Checking One Off the Bucket List
In 2013 Trail Runner Magazine declared it one of “10 Trails That Should Be on Every Bucket List.” National Geographic has listed is as one of the world’s “Best Classic Trails,” and Outside Magazine has called it one of the world’s “20 Most Dangerous Hikes.”
It may be all that. But the Kalalau Trail is most certainly a 22 mile out-and-back epic with about 10,000 feet of vertical, on gnarly mud, roots and rocks, in unpredictable but usually hot and humid weather, offering a very real risk of flash floods on one or more of the half dozen stream crossings along the way.
Until trail running became “a thing,” the Kalalau Trail was revered as a hiking trail, bringing hippies and kindred souls to the secluded camp site and beach at the far end of the Nā Pali Coast of Kauai in Hawaii. It’s remote (next stop due west is Japan) and breathtakingly beautiful, with 4,000 foot intensely verdant peaks towering above the sandy beaches and the Pacific Ocean. When I found myself headed to Kauai on vacation, I decided I had to take this challenge on and started doing some research and planning.
The park recommends 6-10 hours for the hike out, and many break up the trip with an overnight stop. From my adventures in the White Mountains I’ve found that comfortable running times are about half the fastest hiking estimate, but I’m no Ryan Welts or Ben Nephew, and this was in no way an FKT attempt.
Lots of people have run and hiked this thing with GoPros – perhaps supremely douchy and narcissistic, but very helpful for a virtual preview from a few thousand miles away. The trail also has a dedicated discussion group on facebook, and dozens of Strava activities offer detailed elevation breakdowns and pace data.
In fact, two runners on Strava whose stats closely matched my own had run the trail recently, and their times confirmed that 3:15 for the turnaround was a realistic goal. I omitted a goal for the full 22 miles to let myself chill at the turnaround, enjoy the trail, and complete the return at a pace that felt good.
I was excited to take this on, but apprehensive. Until early April I lived on the Fist of the First Men – for 40 days or so during January and February the temps in Vermont never made it above freezing. Now, I was planning to go push myself hard in the tropics – 80 degrees and 100 percent humidity. There might be a breeze off the ocean, but my sludgy New England blood would still be hard pressed to cool me off. Moreover, the brutal winter had kept my running and cross training to short stuff — my longest run this season was just shy of three hours, hardly adequate preparation for a >6 hour epic.
I’d be starting at sea level, turning around at sea level and ending back at sea level, so I wouldn’t be running at altitude and the vertical would be fairly evenly distributed across the 22 miles. But 18,000 feet of vert is a lot of up – and down – no matter where it begins and ends.
At least a fairly dry winter by Hawaiian standards had left the trail reasonably free of deep, pervasive mud, but the perpetual short, intense tropical downpours could easily turn a marginal trail into a muddy mess in minutes.
Hot weather unsupported distance running requires bringing plenty of water or coming prepared to collect it along the way. Bouncing email with a fellow runner on Strava convinced me to ditch my favorite minimalist Osprey pack in favor of a trusted Nalgene pack from my MTB days that holds a bigger (3 liter) bladder. I also brought along a handheld water bottle as part comfort object, part hydration backup.
Drinking a liter an hour I was counting on my water supply to last until just shy of the turnaround at my goal pace. There’s plenty of water en route: the trail crosses several streams carrying runoff from the ridges to the Pacific Ocean; the biggest at mile 2 (Hanakapi’ai), mile 6.5 (Hanakoa), and again at 9.5 miles (Kalalau Valley). There would also be water at the turnaround. Unfortunately, all the fresh water may carry leptospirosis, giardia and other fun tropical bugs, so I brought along a Renovo filter that screws onto a Platypus bottle (I brought along a 1 liter) and can be force fed to process a liter in 2-3 minutes. Refilling my 3 liter Camelbak ought not take more than 10 minutes. (The Renovo will work with gravity alone, but that’s slower going).
No aid stations or stores for resupply meant bringing a few thousand calories to keep the engine running. My go-to long run nosh is Pro Bars – 380 calories each, and I can usually keep them down well into a long run when my body starts rejecting other stuff. I also packed some Gu, Shot Blocks, and granola bars to keep things interesting, and threw in a handful of salt tabs since all the heat and water was likely to screw up my electrolytes.
After a long winter running in Inov-8 Roclite 282s with microspikes I was looking forward to something less substantial on my feet – specifically my trusted Inov-8 TrailRoc 245s. They work well in the White Mountains and on my local trails in the Upper Valley, but after hiking the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail with my family the week before my run I realized that I had brought the wrong tool for the job. The Kalalau Trail is extremely rocky, hard, and unforgiving (it’s set on the edge of an old volcano, after all) – but it’s also covered in a layer of organic slime, so what’s really needed is padding and coarse traction, something like a Mudclaw or Oroc. Alas, I don’t own those (yet). As it turned out, the 245s performed surprisingly well, only slipping occasionally and providing enough padding to spare my feet and legs the brunt of the damage.
Poles were an option, but I can’t make the damn things work for me. I also don’t do sunglasses, but did bring along my trusted Western NH Trail Series buff as sweat rag, nose wipe, tourniquet and reminder of running adventures with good friends. I also threw in an extra pair of socks to reward myself with the luxury of dry feet at the halfway point.
On the day of my run I caught the great North Shore Shuttle bus service from a Princeville resort at the crack of dawn, avoiding the hassle of being dropped off and picked up at Ke’e Beach. The shuttle is only a pilot project, but hopefully Kauai will decide to keep it.
There are decent bathrooms at the trailhead, and after a quick pit stop I hit the trail at 7AM sharp. It’s a rough start with almost 600 feet of vertical in less than a mile. I passed a couple of early bird hikers along the way, but otherwise had the trail to myself. Soon the rain started, and since this is the busiest part of the trail, the surface is fairly slick with use and becomes extremely slippery when wet. That made the descent to Hanakapi’ai Beach at mile 2 treacherous, but I reached the stream crossing in good time and good shape, clocking in well under 15 minute miles. That should have told me to dial it back, but the pace that provided the best flow across the sketchy terrain was fast, so I went with it.
Leaving Hanakapi’ai you take on another mile of climbing, this time almost 800 feet, and with endless dips and short, steep pitches. It’s a slog, never really very runnable, lots of roots, rotting foliage, and mud puddles – and the rain was coming down in steady stream by now, sending rivulets of water on the trail and giving me soggy shoes and nagging concerns about the water level on the crossings at Hanakoa (mile 6) and Kalalau (mile 10).
As you cross into the Hono Onapali Wildlife Area (you literally hop over a low fence crossing the trail) there’s a brief couple of switchbacks before the start a long, irregular descent towards Hanakoa. These are the dreary middle-of-the-run miles that require some focused effort to get out of the way.
The stream crossing at Hanakoa was no biggie — running strong, but with no threat of flash flooding in spite of the rain. And in fact, almost immediately after mile 6, the rain let up and the trail was dry and surprisingly runnable for a bit. Apparently the prevailing winds this time of year (maybe always?) keep the last third of the trail largely dry.
Just shy of mile 7 a stretch of sketchy loose gravel in a barren canyon leads to the dreaded Crawlers Ledge. Lots of discussions can be found online, where people worry that they won’t make it past that point. The videos and images online make it seem like a death trap, but there’s really not much to it, provided you don’t have a prevailing fear of heights, can convince yourself to focus on your footing and don’t allow the trail to mess with your head. You’ll be fine, and the few hundred yards of ledge will be behind you before you know it.
The last couple of miles before reaching the Kalalau Beach involves a final 700 foot climb over a couple of miles, then a long, steep descent all the way to sea level at the bottom of Kalalau Valley. Initially the descent is on rough dirt, but further down it’s along a very narrow path through tall, dense vegetation that’ll scratch you up good as you pass. Beware the confusing sign at the last stream crossing before the camp site: you can go straight through the camp site itself, or hang a right making your way along the beach path. Either way, you’ll eventually come to the water’s edge where a final quarter mile of running on the soft sand will get you as far as you can go: 11 miles from the trailhead at Ke’e Beach.
I was thrilled to have finished the run out in under 2 1/2 hours – but also realized that (as usual) I had done a lousy job keeping my pace under control and keeping something in the tank for the return. This wasn’t a race, so I had the luxury of chilling a bit at the end to recharge and find get psyched up for the return.
I had almost finished off the three liters of water in my Nalgene as I’d hoped, so drawing on my backup handheld, I made it back to the last stream crossing and refilled my bladder, took a little detour to explore the trail the leads up the Kalalau Valley itself before facing the music and the return to Ke’e Beach. It wasn’t pretty — I started sucking wind on the 700 foot climb back out of Kalalau Valley, took it down a notch at the top to regroup, but realized I was well cooked and would need to dig fairly deep to get things working for me.
Where my run out to Kalalau had been measured in hours, I now kept glancing down at my Garmin to track each individual mile as it crept by all too slowly. I allowed myself the occasional minute’s rest on moss-covered rocks in the shade to refocus and found myself channeling my friend Chad, conjuring up a smile at the sheer wonderful insanity of voluntarily pushing myself so hard for no other reason than the challenge and the sense of adventure. I was in a beautiful place doing something awesome that I would remember forever, and the by now overwhelming fatigue was just part of the experience.
I was still ahead of my overall time estimate, but the going was getting increasingly tough, and the stretch back from Crawler’s Ledge to Hanakapiai across endless false passes took its toll. On cue the rain started up again, making the descents on tired and cramping legs even trickier and more exhausting. With just two miles to go, I stopped briefly at the stream at Hanakapi’ai to top off my water supply just in case I crashed completely on the final climb and had to walk out in the now oppressive midday heat. As I headed up the steep slippery crud for towards the final peak and the last mile, the mind game became one of guessing quarter miles as they passed. Thankfully, a second wind allowed me to finish strong, wrapping up the return in around 3.5 hours. The total run looks something like this.
And apart from some seriously cramping legs and my usual inability to eat, drink and rest properly, I felt surprisingly good considering the amount of time and suffering I put into this. It’s a tough trail, unforgiving and technical, but it’s definitely not an insurmountable challenge for an ultra-runner in half-decent shape. And if you find yourself anywhere near Kauai I’d strongly encourage you to consider the trail – it definitely is a top 10 sort of thing.
Do remember that a permit is required for the trail past the Hankapi’ai Beach at mile 2 in order to limit the wear and tear on the fragile environment. Permits costs $20 or so, and can be purchased online, but they sell out up to six months in advance, so plan ahead. (Day hikers or runners used to be able to get away with a free pass, but that was eliminated in March 2015.) While you’re unlikely to encounter a park ranger who would check your permit, I recommend getting one to play by the rules; the trail fee helps pay for much needed maintenance and upkeep of an incredible trail in a spectacular but fragile setting.