I was ecstatic to finally be standing there: after all of the research, packing, and flights, we were living our dream. We’d made it to Kalalau Trail, a beyond-this-world coastline hike that’s famously noted as the filming ground for Jurassic Park’s opening scene and notorious for its dub as one of the most dangerous hikes in America, by Backpacker Magazine. We’d taken the earliest flight possible from Maui to Kauai, rented our car, and driven north to the Na Pali Coast: the starting point of Kalalau Trail. The trailhead is juxtaposed with a local beach, so trying to find a parking spot was as absurd. Finally, we found a place to park and began the first 6 mile stretch at 2 p.m. Kalalau Trail begins at sea level and reaches its highest point at 800 feet. But, in reality, throughout the 22-mile out-and-back you climb a total elevation of more than 5,000 feet. It’s a calf burner. By the end of the three-day trip I had sweated more than I ever have in my entire life, hot yoga included.
“Do you think we can make it in time?” I asked my friend Kayla the next morning, while we rushed to reorganize and stock our backpacking packs with just the food and water that we’d need for a 10-mile hike. It was already 10:45 a.m. We’d let the morning soak us up with cups of oatmeal and an unrushed hike to Hanakoa Falls, a slender 500-foot waterfall that fell silkily into an obsidian rock basin. We’d taken the .5-mile trail to the edge of the waterfall’s pool and meditated next to the water, sitting in awe of the celestial surroundings. Hundreds of feet across, the steep wall was covered with lush terraces overflowing with bonsais and umbrella trees. My neck bowed back as I looked up, straining to capture the space in its entirety. The bright blue sky crispened the cliff’s edge. Within five minutes a fog veiled us overhead and we were covered with a soundless drizzle of rain.
Not regretting our magical moment, we were back at our tent when we realized that we didn’t actually want to carry our gear to Kalalau Valley, the trail’s end and the place we had initially planned to spend the night. Instead we realized he could day hike out to that magical place, and then come back here for the night.
It wasn’t a lack of energy or inspiration; it was more a matter of safety. It was because a mile up the trail we would encounter what we had heard and read to be the most terrifying section. (Hence the noticeably slimmer foot traffic after mile 6.) We’d be crossing crawler’s ledge, a narrow section of trail that snakes around a cliff face with a couple hundred-foot plummet to piercing rocks below. The less we had to carry across that, the better.
Gloriously, the rain stopped as soon as we set foot on trail and the sunshine graced the cinnamon colored earth beneath our feet. After a half mile of climbing steep slick-rock caked in mud, the verdant jungle-tunnel that cocooned the trail opened up. To the east was Ke’e Beach, speckled with sunbathers and curving like a banana around the coast, and to the west was our destination, which I couldn’t actually see: Kalalau Valley. What I did see was a steeply jutting coastline that ebbed and flowed.
We made it to mile 7 and knew that the ledge was coming up. The trail narrowed, descended, and disappeared around a rock face. Kayla, who is the most fearless person I know, was hiking in front of me. She turned around and said, “I love doing stuff like this!” I said, “Yes! That’s why I love adventuring with you!” Her confidence reinforced my confidence; we looked at one another and laughed, and then put our game faces on. It was time to focus. It’s true: Crawler’s ledge is super narrow, probably only three feet wide in some parts. The cliff face shoots straight up and straight down, with no real refuge. I would not feel comfortable walking across it in the dark or when it’s raining, or even when it’s wet. What’s great though, is that it’s solid underfoot. As long as you keep your eyes on the trail and move slowly, the trail won’t crumble beneath you. Secretly, this turned out to be one of our favorite sections of the trail.
Five miles onward, we reached Kalalau Valley. A precipitous mountain range with rows of sharp ridgelines fanned out. They were so steep and thin that they looked like ribbons set on their sides. The trail descended into tall brush and spit us out at Kalalau Beach, an impeccable strip of glimmering white sand, about 1-mile long and 1/2-mile wide. Every rugged step and drop of sweat was worth reaching that sacred valley.
If you head out on the Kalalau Trail, here are a few tips ...
· Reserve your camping permit in advance. You can do it online by clicking here. · The Hawaii Stat Parks website has good additional info about the Kalalau Trail. · Absolutely bring a water filtration system. · If you bring a nice camera, consider using a water-proof case in the event of a downpour · Bug spray!