August 4, 2013 Updated: August 4, 2013 at 7:15 pm
On the northwest corner of Kaua'i is a stretch of coastline and beaches so lovely, people drop out of society to live there illegally.
Tourists pay hundreds of dollars to ride helicopters or boats to get a glimpse of it without ever setting foot on its sand. Its seaside cliffs, high waterfalls, jagged peaks and remote beaches make the Na Pali Coast one of the more stunning places in the United States.
But if paradise were easy to reach, everyone would be there. And nothing about the Kalalau Trail, the historic path that runs from pavement's end to Kalalau Beach, is easy. Even the numbers - 12 miles each way, 5,000 feet of up and down - don't tell the story.
So for those who might want to visit this lovely corner of Hawaii, I will tell the story of the time I conquered the Kalalau Trail and it conquered me.
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My wife and I arrived on Kaua'i in August 2010 on the first leg of our honeymoon. Brimming with hubris, we thought little of the challenges awaiting us.
After all, we live at 6,200 feet above sea level and spend much of our summers climbing the great 14,000-foot peaks of Colorado. How tough could a little beach hike be?
Many approach Kalalau Trail with similar confidence. And many, as we did, find out just how tough this trail is.
The journey began months earlier, when we applied for permits. Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources allows a maximum of 60 people to camp in Na Pali Coast Wilderness State Park at any time. Permits are $20 per person per day, and the allotment of 10 fills a month or two in advance.
Permits in hand, we camped at the lovely Haena Beach Park and early the next day hit the trail.
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The third time I fell in the mud, I was ready to quit.
Kalalau Trail winds up and down five massive valleys. In the valleys, it was almost always raining, turning the trail to slop. Climbing out of the valleys was heart-racing, not just for the exertion but the steep drop-offs.
Needless to say, we were glad we brought good boots, though it was too humid for rain gear so we accepted being soaked. We passed the first beach, Hanakapi'ai, where most day hikers turn around, and continued to Hanakoa, a jungle campsite at the midway point. Old stone terraces remain here and in every other rare flat spot on the coast, a testament to the island's agricultural past.
Exhausted after hiking through rain forests sweet with the smell of guava, some had decided to leave their camping gear at Hanakoa and take a day trip to Kalalau Beach. It seemed so distant and hard to reach, we went to sleep thinking we would do the same thing.
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After a night's sleep, we were reinvigorated and decided to press on - and soon faced the most challenging stretch of the trail.
At mile 7, the trail is an eroded mess descending a steep valley, in which a fall could mean a long slide and a deadly plunge. Then it becomes a ledge only a few feet wide, with nothing but open air and the ocean 2,000 feet below. This is not a section of trail to be crossed when it's raining.
Finally, after a half day's trudging, we reached our Xanadu: the first view of Kalalau Beach, a strip of sand towered over by enormous peaks and cliffs.
Camping options are many. You can camp on higher ground before you reach the beach, in the trees around the beach or even in sea caves in the sand. We spent our first night in the largest cave, where we had plenty of company, from other hikers and kayakers to mice and huge stinging centipedes.
We saw the best sunsets and rainbows of our lives. We swam at what felt like private beaches, never straying far from shore as there was definitely no lifeguard on duty. Swimming can be dangerous in winter when there are strong rip currents; we were told summer is safer.
With this in mind, we made the 5-minute swim around a rocky cape to discover two more beaches, unreachable by land. Here we found one of the great wonders of the trip: two endangered monk seals lying in the sun, oblivious or uncaring about our presence.
If only I had packed a waterproof camera.
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If Kalalau Beach is paradise, it is definitely "paradise found." We met hikers with permits, hikers without permits, and squatters who melt into the woods when state parks officials visit.
For our second night, we moved to a higher location and chased off the centipede and cockroaches that were there first. Later, a cruise ship passed and our cell phones clanged to life for the first time in days.
We quickly turned them off.
Some beach "locals" told us about a guy who illegally shuttles people by boat to and from the beach for $50, and we watched the next day as people lined up to swim their gear against the waves to reach the boat. We had no cash so we packed up camp and retraced our steps on a long, long day, arriving at the car near dusk.
Even if we'd had cash, I don't think we would have taken the escape boat. A place so remote and stunningly beautiful should be hard to reach. The struggle to get there and back makes it all the more beautiful.
Permits for the Na Pali Coast Wilderness State Park are available at camping.ehawaii.gov.
If you're planning to experience the Kalalau Trail, here are a couple of helpful tips:
- Give yourself a day to gather supplies. If you don't take camping gear or you need camp stove fuel, you can rent gear in Haena, the last town before the trailhead, about a 75-minute drive from the airport.
- If you have valuables, you can find a baggage service to hold your luggage while you're on the trail - not a bad idea because break-ins frequently occur at the trailhead.