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The Coast

Backpacking Twenty-Two Rugged Miles Along Hawaii's Most Inspiring Tropical Trail

Keep moving forward. There were moments along the coast where there was literally no other option. One step to the right would kill you. One step back might harm a fellow hiker. To the left, lay sheer rock wall. Onward we went.

The Na Pali Coast hike took all I had and left me wanting more. I walked, crawled, skipped, jumped, and slid along all twenty-two rugged miles with my eyes wide open. Each bend in the trail took us deeper into the tropical jungle alongside waterfalls that only existed with the right amount of rainfall. After emerging from paths shrouded in lush greenery and lined with guava trees, we often found ourselves at the edge of a cliff jutting far out and above the raging ocean below. The valleys that lay ahead would beckon us on, tantalizing us with a glimpse of more adventures to come.

Across the first two miles, multiple tourists trickled past us sporting slippers, umbrellas, and goofy grins that suggested they were only there for the photos. The trail stretched wide across this part of the trek, allowing room to stop, stretch, take in the scenery, and move about comfortably. I had been here before and experienced this frequently tread portion of the coast leading to the first beach. We quickly scurried along these two miles with fresh legs and visions of the sunset that we needed to catch from the campsite, and not a cliff which we would then need to hike in darkness. These miles contained numerous ups and downs and some of the steepest inclines of the trail. With this distance covered, the options for which path to take tripled. A left led to the cascading Hanakapiai Falls, a right to the beach with a massive winter swell rolling in, and straight ahead would take us to the trail unseen. Pausing briefly at the stream, we watched people playing in the waves, wondering if they knew the strength and unpredictability of the surging ocean. Feeling more at ease once they safely made it back to shore, we loaded our 30+ pound backpacks back on and disappeared onto a much narrower terrain. The real trek begins.

Instantly, the path became more rugged, overgrown, and desolate. The sun was blazing hot and at times unforgiving. While I typically want nothing more than to stay in the sunlight, the physical requirements of this hike demanded a shady reprieve which the trail luckily offered periodically. While we were conscious of the clock, I wasn’t interested in timing my miles here as speed does not outweigh pausing to take in the dramatic and captivating scenery that stretched across the horizon. I couldn’t help but pause and gawk at the views when they were strikingly beautiful. After passing by two photo opportunities at the start of the trail, I immediately rigged a wrist strap for my camera and captured some of the moments that made me stop and catch my breath. Peering down the deep cliffsides into bright turquoise and blue water below, I watched the thundering wintery waves crash into the coastline foaming across the ocean’s surface with unyielding white wash. The waves were mesmerizing, reaching higher than I had seen since last winter, even forming barrels at times that made the underwater photographer in me want to abandon the trail and dive right in! They say it’s calm in the summer, but this was a spectacle I wouldn’t want to miss. The unfamiliar breaks and tantalizing, winding coastline ahead were enough to convince me to continue on and see what lay around the next corner. Ahead in the distance, a glance down the coastline revealed a number of steep, winding valleys that we would soon be wrapped up in. Although the sheer distance as a whole looked intimidating at times, each step promised to provide more of the Hawaiian beauty some might only ever imagine.

The people we encountered from here on out were the Na Pali Coast thru-hikers backpacking from end to end and fully outfitted with hiking gear and overnight packs. We stepped to the side to clear the trail for these hikers, knowing that they had already completed the 11 miles we set out to do, plus multiple miles of the return trip. I observed these people to see if the trail had worn them down, but was delighted to see huge, friendly smiles and even hear from one, “It’s worth every single step.”

After six miles we reached another checkpoint, Hanakoa Falls. Here, some hikers decided to stay and camp the night. There were a few tables set up where hikers from each end of the trail gathered to share stories of what lay ahead and where they’re coming from. You could pitch a tent, or hike a half mile into the jungle to feast your eyes on Hanakoa Falls. This was not our goal and we hiked through the campsite and back onto the trail, leaving the mosquitoes behind.

My body ached. My legs pressed on. I thought back on all the hikes that I’d done and how each one had prepared me for and interested me in this one. Koko Head undoubtedly entered my mind with each drastic incline and I smiled thinking about how much I actually enjoyed that hike and how many times I had done it without knowing what a difference it would make in how I mentally tackled this trail with the extra weight of my overnight pack. The sweet guava I joyously reached out to pluck from the tree brought back memories of encountering this fruit for the first time while hiking with my University of Hawaii roommates on Oahu four years earlier. At that time, I had wondered if this was a poisonous plant or safe to eat. What then seemed like a foreign substance was now a tropical treat tasting like a gift from the earth, only made sweeter by the fact that I didn’t even have to carry it in my backpack! Some stretches of land brought back images of Haleakala’s red dirt reminding me of both Mars and Maui at the same time. Certain sections were incredibly narrow like the winding path up to Oahu’s Pali Puka hike where one side has a bit of grassy greens and the other drops dramatically to a valley hundreds of feet below. Here, all you can do is keep your footing and hike on.

With much anticipation, we approached Crawler’s Ledge. This is the very section of the trail that made me postpone the trip in the past. Ever since I first heard mention of the hike, around four years ago, this narrow ledge stood out as the most difficult part of the trek. Friends had told me it was almost a mile long, covered in jagged, sharp rocks, teetering on the edge of a sheer dropoff of several hundred feet into thrashing waves exploding onto solid rock formations below. One misstep, and you were done. Game over. To pass this ledge, not only would you need to rely on your own strength and balance, with a 30+ pound backpack, but you’d also have to be wary of anyone coming from the opposite direction. As the ledge wrapped around the front of the mountain and disappeared back into the next valley, out of eyesight, there was no way of knowing at the start of this trek if there was anyone coming around from the other side. All you could do was hope that if that time came, one of you could manage to safely clutch onto a rock while the other hiker maneuvered the remaining five inches of trail without slipping. This must be why multiple online reviews ranked the Na Pali Coast hike as one of the most dangerous hikes on the planet, or so I thought.

Well, some time had passed since I heard my first Na Pali folklore. I’d stretched my comfort zone far beyond what it once had been, teetering on cliffs and staying calm in the face of sharks for the past few years, and I was ready. We descended down one side of the valley on loose, reddish dirt all the while splitting our focus between the crumbing ground below us and the winding cliffside trail waiting for us across the valley. As a whole, from a distance, it looked both sketchy and ominous. However, with each step closer, and eventually as I stepped onto the ledge itself, the fear factor gradually slipped away and I realized I was not only ready for this part, but thoroughly enjoyed the view this steep cliff offered. The path was wide enough to fit my massive backpack, and we didn’t pass a single soul on the way across. The winter waves thundering below were both exciting to witness and motivating in that it was getting me psyched for the swells of the season ahead. Crawler’s Ledge, consider yourself conquered.

After successfully completing this leg of the hike, I was filled with adrenaline to keep moving forward now that what I was worried about had passed. However, the heat of the sun was relentless and we stopped to rest and rehydrate, not wanting to lose our balance or faint on the trail. The next few miles melted away into visions of more tropical wilderness, sweet guava snacks, and sore muscles that would have to carry on.

At the 10.5 mile mark we saw them, the wild goats of the trail. As we descended down a steep red dirt hill the trail opened up into a lush green landscape with rolling grassy plains where wild goats gathered. We split ways as we reached the grass, one of us going off in search of photos, another resting in the grass without the weight of the pack, and me pausing to release the weight from my back, lay in the grass, then take off running across the grass to the ledge overlooking beautiful barrelling waves. I glanced back at the goats, then approached them slowly before they took off like the wild coastal animals that they had become, running around the steep, rocky cliff ahead with no fear of falling. These creatures had surely adapted to the terrain, and ran the ridges with stark precision.

What an amazing feeling to be instantly 30 pounds lighter after over ten miles of hiking! Walking back up the hill, I truly felt like I was floating. Stretching felt fantastic and I took full advantage of this feeling, soaking it up in each of my limbs. We weren’t there yet, but we were so, so close. Strapping back on our packs, winding in and out of the remaining woods, we caught sight of the beach, and entered the camping grounds. Abandoned tents and hammocks were scattered amongst the trees. A few smiling, but exhausted faces met our gaze. We found a clearing in the trees, tied up our hammocks, and set up camp for the night. Then, finally, I went to the beach.

Kalalau is nothing short of a spectacular gem on the edge of the most beautiful island I have ever set foot on. Stretching beneath a gargantuan tower of mountains with massively impressive peaks and ridgelines, Kalalau Beach offered spectacular views of Kauai’s natural, untouched beauty. Adding to the ambiance, a waterfall cascaded down between the mountains, not only serving as an epic component to this impressive scenery, but also acting as the camp shower, bringing forth clean, cool water that could refresh even the most exhausted hikers. We layed on the beach, watching the sunset, the moonrise, and then the sparkling stars emerge from the darkness, far from any kind of light pollution. I fell asleep here, I don’t know long for, and only woke up as the waves crashed against the shoreline. Taking in the fresh air, I drifted across the sand, through the trees, and into my hammock where I slept soundly until the sun rose hours later. These are the kinds of days I’ll always remember.

In the morning, a tiny kitten greeted us in the center of our campsite. He was welcomed into the group and named “Clif” in honor of the only food that we’d be eating for the next few days. After thoroughly enjoying sleeping in after the long hike, we gathered our things and set off into the valley to swim in waterfalls. You know you’re living somewhere magical when you can wake up on a tropical beach, play with a baby kitten, and then swim in waterfalls, all before noon.

As the heat of the midday sun started to beat down, I found my way out of the jungle and down to the beach, pausing only to fill my water pouch with fresh water from the stream. Waiting patiently for the iodine tablets to work their magic by creating safe drinking water, I fell asleep to the sound of the waves. Time drifted by, measured only by the position of the sun. Having slept on top of a much colder mountain two nights earlier, and staying up late packing before an early flight before that, my body relished in the freedom of unscheduled time. When I woke up from this rare nap, I looked around to discover that I was the only person on the entire stretch of Kalalau Beach. Cheers to the off-season. Here, in this unbelievable place with access to zero modern tools of communication and connection, my mind felt clear. After looking around a bit, I started to write about the days before. My thoughts flowed and just as my pen transcribed my memory of friends telling me that Crawler’s Ledge could claim lives a large set of falling rocks slid down the mountainside crashing just below the waterfall where campers typically shower. I stopped writing. Nature was awake and demanded attention.

As my friends came back to the beach after napping in hammocks in the trees and exploring deeper into the valley, the sun began to set on Kalalau Beach. And oh, did it set. This kind of sunset is the very thing that makes Hawaii an absolute spectacle no matter what time of the year. The light rays glowed a golden yellow as they sunk deeper into the ocean and stretched further across the cloud, illuminating the mountains. The clouds on eastern side of the beach began to shift colors, adopting a bright pink cotton candy glimmer that gave way into deeper shades of magenta, violet, goldenrod, and orange. With each passing moment the colors took different shapes, from thick streaks of paint to thin wisps of rainbows. The clouds joined in on the light show, offering reflections, pillows, and silhouettes across the sky. We stayed on the beach until the sun gave way to the moon and stars that speckled the darkness high above the mountains.

Deliriously happy after this fulfilling evening, I crossed the sand back to our campsite where I slid into my sleeping bag, swinging slightly from the trees.

The sun rose again, and always one more time. I woke up before dawn and walked to the ocean. I walked the entire stretch of the beach, taking it all in one last time. The waves met me on the sand much higher than they had over the previous days, daring me to come closer and swim. Oh, I wanted to. At the end of the beach on the northwestern side, when the conditions are right, you can swim around one of the mountain rock formations and venture onto another beach that is home to an incredible rock structure with curved walls and an open ceiling that lets in just the right amount of sunlight and just the right amount of sea water. On this particular day, however, there was no chance of swimming around. The waves thundered into the rock, spitting shoots of water well over thirty feet above the ground. I watched in awe, imagining the next time I’d be back and silently telling the waves I needed to explore around this corner. I let it go and ventured back into a different cave structure about fifteen feet high and forty feet deep into the mountain. While back there I envisioned what would happen if the waves washed all the way in as they tempted to do. I could hold onto the rivets in the cave walls and ceilings until it passed and hope for a brief moment in time where I could run out before the next set struck. Luckily, my evacuation plan was not necessary and I only got my feet and ankles wet as the waves rolled in. Still, in these scenarios one can never take her eyes off the ocean for too long as a rogue wave here could lead to a story I don’t want to tell.

Back at the campsite, with my sleeping bag rolled up and hammock tucked securely in my pack, I laced up my sneakers and said goodbye to the beach. Today, we hike another eleven miles. On the beach the evening before, fellow campers had hinted that news of a rainy Monday awaited us. I was hoping to spend another day in the sun, but had definitely considered the possibility of rain prior to the trip. Discussing this with my dad on the phone before we left, he reminded me it would just be a different kind of adventure. Okay, let’s do this.

The downward slopes we’d enjoyed on the way out were now steep inclines of crumbling soil. This stretch of land was dubbed the Red Hill and we mentally worked our way up, step after step, with our 30 pound bags back on our shoulders. Again I thought of all the times I’d done Koko Head for fun and told myself this was a longer, yet less demanding version. Here, we didn’t have to step straight up man made steps but were able to guide our feet and legs to the next manageable placement and work our way up at our own pace. At the top, I looked back at the hill, thankful that part was over. Then, the rain fell. It had begun to sprinkle a bit earlier, as we stopped to fill out water at the stream and paused to protect our packs with rain covers. But now, the rain was picking up and the sweeping landscapes that had guided us on the way in were just faintly visible through a thin mist of clouds, fog, and rain. Indeed, this would be a different kind of adventure.

We told ourselves, at least it isn’t hot. We’ll be cool and refreshed and won’t need to stop for shelter from the sun. What’s a little mud anyways? This isn’t our first tropical excursion. Onward we went and it felt good to get moving again, covering substantial distance in the wilderness. Then, the mud picked up after getting pelted with sheets of rain. Our shoes became hardly visible beneath inches of thick, slippery mud. And at the same time, the trail dwindled down into a narrowing pathway as the cliff’s walls became steeper and steeper. This was not the same trail we had hiked out on. We slid quite a bit and slowed our pace to balance the weight of our bags with the uneven terrain and utter lack of grip and control in our footing. As we rounded a slick corner we looked up and my stomach sank. A couple struggled out on a ledge 100 yards in front of us clinging to a small patch of roots hundreds of feet above the sharp rocks and treacherous seas below. They were caught on a massive mountain of the slick, crumbling red dirt that quickly transformed to mud with the heavy rain. This part of the trail had been warped by the weather, which eliminated the safe, solid ground we had hiked out on. The walking path was no more than a foot wide, covered in nothing by slippery mud and surrounded by dramatic, steep crumbling walls on both sides. If my friends had not walked on toward the path, I honestly would have considered camping another night until the ground hardened again.

The couple ahead of us, hiking out toward Kalalau, clearly needed a mental break from the trek they were enduring, and encouraged us to take the trail past them. I hardly lifted my feet off the ground as I began to step out onto the thin path. The mud was so thick and slippery that I mostly gently slid one foot in front of the other, afraid that lifting and replacing my foot in the mud might reveal a less than stable ground that would send me sliding off the mountain and quite surely to my death. A group behind me offered a hiking stick but I declined, not wanting to risk trying out new gear in this situation and preferring instead to rely on my more familiar balance, although slightly skewed by my overnight backpack. With my friends slowly, yet safely still moving on the trail ahead of me and with the encouragement of the couple patiently waiting on the one slightly safer patch of roots, I inched closer to the midway point. I thought of my freediving training and focused on breathing techniques aimed at mental relaxation. With each movement I thought, “relax and step, relax and step” breathing in and out as I went. At one point, there were thin roots dripping out of the red clay that I gripped onto for stabilization, as a hiker at the midpoint said encouragingly, “They have been supporting people for years!” I wanted to believe him, and for that moment, for my own safety, I did. Yet, I’ve done enough hikes to know that these types of roots naturally fall free from the soil unpredictably and that they are not to be trusted with one’s life. I’m not sure how long I was out there crossing, but I took my time and sighed with deep relief once it was over. We thought to ourselves, “Well, hopefully that will be the hardest part,” not knowing what other surprises might have been unearthed by the weather. With a glimmer of curiosity, I let my mind wander to Crawler’s Ledge for a moment as I began to envision how the rain may have transformed this already ominous area. Then I snapped my focus back to the present, refusing to work myself up about possibilities and create fear and worry that would serve no purpose. All we could do was take each leg of the journey as it came and continue to keep moving forward, as safely and presently as we could.

Still a bit shaken by the wet, red hill and shoes still covered in inches of mud, I regained my footing with each step and scraped off the muddy clay when I could. The trail got a bit wider, we chatted a bit, but mostly took care of ourselves on this trail making sure we were still mindful of the earth and its stability. Before we knew it, we were back at Crawler’s Ledge. I had never been so happy to see a rocky trail, as this ledge was formed entirely by hard rock above, below, and on the path. This meant no mud to swallow up our shoes and slide us off the Na Pali Coast. I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the hike as it felt substantially safer than what we had already overcome and I could stand and step normally along the path, and even stopped to admire the power of the waves that morning. With a huge grin and feelings of relief, I completed this leg of the trail, meeting my friends and moving on down the path.

With seven miles to go in the rain, we hardly stopped at all. The cooler air kept us going along with the promise of a clean shower waiting at the end of the trail. As we passed hikers heading past us, out to Kalalau, several inquired about the unstable and precarious red mountain and whether it was worth doing. They seemed a bit shaken up by what hikers ahead of us must have told them and I advised that if they got there and did not want to cross, there was also a helicopter landing zone right before that part of the trail wide enough to rest on so that they wouldn’t be dangling from the edge of the cliff deciding if it was right for them under the given conditions. We also suggested Hanakoa Falls as a safety checkpoint. I really didn’t feel comfortable suggesting to anyone that they should go ahead and cross it, yet they did see our success in being alive after crossing it and that seemed to give them a sense of hope. Anyways, it is always up to the individual hiker to be aware of his or her own personal physical and mental limitations and know when to push through comfort zones and when to respect their own safety and abilities. Self-reliance and self-awareness are key in these situations.

I could enjoy the scenery more now that I felt were had passed any dangerous parts of the trail. The mountains were emerging from the mist ahead of us, giving a small taste of the coastline’s beauty. We plucked guavas from the trees, sipped from our water packs, and hiked on. Covering miles at a time, soon we found ourselves back at Hanakapiai Falls were tourists cautiously glanced at the stream wondering if they could balance on the rocks and cross it safely. Without pausing for any kind of assessment, we trudged into the knee-deep water, thankful for the opportunity to wash away some of the mud that had caked onto our shoes and legs. Some people looked at us curiously, asking if we had hiked the whole thing and camped on the beach. I just smiled and nodded, knowing I couldn’t covey in quick passing what had just happened out there. It is one thing to go to new places, step off the plane, check in at your hotel and drive around. It is another entirely to immerse yourself in the people, the landscapes, and the nature of the place, filling in the corners of your imagination with the eye opening reality of truly being there and being part of it.

With two miles to go, we picked up the pace feeling simultaneously motivated by completing the entire trail and also showering! Up and down the trail we hiked, climbing the stairs and descending the rock formations that we would not see again soon. Weaving around more people than trees and seeing more humans than we had in three days we touched back down into civilization and completed all twenty-two miles of the Na Pali Coast hike. My legs were in disbelief that they would not have to continue hiking. I happily took off my wet shoes, greeted some new blisters, and washed away the mud that had followed me out. Exhausted and fulfilled, we had conquered the trail.

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