Our Hike on the Kalalau Trail: 22 miles, 2 days, March 30 & 31st 2016
It must first be said, that a two-day backpacking trip in the middle of our Hawaiian getaway was not my idea.
But it must also be said, that Brian has never steered me wrong on our trips. When he proposed this backpacking trip back in January, I accepted, knowing it would mean I would have to be psychologically and physically prepared for a strenuous 22 mile hike while on vacation.
Before I get into telling you about it, I will offer an early conclusion for those of you too busy to read to the end. The hike to Kalalau Beach ended up being the most beautiful and memorable part of our entire Hawaiian trip. It brought Brian and I closer together, tighter than we already are, and it yielded the best photographs. It’s the part of the trip I boast about first when asked “How was Hawaii?” and it’s what I spend most of my days thinking about now that I’m home. That frigging hike. That magnificent, glorious, bastard of a hike.
About The Kalalau Trail
The Kalalau Trail is regarded as one of the best hikes in the world. Backpacker Magazine lists it as one of “America’s 10 Most Dangerous Hikes.” (I didn’t know that until we finished the hike.) There’s a Facebook Page dedicated to all things trail-related that I joined the week leading up to our hike to get the skinny on what I was getting myself into. The people in the group share photos, discuss trail conditions and ask advice of those who’ve done the hike (what to bring, what to expect, if they need permits to camp — you do, by the way, and they go fast, so if you’re going to do this trail, get your permit today.)
The hike is remarkable. It’s 11 miles (one way) of climbs and descents on rocky terrain, loose sand, through rainforest cover and on cliff edges. It’s located on the north coast of the island of Kauai, the Napoli Coast, and ends at a remote beach, Kalalau Beach, accessed by the public only by foot – and to rangers by helicopter. Of course, it’s another 11 miles to get back to the trailhead, also by foot, and equally remarkable the second time you do it. The trail is divided into three sections: the first 2.2 miles are open to the public (no permit required) and it’s not an easy hike. I was maybe 5 minutes into the trail when I thought to myself: “My 70 year-old father would not like this trail.” My second thought was: “Damn, girl, for not training, you’re kicking ass.” Go me. From the 2.2 mile marker, you are required to have a permit to camp and to hike. The first camp site is 6 miles in and if you hike beyond the 6 mile marker you’re going the whole 11 miles in one day. Which is what we did.
[Sidebar: I'm experiencing ghost-blisters remembering what the first 11 miles did to my feet. Ghost-blisters is a condition I just made up where my almost-healed heel skin starts to tremble and bubble at the slightest mention of the trail.]
The Night Before: Camping at Haena State Park
The night before starting the hike, we camped at the nearby Haena State Park (a popular camping spot for hikers, families, busking-guitarists apparently and wild chickens and roosters. More on the roosters shortly. The beach at Haena State Park was beautiful, though this should go without saying as all of Hawaii’s beaches are breathtaking. This was my first beach experience witnessing waves that could kill, or at least that could sweep you away to your ocean-y death. It was the first beach I visited where people were advised not to swim. I would be both amazed and horrified by the ocean’s power during our hike – and later just annoyed at the constant smashing sounds of the surf against the mountains I was clamouring over. The plan was to wake at 5:30am, tear down camp, and hit the trail at 6am. The idea was to do the bulk of the hike before the worst heat of the day and since we were still jet lagged (it’s a 7.5 hour time difference from St. John’s Newfoundland to Hawaii) we were having no trouble waking up before the sun.
Enter the Wild Roosters of Kauai. The pesky, noisy, winged-jerks, cock-a-doodle-do-ing at all times of the day and night. There were no rules. I remember hearing one at 3:15am, and another at 3:30am, oh, and how could I forget the 1:50am rooster waking me up just after I had fallen asleep. The roosters of Kauai are dicks. They didn’t care whether or not we got a good night’s sleep before our 11 mile hiking day. Nor did the enthusiastic guitarist whose strums and raspy voice could somehow be heard over the waves crashing on the beach until midnight. All of this to say: I did not sleep well on the eve before we set out, so when the 5:15 rooster woke us both up, I turned to Brian, shook my head and told him to go back to sleep because there was no way I was getting up in 15 minutes to start our hike.
Day One: The first eleven miles
We finally tore down camp at 6:30am, brushed our teeth, did a final pack, had our breakfast of champions: bananas, peanut butter cliff bars and a shared Starbucks Doubleshot coffee drink. When camping, all normal dietary rules go out the window. We were now in calorie-building, survival mode. We hit the trail at 7:10am and had a great start, mostly uphill over slick rocks.
The sun was coming up and the view of the ocean and mountains behind us were stunning. Our blood was pumping and our backpacks were full — well, mine was less full than Brian’s, like 25 pounds to his 45 pounds. Brian was carrying the tent, our sleeping pads, the food bag, 3 litres of water, clothing and a Ziploc baggie with our precious items. I was carrying our sleeping bags, clothes, sunscreen and bug spray supplies and my giant camera that I grew to loathe over the next two days. And yet, I knew I wouldn’t regret having it with me because it would snap photos like this:
It felt good to be outside, to move our bodies, and to have a mission to accomplish. It wasn’t an easy first 2.2 miles – it was mostly uphill and hard on the heart. I was impressed by how many people were already out giving the trail a whirl. We stopped at 2.2 miles, to watch the impressive waves and snack on Cliff Bars. We didn’t linger long, as we had 9 more miles ahead of us – and headed toward lesser travelled paths. The trail changed almost instantly, climbing and descending, up and down switchbacks. There was never a level moment on the trail. We were climbing up or down all day – it was incredible. It was hard. My feet were already blistering and they ached from a few hours on the rough ground. Fatigue started to get the better of me as we reached the 6 mile marker where we decided to stop for lunch. I know we were drinking a ton of water but it occurred to me that I hadn’t peed yet. This worried me and in the back of my head I kept repeating “Don’t get another kidney stone, don’t get another kidney stone…” I drank more water, we took off our packs, and more importantly our shoes, and ate lunch.
There’s a covered picnic table just before the stream at 6 miles where we sat to eat. It was there we met Steve, a shirtless backpacker, rolling a joint, who told us he that lived back in the Kalalau Valley with a group of people and had been there for about a year. He had just returned from town (Hanalei) where he went once a month or so to pick up provisions for his valley companions. He was friendly and told us to try the coffee beans hanging from the trees, and to look out for fruit and tomatoes for the next couple of miles. He was obviously familiar with the hike and excited to share his knowledge of the rainforest. He told us he had started his hike in the night before but came across a 250-pound wild boar on the trail and decided to set up camp and start again in the morning to avoid more run-ins with animals. He was surprised that we were already at mile 6 at 11:15am. I took that as a compliment as I massaged my aching feet, egging them on to heal up so I could keep walking. Steve offered us a puff of his joint which we politely declined. We were approaching the most challenging part of the trail – The Crawler’s Ledge – and I had no desire to be stoned while crossing a narrow ledge while screaming waves pounded beneath me. He wished us well and as we did him, and he took off. We finished our lunch, reluctantly put our shoes back on and got moving again.
I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I was entertaining the idea of not going beyond 6 miles. It was getting hot out, and I was afraid of being on exposed cliffs for the next 4-5 hours. But, I was bolstered by Steve’s amazement at the distance we’d covered that morning and with the promise of more stunning scenery ahead of us, I pulled myself together to carry on.
From this point my memory of the trail is a bit foggy. I was exhausted and overheated and I still don’t remember having peed at this point despite the litres of water I was taking in. We were sweating, the ocean was getting louder and angrier as we approached the cliffs. Because of the pain in my feet and the sweat pouring out of my body, I don’t remember registering the cliffs as scary. We were lucky, we had great weather and medium wind. There were no hikers behind us, nor were their any oncoming. It was beautiful, and hot, and loud, and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I wanted to take more photos, but I was tired, and pulling my camera out became a huge bother. I was happy we’d be returning the next day so I would have a second chance to photograph the gorgeous cliffs.
When we crossed the second stream at Mile 6, I remembered reading all the warnings about how just three days earlier the whole trail was closed due to fast moving streams. Between those warnings, and the Lonely Planet telling me how terrifying these cliffs would be – I had psyched myself out prematurely. I suppose I was glad to know that there would be steep cliffs, but the language that some people used made it seem like you’d have to be an idiot to do this trail. An idiot with a death wish. I am neither an idiot, nor do I have a death wish, but still I really wanted to do this trail, especially since I was well into it by then. Of course, I didn’t have all this hindsight perspective on the trail. I was dealing with the ever-worsening pain in my feet, the fear of the sun scorching our too-pale skin, or worse giving us heat stroke, and I just couldn’t seem to drink enough water to pee! Trail concerns have a way of pushing all other concerns far from your mind. I didn’t give a shit at that moment about politics, taxes, or any of the daily concerns that would plague me once back in real life. All that mattered at that moment getting enough food, enough water, and not getting swept away by a fast moving stream or rogue wave. It was liberating, and it was hard.
Right after the Crawler’s Ledge, there’s a long portion of the trail where you’re in deep descent on loose sandy-gravel. To me this was far worse, far scarier than the rocky ledge miles we had just finished. My legs were tired, which made all descents harder and slower. Add to that, loose sand, where you’re hoping not to lose your footing and slide out to the ocean. This part startled me. This part took me by surprise. This part felt more dangerous. I can’t imagine what it would be like for the people who have done this trail in the rain. It would be a nightmare. We stopped to refill our water at a cute little stream and came across a lovely, hippy, who greeted us with a bouncy “Aloha!” He handed me a bouquet of freshly picked flowers: “These are for you” he said, and then, “If you need tinder for firewood tonight, you can get some around Mile 9.” He Aloha’d us again, and then scurried away back from where we just came from. People on trails are so kind.
At some point we stopped noticing the trail markers, until we had no idea how far we had come, or how far we had to go. We turned the corner on one of the sandy ledges and saw an oncoming backpacker with a dog. Other than our friend Steve, (who we saw at least once more that day) Aloha Man and a few people filtering water at the 6 Mile stream we had come across no other hikers on the trail until now. I squinted at the woman hiking toward us in the distance. I registered her trail outfit as “flesh-coloured” and was surprised at how well fitting her clothes were. It took maybe 30 seconds for it to dawn on me that her flesh-coloured pants were her legs, and that she was completely naked head to-toe — wearing only her 40-litre backpack and a hat to protect her face from the sun.
I had been worried that morning about my backpack chafing my bare shoulders, and yet she did not appear to be concerned at all about her backpack chafing her entire naked body. I envied her immediately. For the next while Brian and talked about backpacking naked: Would we do it? Would we trust the elements? Was it the elements we were worried about, or was it other hikers that concerned us? I would have felt so vulnerable out there, hiking naked, wearing only a hat, but at the same time it just seemed to make sense in Hawaii. I was grateful to have come across this woman, because I spent at least one gruelling mile on the trail entertaining the idea of naked-hiking and it took my mind off my feet for a little while.
The next thing I remember after greeting the naked hiker was arriving at the sign for Kalalau Beach. Holy shit. We were almost there. Ten miles (16km) or so done, and about one mile to go, down another steep hill, past some wild goats grazing a field overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
We slogged down again, weary of descents, our muscles fatigued and in need of rest. Finally, the last 45 minutes of the walk was level, through bush – fragrant lavender and mint scented bush – and the promise of a private campsite and beautiful beach was at the end of it. I wanted nothing more than to enjoy this last walk. We had one more stream to cross and we would be were there. When we arrived I was so happy and so proud I almost wept. We set up camp, I finally peed (!) and Brian cut open his baby toe on a tent spike while setting up camp. It was a strange and grotesque moment watching the crimson red, almost paint-like blood gush from his toe and hearing him utter the words: Kerri, I think I need your help with something. I got him to lie down which helped slow the blood-waterfall and cleaned his wound. Once bandaged we headed back to the nearest stream to fill up our water bottles for the night. I told Brian this extra mile of walking may break me, but he reminded me that now that our packs were off our backs and it would be an easy mile (or two.) I think it took us a total of 9 hours to get from the trailhead to the beach including stops to eat, purify water, take photos and survey the beauty of the Napali Coast. I took the photo below of the paradise known as Kalalau Beach. Imagine a giant sigh leaving my mouth as I took it all in. It was perfect.
Backpacking with Brian
I benefit greatly from Brian’s hiking experience. It’s easy for me to agree to an overnight backpacking trip, because I know he already owns all the gear, and that he’ll make the plan and has all the right skills. He and his best friend hiked across Iceland in August 2015 (12 days, on their own, with a plan a GPS, 80 mini snickers bars and packs full of equipment.) In short: I trust him. All I have to do is psyche myself up for the trek and do the hike when the time arrives. He brings everything else to the table. I am a lucky woman. Here is our campsite at Kalalau Beach. It’s facing the ocean, but set back a bit for some privacy and a little break from the sound of the pounding surf.
We walked to the beach, sat down and watched the waves crash into each other and against the shore endlessly. It was incessant, powerful, and almost tiring to watch. The sun went down as we scarfed down Goldfish crackers and spicy beef jerky. We met a dozen other hikers, mostly couples, all looking be-sweated and exhausted when they arrived. Most hikers plan to stay in the valley for at least a full day to enjoy the peacefulness and rest their bodies. We did not – for us it would be one day in, and out the next. We had a big day coming on our bodies and minds. But we were here now, and never have the words “be here now” mattered more to me than in those moments watching the sun go down on a remote beach so few have visited. I may never get back there, but I know I’ll never forget it.
Day Two: From Kalalau Beach to the Six Mile Marker
I decided not to spend too much time at camp thinking about our return trip the following day. There was no point. Nothing makes you stop and feel every second of the day more than the physical exertion of a difficult trail. Everything slows down. You can’t worry about the petty concerns on a trail like that, your only job is to put one foot in front of the other and make it to the end.
We got going early the second day. It was gorgeous out again and we made the most of it. On the first mile of the trail we were greeted by a bull frog and a sunrise to rival the best I’ve ever seen. The first 5 miles were a cinch despite my aching and blistered feet. I was happy to have a chance to revisit the “Crawler’s Ledge” sections with a fresh and rested mind. I could appreciate the beauty more, I could appreciate what’s scary about those sections in a way that didn’t register the day before. And I finally felt like taking photos again, after a good night of sleep. Yeah, I would say those 5 miles were my favourite of the trail that day. I was rested, refreshed, and with my favourite person in the world. Below is a photo of Brian turning the corner on one of the ledges. I didn’t shout to him to turn around and pose – I didn’t want to startle him and watch him tumble to his death. Instead, I got this shot, probably my favourite action shot from the whole trip.
Below: do you see the lady in the pink pants? She was not happy about crossing this part of the Crawler’s Ledge – AT ALL. I talked to her briefly when we met up a few minutes after this photo was taken. I just wanted to illustrate how steep the cliffs were.
The Final Six Miles (The Hardest Miles of My Life, by Kerri Ough)
The morning was such a breeze that I almost forgot we had 5 strenuous miles ahead of us. Six miles on a flat path would have taken us a few hours to walk, but the 6 miles of slick rock and ups and downs, were going to be brutal. There was no way to speed through them. My feet were beyond toast by then – they had been rubbed and squished and pushed against my running shoes for over 13 hours and they were pissed. My legs were breaking down too and it made every downward climb painful.
We came across four couples that day, all a bit worse for wear after finishing the ledge miles. I talked to one woman for a few minutes. She had tears in her eyes and a severe fear of heights. I wanted to hug her and tell her it would be okay. She was strong and clearly active in her normal life, but this trail was pushing her to her limit. I hope she reads this and lets me know how the rest of her hike went.
My favourite couple was a husband-wife team of about 55 years old. The husband passed us first, with a kind hello. I noticed he had nothing on his back and thought about how awesome this hike would be without the extra weight. His wife came around the mountain wearing a massive pack and a huge smile on her face. We stopped to talk, and she told me she had always loved hiking and had convinced her husband to join her by promising to carry everything they would need. I laughed and told her that that was our arrangement too, except Brian had to carry the heaviest equipment, not me. I loved her immediately and wish I had thought to photograph her or get her name.
When we reached the last three miles, my right leg (mostly my right quad muscle and by association, my knee) had had enough. I could still walk but my pace was excruciatingly slow. It was a pace that I imagine a much older me might someday call my normal gait. I was going to a dark place in my mind during these painful descents and searched for anything to pull me out of it. I looked forward to the uphill sections and rued every descent in front of me.
I stopped to rest; to pray for something – anything – to get me through these last hours on the trail. Brian offered to lighten my pack, which I declined, refusing to acknowledge my weakened state. A few moments later, we stopped again and he told me he was going to carry my pack to take the stress off my knee. I refused again, because I didn’t want to admit how much pain I was in. Tears welled up in my eyes and my throat tightened as he reached for my bag. He smiled at me and told me he loved me… this was altogether too much kindness for my feeble brain to absorb so I shoved him and shouted: DON’T BE NICE TO ME RIGHT NOW OR I’LL CRY. He laughed. He asked me if walking without the pack helped my knee. It did. He told me he would let me know if carrying my pack was too much for him and he asked me to stop asking for my pack back.
With the 20 pounds or so now lifted, I was able to better navigate the steep descents. I took to the last 3 miles (5km) with new resolve. I knew my feet would heal in a few days as would my leg and knee once I let them rest. I was going to finish that trail today, pack or not, come hell or high water. My friend Steph’s daughter Evie popped into my head. I remembered watching her learning to skate at my birthday party a few weeks earlier chanting: “I’ll never give up, I’ll never give up” over and over as she skated across the rink. I channeled her determination (she’s almost 4 by the way) and powered on.
Those were the toughest 3 miles of my life.
In the past, during times of great physical exertion, I learned a trick to get me through the worst of it. When I was cycling and reached a wickedly steep hill, I would count each pedal turn, 1, 2, 3, 4 … through to 11 (11 was my odd number choice, you could use 10, or 12 if 11 bugs you.) Once I reached 11, I would start again at 1 and go through the pattern until I was up and over the hill. If I could trick my mind into taking it one pedal or step at a time, I couldn’t worry about the hill as a whole, or in this case the last 3 miles ahead of me. It helped centre me. I would get there eventually, and that was the whole point. I used this same trick every time we reached a steep descent. I didn’t care that I was wretchedly slow (and in pain) I just took it one step at a time (up to 11) and then again until the descent was over.
When I reached an ascent, I would climb it with double the energy, just to show myself that I wasn’t weak, proving it was just my loser-quads that were tired, not me.
Random songs popped into my head, songs I haven’t listened to in months. “Creep” by Radiohead played over and over in my head and I sang the lyrics out loud laughing at how fitting they seemed for my current struggle.
I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo / I don’t belong here / I don’t belong here…
This made me laugh so I sang it until I got tired of it. The connection between our minds and our bodies is incredible. If I could find a way to laugh, everything felt easier for a few moments. When I felt defeated, I spiralled into thinking only about the saddest moments from the past year my throat would tighten and it took everything I had left in me not to cry.
Brian and I distracted each other with a method he’s known for among his backpacking companions. I call it: Motivation by Manipulation (TM.) He asked me to list the villains from all 7 seasons of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer in detail to take my mind off the drudgery of the hot trail. In return I asked him to recount the chronology of the X-Files plots. We knew we were using this distraction technique on each other, but we didn’t care. It worked. Probably an hour passed while we did this, and I don’t remember feeling any pain.
And then we were quiet for awhile. Climbing, descending, climbing, descending. I thought about the women I had met on the trail earlier that day – the lady in the pink pants who was not happy about crossing the steep ledges, the optimistic lady carefully finding her footing down the steep sandy decline just before the ledges, but mostly, I thought about the woman with tears in her eyes, hoping she made it and was happy about it. I’ve thought about her often since, I was even thinking about her today when I was on Signal Hill. I hope she had a beautiful camping experience and that her return trip was easier on her.
On the mosquito front, for a tropical jungle, I was surprised with my mere four mosquito bites in two days. The pain in my feet and my knee far outweighed the light tickle from 4 mosquito bites. So, I found that little silver lining…
In spite of my struggles on those last 3 miles, I look back on those two hiking days with fiery pride. I stopped when I needed to stop. I swore when I felt like swearing. I kept hiking, despite the pain, and my excruciating slow pace. I had an awesome trail companion (husband, life partner, co-traveller.) I was proud that I was going to finish this trail no matter what – no matter if I came out on my hands and knees. I would finish the trail, then go have a great dinner and drink a giant beer. I was going to wash the sweat from my face and lie down on the beach to rest. I was going to hug my husband and celebrate this feat because two years ago I could barely walk 10 steps without pain because of a severe sciatic episode. And here I was closing in on 22 miles of strenuous hiking in just 2 days. Twenty-two miles with no training, after a week of vacation in Maui, after getting through the most painful moments of 2015. Crossing the “finish line” was going to be a huge moment for me.”
Below: The “I Made It!” photo taken on day two, about 5 miles in. I don’t have any photos from the last three miles of the trail – not surprisingly as my camera was the farthest thing from my mind at that point.
So, if you recall from 30 paragraphs ago, the last two miles of the trail are the most accessed miles of the trail. Day hikers would be bounding in and out in a couple of hours, and we would be seeing them soon, rushing by us, fresh from just a few hours on the trail. At first I let those day hikers pass me (I was too slow not to let them go by.) But when the last descent was in front of me, when I could see the trailhead in the distance, I grew obstinate. Stubborn. Determined. R Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” made its way to my lips – I don’t know why.
I believe I can fly / I believe I can touch the sky / I think about it every night and day / Spread my wings and fly away.
Just those four lines over and over. I laughed that this would be my final motivational soundtrack on the trail. Why this song, I’ll never know. But the absurdity of it made me feel lighter. Every single step down those last hundred rocks, I will remember. I remember the lady who passed me blaring music from a ghetto blaster tied to her backpack. I remember the first rooster we heard in the distance after an entire day away from them. I remember the family of four approaching; mom dad, sister, brother – they had gained on me, especially the 13 year old boy bouncing easily down the rocks, now right behind me, hoping to squeeze by me. But I wouldn’t pull over – couldn’t pull over – to let him pass. Not now. I was almost there and no one was going to pass me in those final moments. I looked over my shoulder and apologized to the boy, and told him he would have to wait as I made my way over the last 20 rocks. He said nothing in return, and he was out of my mind as soon as I hit the trailhead.
It was over. Those fucking miles on my feet were over. (I mean, except for the walk to the car… and then the walk to the bathroom… and then to the beach, and then back to the car.) For days I would feel every decline in the road deep within my legs. And my feet – how they ached from the trail. I looked at them, white, puffy, covered in quarter-sized blisters. I promised them I wouldn’t put a closed-toe shoe on them until we arrived back in Canada. They still carry shadows of the blistery ugliness from that trail today, from my home in Newfoundland.
Brian jumped in the ocean. I rinsed in the outdoor shower area near the restrooms. We drove to Hanalei, had an incredible meal, cold beer and carried on to the next campsite. We made it and I was ecstatic.
And now, I want so badly to go back.
Thanks for reading.