Way way back in 2015 I went to Hawaii in part to hike the Kalalau Trail but it was dangerous and I couldn’t do the whole thing. In 2016 I corralled my father, brother and sister and got them to meet me in Glacier National Park, and we decided to maybe make it an annual thing, a family hike. After tossing around the idea of going to Europe we didn’t really get our shit together enough so I was like well hey, how about Hawaii, I know a really dangerous trail we can do!
This was appealing to my dad, I think, and maybe Hawaii more generally was appealing to my sister, but since I was willing to type longish emails about the logistics that’s where we ended up going. Sadly, my baby brother had started a new job and didn’t have vacation time yet, so it was Dad, Marisa and me.
My dad likes to drive and had a car to drop off in Denver, so he and my sister set out by car a few days before I was to meet them in Hawaii. Along the way they visited several of [Location’s] Largest [Item].
They flew from Denver to LA and saw Jason Mraz play a birthday show (my sister is a huge fan) and learned first-hand how much they hate LA. I got to Kauai the night they saw his show, and was set to pick them up at the airport the next day. Two days on the island to myself! I’d planned to car camp at a public beach, do a warm-up hike to get used to the awful, awful humidity, and eat poke in the meantime (they have much less enthusiasm for raw fish).
I got to the rental car place early Friday morning (due to the curve of the earth) and ended up with a MUSTANG, thus continuing a grand tradition of Free Upgrades for the Everitt sisters. (What I had not considered was how impractical this would be for three people, including a 6’2″ man, and all of our hiking gear and luggage oops.) This picture was taken by my sister after my repeated insistence. Please enjoy.
I had my first serving of poke well before noon (I reject the tyranny of breakfast-only foods), and started a day hike I didn’t do on my last visit: to the top of the Sleeping Giant along the Nounou Trail, about 6 miles out and back. I sweated through my shirt less than half a mile in and decided to do the rest in my sports bra. Whatever, man, it’s the tropics.
If you have read my Yellowstone post, you will have heard about my anxiety. It was evident on this trip as well! As I huffed and sweated up the switchbacks, taking in the dramatic volcanic rock and alien foliage with my eyes and my cell phone camera, I was also trying to calm down and really failing.
I wasn’t worried I would die, I felt quite prepared for day hike eventualities (sunscreen, water, snacks), but I felt afraid. Like maybe you do when you’re walking somewhere late at night and think you’re being followed. Like if you step faster or stop something awful will happen. Or maybe it’s basically how dogs feel on the Fourth of July. I tried to breathe evenly, and stop when I needed to, taking in views of the ocean when I saw it through the dense trees and to listen to the weird birds when I couldn’t see beyond the leaves. Mostly this worked, but I started trying to attach the feeling to practical things (you know how people will say, “What’s making you anxious?” Well, no thing is, but if you want to give my amped-up fear brain a task (identify potential threats), that’s a decent way to do it).
Anyway the Sleeping Giant was a good warm-up hike (LITERALLY) and getting to the top required an exciting scramble. I found a li’l cave for some shade and sat there trying to calm down a bit, then clambered back down. By the time I got there I had decided that the Mustang was a foolish liability at the camp site I’d chosen (paranoid Yelpers complained of break-ins and that this particular beach wasn’t a friendly place for tourists) but had also decided to suck it up and stick with the plan.
I changed out of my sweaty activewear into a maxi dress purchased for the trip (bless its breezy practicality) and had some high-priced, large and extremely delicious shave ice in town, then stocked up on some supplies for the backpacking trip ahead. My friend Allie demanded via Instagram comment that I purchase sunglasses that weren’t broken so I splurged on a >$10 pair and a lovely sun hat and then headed for the beach camp site.
The road ended abruptly as I turned onto the beach, and the Mustang was so impractically low-slung that I surely did damage to it jouncing over the foot-deep potholes. I spied a few camp sites but worried intensely enough about pitching my tent alone next to an obvious and ridiculous rental car that my stomach hurt. A lot. I parked at the end of the beach to consider my options and stare at the ocean, trying to time my breaths with the tides or some shit, and in the end decided to find a place to sleep indoors. A search for “Kauai Hostel” yielded a place for just $30 and I took it like the coward I am.
Back in Kapaa at the hostel I checked in with an overworked and unbothered front desk attendant while UB-40 played on the stereo. I went out for a walk on a path along the beach (rocky not sandy) as a rainstorm rolled in. The drops were big and warm and I began to find some equanimity knowing that I had a safe place to sleep and would see my family tomorrow. There was even a double damned rainbow as the clouds cleared.
Just like in Yellowstone, I had been rescued by a hostel, and just like in Yellowstone, I had the top bunk. One of the guests was painting a mural bathroom wall and it was beautiful. Some of the other guests were making big pots of beans and rice together in the outdoor kitchen while the rain started falling again, and I went to the weirdly New American $$$ bar next door for some tiki drinks and a (mostly successful) attempt at solitary reading. I got a free drink each time the bartender messed up, which was twice.
The Mai Tais and the tradewinds coming through the window slats (the wall facing the ocean wasn’t one) did the trick and I slept well.
My dad and sister weren’t due in until evening, so the next morning I packed up and went on another day hike, this one along the 7-mile out-and-back Maha’uelpu Trail. I lucked into a parking spot at the trailhead, in the middle of condos and luxury hotels in Poipu, and asked a local who was there waiting for the tides to get just right to surf if I’d regret my footwear. He affirmed my selection and offered me marijuana, which I declined due to my continuing low-level panic and the mild exertion that lie ahead.
The trail was absolutely lovely, following the beach for a while and then climbing briefly onto dramatic sandstone bluffs. What you don’t see behind me in this photo is the extremely well-manicured golf course the trail hugs for a mile or so. It was strange to be “hiking” within earshot of golf carts but eventually the trail ran through a more typical kind of park. Near the end of the planned trail I saw signs for Makauwahi Cave Reserve, and followed them. There was a really cool limestone cave I had to crawl on my hands on knees briefly to get into, and an enthusiastic tour guide who I tipped with all the cash I had on hand because I was just so delighted to have stumbled on the thing.
The last bit of the trail opened out onto a sandy beach (accessible either by the hike I’d just done or lots of rutted roads, so I was alone except for one family who had made the trek and ignored the cave detour [fools]). I drank the now-warm beer I’d carried and splashed around in the ocean a bit to cool off, then let the sun dry me off.
It was early in the day yet, so I went to Poipu Beach — lovely for swimming but just filled with people. I toted my book and another warm beer and alternated between a few pages of Henry James and a dip in the ocean with half an eye on my keys stuck in the sand. It’s hard to feel too much other than chill when you’re bobbing in an immense body of water that’s somehow warm and salty and soothing. But I felt just an edge of it anyway because that’s what I do.
Volunteers had cordoned off a sea creature, then another hauled itself up to be photographed.
Once I felt well and truly sun-baked, I drove into Koloa for more poke, then to the beach nearest the airport to await the arrival of my family.
I bought them some snacks and lilikoi chiffon pie from a place I visited in 2015 and some water (I couldn’t find my dad’s favorite, Diet Mountain Dew, at the gas station) and waited in the cell phone lot, which was a curb 50 feet from the door. When I picked them up and took them to dinner, I had more poke.
I’d planned the trip so we had a few days to do Hawaii stuff before starting in on the backpacking. My dad rented a motorcycle (his 48th state to ride in, I think) and went off on his own with plans to meet us at the Marriott luau that evening.
My sister and I did a rum tasting, which was weird (but bought a rum cake and some airplane bottles we ended up taking on the trail). We wanted to rent a kayak to pilot to the heavily advertised Secret Waterfall but they were all booked, so we paid $5 each to tour a replica Hawaiian village (and use the bathrooms).
My sister is really afraid of birds and Kauai is overrun with them — chickens, mostly, but the village had some terrifying peacocks, too. She held her own.
I ate some poke in front of her again. We went to a beach and read and dove into the ocean, where the waves pummeled sand into our hair and everywhere else and we laughed like children. We envied those with boogie boards. She made a dam out of sand to keep the waves away from my paperback and insisted on burying me. It felt nice.
At the luau we saw all kinds of dancing and singing and it was neat. They asked for volunteers at the end and my sister enthusiastically raised her hand and then pointed to my dad, who was ushered onstage. When the emcee asked my dad if he had any final words before his performance, he said, “I’m going to kill my daughters.” He performed admirably in this emergency situation. I have never laughed so hard in my life. He must have delighted others, too, because after he danced, people thanked my sister and me.
On Monday I had a little trouble sleeping because of the anxiety. I woke up to a 3 a.m. email from vrbo asking me to rate my stay and realized I’d only booked the condo for one night, and proceeded to FREAK OUT. I didn’t get back to sleep at all, and tried to immerse myself in some (usually) utterly comforting Henry James drama about Boston’s women’s movement. When my dad woke up, I broke the news and we decided to eat all the eggs and bacon and watermelon we had bought (for two days) and then just … figure things out. Despite knowing full well that we would find a place to stay that night, I felt remarkably awful. I was angry at myself and the anxiety attached to that and grew and grew. I had a beer at 7 a.m. just to try to chill.
My dad had the motorcycle for a bit longer, so we agreed to pack up the place and meet him at the rental place, then go on with our plans for the day. My sister and I got permits for a beach camp site ($3 per person) near the trailhead, something that worked out so perfectly that I got upset in a brand new way, this time over how anxious I’d been. We also had shave ice for breakfast.
We packed all three of ourselves into the Mustang and drove to the other side of the island to look out onto the beach we planned to sleep at the night after that.
We stopped at Waimea Canyon (billed as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific), and decided it met our expectations for something compared to Arizona’s venerated hole in the ground. This picture does not do it justice in any way mostly because we are standing in front of it. Helicopter tours were flying around in the canyons, demonstrating just how huge deep the canyons were, and the whole thing reminded us of Jurassic Park (probably because it was partly filmed there).
The drive up into the mountains had been hilariously foggy, and we were sure we wouldn’t see anything at all from the look out point over Kalalau Trail. We’d brought a picnic lunch and ate it while warding off birds, and just as we were about to go, the clouds parted miraculously and we were able to look down at the Nā Pali Coast — accessible only on foot (by us, tomorrow).
I insisted on another poke stop at Ishihara Market in Waimea and we went to the beach on the other side of the island, set up our tents, waded in the sort of disappointingly calm water, and watched the sun go down.
We got up early because I was a sickening mixture of anxious and excited, stopped to carb up at a Bread Company and headed along some one-lane roads to the trailhead — already too crowded to park less than half a mile away. We unloaded our packs, stuffed what we could in the trunk, and took our BEFORE picture. You can see some of the many ways to hurt and kill yourself (cliff, flash flood, rip tides) on this trail outlined on the signs behind us.
Kalalau Trail is 11 miles long, and ends at the long and sandy Kalalau Beach at the foot of the cliffs we saw from the look-out the day before. There is one camp site about halfway at Hanakoa (6 miles in), up in the trees, where some people stop for a night if they don’t want to do the whole 11 in one go.
We had permits for two nights on the trail, and I wanted more than anything for us to make it all the way to the nice beach on Day 1 and have a whole Day 2 to just chill. But I tried to temper expectations since stream crossings could change everything, and I didn’t want anyone to push themselves too hard and get hurt. In 2015, I had had to turn back because the first stream crossing was more than waist-deep and running brown with sediment (this is dangerous).When I went in 2015 there wasn’t even a beach, the sea was so rough and the stream so high. This year, we rock-hopped across and didn’t even get our feet wet.
The hike starts gaining elevation basically right away, and the free-floating anxiety abated as my body shifted that nervous energy to breathing and producing a truly incredible quantity of sweat. The first two miles to Hanakapi’ai Beach, despite being steep, completely un-level and riddled with roots to trip over, make for a popular day hike, and lots of people with no packs blew right past us. The trail goes right back on down to sea level (where the beach is duh) where most people stop and play before they head back to their hotel or condo or whatever.
A lot of people have drowned at that beach (the handmade sign greeting us said 78, no time span indicated). But on the day we went, there was a lovely and calm spot behind a sandbar to safely splash around in. If you have been to Kauai you may have hiked this far. We shed our boots and packs and packs, ate early lunch, and splashed around with the day hikers for about half an hour. Gathering the will to keep moving was its own minor challenge, but an EVEN BETTER beach was waiting 9 miles ahead.
The trail goes straight back up, regaining all the elevation we’d lost to get to Hanakapi’ai. Once you get up out of the trees you start to walk along the sharp cliffs and hanging valleys that stun helicopter and boat tour-goes. The trail gets scenic in direct proportion to how scary it is. There’s only foliage and tree roots to arrest a fall into the ocean below, and sometimes not even that. That afternoon we gained 800 feet, then lost 300, gained 100 and lost it again, gained 200 and lost nearly 400, gained 250 and lost 75, and then gained a smidge over 200 feet. (To get an idea, think of a typical flight of stairs in a many-story building as about 10 feet, then laugh at our foolishness.)
The wind here was nice, but the loose rock making up the path was difficult for my sister, who had worn (old, tread-less) tennis shoes to hike. We were lucky that it was dry, at least. So, so lucky.
The part that puts Kalalau Trai on MOST DANGEROUS HIKES IN THE WORLD lists is called Crawler’s Ledge, at mile 6. Looking at videos of it before the trip was enough to upset my stomach, but once I got there, it was just another thing to do on the trail to get to the damned beach and be able to sit down. Just before we got there, though, we lost another 300 feet over about .25 miles (THIS IS VERY STEEP) in a series of comically sharp switchbacks improbably cut into the face a hanging valley. This alone was enough to revv up my anxiety again, tired as I was, and this is where I discovered my sister’s lack of shoe tread. We both almost lost it at this point (footing-wise and emotionally) and had to stop a few times to just breathe and maybe sob. The wind was refreshing and also scary. Dad went along more or less unfazed.
Once I got to the Crawler’s Ledge part, I had put six tough miles on the body, and knew I had to do it, so the anxiety mostly evaporated. I worried about my sister and in that found a reserve of calm I didn’t expect. None of us crawled at any point, but the trail was so narrow that I had to place my feet sideways and be very careful about how my pack weight was distributed. I held onto the rock wall I was facing (with no confidence that it would save me but a vague sense that touching the Earth was safer in some way in that moment), watched my feet carefully and only stole a few glimpses of the ocean roiling beautifully blue, 400 feet below. “Death on the left,” they call it, though I guess while you hike toward Kalalau Beach it’s on the right. The death.
It took maybe 10 minutes and at the end of it my dad turned around and cried in triumph: “HECK YEAH!” Yes he said heck.
What actually scared me and my sister more was Red Hill, because the trail was so loose and pebbly that it was basically like walking on ball bearings. Again, we were so, so lucky that this was dry. Here I stayed near my sister, walked very slowly, and listened for her slips and wondered what I’d do if she did fall down but we made it alive if not unharmed, emotionally, by the ordeal.
We gained and lost chunks of less than 100 feet a few times more before a 500 foot climb that, spread as it was over nearly a mile, felt merciful. When we hit 700 feet of elevation and looked down at Kalalau Beach I couldn’t understand how it was only half a mile away but that is precisely the final cruelty of Kalalau Trail. My knees hurt.
We tromped into the beach and scouted for a decent campsite in the trees a couple hundred feet from the ocean. I shed every layer it was decent to shed and we pitched our three tents. Dad went off to refill our water supplies and a friendly neighbor offered me some of the second bottle (!) of honey-flavored Jim Beam he’d hiked in. He showed me a weird wound he’d treated by drinking the first bottle. It was warm and too sweet but there are times when you must mark an occasion any way you can.
We were giddy. Exhausted and covered in layers of dried sweat and red dirt, we watched the sun sink into the ocean and light up the sheer pointed cliffs in an otherworldly red-and-orange blaze. A few other groups of campers sat in the sand to watch the show — maybe a dozen, total, along the entire length of the half-mile-long beach.
My sister greeted a few of the skinny feral cats even though I had told her to imagine them as flea-carrying and food-thievery devices. But I guess I get it.
We made our dinners in the waning light and tucked in, blessed trade winds drifting through the tent. The anxiety felt distant. It had taken only an 11-mile hike with 5,000 feet of elevation gain! Good to remember for next time.
We had nothing on the agenda for Wednesday. Not a thing except stay hydrated and eat a meal or two. Generally this is not something I am able to cope with. Wednesday was the true test: am I capable, in a limited way, of following my bliss?
We did things as they felt interesting or useful, first scouting for an even better campsite. We found one, secluded between trees from the trail on one side and the beach on another, with a fire ring and a broken surfboard and rusty propeller we declared a kitchen.
Each of us went to the water to stare or wave at boats as we felt like it. My sister napped a lot. I napped a little. My dad read his textbook (he was missing class to be there), and I read from the copy of The Bostonians I’d ripped in half and stuffed into my pack at the last minute, anticipating the downtime. We snacked on Frito’s and melted rum cake and visited the waterfall at the end of the beach for several cold showers. (The best way to do it is to have a buddy hold the PVC pipe left there over your head to direct the flow away from the rock face and make it more shower-like.)
Mid-day, we decided to go together past the waterfall to a sea cave, where I crouched under the rock overhang to reach the very back, then stood up for some reason, snapping the arm of my BRAND NEW SUNGLASSES. This was not a safe place to hang out but it was irresistible. Why are caves kind of irresistible?
We frolicked in the ocean, swimming out past the breakers and feeling the tide pull us along, keeping an eye on each other, riding the waves as they crested and occasionally knocked us into the sand on the beach. It was delightful and dangerous and it took a couple waterfall showers to get an appreciable share of sand out of our suits and hair.
Throughout the day, tourists came by on speedboats with tour guides we could hear squawking distantly. Some people came by on quieter sailboats. Helicopter tours buzzed us. And again and again, state park helicopters hovered to pick up hundreds of pounds of trash from the damn beach. There was a brief stand-off when my dad didn’t want to let go of the broken surfboard table, but the ranger persuaded him of the need to remove trash as it showed up.
So while yes, Kalalau Beach is as close as I’ve come to inspirational-poster-paradise, it was in no way unspoiled. People have thoroughly spoiled it. It wasn’t just the dozen other people there that spoiled it. I spoiled it. There’s nothing there that makes it especially safe and clean for people in great masses, and that’s as close as we get to untrammeled. That so many people leave behind their garbage is infuriating, but not surprising.
More broadly, there aren’t too many trails that were built for leisure (if you consider backpacking that, which is only a little complicated). Kalalau Trail once connected villages in those hanging valleys, and Kalalau Beach once had the greatest population density on the island. The valley still has terraces of cultivated plants left behind only a few decades ago. It was so beautiful I cried a few times, just craning my neck to look at the pali, to watch the sky and sea change color, to hear nothing but waves once it got too dark for boats and ‘copters. It’s as close as we get, nearly all of us.
If you scroll up and read the elevation changes backwards, that’s what we did Thursday. We did it much faster than our hike on the way in, maybe because we started earlier in the day, maybe because we were so looking forward to cheeseburgers and a long, indulgent shower. Of course, we had to repeat Crawler’s Ledge, and this is where my dad took this picture of my sister (WHO HAS VERTIGO, WHICH I FORGOT WHEN SUGGESTING THIS TRAIL, PLANNING THE TRIP, ETC, I AM A MONSTER) crushing it. Just look at her. Death on the goddamn left.
At some point, I realized I’d lost my yellow hat.
The MALTEX hat that had served me so well, left behind after a heartbreak and refashioned into a totem of self-sufficiency that honored the fact that I’d won that within said relationship. It had been on top of my head on top of Mount Whitney and in Badwater Basin, in Wyoming and Arizona and New Mexico and Vancouver and all over California. I had worn it through three years and thousands of miles of attempts to sweat and grunt my demons away.
I realized I could have left it hanging from a tree or it could have blown off a cliffside anywhere in the last difficult miles I’d covered, and decided to move on. But I did cry.
With “just” six miles left to go, we took a break at Hanaloa, where a valley squatter offered me some strong cowboy coffee. I listened to his war stories for a while and then met my dad and sister by the stream, where I took a dramatic rest.
We ended up back at the Marriott that night, and watched the same luau from our patio. I ate two entrees and finished the last grimy pages of Henry James in a hammock, swaying on the beach.
I ate more poke and flew home.
Lessons learned: If you work hard and end up somewhere beautiful, stay awhile. Don’t take your hat for granted. Wear shoes with tread.
Bonus? Here is the playlist I made for toolin’ around in the red Mustang.