Kalalau Valley, the heaven on Earth
Unplug yourself real good from your hectic life. Hiking 22 miles and sleeping five nights at the most private and remote site on Earth.
My first backpacking experience was a 22-mile round-trip hike to the Kalalau Beach.
It was the most impromptu trip I had planned. Before starting my new job as a management consultant, I decided to live in Hawaii for a month. As my life has always been, it had to be most radical one, because I am a maximalist deep in my heart. I always find myself picking the extreme and adventurous paths whenever available. I love getting outside, bathing under the sunlights, hiking the rugged trails, and never stop avoiding challenges. Hawaii seemed to be the perfect destination. I googled ‘things to do in Hawaii,’ and roughly came up with an itinerary. For the island of Kauai, Kalalau Trail popped up as the ‘must to do activity.’
Growing up, I begged my dad to sleep in the tent in the backyard, and we used to cook barbecues at the front porch. However, other than annual girl scout camps at the school’s play ground, I never got a chance to go on a wild backpacking. Up until then, every trip I went was neatly planned, restaurants were easily found, fire woods can be bought, and we drove cars to the camping site.
One of the tags that described Kalalau Trail was “one of the top 10 most dangerous hikes in the world.” Right when I saw the quote, I knew I had to make Kalalau the priority. I like to solve challenging problems whether it’s physical or mental. When choices are given, I always select the most vigorous options: running full marathons, riding 400km across the country, and trail-running 50km, summiting the top of the world. Conquering those challenges gives me a whole new level of sense of accomplishments that it is so addictive.
First things first, I booked plane tickets to Oahu and Kauai. Then, I purchased a camping permit online. It was $20 per person per night, and a maximum stay of five nights was allowed in Nāpali Coast State Park, where Kalalau trail and beach were located. Also, I didn’t want to pay for five nights of accommodation just for my luggage and a rental car, so I searched Couchsurfing for the first time in my life. Yep, this trip was pretty much first-time-everything. Luckily, I was able to find Mike’s house right next to the trailhead, and I have been visiting him and Kalalau at least once a year since then.
Also, Kauai is the second wettest spot on earth, next to Mawsynram, India, so when it rains hard, or if it rained the day before, there is a high chance of flooded stream. Usually, the park rangers set up ‘no entrance’ warning sign in the early morning, but I have seen a lot of hikers just ignoring the sign, and test their lucks. Words cannot describe, neither can pictures justify the adventures, let go’s, epiphanies, and loves of this unplugged trip. Here are the memories from my three-time visits into the magical place.
There are two ways to get to the Kalalau Beach aka Kalalau. One is no-frills conventional walking with your hike poles, and the other is boating from near beaches. However, it is illegal for a boat to land on Kalalau Beach. This rule is in place to eliminate the problem of long-term illegal residents who live back there and create a major garbage and rescue problem. The trail traverses five valleys before ending at Kalalau Beach where it is blocked by sheer, fluted cliff. The 11-mile trail is graded but almost never level as it crosses above towering sea cliffs and through lush valleys. The Pacific Ocean is right in front of you when you’re passing the cliff section, and wild guavas are everywhere when you’re going through the valley section. A total of 6 to 7 hours is expected to hike 11 miles to the Kalalau Beach, where most people, including myself, are camping.
A lot of people do a day-hike to Kē‘ē Beach or Hanakāpī‘ai Falls. They provide the equally amazing view of the valley, but I strongly recommend camping at Kalalau Beach to fully immerse what mother nature has prepared for us.
When I first saw this tree and the fruits, I attempted to have a bite. It was as hard as a tree bark, but apparently, the flesh of the ripe fruit is edible — like a pineapple. I had to get through the fruit’s tough exterior to the sweet edible part inside.
I LOVE the smell of tropical rainforest. It is quite hard to explain what it smells like, but whenever I catch the particular scent, it reminds me of this gnarly trail.
If you get lucky, you should be able to pick some guavas near the valley section of the hike. I had no trouble spotting well-ripen guavas fallen underneath the trees. Just beware of the mosquitoes in the valley section. Make sure you keep moving when you are in search for guavas unless you are willing to donate precious your blood.
Thanks to Mike’s ride to the trailhead, I saved 2 miles of walking and was able to start hiking at 9 am. At around 12 pm, I found a hut where I could sit on and prepare some ready-to-eat meal. Prepared meals are the best when you don’t want to spend too much time cooking and cleaning during the hike. This one was Korean Bulgogi Bibimbap, and all I had to was pouring the water and pulling the string inside the pack. It heated itself, and within 15 minutes it was ready. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any piece of meat or vegetables as the photo suggests, so I don’t recommend this particular brand…
After 6–7 miles in, this narrow cliff trail slows down a lot of hikers. If you slip one foot, you’re on your fastest track down to the ocean.
With the 30+ pounds backpack, it took about 6 hours to get to the beach. It was gruesome and exhausting, but I got no one but myself to keep me motivated and to move. After all, being alone on the road wasn’t too bad when you have these views and sounds of the whales far from the sea.
After I set up my campsite underneath the big tree with a campfire set up, I immediately checked out the huge waves. Although I was camping at the beach, I could not get into the ocean because swells are too high and dangerous.
People who arrived earlier were already enjoying the solicited beach under the rainbow. Some people were singing and playing the instrument. I’m usually not good at approaching to others, but they seemed so happy that I couldn’t resist saying hi to them. They were veteran Kalalau visitors who come to Kalalau at least once a year.
A few of them were musicians, and they brought a djembe and a guitar. Bringing those ‘extra’ items is a huge burden when hiking 11 miles with days worth of food, but music always brings people together, and we spent the whole night jamming and singing.
Before we went to bed, we dug the beach deep enough that our butts can nicely fit in. We also turned on our headlamp in red-light mode and put them in the center and gathered out feet in the center. It looked as if our feet were circling the small camp fire.
It was February when I first visited Kalalau, and I had no idea how cold it would be at night. Due to the humidity and rain, it got pretty cold, and I shivered all night. It was warmer outside the tent. Maybe my $20 tent was keeping all the moisture within…
On the next day, I ventured into the Kalalau valley while some others went to collect some small branches for the night’s bigger fire. I did not know the exact route to the valley; people told me to go up along the stream. I have heard about the ‘residents’ of Kalalau and really wanted to meet them.
Less than 30 minutes in, I met a family who had a baby in the valley. They were using the cold stream as their refrigerator and hunting cliff goats with bows. They welcomed me and asked me to join the chat. They even offered me an orange from the tree! One of the residents wanted to trade my yellow kitchen towel (check the first photo) with his ‘herb.’ I knew I wasn’t going to use it for my rest of the 20 days in Hawaii, so I gladly traded.
When we were chatting, the ‘Mango man’ came over. I forgot his name, but it was something that rhymed with ‘mango.’ Like Jango the Mango man. He was on his way to pick some fruits from the trees. I decided to follow him deeper into the valley.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the season for mangoes, but there were a lot of oranges and passion fruits. I’ve been to some apple pickings, but I’ve never seen wild oranges on the tree. The mango man said, the uglier they look, the more delicious they are. I picked a few to have for lunch and for friends down at the beach.
I spent more than 6 hours in the valley with my legs not recovered from the 11 miles hike yesterday. When I made it down to the beach, the boys were almost done collecting the fire woods. It was already time for dinner when all I did was waking up, having breakfast, hiking along the stream, chatting with the residents, and picking some oranges. I was never bored nor tired.
Now if you are curious how I took care of my hygiene, watch the video above. The last time I visited Kauai, I went on a boat tour to check out my favorite place on earth. The waterfall on the right side of the beach was where everyone takes a shower and do some laundry. It was wide open, so some people just went naked while others used huge umbrellas to hide behind. The rocks from the top of the waterfall fall sometimes, and the warning notice was indicated. However, the waterfall was the only flowing water, so people took the risk.
Before dinner, Clancy showed me the Heiau. Heiau is a Hawaiian temple. They were made in different shapes depending upon their purpose, varying from simple stone markers to large stone platforms, which were both parts of human sacrificial temples. Their shapes could be rectangular, square, or rounded, but most of them are located in an open space with the spectacular view.
After the sunset, we gathered around a small campfire and shared freshly brewed drinks made with the lemongrass and stevia from the ‘garden.’ Herbs were never on short. When it gets dark, and there is no signal from the outside world, it is natural to find ‘real’ people who reside next to your tent, and gather around to share the music and love. The guitars and djembe were precious day and night, and I got to play the djembe with the skills I learned in college.
My routine for breakfast was oats. They are light, naturally dehydrated, and very filling. On the third day, I had to go out and hunt some Opihis on the rock and oranges from the trees. I spent several hours near shore to detach the Opihis from the rocks. They didn’t taste good, and I felt like I was shooting an episode of Man vs. Wild.
I also picked a lot of passion fruits for carbohydrate refuel, but the edible portion is minimal. Nonetheless, wild passion fruits were sweet and tangy. By this time, I was going through carbohydrate withdrawal and became an unhappy irritated camper.
Luckily, campers leaving the Kalalau gave us their leftovers. They could hike out with the lighter backpack, and campers could host a taco-burrito night! Clancy was a pro at reviving freeze dried ingredients to life. Who would’ve thought that freeze dried beef and pepper taste this good?
Last night’s moonrise. The ridge view never gets old.
Sadly, the last morning had to come. Thanks to Pete, Jamie, Clancy, Evan, and Spencer (not in the picture), I had the best trip in my life. THE BEST. I still keep touch with all of them, and whenever one of us plans on Kalalau, we all ask each other to come together.
When I was strolling along the beach, one guy came over and gave me the handmade puka shell bracelet. He lived off from making these bracelets, and he wanted to give me one of his masterpieces because he was impressed by my solo adventure. Well, I was the only one who hiked all the way to the Kalalau Beach without a companion.
With less weight of food and my broken flip flop, hiking out was a lot easier than hiking in. I got to see some cliff goats too. They seemed to be able to run along 80 degrees cliffs.
2 out of 5 times I’m almost done with hiking or long runs, I sprain my ankle. It happened again. I was very relieved to be done with another 11 miles of hiking and made a mistake of not seeing where to put my foot. It landed on a rocky surface, and I fell on the ground. Luckily, I had less than one mile to go and sprained ankle made me slow down and soak the last bits of Kalalau in.
Before becoming a civilian again with mobile signals and proper showers, I turned back and stared at the magnificent ridges. I made a huge mistake of hiking Kalalau as my first activity of one month stay in Hawaii. I started comparing other islands and activities to Kauai and Kalalau, and nothing beat those two.
From Trail head back to Mike’s house was about 2 miles, and I managed to hitch hike back to the house. The couple that gave me a ride went to the same college as I did. What a small world.
Since my first trip to Kalalau Valley, I have come back to it for three consecutive years. Despite the gruesome hikes and lack of camping facilities, I keep finding myself going back to the Beach whenever I could use some unplug from the digital world. Once I’m in Kalalau, I’m in for good. I’m not seeking for mobile signals nor curious of what others are doing in the “eternally connected” world. People in the modern world are always searching for happiness in their unhappy lives. That’s why there are tons of books, articles, and podcasts about how to be happy. But for me, being happy is the default state of mind in Kalalau.
However, I’m a human, and we are famous for keep forgetting and making mistakes. For a week or two of coming back from Kalalau, my happiness level easily hits 100, but it gradually lowers down as the stressful events happen and unnecessary concerns regularly hit me. Meditation, yoga, and running usually keep me on track, and I am well aware that going back to Kalalau to resolve the pervasive issues of the modern world is not sustainable. But I dare say Kalalau is another world, where I give myself a chance to grow again as an adult.
When people say “the struggle is real,” they usually mean first world problems, but when you’re struggling in Kalalau, you are looking for your basic survival needs: shelter, clothing, and food. I am not trying to glorify the way of living in Kalalau, but we need to think about the stresses and struggles we are going through in our modern lives are usually unnecessary and can be avoided.
Until next time… Keep meditating and live your life to the fullest.
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On my most recent trip to Kalalau, I only had one day to visit, so I planned a day trip to Hanakāpī‘ai Falls. I’m not a huge fan of falls, but this one was extraordinary. The fall was making huge sounds, and the way it was enclosed with other high cliffs was truly mesmerizing. The water was super cold, and I didn’t dare to jump in because I did not bring any bikinis. I strongly recommend anyone to at least get here if you cannot afford 3–4 days in Kalalau. Also, you don’t want to spend just a night in Kalalau and hike back because once you get to the Kalalau beach, it’s going to be at least 3–4pm, and you’ll want to crash after dinner. Then, in the morning, without any adventures along the valley or on the beach, you have to pack yourself and hike back with those heavy legs. Nonononono.
© Minji Kim and Curiousandsavvy.com, 2017.
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