If you’re reading this, our attempt to hike the Kalalau Trail on Kauai ended in one of two ways. First, I could be writing this from a plush hotel on PoipuBeach without a single mosquito bite or a sore muscle, meaning our endeavor failed and we didn’t get far on the hike. Second, I could be writing this from that same resort with purifying mai tai in hand, preparing to waddle over to the spa for my recuperative massage and mud bath. Also, if you’re reading this, it thankfully means I failed to meet my untimely and final demise while navigating the treacherous, narrow corridors of what National Geographic ranks as one of the World’s Best Hikes. Yes, the latter is a good failure.I’m happy to report we did not fall off a cliff and have the dramatic tumble posted on YouTube by the tourists in the boats bobbing below. Really, that wouldn’t have been much of an exaggeration. If the cameras of the Na Pali Coast tourists missed my plummet, one of the many helicopter passengers zooming by would have certainly captured the moment. The coastline may be wild and remote but it’s certainly not unpopular.
I also happily report that we accomplished our goal in completing the 22-mile hike along the mountainside of one of the most recognizable coastlines in the world. JurassicPark, South Pacific and FantasyIsland, to name a few films, have featured these stunning palis (peaks). Thanks to our Issaquah Alps training, my husband and I felt well-prepared traversing the constant inclines and declines. Plus, we managed to sneak in a glance at the scenery from time to time.
Part of the beauty of the Na Pali Coast is in the color contrasts. You have to remind yourself to look up every once in a while during the hike and take in the grandeur. It’s easy to be more engrossed in securing solid foot placement along the challenging trail than in admiring the breathtaking views. One minute you’ll be immersed in a wet mangrove tunnel inhaling the heavy, sweet scent of rotting lilikoi fruit, and the next minute you’ll be slipping on the dry, pulverized lava rocks that have the consistency of coarsely-ground salt and pepper. Within just an hour you’ll pass through white waterfalls within a green jungle, out onto red lava, down to turquoise waters and back onto black rocks. It’s a mesmerizing kaleidoscope. What’s even more mesmerizing is how the many feral goats manage to camouflage themselves in these various hues.
Did I just say goats? Yup. By the second day on the trail you could hear those gravity-defying buggers bleating from locations that seemed impossible. When I first heard the dull cries I thought the sound was echoing because it could not have possibly originated from the middle of the cliff ahead of me! Well, that was not the first time those goats would make an ass out of me. Sure enough, casually walking upon a three-inch ledge was a pack of goats roaming up a vertical bluff. In chronicling our training efforts I titled the last piece that described my introductory hiking poles experience, “Slope Goats”. Little did I know I would have the opportunity to see their four-legged incarnation demonstrating precision hiking technique in Kauai!
My slope goats came in handy on the Kalalau Trail – or shall I say, a single slope goat. Since the trail becomes quite narrow after Mile Two there’s not much real estate for the planting and swinging of two trekking sticks. I found I was almost tripping myself up by planting a pole where a foot should have gone. Over half the time the trail can be navigated without an additional appendage. However, there are numerous occasions when you slow your steps and remark, “Jeepers, that’s steep!”, or “How’d that goat get down there?” There were also more flimsy segments of the trail where I’d have to transition from a casual one-handed pole plant to using the free hand for a rock-wall-assisted set of paces. Igneous rock makes for really good hand-holds.
In addition to the hiking pole steadying any wavering steps, I took consolation in the shrubs that lined the cliff below thinking “If I go cart wheeling over the edge, that cluster of orchids will catch me.” We had a security blanket of foliage for most of the hike including some Dr. Seuss-like Yucca plants that perched on the hillsides. Unfortunately, I’d have to retract my trusty slope goat for the legendary 50-yard segment of trail that comes at Mile Seven.
Mile Seven is “legendary” because I read a single blog about it, staring at the attached photo and video so much that I almost talked myself out of my plane ticket. A hiker had illustrated a portion of the trail that was devoid of a safety net of shrubs, was high enough above crashing waves to kill a person, and offered a paltry 8 inches of mildly horizontal walking width. Given those dimensions in my kitchen I can Twinkle-Toe my way from the sink to the fridge, backward, without wobbling. Just add a 25-lb. backpack, a looming cliff, and goats sending down tiny avalanches of rocks, and Twinkle-Toes turns into Hyperventilating-Henrietta.
The transition from using one hand to two hands on the adjacent cliff wall to steady myself was like going from simulation video game to jumping out of an airplane. The two are very similar but not at all alike. My heart thudded and I forgot to breathe while I muttered my mantra, “right hand, left hand, shuffle step, you are a solid slope goat, right hand…” To say I exercised caution is an understatement. I made like a ninny, a wuss, I stayed alive.
When the trail widened I sat down on a rock and admired my accomplishment. Fifty yards of treacherous passage. Conquered! Pulling me out of my euphoria was a pair of tan, flip-flopped feet walking around my rock throne. The owner of that flimsy footwear casually entered the Gauntlet of Death with one hand gently brushing the rock wall like browsing for a shirt in a closet. As soon as Mr. Blythe disappeared around the corner I spat, “Well he wasn’t carrying the weight of a backpack!” Blasted hippies!
To jerk us back to the task at hand the pea sized pellets raining down the bluff started to become more persistently close. My husband Glenn yelled, “Goats! Move!” We hustled as best we could, looking like a backpacker-version of Spy vs. Spy sneaking down a dark alley. Emerging from beyond the Goat Gauntlet we stopped to catch our breath again, and this time waved enthusiastically down to the tourist boats below to signal our triumph. It took them a while to realize we weren’t signaling for help and they responded with a few encouraging Woots. It’s probably impossible to tell from down in the bobbing boats whether the hikers on that passage are about to meet their maker or make a meal. It’s certainly more suspenseful and entertaining than Disneyland!
Welcoming us at KalalauBeach were other backpackers who had similarly avoided becoming featured YouTube videos. It was the Garden of Eden except occupied by many clothed-cousins of Adam and Eve. Sunset dinner on the beach while gazing up at the majestic palis was perfection. We inhaled our dessert of dehydrated raspberry cobbler that suggested it serves four. Four what? Maybe mice or Lilliputians.
The next morning we dropped off an extra dehydrated dinner and a couple Starbucks Vias to the Minnesotan Christopher Atkins look-alike who was trying to see how long he could “live off the land” at Mile 11. Stories about this 18-year-old had trickled in from other hikers on the trail preceding our arrival, and I had built up in my head that he was some parasitic mooch. But my hostility abated after meeting this cherubic vision of youth with his tidy camp and carefree smile. I’d help him “live off the land”, but I also diabolically wondered what a hot cup of Seattle’s best jet fuel would do to him. I can’t imagine what a stiff cup of coffee would do to our naïve Minnesotan.
The return hike was even more spectacular since we got to see rock arches and landscape that wasn’t in our line of vision on the way out. I was grateful for all our planning and physical preparations. If you think you’re ready to hike this trail, read all the blogs about it. Don’t dwell too long on the one about the Gauntlet of Death though. Most people aren’t strung as tightly as I am. Pay attention to clothing choices, the water preparations, the face mops, the first aid kit contents, and bring an extra dehydrated meal for the teenage dreamer at the end of the trail. His PoipuBeach resort is at Mile 11.