The Kalalau Trail is on the north side of Kauai, along the Na Pali Coast. “Pali” means cliffs in Hawaiian. The trail is 11 miles long, climbing and dropping along the cliffs and fluted ridges, crossing five valleys, almost always directly above the ocean. The waves crashing below look big, in different hues of blue, and somewhat violent.
The Kalalau Valley, the endpoint of the trail, long ago used to be home to Hawaiians, who farmed the cliffs with terraces of taro, similar to as is done in Nepal. The difficulty of reaching the valley made it easily defended. The only access to the Kalalau Valley is by this trail, boat, or aircraft.
The full color spectrum is richly represented on the trail—lush green valleys, flowers, orange trees, black lava rock formations, red dirt, and the constant deep blue of the sea below. The Kalalau Valley would make a good nominee for an Eden Award, if there were such a thing.
Just about all the guidebooks say the out and back can’t be done in a day. I was skeptical, as it is only 22 miles roundtrip, and no matter what the terrain, I think most ultrarunners would agree that sounds doable. And yet…it was a bit disconcerting to not find many reports. I wasn’t really geared up for camping, and so it was going to be one day or a DNF turnaround.
Though it can be done in one day, based on my experience, I really suggest staying a night or more, and taking plenty of time to enjoy the trail and Kalalau Beach. I feel like I rushed it. The trail and beach evoke a spiritual type response. The area is reputed to be home to mystics, dropouts, and other people from the edges of society. It's just so beautiful that people want to stay.
So, here are the details of my Kalalau hike/run experience:
I left Kapp’a at 4:30 AM, got coffee, and parked at the trailhead just before 6 AM. It was pitch dark. I got ready, and then waited until I could read my watch unaided. 6:19 AM. Very first light, first guy on the trail. I didn’t see anyone for the first couple hours. I made Kalalau Beach around 11:45 AM, and that included a wrong turn or two, and delays to figure out semi-technical stream crossings, because of recent rains. The streams are prone to flash floods. After about an hour kicking around the beach, I turned it around, and made it back to the trailhead around 4:51 PM. It turned dark again around 5:30.
Starting at first light was key to getting the whole thing done without a headlamp, though I did bring one. The Hawaiian day is very short in the winter—less than 12 hours. The terrain is tough, with much of the footing being on lava rocks, or on very narrow trail with cliff exposure. The trail is rarely flat, and it is frequently composed of catwalks, some of which are extreme. I imagine it's somewhere between 5000 and 7500 feet in climbing, but I didn't carry technology to figure it out. It's impractical and unsafe to move fast all the time.
Overnight permits are required to go past Mile 6, even if just going out and back. They can be purchased on-line now. There weren’t a lot available when I applied, two weeks before my trip, so it’s a good thing I took care of this when I did.
On the way in, I took lots of pictures. It’s hard not to, and it's the curse of the limitless digital film card. Taking pics slowed me down a bit, but that's ok. The miles stretched and stretched. When I came to Mile 6, marked on a rock, I wondered if the 6 was a 9. And then the miles after that were the toughest, with some unbelievable sections. In particular, there is one section around Mile 7 on red rocks, pictured below, where I just said “No way!” when I first saw it.
I was concerned about leptospirosis, a waterborne illness I'd heard something about. I know that’s not leprosy (which does have a history in Hawaii), but it sort of sounds like it. As is so typical of me, instead of figuring it all out, I winged it and decided the night before to carry all my liquid. This plan blew. I ran out. The Hawaiian sun in early afternoon can be very tough, and even in the morning, humidity can make you sweat. I had some pretty bad leg cramps towards the end. At least I made it out alive.
I ran plenty on the way in, at a safe trot. I had a heavier pack than usual for running, but it was easy enough to jog down some of the ridges. Other parts are emphatically inappropriate for running, and even at a slow trot, it’s easy to catch a toe on a rock. On the way out, I did just that, sprawling all out and falling halfway off the trail, losing my hiking stick, and grabbing a root to stop my slide. Nature went easy on me.
After this, I gave up caring about running, especially since by then I had a sense of the effort and distance needed to complete the day. A wonderful finish it was, as over the last few miles I came upon more and more dayhikers around Hanakapi'ai and Ha'enas' white sand beaches, smiling. In the last couple miles, the weather changed and the predicted fierce winds and lightning storms for the day finally arrived, a bit of a monsoon, conveniently late. The trail would be a different animal if completely wet.
The trail is said to be one of the best in the world. I think that’s accurate. It is now amongst the favorite trails I've ever been on. Rankings are unimportant. But there's something about it--it’s just one of those really special places. I hope to go back someday.
More pics here.