Mud, Goats, and Helicopters: My 4 Nights on the Kalalau Trail

Required pre-hike stop
After a monster breakfast at Kountry Kitchen in Wailua, I made the long, casual, winding drive around the east side of Kaua'i to Na Pali Coast State Park.  I didn't really get a chance to see the island at all before having got in after dark, and this drive made for a nice introduction to Hawaii.  Eventually after passing many beautiful mountains, small beaches, and a huge cave, I reached the trail head.

The trail head was crowed and I parked my rented Chrysler 300 (avoid this one my fellow tall folk - the head room is bad) in the rocky overflow lot.  As I sun-screened up and got the pack on, more people trickled in to the lot, grinding the bottoms of their cars on the rocks trying to park.  Passing the bathrooms and a beach, I hit the trail.

The warnings are laid on thick right from the start.

The Kalalau trail gets right down to business with a steep, rocky incline taking you up to a viewpoint over the beach.  Once you are up there, the trail continues to hug the landscape, alternating between a high viewpoint where you can see back up to the first beach and forward on to other edges of the island you will be traversing, and treks down and inward where there is usually some creek to cross.

View of Ke'e beach from 1/4 mile in

I would not call it hot, but the weather is warm enough and humid enough that it got me to shedding sheets of sweat most of the time as there is little break from the uphill and downhill repeats.  I drank a few liters of water the first day while hiking, more than usual for me.

The trail is pretty busy with other day hikers until you reach the two mile mark where there is a large creek crossing and small dangerous beach.  Many people have died there and it does look turbulent with large waves breaking right on shore.  I busted out my trekking poles for the first time here to make the crossing and continued on with them.

First crossing at 2 miles.

I continued on the next couple miles seeing the occasional backpackers making their return trip.  The trail continued to be slick in most places with a thin layer of mud coating it.  It was different traversing the trail with trekking poles and I'm not sure if I prefer it or not yet.  It may be that I need to get more experience using them, but in general, it seems like you trade paying better attention to where you put your feet and using your arms to balance for not having the best footing but being stabilized by the poles.

Somewhere a little before the gate which is around 3.5 miles in, I stopped for a small lunch and much needed rest.  This was the first time I got some rain, and it just lasted a few minutes.  The gate marks the beginning of the Na Pali nature reserve, and it is quite dramatic to approach.  You are at a high point and cross the gate to come upon a grand panorama of Hawaiian mountain peaks.

The Gate

Other side of the gate

Awed by the scenery and getting tired, I went the last couple miles and made the gradual descent into Hanakoa valley which is about six miles in, eager to set up camp and rest.  There were a few tents of couples and another soloist named Christina that I met set up there.

I cleaned up in the stream close by, and got my tent set up.  As the afternoon turned into evening the brief bouts of rain seemed to come more frequently.  Eventually I got pretty rested and some dinner in me and settled down for the night.  The jungle is warm and moist, the least optimal sleeping conditions for me.  Luckily a combination of being really beat and it cooling down just enough allowed me to get a decent nights sleep.

Looking back before descending into Hanakoa valley, Ke'e beach is somewhere back there.

In the morning, the occasional light rains turned into occasional heavy rains, and I wondered how this would bode for the second half of the hike in to Kalalau beach that day.  Once it seemed to die down a bit, I got to packing things up and taking down the wet tent.  Christina was packing up at that point too and asked if I wanted to hike together that day.  Sounded like a good idea to me, so we continued on the Kalalau trail together.

For the first mile, things seemed much like the previous day - only with more mud.  The kind of thick mud that fills all the grooves in your boots making you lose traction and caking onto the sides of your soles adding another pound or two of weight you don't want to be carrying.  Then we got to the area before crawlers ledge.  We took plenty of time scrape the excess mud off our boots to make sure we had some traction and went through no problem.

The trail gets serious.

This area is a lot of narrow trail next to cliffs that are more open than the rest of the trail.  So, if you did fall the wrong way, there would be nothing to stop you from going all the way down.  Crawlers ledge actually felt fairly safe though because it was rocky rather than muddy.  Providing firm footing.  The view of it can be intimidating though, and if it was more wet and actively raining, it could be much more dangerous.

'sup goats.
After crawlers ledge, things get less rocky and we went through lots more of the muddy red clay trail.  It was a tiring first three miles out from camp, with lots of rests at the streams, then the fourth mile was traversing a last couple ridges on fairly level trail and then a steep descent down a red clay hillside with helping stairs.

We saw lots of goats on this leg of the journey including a large herd at the bottom of red hill.  Some birds were chasing the herd around so the goats must have got into something they weren't supposed to.  Typical goats.  After that, the final mile to Kalalau beach is a tromp through a bushy area and the biggest stream crossing yet.  Probably best to take the boots off and ford this one, but I didn't since the inside of my boots were already soaked from and earlier slip.  I did some sketchy rock hopping that worked out OK.

A grandness feebly attempted to be captured with a camera.

And after just another half mile, we arrived!  Kalalau beach really is a grand spot.  A thunderous sandy beach surrounded by steep cliffs and peaks.  Just interior of the beach is a long camping area under cover of trees between the cliffs and beach.  The first part you come to is the designated camping area which is very large and has two composting toilets dividing it.  On the other end of the designated camping area, the trail continues.  It goes by another single but older looking composting toilet, helicopter landing area, what looks like an awesome lifeguard camp, and another long string of unofficial campsites where people appear to be living.

Kalalau Beach

End of the line - and fill station
At the end of the this trail is a tall thin waterfall providing a water source.  It's nice to stand in, but apparently there's danger of falling rocks here, so I didn't stand long.  It was a very refreshing end to two days of hard hiking though.

The campground is full of Jamun (Java Plum) trees that have clumps of oblong berries.  The berries are always torpedoing down to the ground and they explode when they hit.  I guess it was just the time of year for it.  So eventually you get a bunch of exploded berry pulp on your tent.  I did not think much about altering my gear for my destination.  My gear is fairly catered towards a cold climate.  Rather than having my mummy bag, insulating air pad, and enveloping rain fly - I should have brought a light blanket, non insulating air pad, and a tarp to string up with rope.

The people living out here have that figured out of course, as they use strung tarps heavily.  Everyone I came across was really friendly, I guess it's hard not to be when immersed in such an idyllic setting.  Some of the locals pretty into being topless or almost naked too, it all adds to the surreal experience of this unique place.

It seems the customs of the locals rub off on us visitors too, to varying effect.  Visitors are tempted into skinny dipping or topless sunbathing.  Surely the first signs of the intoxicating effect of the area, that imbues you with more carefree feeling the longer you stay.  I tried a local custom myself of going barefoot on a trip up to the stream a half mile away.  I got a stubbed bloody pinky toe and feet caked with that fruity gunk out of it, so I went back to sandals pretty quick.

Along the trail and here at camp, all day, every day helicopters, so much helicopter traffic. its a little annoying but at least they stop at night.  And at night the stars come out, a whole unfamiliar looking sky to me.  I love staying in a place where you can see the Milky Way at night, and you get a really grand view of it here.  Both nights at Kalalau I sat on the beach and watched the sun go down and stars come out.

Dusk on Kalalau beach

After the second night at the beach I headed out after a lazy slow morning.  Christina had headed out earlier and another soloist we both had met named Aly was a little behind me I think.  I made a last stop at the creek a half mile out to fill back up on water, then I was truly on my way.  The first hill out was the open red bluff and the sun was really beating down on me, but that wasn't as rough as the last big hill before returning to Hanakoa, that one just keeps going up.  In between those two hills was a casual stroll in a beautiful land, no mud either thanks to the rain being on hold for a while.  I arrived at Hanakoa again, and set up camp.

This tree is in the heart of the camp in Hanakoa valley

At various places along the trail, and right at this camp are helicopter landing sites.  As I was setting up camp, one landed close by to deliver warnings about the approaching hurricane Ana.  "You gotta get out, the park is closing." a ranger said and handed me a sheet detailing the expected path and timing of the hurricane.  It wasn't expected to hit Kaua'i for a few more days, so I figured I was safe to stay the night there and finish the trip out the next day.  Aly, who showed up shortly after, thought the same.  We decided to head up to Hanakoa falls at that point because neither of us had checked it out on the way in.  It is supposed to be about a half mile up the creek from camp.  Shortly up the trail we ran into Christina chilling on top of a nice huge rock next to a small waterfall (she's a pro at finding perfect rocks to relax on).  She had already been up to the falls, so Aly and I continued on.  The trail seemed longer than a half mile and was narrow and muddy; a little tough in my crappy water sandals.

Eventually we made it, and it was spectacular.  A huge thin waterfall cascading down a rock face to a nice pool.  I did not bring a camera but luckily Aly did bring a nice one.  We got some pictures and chatted for a while, it was a great spot.

Chilling at Hanakoa falls - photo by Aly

After we got back to camp, Christina and Aly chatted through the evening, and I joined in for a while.  Got to see pictures of their pets including a ginormous 22 pound orange cat!  It was kind of nice to be back in the Hanakoa camp again.  It seems slightly cooler and there's no Jamun fruit bombs, but it is a more damp area without any access to a beach.

In the morning all of us soloists headed out at our own leisure.  Thankfully the trail was still pretty dry, and this six mile stretch was not as rough minus the mud.  I would say each stretch of the trail on the four days of travel is similar difficulty, not really any easy days, as it is always going up and down.  There is about 7000' of elevation gain altogether on the 22 mile trip.

The ocean feeds on the island.

At long last I reached the trail head and it was even busier than I left it as I ended my trip on a Friday.  After dumping my gear back at the thankfully unmolested rental car, I took a refreshing shower at the handy beach rinse down area.

I Found a great grill on the way back called Calypso's where I got some excellent fish tacos and a beer.  Almost back to feeling civilized again.  The feeling of elation and accomplishment really started to set in then as I reflected on the trip and felt my body start to rejuvenate.  I got to unplug for a while, meet some other like minded solo travelers on the same journey, and immerse myself in one of the epic places on Earth.


Three Days in Goat Rocks Wilderness

Back in August, my fourth backpacking trip happened, and it was a great trek. Sadly it's taken me 4 months to get around to sharing it!  A few friends from work and I set out to hike into the Goat Rocks Wilderness for a few days via the Lily Basin trail.  The first obstacle was getting to the trail head.  If you ask Google Maps to tell you how to get there, it will advise you to take forest service road 21 from highway 12 to cut over to forest service road 48 which the trail head is on.  This is wrong, and you should just go a little further down the highway directly to forest service road 48.  It looked like one of the roads might connect over from 21, but it was blocked with a gate.  from the highway, the trail head is a little over 11 miles down the forest road.

For the first 5 miles, the Lily Basin trail follows the top of a ridge slowly increasing in elevation.  It is mostly a gentle slope and a good warm up for some of the steeper trails you experience in the interior of Goat Rocks later.  After that, the trail cuts over the ridge and into the network of trails that hugs the upper part of various other alpine ridges.  From here on, the forest is sparse, and views are grand.  It's also time to keep your eyes open close by for marmots, and far uphill for mountain goats.  A mile or two later we hit the junction with the Angry Mountain trail, and turning away from it, continued on for a total of about 8 miles to Heart Lake and set up base camp.

In the morning, we set out with intention to reach goat lake and anything beyond it we might be up for.  About halfway to Goat Lake though, we ran into an obstacle.  We had passed a few fairly small flat snowbanks what were easy to go around or over, but we hit one that was much larger and on a very steep slope.  Even before the snowbank, the trail was non-existent due to run-off and erosion leaving a very steep, loose, rocky patch to traverse first.  After approaching the snowbank, we had three options: Go over the top of it which led to an even steeper loose rocky area, go over the icy crusted and slippery snowbank risking a slip and slide down into some rocks, or go below it which was the longest route but probably the safest.  In the end a couple of us went above and around and me and another went below and around.  Much time and energy was spent feeling this out, and we were later to find that there was a bypass trail that we missed a little before this obstacle.

That doesn't look like a trail.

After that ordeal, we made our way to Goat Lake and the waterfall made by it's runoff.  The top of this waterfall made a great place to relax in the sun and have lunch looking over an enormous canyon with Old Snowy mountain on one side and Mt. Adams far in the distance.  Afterwards, it was time to head back towards camp with plans to head a ways up Hawkeye point.  In the process of ascending Hawkeye point which looks over Goat Lake, one of our party discovered the bypass trail which would bypass the obstacle on our way back, and we took it.

On our third and final day we made a leisurely start to the day and just before afternoon started on our way out the same way we came in.  This was my first time visiting the Goat Rocks area, and I would definitely like to go back and explore it more.  It is a beautiful area with a variety of options for types of hikes and routes that you want to experience it in.  Most of the trails in the core are at least moderate difficulty being high in steep mountains, so it helps to have a little bit of mountain goat spirit in you.

Mountain Goats near Hawkeye point


Backpacking Fail

Mountains always look smaller than they really are.  You would think that it would take some astronomical scale like the distance to the sun to escape the everyday human intuitive grasp, but that isn't so.  We can't even understand the size of a small mountain until we try to climb it.  So I seem to have found.

Davis Mountain hiding in the distance

Meet Davis Mountain, which lies right next to Wickiup Reservoir near LaPine, Oregon.  About a week ago, I decided I would backpack to the top of it in one day and hike down the next.  A tidy little two day trip.  The side that I decided to hike up was mostly burned out a while back, so it has the appearance from far away of being fairly thin.  While there are no real hiking trails to the top of Davis Mountain, there is a network of old logging roads scattered about it.  My plan was to use these where convenient and cut across off road where it made sense.

View of Wickiup Reservoir

Soon after venturing off road for the first time, I realized that most of the hill side is covered with thick underbrush varying from knee to shoulder height, also covered with froth encased insect pupae.  As I waded through the brush uphill, I quickly lost strength and became covered with adorable little bug larva.  As I emerged on one of the best quality roads I was to find on the mountain gravelled of red cinder, I was optimistic that I might still make the summit. I planned to make use of the road I was on to take me to the north side of the mountain and weave through the network of logging roads there to the top.

I arrived at the north side of the mountain and started uphill on a somewhat less friendly road.  These roads were quite old and soon turned into an obstacle course of thick fallen dead trees.  The progress on these roads seemed little better than off, so rather than be led up the mountain in a roundabout way on unhelpful roads, I began cutting straight up the mountain through the healthy ponderosa.  This proved exhausting, and I soon realized I could not keep up such a strenuous route.  I pushed through to next slightly navigable logging road and began a route back around the mountain to the south.

Sun hats are great for exposed summer hiking
Emerging from the forest, I saw that I was still only halfway up the mountain.  Low on energy, I realized I would not be reaching the top that day, so I continued on a bit to find a good place to set up camp.  I set up my tent on a windy hillside clearing and took a load off as the last bit of daylight faded.  Davis Mountain is well populated with deer, and I saw many throughout the day as I trudged uphill.  The coolest sighting was at my camp though.  I was resting at the doorway of my tent, hidden from the clearing behind it and decided to stand up and stretch.  I turned around to find two fawns and a doe forty feet or so from my tent.  Two of them bounded off right away, but the younger fawn stood by and stared at me a few moments before trotting away.

After getting over a bout of nausea from exhaustion in the night, I got some good sleep.  In the morning, I followed the logging road near my camp gently downhill until it joined up with a forest service road.  I was eager to avoid any bushwhacking after the previous days' ordeal, so I followed nice gravel roads for about 5 more miles back to my car.  Overall the trip ended up being around 12 miles.

After getting back, I drove around the south side of the mountain on forest service roads to see if I could drive up to the top on what looked to be called "Davis Mountain Lookout Road".  But that proved to be a failure as well!  The road degraded into an undriveable state about 2/3 of the way up, apprently it's not maintained.  Fine, you win Davis Mountain!

View of Davis Mountain on last stretch on Forest Service Road 44