Air, Land & Sea - The Nā Pali Coast Three Ways
(alternate titles for this post were "Finding Neverland" and "That time I nearly died on one of the most dangerous trails in the United States." )
The day I was born it was -36°C (-32.8°F) and I like to half-joke that it was in that first moment my distaste for cold weather began. Without fail, every year when mid January rolls around and my birthday is right on the horizon the cold Canadian winters start to really get to me. I begin searching the web for cheap flights to warm destinations (I justify it as a birthday trip after all) and 2017 was no different. A few weeks into the new year I was sitting in my cold dark office with my credit card in hand booking a trip to one of my favourite places in the world.
With little more than a roundtrip flight to Kauai, a few nights permits for the Kalalau Trail, a half baked plan with a friend and the words Nā Pali circled in my notebook I hopped on a plane for ten days of reprise from the winter.
On the morning of my birthday I was woken up to the news that a friend who was to join me on my adventures was going to be delayed by at least a day because of a winter storm on the West Coast. I panicked, I felt old and alone and had nothing to do for my birthday. Thankfully that was short-lived, I had just (less than 24 hours prior) met Michael Shainblum and Andrew Studer who made it their personal mission for me to have the best birthday. We spent the day running around the island, eating gummy bears, birthday cake and some of the best Poke of my life... and at the end of the day we watched the sunset from a doors-off helicopter tour the Nā Pali Coast with Jack Harter Helicopters. I remember hearing stories of this coastline from my parents over the years - they spent their honeymoon on the island of Kauai and (as people with very few regrets in life) they always wished that they had spent the money seeing the Nā Pali coast by air. After this day, I can understand why.
A backpacking trip worthy of every adventurers bucket list. The Kalalau Trail is neither an exceptionally long backpacking trip (at only 11 miles each way) nor one with notable total elevation change of only ~5,000 feet but is often referred to as one of the most dangerous hikes in the United States. Traversing five valleys along the Nā Pali Coast, the trail is composed of a series of wet gulches prone to flash flooding and open exposed ridgelines. Caution must be taken when attempting this trail.
Backpacking permits are mandatory for this trip and can be purchased online here. Day hiking is only permitted to Hanakapi’ai valley (2 miles from the trailhead) and no boats are permitted to stop at, drop off or pick up (people or supplies) at Kalalau Beach.
As we didn't plan our trip far enough in advance and the only permits that Michael Matti and I were able to secure for the trail ended up being our final two nights on the island(book in advance - especially in the warmer months). The weather was not looking promising and with the inherent dangers of the trip we took advantage of a rainless morning and in the wee hours of the day we began our trip along the 11-mile trail from Ha’ena State Park to Kalalau Beach. We found the trail to be well maintained and with the water level low the river crossings were effortless. It felt like no time had passed as we were met with the 4-mile mark and Hanakapiai - the first of three campgrounds that our permits allowed us to stay at. And two miles after Hanakapiai was the second campground, Hanakoa Falls, oftentimes backpackers will break up their hike in/out and spend a night at one of these two campgrounds. As the day was young and we were feeling fine we opted not to stop and instead continue on into the Kalalau Valley.
The sun grew higher in the sky and we quickly found ourselves in the homestretch of our trip. Met by a sign atop our final plateau that read "Kalalau Beach" we quickly made the 800 foot descent back to sea level to where was to be our home for the next few days.
Our total hiking time was far shorter than average which allowed for the afternoon and evening to be spent setting up camp overlooking the coastline, playing on the beach, jumping into the ocean and befriending our fellow campers. Years worth of stories were swapped of places traveled and adventures had. We learned about the valley we were visitors to and the people who have set up shop over the years. We seemingly had managed to leave the shared reality and find a place worthy of a visit from Peter Pan. There were hippies, yogis and runaways, people trying to find themselves and others working hard to do just the opposite, there was even a man who went by the name Dante and seemingly ran the show. It was exactly the kind of place I needed to be in that moment, I didn't know then but I was on the brink of a big life shift.
As the evening set in the wind picked up and weather steady worsened - the promised full-moon party with the valley residents was cancelled. Our tent was put to the limits with an unrelenting storm that did not let up until mid-morning. With no cell phone service to check for an updated weather forecast, unfriendly clouds encircling us and flights booked home for the next afternoon we made the bittersweet call to cut our trip short and leave the valley after only one night with a promise to return one day soon.
We were quickly reminded of the 800 foot descent that we had appreciated so much only hours before as we climbed the soft ground to the top of the plateau and made note of how welcomed an extra day of rest would have been. Stopping only for a few photos overlooking the beach below we watched as the clouds grew thicker and darker along the coast. The ground was wet and the soft dirt slipped beneath our shoes as we pushed our way along the trail. Knowing that we had made the right decision to leave early but also that we needed to be extra careful with the river crossings we made our way through the series of valleys and along the cliff edges with steady feet. Although not legal residents, the inhabitants of the upper valley stationed themselves at each of the rivers helping backpackers safely cross the water which was growing deeper and flowing faster by the minute. We made our way out safely and after scoffing at the Kalalau Trail's reputation for being so challenging only a day previous we deemed that it had earned it's merit as one of the most dangerous trails in the United States.
*Hiking Kalalau requires a bit of planning ahead, a moderate fitness level and a level of comfort with heights and exposure for the last mile. A maximum stay of 5 nights is allowed in Na Pali Coast State Park. Within the 5-night maximum, no two consecutive nights are allowed at Hanakapiai or Hanakoa. Designated camping areas along the trail do not have tables or drinking water.
After seeing the Nā Pali Coast from above, and hiking it along the Kalalau Trail it seemed only logical that our unexpectedly free final day would be spent on the ocean with Blue Ocean Adventure Tours. We had spent a day earlier in the trip with Cody, the owner of Blue Ocean Adventure Tours but were unable to visit the Nā Pali coast because of bad weather conditions and instead learned the history of the island and toured the southeast coast of Kauai. Fortunately the weather had cleared and we had just enough time before our flights departed for a final tour of the coastline that stole my heart.