It felt like we had just plopped our heads on our pillows when the roosters started up. Minutes later our alarms chimed in. I’ll be honest, the weather was looking fierce when we landed the day before, and I thought for sure we would skip this hike. Maybe I was even a little bit hopeful of it. But, up & at ’em we were, and into the unknown.
The Kalalau Trail is one of the most dangerous in the world. It appears on almost every list. Hikers and adventurers come from every nook and cranny to give it a shot, many preparing and training months in advance. We’d watched as many Youtube videos as we could find and read as much advice as was available.
Crawler’s Ledge loomed over me like an ominous mirage. I could not stop thinking that this was going to be where I’d slip and fall to my death. I couldn’t even imagine the beach at the end of the trail, because I could not see myself making it past this mile marker. Worried sick, literally.
Yet here we were… two joe-shmos from Georgia.
Permits in hand, fresh sets of Merrells on feet, bout’ to do the darn thang!
The lack of warning signs at the trail’s entrance seemed super promising, so I was pumped.
The black of the night was just beginning to fade when we arrived at the trailhead and began our ascent into the jungle.
Apparently, ‘they say’ the first few miles of the trail are a reality check. But I knew there was a stream crossing two miles in, and I was determined to be across that thing while the rain held off. So we trekked the first two relatively quickly, stopping here and there for the standard Kalalau photo ops that are seen all over the internet. The views were definitely stunning but we knew the best was yet to come and were eager to get there.
Potential death zone #1, Hanakapi’ai stream, prone to flash flooding and strong currents.
We reached the stream and the conditions could not have been any better and I could not have been more relieved. We popped our boots off and crossed barefoot in about a minute. Death averted.
Just beyond the stream is Hanakapi’ai Beach. This is about as far as most people go. A permit is needed beyond this point.
We dropped our bags here for a little break and walked out to the water. Even though this beach is very popular, this is the first check point where things begin to feel a little remote. This is also where things begin to feel free. It was just the two of us that morning, so I ran around and danced in the sand and splashed through the water like a kid. The strong currents on this beach have claimed many lives, but thankfully, not ours. We had a quick snack and got back to our adventure.
(by the way, it is at this point that you can take the fork to Hanakapi’ai Falls, two miles into the valley…also bomb.)
Around mile marker three, things began to get a little intense as far as uphill-switchbacks go. Thank God for clouds and jungle cover, but even still, the heat and humidity of the tropics was riding on our backs. We had to stop a couple times to catch our breath on our way up. This is when we met our first friends, the guys that maintain the trail. They had just flown in by helicopter and were hiking their way to the 6 mile-marker to meet up with their other guys. We talked with them for a couple minutes and got back after it. We were sure we’d see them again. And I was sure they looked at me thinking they’d have to send a rescue crew in for me a few miles further. Which, if you don’t make it any further in this post, just know that that was not necessary.
Now bare with me, it all starts to get a little fairy-tale like from here, and it also all starts to blur together for me. Just like a dream.
I believe it was between miles three and four, but who really knows at this point? Part of the trail WAS the stream. And we snaked along at the base of a cliff somewhere up in the jungle. Water sparkled and misted its way down sheer black rocks, sprinkled with greenery in the cracks overhead.
When you research this trail, you see so many photos of the ‘main’ scenic stops. For some reason, people forget to tell you how incredible the views are inside the jungle. This spot will forever stand out to me as one of the best-kept secrets of the early mile markers.
In my memory, it is soon after this that we began our jungle-to-cliff tradeoff and the switchbacks started to get serious. We zig-zagged our way through the lush, and skirted our way around the rocks, hundreds of feet above the crashing waves of the pacific.
I’ll be honest…this trail was kickin’ my butt!
At several points I had to force myself to care about the waterfalls cascading in the distant fog-draped mountains. But rest assured, they were stunning…and they were everywhere.
We reached mile-marker six and met one of the friends of our trail guys, and a few more hikers making the long trek. Seeing the occasional person was a nice reminder that we weren’t totally insane for trying this. But that darn Crawler’s Ledge was still to come, and by now, we were gaining on it.
When we first laid eyes on it, we were still a few cliffs away. Within the Kalalau community, this section of the trail is literally internet famous, so we were immediately able to identify it…like seeing The Rock or something. Crawler’s Ledge is Kalalau’s celebrity.
So maybe that’s why I got a sudden jolt of adrenaline. I wasn’t really nervous anymore, just excited to finally see the source of the hype and conquer it.
The best way for me to describe what Crawler’s Ledge looks like is to compare it to what it might be like to hike along the outside of a basketball. There is no ledge. And not only is there no ledge, but there’s also NO LEDGE. To your immediate right is a sheer drop into the ocean…but one that you wouldn’t make without banging into a thousand rocks along the way. No biggie. And pray for no rogue gusts of wind, because you’d be screwed.
We were about 100 yards away on the top of a switchback, sizing it up, when I actually said my goodbyes, received a little pep-talk from the hubby and started to lead the way.
To this day, that stretch is my favorite.
At this point, we were over half-way but burning daylight. People hype up Crawler’s Ledge but there are so many points after it that are comparable or worse. We were moving quickly but we had to keep in the back of our minds that a misstep would be lethal. But so not scary! Because the trail required so much attention to footing, it was kind of like having on blinders. You often didn’t realize the risk beneath your boots. Which makes the trail that much more sketchy, but hey, ignorance is bliss…and it carried me directly to ‘Red Hill.’
We stopped at the top and gazed down at Kalalau Beach. One mile to go. This hill was going to be a force to be reckoned with on the way back the next morning, but we slid our way down anyway.
I kept saying “WE MADE IT,” and he kept saying “Not yet.”
One more serious stream crossing. I didn’t even know about this one…but again we hit it under perfect conditions. The rest of the trail was the sloppiest mud, probably in the world. It was suction-cupping me to the ground but we plowed through it, and we didn’t let the thick plants hiding the trail under their palms hold us back either. I felt like I needed a machete. But I did just fine without one. At this point, the mud was nothing.
And then, there it was! One of the most secluded and most beautiful beaches in the world, stretching as far as the eye could see. Engulfed by the cliffs of the Na Pali coast, shooting hundreds of feet overhead, I plopped down in the sand like a tiny grain myself.
I had never been so exhausted in my life. Yet so content. Usually when you lay on a beach, you watch the waves of the ocean rolling in and out. On this beach we put our backs to the ocean, and instead watched the waves of fog rolling in and out of the cliffs until it started to get dark.
We showered in a waterfall and slept in hammocks under the canopies of the trees lining the shore that night. For some reason people really hate the feral cats that call Kalalau home. I’m not one of those people and totally adored the one that decided to hop up in my hammock and sleep with me. We even named him– Pio’pi (from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, haha). He’d been hanging around with us since we’d arrived and his purring was more than welcome through the rain of the night.
The morning came way too soon. We relied on the sun to wake us and with that, we were already a little behind schedule. But we still took an extra hour to walk the beach and soak it all in before we began the 11-mile-trek back to civilization.
Our biggest downfall was probably the amount of weight we’d packed and the amount of that weight that was not edible. We hiked 11 miles on about six crackers and a couple Werther’s candies and I’m not joking.
So that was breakfast. We packed up our campsite and said our alohas to Pio’pi.
Remember “Red Hill” ????? Well, same. Mile one. The sun was beaming down, almost like it was intentionally trying to ruin my world…and I LOVE the sun. I remember reasoning that, at least this part was at the beginning of the hike so we could tackle it first thing in the morning and it would be smooth sailing after that. What a ridiculous delusion!
I had a full blown adult temper tantrum about halfway up the hill. I’m not afraid to admit that I actually tossed my pole and started to cry. You can raise your eyebrows and be judgmental, but that’s because you didn’t have to do it! What a feeling of helplessness.
To sit there, knowing that YOU are your only way out. Knowing that nobody is coming for you. Knowing that you can’t breathe and you’re starving and exhausted already, but there are still 10 more long and hard miles stretching ahead. And that damn sun that you thought you wanted to see, maybe isn’t something you want to see anymore after all, but it doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon either.
Just wow. Rock bottom.
But those thoughts were the same ones that made me get my butt up a couple minutes later and keep moving. Nobody was going to hike this one for me and we needed to get these miles covered before nightfall. Getting caught in the jungle with nothing but headlamps on cliffs wasn’t really something I was interested in trying.
I wish I could say that the hike got easier after Red Hill. But it didn’t. We were making good time, all things considered. But for two non-hikers, we were definitely starting to feel the toll of the trail.
It was on the way back that I was mostly just dragging my own body through the rocks and roots with total disregard for the dangers of tripping. In fact, I was tripping all over the place. But I was so exhausted that I actually didn’t mind. I remember wondering if a real bad trip were to happen and I began to fall off of the mountain to my death, would I even have enough energy to pump a little adrenaline into me to try to save my life. And I wasn’t sure I would.
But once we started crossing the miles off of the list, it started to get more important to live (haha). There was food on the horizon and we were too close now to not make it.
We could not stop talking about what we were going to eat that night. I felt like I was on Survivor or something. The thought of a Dr Pepper and a burger was beginning to go from intangible, to semi tangible again. The conversation was keeping us going.
With about 4 miles remaining, things started to get ridiculous again! Suddenly is was like each mile felt like five. We were charging through them as quickly as we could. So many uphill switchbacks! If we were ‘going up’ on the way to the beach…then WHEN were we going to be going back down!?!? Seriously though. We kept saying over and over “it should be some downhill up here…” and we kept being wrong!
When we reached Hanakapi’ai Stream, with just two miles to go, it started to rain on us a little. I remember there was a group of people apprehensively crossing on the rocks in front of us and I remember blowing by them, not stopping to take our boots off. I could not have cared less about this stream crossing at this point. It was a section that was so intimidating to me the day before, but we were so close to food now, it was like I didn’t even notice the knee-deep running water.
Those last two miles were something else. They were definitely the longest miles of the trail. We reached the 1/2 mile marker and I could not believe we still had that much further to go.
Coming up over that final hill, I could see through the jungle into the bottom of the parking lot. I could see a little tiny bit of the tire of our car peeking through the leaves and branches. And I lost it. I actually cried my way out of the trail, up to the car.
An experience every bit as dangerous as it had been beautiful.
We joked on the way that, due to my lack of exercising and muscle, I was doing this hike on ‘hopes & bones.’
Truth. But the better truth is that I did it.
Nobody could ever take that away from me. Nobody could ever take that away from us.
We’ll always have Kalalau.