September 14, 2011

Island tri: Snorkeling, hiking, paddling Kauai


After a busy August of work and hosting family and friends, we jetted to Hawaii for my brother's wedding on Kauai. We packed our backpacks and took the opportunity to explore some classic outdoors spots.

Before the wedding at Anini Beach, we checked out some colorful fish on a snorkeling outing. With equipment rented from a shop in Hanalei, seeing the sea life at Tunnels Beach was as easy as swimming into the mild surf from shore. The activity also allowed us to finally put Jen's underwater point-and-shoot camera to the test - we bought it a couple of years ago for a trip to Australia but never really dunked it. We spent a few hours with it in the saltwater, and it did a fine job on both photos and videos.


After the wedding, we stayed around Hanalei for a handful of days for some post-family fun.

First was a three-day, two-night backpacking trip out the 11-mile Kalalau Trail on Kauai's famed Na Pali Coast. The trail was long, hot, humid and at times crowded, but the views - of the cliffs during the day and the sunsets and stars at night - were well worth it. On the middle day, we hiked upstream through the Kalalau Valley to a deep pool perfect for a swim then strolled out the beach. Read more about the trails below.

Back in Hanalei for our last full day on the island, we rented stand-up paddleboards and made our way up the calm river to the taro fields and down to the bay, where the surf picked up a bit.

From the wedding to the walking, it was a great vacation. Congratulations to the newlyweds, and thanks for the wonderful break!

Days 1 and 3: Kalalau Trail


The Kalalau Trail is an 11-mile route along the dramatic fluted cliffs of Kauai's northern coast, beginning at Haena State Park and crossing into Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park. Due to packing our bags at the wedding accommodations, last-minute shopping and taking a shuttle to the trailhead, we got a late-morning start on the trail.

The first couple of miles are on a wide, rocky path that climbs westward through shady vegetation then descends to a creek crossing and Hanakapi'ai Beach. It provides good views west along the Na Pali Coast, but is crowded.


After crossing the first stream, the route switchbacks up out of the Hanakapi'ai Valley and leaves behind the crowd - except for the near constant buzz of helicopters in the sky above and procession of boats in the ocean below.

High above the water, the trail continues its westward traverse through thick vegetation, back into hanging valleys then out and around ridgelines that plunge to the water. Many of the ridges are accompanied by sets of switchbacks up and then down, adding elevation gain.

At six miles, the Hanakoa Valley and stream are reached. Here, there's a camp for backpackers not hiking the full 11 miles and a short trail - which we didn't take - that provides views of Hanakoa Falls, spilling from the mountains above. Running short on water, we filtered at a nearby creek then moved on.


From Hanakoa, the trail continues into valleys and around ridges, but the land becomes drier and the vegetation more open. Soon, the trail reaches a rocky ravine that spills to the sea. After a short descent, to about 300 feet above the ocean, it rounds a narrow cliff called Crawler's Ledge - definitely not a place for a misstep.


Beyond Crawler's Ledge, the traverse continues, with Kalalau Beach and the fluted cliffs above and beyond it coming into view. We reached this area in the late-afternoon heat and found our water running short, but pressed ahead.

After passing what appears to be a defunct camp, the trail makes a final climb around a ridge to the top of Red Hill, where the ground is rust colored and the view over the Kalalau Valley and beach is wide open.

Once down, the route crosses Kalalau Stream at 10.5 miles then a final hill before a straightaway to the camp and beach. As Jen filtered water again at the stream, I caught the sun setting before finding a suitable site for our tent under the trees just off a rocky part of the beach.


Two days later, we had a much easier time on the way out due to a couple of changes. First, we started before 8 a.m., allowing us to get through the drier terrain in the morning hours. Second, we made a few more regular stops to filter water, no matter how much we had left, to ensure we had plenty to drink.

A few words about camping at Kalalau: Hawaii State Parks requires permits, which you can buy online and print at home. We met people who didn't have them and ours were never checked; nonetheless, we don't mind paying for management and preservation of special places. Unfortunately, while the trail is one of the most scenic we have hiked, the camps were some of the dirtiest we have seen and obviously the victims of years of abuse and/or neglect. Pack it in, pack it out, people. And don't get me started on the composting toilets.

More pictures from Kalalau Trail and beach are here and here.

Distance: 11 miles one way.

Trailhead: The Kalalau Trail begins at Haena State Park, about 7.25 miles west of Hanalei on Hawaii Highway 560, the Kuhio Highway.

Day 2: Kalalau Valley and beach


The middle day of our backpacking trip was spent wandering around Kalalau.

That morning, we followed the end-of-valley trail upstream through the forest. Along the way we passed several cascades, stands of bamboo and old terraces where taro was once grown. The trail ends at a deep, cool pool, where we took a swim and ate a snack before returning to camp.


Later in the day, we wandered a short distance up the beach past several sea caves - some of which people had set up camp in - at the base of the cliffs.

Distance: The end-of-valley trail is four miles round trip.

Trailhead: The end-of-the-valley trail begins just west of the Kalalau stream crossing, near Kalalau Beach.