Kalalau Trail

Napali Coast
Napali Coast, Kauai. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

Kalalau Trail runs along the Nāpali coast of the island Kauai in the US state of Hawaii. It consistently rates among the top 15 bucket list trails. What in the world made me think I could do it?

I blame our friends on the Big Island for suggesting the Kalalau Trail in the first place. Granted, they had subtly hinted that a helicopter or a speedboat might be the best way for me to see the sights. But I balked at the price and, really, the thought of enjoying such magnificent nature from far away.

If I can be generous with handing out blame, then I will also point an accusing finger at the state of Hawaii for making me think that two senior citizens could easily totter their way along the Kalalau Trail. We weren’t insane. Our goals were modest. We intended only to hike the two mile stretch from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi’ai. The Division of State Parks described this piece of the trail as “a popular day hike for able-bodied hikers.” Sold.

Gearing up

After all, we were coming off a streak of record-setting hikes: through the temples of Angkor Wat and down the Nakasendo. I had already achieved an all-time personal high of 20,000+ steps per day. I feel plenty able-bodied. My preparation for the Kalalau Trail therefore focuses on those things nearest and dearest to my heart.

Sunday we hike. We’ll take the 10:30am shuttle to Ha’ena State Park. Just hiking gear and maybe a swimsuit and towel plus food that we can carry in our backpacks.

Karen Kao, Travel journal entry for 3 Jan 2020

Doubt does not enter my mind when we reach the parking lot of Ha’ena State Park.

Ke'e Beach
Ke’e Beach from the Kalalau Trail. Photo credit: Karen Kao

About half the people on the shuttle head straight to the Ke’e Beach. They’re the ones wearing flipflops and carrying cooler bags. The other half is packing walking sticks and I’m wondering how bad this trail is going to be. The first spot for photo-taking is a quarter of a mile in. You can look back at Ke’e Beach and see it stretch around the bend.

Karen Kao, Travel journal entry for 5 Jan 2020

The walking sticks are the kind that look like ski poles with nice sharp points to dig into the dirt. And while I am not wearing flipflops, the shoes I wear do not qualify as hiking boots, hiking shoes or even trail runners. Finn Comfort is a brand most commonly found on orthopedic shoe sites. But I didn’t know that then.

Dangers of the trail

The universe of things I didn’t know is vast and deep. For example, I didn’t know that the Kalalau Trail is regularly closed due to flash flooding, rockfall mitigation work and the occasional helicopter crash. Air traffic along the Kalalau Trail is heavy with tourists who don’t want to hike. Helicopters also airlift stranded backpackers and their trash off the Kalalau Trail.

Kalalau Trail
Kalalau Trail. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The best time of year to hike the Kalalau is April to October, ie outside the rainy season. The trail was recently closed for more than a year due to severe flooding on the north coast of Kauai. We arrive in January 2020, in time for the reopening and the flash flood season.

On the day of our hike, we luck out. The weather varies between light rain and steaming heat. The rain turns the red dirt into mud. The mud fills the profiles of my inadequate shoes so that I slip and slide going uphill. I am already looking forward to the downhill trajectory. Meanwhile, the heat of my body and the humidity in the air turn me into a bug magnet.

End of the road

We make it as far as the trailhead that leads down to Hanakapi’ai Beach. An able-bodied hiker would need 3-4 hours for the round trip to the beach. My husband rightly anticipates that my body would require twice as long. So we content ourselves with the view and our salty caramel granola bars.

Kalalau Trail
Frans forges head. Photo credit: Karen Kao

My husband holds my hand all the way down the trail. He murmurs encouraging words or, at the very least, doesn’t laugh. To be honest, I feel quite proud of myself having ventured onto the Kalalau Trail. Heroic, even.

One month later, the Canadian travel bloggers David and Cayleigh (aka Made to Travel) arrive in Kauai to hike the Kalalau Trail. They’re young, enthusiastic and definitely able-bodied. Thanks to their trail video, I now know that my husband and I traversed a minor fraction of the Kalalau. We didn’t have to take off our boots to wade across a river. Or scuttle along the infamous Crawlers Ledge, a sheer cliff that drops into the sea below.

If you want to see what we did not see on the Kalalau Trail, check this out.