Exploring Kauai's Na Pali Coast - Page 2
Tade fills up in one the numerous clear streams en route. Photo by Chris Hunter.
Na Pali Coast, Kauai
Na Pali means “the cliffs,” and here on the northwest coast of Kauai they raise like knifeblades out of crystal-blue waters. On this 11-mile stretch of roadless coast, five major valleys, Kalalau, Honopu, Awaawapuhi, Nualolo and Milolii stretch like fingers into the sea. The mouths of the valley’s creeks, like at Hanakapiai and Hanakoa, once home to ancient Hawaiians, are now campsites and rest areas. At the trailhead next to Kee Beach, Hunter, now living in Moab, Utah, Brendan McHugh, who calls home base Boulder, Colorado, and I don our ultralight packs and prepare to climb a rock-strewn trail.
Brendan and Chris are both professional skydivers and all-around adventurers who have worked the same skydiving drop zones over the years. So when not talking about trail running, they were talking about the colorful characters who work at drop zones (present parties included) or looking at the cliffs above wondering if there was a way they could BASE jump them.
Although a comfortable two- to three-feet wide, the trail features slick tree roots, random rocks and mud puddles. Flowers, guava and kukui tree and other jungle flora keep most of this section of “The Garden Island” in cool shade. Soon, though, the trail is more suited to goats, literally. A noise off trail sounds like a small boy calling for his dad—a kid (goat) bleats from a promontory that falls hundreds of feet into the sea. The nimble mammals were introduced by the first sailing ships that landed on the islands and have since turned feral. The trail is now a mere foot wide and more exposed to the tropical sun.
The path rises and falls easily, with a total elevation gain and loss of 2200 feet over 11 miles. We bomb down sections that weave into the rainforests and mindfully jog or hike the treacherous ones. The cliffs are covered in rainforest so green they make your eyes water, and blue-gray clouds dance and tremble between them. Far below, white lines of surf march toward the beach, every wave a subtle change that will never happen again. Birds sing their native songs, their melodies combining with the rhythm of heartbeat and breath. We soak up Na Pali’s feast: the pali above, the surf below, the guava fruit overhead, the elephant-ear plants (yes, they are the size and shape of elephant ears) in the gulley below, onyx kukui nuts resembling large marbles paving the red-dirt trail, champagne sunlight filtering through the jungle canopy.
“How’s your leg?” Brendan asks as we started an easy descent into another valley. Short and wiry, built like a natural runner, Brendan is still on his toes and looks like he could run to the trail’s end and back by sunset.
“Good, thanks,” I say, secretly hoping we are close to our campsite as the late-afternoon sun raced to drop into the sea. I am elated, though, that my leg feels fully trail worthy.
Soon, we hit our campsite in the Hanakoa Valley, with a pit toilet, a shelter and several campsites. We drop our packs, and let the chilly stream water soothe our feet. We drop iodine tablets in our water and lay our bedding on stone-walled terraces built long ago for a coffee plantation. The next morning we toss on hydration packs and blast toward Kalalau Beach. En route, we meet Mauricio Puerto, a member of HURT (Hawaii Ultra Running Team), on his return leg. Mauricio, powerfully built and running with the steady stride of an experienced trail runner, took a breather, though he looked like he was hardly breathing.
“How long did it take to get to the beach?” I asked.
“Three-and-a half-hours from the trailhead,” he replied, “I had better get going—I promised my wife I would be back in time to take her to dinner.” He blasted off.
Two hours later, we hit the end of the trail at Kalalau Beach, and for the first time on this trek feel sand between our toes. We stash our gear and body surf. The waves are so strong in the winter that ocean kayaks rarely land here, but in the summer kayaks line the beach and the place becomes Party Central.
Before returning to another night at camp we rinse off in a waterfall pouring onto the beach. We could have run the entire coast in a day, but running it in pieces and camping put us closer to this land, absorbing it while being absorbed.
Our run back to the trailhead at Kee Beach is fast—even with packs—as we look forward to a lunch that is neither gel nor comes from a package. Shirtless and barefoot, we hop in the car and blast down Highway 560, the only road between the Na Pali Coast and Lihue, and stop in the village of Hanalei. We buy a six-pack of Longboard Lager and order loco moco and plate lunches—both calorie-laden gut busters. Loco moco is a fried egg and a beef patty stacked on rice and smothered in brown gravy. Plate lunches, favored by the locals, are comprised of white rice, macaroni salad and fish or meat, usually fried.