Going the Full 11 Miles on the Kalalau Trail

Will McGough explores the length of the Kalalau Trail, recently voted America’s best hiking trail by GP readers.

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Will McGough; cover photo by A.J. Bertone

Writer’s Note: A few weeks ago, as the votes were being tallied for our readers’ poll of America’s best hiking trails, I was coincidentally trekking my way along the Na Pali Coast of Kauai along the Kalalau Trail — the trail that, as it turns out, ended up winning. When I saw that, I had to smile. I was already planning on sharing my experience afterwards, but now the trip seems even more special, and it seems even more appropriate to reflect upon.

In the shuttle from the hotel to the trailhead, the driver asked me when I’d like to be picked up. I told him I was going to camp for two nights, and that I planned to hike out early Thursday morning because I had a plane to catch that afternoon. “If I’m not out by noon”, I said, “send in the troops, because I’m probably dying.” I paused to see if he would laugh. He didn’t. I kept going. “And I’ll send someone to meet you with a note if I decide to stay out there forever.”

It’s a dumb joke, for sure, but I always find it good to get people talking, even when it’s at your own expense. “That’s probably more likely”, he said, shaking his head in affirmation. That response stayed with me for the rest of the ride. It was interesting to hear him say that, mostly because I had heard that a fair number of people call Kalalau home. They’re set up in semi-permanent camps, living off the land, the tourists, and the occasional trip to civilization. I had been on lots of beautiful hikes in my life, and had never been tempted to move after any of them. I wondered: What makes this one different?

The best place to start is its physique. The Kalalau Trail is 11 miles one way, and although it starts and ends at a beach, it climbs and descends a total of 5,000 feet in elevation as it snakes its way along the coast, in and up one cove and down and out another. The resulting coastal scenery and sight lines are absolutely breathtaking, but to the pessimist, it’s uphill both ways.

It became pretty obvious why self-consciousness didn’t exist at Kalalau. There was always something more interesting to look at.

The first two miles of the hike are the most popular. There’s a pretty little place for a picnic, Hanakapiai Beach, at the two-mile marker, and flip-flop-wearing tourists with big cameras make a day of it, moseying over the rolling hills with toddlers in tow. I must admit it is one of the most rousing parts of the trail with its numerous vantage points in both directions, vegetation on the steep cliffs thick enough to make you feel safe but thin enough so as not to block any of the view. I had experienced this inspiration firsthand when I hiked the first two miles in the fall of 2013. I was so impressed that I immediately began making plans to return and complete the entire trail.

Beyond mile two, people are scarce, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why. In what feels like a toll of sorts, mile three darts straight up the cliff with a grueling series of switchbacks. Whereas before it was hard to go five minutes without seeing another human, here things thinned out considerably. I got on the trail at eight in the morning and, because I was alone and stopped only to pee, caught up to the handful of groups who had started at six or seven. I didn’t see anyone during miles four and five, but by mile six, I started to cross paths with groups returning to civilization. Some of them were women in bikini tops and some were men in Mountain Hardwear, but they were all between the ages of 20 and 40. The common refrain was that Kalalau had been “life changing”. These were, without question, a bunch of hippies, but judging by what I was already experiencing on the trail in the way of scenery, I had no choice but to believe them.

Cliffs become increasingly bare in the final miles of the trail, the lush, soft, cozy terrain of the first half fading into a dry, rocky, intimidating trail. The vegetation that once served as a mental barrier was now nothing but a sheer drop, and its daunting nature slowed my pace and approach. It didn’t help that, the day before, I had heard a radio report about a twenty-something-year-old who had been medevaced out when the cliff gave way. Assessing the vertical drop, the most surprising thing was that he survived. I turned sideways and put my back to the wall and sidled around the corner, just to be safe.

Crossing over the top of the final ridge and getting the first glimpse of Kalalau beach was like seeing a beautiful woman across the bar and wondering whether she would talk to you.

So many people, both on and off the trail, expressed to me that their journey and stay had made a strong impact on them. If expectations are the fast track to disappointment, I felt like I was on the express train. Luckily, those of us who frequent the outdoors are used to going on blind dates. In the case of Kalalau, you have 11 miles to play out all the different scenarios in your head, to imagine what it will look like and how it will feel.

Enjoy the ride, but don’t miss the romance of the candlelit dinner thinking about the kiss goodnight. When I arrived at the beach and began passing through the campsite, many people asked me if I was relieved to be off the trail. I was ready to put my feet up, for sure, but upon reflecting now, I can say that the most moving times I had were when I was walking. There’s just no two ways about it: It is one of the most beautiful, visually stunning trails I have ever taken, and I would still feel that way even it ended at the entrance to a Justin Bieber concert.

Luckily, one of the main reasons that Kalalau comes so highly recommended is because it does not lead to anything like a Justin Bieber concert. Quite the opposite: It leads you to one of the most remote and peaceful beaches on Kauai. Kalalau translates to “cleansing light”, a name that suggests the people I was meeting on the trail were not the first to leave with a new perspective.

Besides affirmation of their new outlooks, one other thing I was able extract from people I passed on the trail was where to camp. Following their advice, I continued on past the initial campground. There’s nothing wrong with these spots, but there are more scenic sites to be found the closer you get to the beach. I found a private, ocean-view site with a view of the beach, and began to shake out my tent.

Rumors spread quickly at Kalalau. Some of the locals have radios to communicate with the outside world, and so they are often aware of a rainstorm coming down the coast or over the ridge. I definitely had a little fun starting a game of whisper down the lane at the watering hole. I mentioned casually that I heard a storm was on its way, and within a few hours the camp was abuzz with speculation, everyone an expert. I heard it’s going to come in any time now… Someone said the beach might get washed out… Better latch down your tent, I’m thinking it could get really bad. That afternoon, a light, warm shower passed through and a rainbow appeared, and people did cartwheels on the beach in the rain.

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After the storm, I stuffed my rain jacket into my daypack. I wouldn’t need it again that day, but given Kalalau’s location adjacent to Mount Waialeale Crater, one of the wettest spots on earth with about 450 inches of annual rainfall, it’s not a place you want to be caught with your guard down. I zipped up my tent and turned toward the trail, looking back to make sure nothing had fallen on the ground. Beyond my tent I could see the ocean, and there was a dude braving the surf in his birthday suit. The waves were towering up after the storm, climbing up over ten feet before crashing down into the sand. At night, they were loud enough to wake you up but endearing enough to relax you back to sleep.

Once I got clear of camp, a view opened up to the east and I could see the cliffs that led back to civilization. Up on the ridge, two guys were standing at the lookout completely naked, above a papaya grove and just below where mountain goats scampered about on the rocks. I could tell they were talking about the waves. They went out of my view as I climbed uphill into the valley.

In the jungle, the trail began to blend in with the well-worn walking paths that led to the semi-permanent camps of the locals, but I stayed with the river, following it as close as the thick, wet vegetation would allow, rock-hopping through the water when it would not. About a half mile upstream I picked up the trail again, and it led me through small clusters of fruit trees. The mangos were out of season, but the guavas were everywhere, and I could always smell them before I saw them. I sorted out the ones I found on the ground, separating out any that were waterlogged.

I probably ate more guavas in those two days than I have my entire life. There’s just something about free food on the trail, especially when it’s healthy and loaded with sugar. I munched as I marched. Guava in hand and juice in my beard, I bounced around a blind corner and almost walked straight into a topless woman. She clipped her backpack around her waist and under her chest. I said hi, and she said hello, and she brushed past me. I couldn’t tell if she was an acclimated inhabitant or a tourist in training, but I never saw her again.

Moving on, it was time for me to get into the spirit. The payoff of the hike, besides getting a glimpse of the camps, is the chance to swim in one of the large river pools. I spread my clothes on a rock and jumped in. I could hear the small waterfalls and see the tops of the cliffs, and every once in a while a guava would float by, headed downstream. It became pretty obvious why self-consciousness didn’t exist at Kalalau. There was always something more interesting to look at.

On the way back to camp, I could tell that the waves had grown even taller. Either that, or another storm was coming. The sound of the waves could easily be confused with thunder, especially heard from a distance. But with the sky clear and the late evening sun turning everything gold, I knew it was just the ocean showing off. Back at the beach, I saw they were approaching 20 feet, and no one was even thinking about swimming. The tide rushed out like a carpet ripped from the floor, recoiling like a charmed cobra and swinging down like the head of a hammer.

The tide rushed out like a carpet ripped from the floor, recoiling like a charmed cobra and swinging down like the head of a hammer.

Exchanging my hiking pants for a bathing suit, I hung my sweaty underwear on a tree branch outside my tent. The only thing between my campsite and the sand was a natural jetty of rocks, and I skipped down over them and onto the beach. The sun was about eight fingers up from the horizon, soft enough now to look at without sunglasses. Despite the fact that I had estimated there to be around 50 people camping at Kalalau, I counted fewer than 10 on the beach.

The people I met were friendly, but it was obvious that no one came here to socialize, myself included. You might find a group or two chatting by the fire at night, but anyone looking for a party was in the wrong place. Even the locals seemed like they were on a mission, and none seemed too interested in revealing what it was to the locals. Some were friendly and would say hello, and some seemed too cool for school. But even the friendly ones weren’t out to make friends. The most conversational resident I met was a man who said he’s been living at Kalalau for 18 years. He told me that for $100, he would take me back to civilization via jet ski.

I walked west toward the sun, past the small caves and under the jagged, spearheaded peaks that oozed a mythical presence with their low-hanging clouds, the kind I imagined might make a dragon feel comfortable. I could see where the beach met the jungle, the differently colored tents plopped in amongst the trees — red and yellow and orange and blue — and beyond that, the red-tinted cliffs, the waterfall crashing down from above the treetops.

It’s not hard to see why Kalalau has such a profound impact on people. After all, it’s not often you come across an 11-mile trek into the wilderness that ends in a place where the living is so easy. Kalalau is no bear- and snow-ridden mountain peak, no dry and waterless desert. It’s a place where the rivers gush fresh water, food grows on trees, and the breeze blows your hair around. It’s a place where the mind can comfortably wander without distractions, free of civilization and stress in all the right ways.

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I was nine miles into the return trip when things got really tough. Soaked in sweat, I descended down to Hanakapi’ai Beach. For the first nine miles, I had seen less than ten people. Now, there was a crowd. It was somewhere around ten in the morning, and there were so many tourists coming down the hill that there was a line to hop rock across the river and continue on the trail. One man, seeing that I was in a completely different world than the rest of them, held up the line and waved me across.

There’s no denying that the Internet and guide books have put the Kalalau Trail on the map of many who would be lucky to walk 11 miles in three weeks. Most stick to the first two miles and are content with a relaxing afternoon at Hanakapi’ai — but as the trail’s popularity has grown, so too have the ambitions of businessmen. The man with the jet ski is not alone. Several shuttle services, some legal and some semi-legal, now offer transportation from Hanalei Bay to Kalalau. This allows people short on time or stamina to reach the beach. It evokes all kinds of emotions for me. I want everyone to be able to share in the beauty of the outdoors and I do not wish to be an elitist.

For the final two miles of the trail, a steady stream of people made their way to Hanakapi’ai, like ants marching toward food. I was the only person going the other direction, and I felt a bit of resentment building towards them, with their flip-flops and their big cameras. Still, I said hello to almost everyone I passed, reflecting back on my walk the year before. I held out hope that the trail’s beauty — and perhaps my presence — would inspire these day-trippers to return someday and tackle the entire trek.

But if they didn’t, so be it. The way I look at it, it’s one less person on miles three through eleven.

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