September 1, 2013

Kalalau Trail: 'Most beautiful place,' even in the rain

Hikers leave the Kalalau Trail on Kauai happy they made the strenuous and muddy 22-mile round trip.

By PAIGE DONNELLY Special to The Washington Post

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The Kalalau Trail on Kauai, the oldest of Hawaii’s major islands, passes through the Kalalau Valley as well as rainforests.

Photos by Tim DeLaVega

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At one end of the 11-mile trail is Kalalau Beach.


STAYING on the Kalalau Trail costs $20 per night. Apply for a permit online at

TO LEARN MORE, go to kauai/kalalau.cfm

Sam and I had planned this adventure for months. We'd scoured maps, read blog posts, made detailed lists of gear and food to bring, talked to others who had made the trek, borrowed a water filter and even looked at weather reports to prepare as best we could. But just a few hours into this long-anticipated hike, I felt as if all that planning had been for naught. From the beginning, it was clear that the trail had a mind of its own. We had no choice but to buckle under and go with the flow.

I'd tried to model the Kalalau hike after my experience on the Inca Trail a year ago. We planned on two nights on the Na Pali coast; on the Inca Trail, I'd camped for three. The two trails share a similar history: Both are rumored to have served as ancient warrior training grounds. The Inca Trail also offers hidden treasure: The 26-mile trek culminates in the unveiling of Machu Picchu, the hidden Incan city.

Yet my actual experience on the Kalalau Trail differed greatly from what I'd encountered in Peru. For the 21 people in my Inca Trail tour group, we'd had three guides and 22 porters. While I hiked with my light pack, the porters darted down the path with towering stacks of chairs or clinking pots and pans. Camp was set up before we got there, and we ate gourmet meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

But it was just the two of us on the Kalalau Trail. Our food and lodging was much more primitive. We were on our own, exposed to the elements and the wild terrain.

That first night, bugs buzzed us. We blew up our CamelBak water carriers for mini-pillows. They were hard but handy. My sleeping pad leaked. I could feel the root indentations on my back when I awoke.


In the morning, I reluctantly put on my sweaty T-shirt, and we left the wet forest, following the switchbacks from the windward side of the island to the leeward. And there, in front of us, was the ocean. No boats, no surfboards, no people, just the bluest blue below the terra-cotta-colored cliffs. Around every corner, Sam would exclaim, "This is the most beautiful place I've ever seen."

We moved with ease over the supposedly dicey mile seven. The path narrowed slightly, but I sensed no real danger. There was good footing, and moreover, the view was breathtaking.

Mile seven, just where the guidebooks said that I should be filled with terror, was where I felt strangely soothed. I was severed from the stresses and work of home. Beneath me, the hem and haw of lava rock was long frozen. And in front of me, the ocean swelled for miles, untouched. My mind, the land and the water -- we were all suspended, immune to man-made disturbances.

We kept our packs light the second day by stopping at the many waterfalls along the way. There we would filter and refill our canteens and CamelBaks and snack on trail mix.

We picked up a hungry straggler at one point: Bret from Oregon. He was between jobs and the Kalalau Trail was the only place in Kauai where he could stay for free. (He hadn't purchased a permit.) Before we said our goodbyes, we offered Bret a granola bar and a couple of crackers.

Not long after, the Kalalau Valley, sealed by a long white strip of sand, came into view. Pink and yellow flowers splattered the trail, and there was a magnificently sweet smell that I couldn't place. Passion fruit, perhaps. On cue, with the pristine beach just up ahead, I heard, "This is the most beautiful place I've "

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