Ultrarunning in Hawaii – Part III – The Kalalau Trail
Ho`i a Na Pali ao Kalalau
“Brutally beautiful”, “devilishly (spectacularly) difficult” is the trail from He`e Beach to the waterfall at Kalalau Valley on the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. The 11.5 miles in and 11.5 miles out are
the twenty-three miles of trail you have been preparing your whole life to travel. You may run on the same dirt, roots, rocks, and fallen leaves but the trip out and the trip back are two completely different trips.
If your training lives up to your ambition one day in and out can be one of the best days of your life. It is a truly life-enhancing experience. If ambition trumps training, that too will be a day to remember.
For about five million years trade winds from the north and east have sculpted this once huge volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Waterfalls from Alaka`i Swamp, the wettest spot on earth, carve
the deeply fluted cliffs called Na Pali. The ancient Hawaiian trail along Na Pali courses in and out from deep blue Pacific Ocean to deep green valley interiors. The experience of the trail is constantly changing.
Bring a digital camera with lots of gigs and extra batteries. You keep on not having been here before. And your eyes will tell you that the trip in and the trip out are very different.
Getting to the trail is remarkably simple. If flying in to Kauai pick up your rental car, hang a right on Kuhio Hwy (#56) as you leave the airport and go to the end of the road. There is He`e Beach and the trailhead
is on the left. If you are on island and your car is facing mauka (mountains), go right. If it is facing makai (ocean), go left. Tough yeh?
Provisions: If flying in there is a 24 hour Foodland in Kapaa off the highway on your left. Get everything. Get breakfast. Get fluids. Get bagels and jerky. Get lots of calories that are easy to carry. Na Pali will
work you. Better to carry a bit too much than get all knee knocking loose legged on the return. You are going to need that stability every inch of the way.
Best time to start: The closer to first light you begin the better your day. Hawaiian days never get real long or real short. That’s not the thing. It’s the sun. Coming back, Kalalau to Hanakoa, the trail is mostly
open to the sky. That matters. Also giving yourself a long day is good for the soul and peace of mind. Adventurous ones might even have time to try and find the waterfall at the very back of Hanakoa Valley. The
trail is faint but if you find the falls you’ll wish you had a fisheye lens cause it is huge and the water is always flowing. Oh, and then the pool at the base of the falls: primo brah! Built by the CCC in the ‘30s so they
could play after a hard day’s building trail and moving rock, it is huge, cool, and swimmable.
Two parts to the trail two ways: well traveled, lightly traveled; wet and dry. The first two miles from He`e to Hanakapiai carries a stream of travelers all day long with most of them wearing the wrong footwear. They
have beaten as wide a path as physically possible. After climbing the first few hundred yards of boulders laid by the CCC get iron rich slippery dirt, get roots, get rocks, get mud, get wide trail. Most everybody
makes it the first quarter mile up to the heart stopping, breath catching, oh wow! view. Up, along the coast, down a bit, up some more, way down so you think you are almost there and then you go way back up
again and along the coast with the magnificent deep blue ocean and the beach where you started are like an arm’s length away. You will see a lot of touristii americana and from elsewhere that first two miles to
Hanakapiai. Across the stream everything changes. Once past the camp grounds and the black and yellow six-foot steel poles warning you of the danger of high waves you are on the trail less traveled. Severely
less traveled. Once past the ruts you climb a mile and a quarter on true single-track to Split Rock (you’ll know it when you see it). Single track, one foot wide. Sometimes because monster storms have sent a
deluge downhill the track isn’t even that wide. Not much, if any, kala (money) is spent on trail maintenance. Every year or so Na Ala Hele will weed whack parts so you can see where you put your foot. Then it
grows back. The trail less traveled goes all the way to Kalalau Stream. But even more than the first two miles there is a cacophony of roots, rocks, steps up, steps down, steps across, switchbacks and dry stream
crossings. And you are pretty much alone.
The wet end of the trail is from He`e to the promontory as you leave Hanakoa Valley, about six miles in. If you are going to get rained on, it probably will be here. This is a tropical rainforest. Almost the whole way
you will be under forest canopy. Other than that there is no constancy to the trail. The forest changes and changes and changes. If you are fortunate enough to be in a tropical rainstorm, or if there was one the night
before, there will be monster waterfalls to entertain you as you leave Split Rock and work your way down and into the back of the valley. It’s a long way down and will seem much longer on the way back. You will
travel up and out to the ocean and back in and down and around and back out again all the way to Hanakoa Stream. Take pictures. Then when you get to the top of Hanakoa Valley and catch your breath as you
look back towards He`e and ahead toward Kalalau and down to the mouth of the stream you will notice that the landscape changes like almost immediately. Now you can see the switchbacks in the red dirt and
they go a long way down. You couldn’t see them before. This is the dry end of the trail. And except for the few times that you dip back into valley clefts you are exposed to the sun and to wonderful expansive views.
Now that the underbrush is minor you can see how narrow the trail really is and how steep the cliffs are both going up and down. The width of the trail hasn’t changed, just your view of it has. But now the dirt is dry
and crumbly and gives beneath your feet. Not much but just enough so you pick up your pace. It stays dry all the way to Kalalau Stream and beyond but back in the valley clefts there may be refreshing water.
Water: The first 30 years I traveled this trail I swam in the streams and drank the water with impunity with no regard for catching the nasties from leptospirosis bacteria. The last ten years I’ve used iodine to treat for
lepto. I’m no longer immortal. “Symptoms of leptospirosis include high fever, severe headache, chills, muscle aches, and vomiting, and may include jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), red eyes, abdominal pain,
diarrhea, or a rash. If the disease is not treated, the patient could develop kidney damage, meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord), liver failure, and respiratory distress. In rare
cases death occurs.” (google) Treat your water!
Difficulty: Yes. In the ‘90s a friend and I decided to ‘race’ the trail. He was an elite local runner who had won both the Run to the Sun and the Kilauea Volcano Wilderness Marathon several times. He trained mostly
on road. I was reasonably good at 50-mile and 100-km distances. I trained mostly on trail. We started at first light and went balls to the wall all the way to the waterfall past Kalalau Steam stopping only to fill our
water bottles. After an hour rest and relaxation at the waterfall we put the hammer down all the way to Hanakapiai Stream. I made the mistake of giving him push up a short-cut cliff and stood there like a damn fool
waiting for a hand up as he turned laughed and tore on up the trail. Great run. Neither of us broke six hours for the 23 miles. On many other occasions I’ve had leisurely runs with friends and taken from about
seven to about eight hours in and out with time out at the waterfall. You can only go so fast on Na Pali no matter how good you are.
Getting lost: There is only one trail still yet it is possible to get ‘off trail’. ‘Cut short’ once ran ahead and Angus and I found him in a hanging cliff valley off trail. How he got there we’ll never know. After crossing
Kalalau Stream you have a choice of heading up valley or towards the beach. ‘Dougie’ lagging behind went up valley until he found himself amidst a family traveling ‘au naturel’ (common in the 70’s but
unfortunately no longer so). It didn’t take him long to find us on the beach. On the way back from Hanakoa there is a double dry streambed crossing where the trail continuance is not obvious. After a few minutes
of panic you’ll find it.
Bonking: Even the best have been known to bonk on this trail particularly on the way back to He`e. It is very easy to underestimate your need for fluid and fuel after you have left the rest and relaxation that is the
waterfall. The climb up red hill is tough and is followed by some, now by comparison, very runable cliff trails. With the sun at your head and back in the open sky body fluids waft away. Beware that seemingly
endless switchback leading to Hanakoa Valley. The trail really is worse than you remember it and it is a long way down if you trip on a root that wasn’t there on the way in.
Exposure: Yes. There are many spots where the trail is cut into a sheer cliff, with the ocean nearly a thousand feet below. These spots provide for some of the best views. Stop before taking in the view! Na Pali is
spectacularly beautiful only if you are still upright with no extra bones. The trail can throw you curves and in a lot of places it is a long way down. Most runners and hikers have no difficulty with the amount of
exposure, but if you are particularly susceptible to acrophobia, this run may not be for you.
Danger: Believe the signs! Do not attempt to swim in the temptingly beautiful ocean off Hanakapiai Beach. All year long there is a strong current going from He`e to Kalalau. There is no landfall between
Hanakapiai and Kalalau. Ignore the surfers. They have a floatation device and the strength to make the best of it. Every year we lose hikers who don’t believe the signs.
Ascent/Descent: about 6,000′ over 23 miles
Best time of the year is anytime. We do have seasons so there is some variability in heat, seas, and humidity but the range is not great. The most noticeable difference is in the seas. Winter storms can take out
all the sand from Kalalau Beach, 100 yards deep and one mile long, in a single day. Unsurfable breaks ten deep and a mile long beat up against the sea cliffs making quite a roar as you gingerly make yourself
along the bare slippery gravelly rock between Hanakoa and Kalalau. But then in winter whale sightings are not uncommon. Winter can also mean more rain than normal. Summer seas are usually quite calm
and the water is crystal clear and Kalalau Beach seems to go on forever. You can see fish swimming from a hundred yards or more up a cliff. Summer tends to be warmer and the sun can beat on you on your
way back to He`e from Kalalau. It can be particularly nasty doing that last open sky climb to Hanakoa Valley and make oppressive the long climb back to Split Rock heading toward Hanakapiai Beach. Pick a
time that works for you.
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