soaked, its surface gets very slick. Sections of the trail are precipitous and cut out along steep faces that leave you feeling quite exposed. Each one of us had our moments where we questioned the integrity of the trail and imagined the worst possible scenario…
You step, the clay crumbles, you try to catch you balance but your pack pulls you to one side. You tumble several hundred feet, arc off the cliff, and land in the Pacific. As you rapidly sink to the depths, you struggle to remove your pack. You swim to the surface, gasping for air, horrified at what is happening. Large waves are crashing against the vertical cliffs, and the current is strong. There is no way out of the water – there is nothing your friends can do to help you. Was that a shark?
Ha! This scenario occurred to me on several occasions as we made our way around certain difficult sections of the trail.
Up and down; up and down; sweating; rain; sun.
We eventually arrived wet, muddy and exhausted to the famous beach that we had been dreaming of for many miles. It was everything we had hoped for, and we set up camp. We were situated right next to a waterfall that fell directly upon the beach. A few other campers arrived later in the day, but the population of people was pleasantly sparse.
The next day we day hiked up a beautiful stream that meandered out of the mountains. There were wonderful little pools between the cascades where one could climb in and have a cool soak. You’d lay back and look out towards the ocean in the distance, surrounded by a tropical forest filled with flowers.
On our way back down to the beach we happened by somebody’s personal effects left to the side of the trail. We walked along a little further and saw more of the same. In each case, it looked like camping gear consisting of blankets and clothing. Not long after a beautiful Asian woman ambled by devoid of any clothing. When we reached the beach we were presented with the sight of many nude bathers spread about in the sand.
We would come to learn that there was a colony of people living in the forest being sustained by intermittent boat trips carrying supplies.
The next day we arose with a tinge of dread. We had to hike out the way we had come. It was much the same as the time before, and when we eventually reached the end we were clear about two things. One, we would not do any more hiking for the rest of the trip, and two, there was no way in hell we were staying at any campgrounds.
My hiking shoes are forever stained orange, ready for the Na Pali Coast. But if I ever see that trail again it will be from the seat of a sea kayak, shoes in the closet, and flip flops on my feet.