Kalalau Articles

I’m running out of titles for Kalalau-related content. I could update the Kalalau Trip Reports with the following links, but these are more newsy than pure hiking stories.

  • First, two old articles about volunteer repairs to the trail last summer and fall. These repairs took place after my previous hike and photos of trail conditions, and I haven’t hiked the trail since to see what changed.

    I’m ambivalent about these repairs. In my mind the trail was passable before, so the work is probably cosmetic to make it look safer. I don’t mean to belittle all the work done, but I do worry about the soundness of the amateur repairs. In other words, if the volunteer did widen the trail with masonry work, only time will tell if it holds up to repeated use. On the other hand, I know some people were intimidated by the trail conditions, and it’s unfortunate when that takes away from the experience. And some repairs by the state tend to be shoddy, and all trails are temporary in the grand scheme of things, so it is more likely a good thing to have the repairs done.

    Interestingly, the first article mentions the need for archeology studies prior to trail work by the state. I know that the state has strict rules and maybe the fact is that being a historical trail itself that crosses some archaeological sites triggers the studies for any work. But I also wonder if they might realign sections of the trail and therefore make sure they aren’t disturbing new sites. In any case, I’m curious to see the repaired trail sections and any plans for the new trail work.

  • Then, not to scare anyone, here’s a recent first-hand account of a minor accident on the trail that could’ve been much worse. The author doesn’t say where the accident happened, but there aren’t many switchbacks with view of Kalalau near Hanakoa, so I assume it’s the small valley just at the exit of Hanakoa valley, before the balcony trail. The location is important to me, because I’d be interested in knowing if the eroded trail condtion contributed to the accident, and given that the trail in that area is in poor shape, I’d have to hypothesize it was at least a factor.

    Then, of course, I need to discuss how the hiker could’ve avoided the accident. Although she mentions hiking experience, it didn’t sound too extensive to me. If you go backpacking once a year, chances are you don’t go on difficult trails. Kalalau is a difficult trail, but it can still be done by breaking it over 2 days, especially now that Hanakoa is open for camping near the midpoint and before the eroded sections. She admits that continuing past Hanakoa was overexerting herself. The other lesson, I suppose, is to not be too distracted by the views, and always secure your pack and your own footing when you stop to take pictures, drink, etc.

    I do not fault the hiker for going alone, I think that is still a freedom that should not be discouraged, though you must be aware of the safety aspects in exchange. In the case of the Kalalau trail, this story shows that the risks of hiking alone are not that much greater, given the number of people who do stop to help. People gave assistance and got the word to her family, and rescue personnel hiked in to escort her out. It seems like the system, both formal and informal, for rescuing people works well. There was a similar story in 2006, where an informal chain of good samaritans carried out an injured swimmer by boat (the injuries were much worse, but the person was also doing some extreme off-trail rock-climbing).

  • Last, and surprisingly least interesting, is a feature article in National Geographic about the Na Pali coast, including the Kalalau trail. I haven’t seen the print edition yet, but I find the text of the article to be disappointing, and the photos and maps don’t work for me in any browser. The one picture and the thumbnails of the others look impressive, so it seems more like a way of getting pretty pictures into the magazine than a real attempt at covering the issues. I do like their map however, National Geographic always has nice maps:

    Source: National Geographic

    Starting with the obvious comparison to Shangri-La and giving only brief and inaccurate explanations of geology and Hawaiian culture, the article mostly centers around the writer’s trek on the trail. And there, predictably, the difficulty is exaggerated, the valley resisdents are stereotyped, and the story of Koolau the leper is told once again. Then the writer goes on to say how the campground is trashed and the ambiance ruined by a boombox. Granted, the “vibe” of the place can change from year to year, and maybe the trash is far more noticeable than when I was there last, but it sounds like the author had unrealistic expectations.

    I am reminded of another misguided travel article about the trail, though not as amateurish because it is, after all, National Geographic. I guess I just have to ask: if a journalist interviews a few people and then writes an article about their vacation, do they get to write the whole thing off as expenses?

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  1. dan says:

    have you been to Kalalau lately? i spent a week out there in Dec. ’08 and have to agree with the national geographic writer. the place was positively trashed. hanakoa is beyond disgusting, and Kalalau was nearly as bad. there were piles of trash everywhere (hidden, but still present), broken surfboards, abandoned beach chairs, and other random rubbish. perhaps some of us do go in with bigger expectations, but i found the place to be far from a spiritual experience. it was one of the most disappointing trips i’ve had in years.

    of course, if you want to hang with the “locals” out there, and that is your thing, it probably is shangri-la. but for those looking for peace, quiet, and a wilderness experience, this is not the place.

    beautiful? absolutely. but considering national geographic’s readership and demographics, this is hardly a place that would appeal to anyone of any wilderness ethic.

    and this doesn’t mention the ridiculous permit and resource management, or the unbelievable helicopter pilots. we had a helicopter land on the beach TWICE in our 4 night stay. twice! are you serious? and another blue helicopter buzz us at 75 feet off the ground on top of red hill.

    that said, i did find the “outlaws” to go out of their way to be hospitable, generous, and welcoming. it was not uncommon to be given fruit, or directions to a tree, location, etc…

  2. Andy K says:

    Hi Dan,

    I was just there in August, and I still don’t find it “trashed.” There is a large pile of trash in the bushes by the trail not far from the ranger shack at the beach, but I thought it was a collection point. And maybe the helicopter was hauling it away. Otherwise, I don’t recall any glaring trash or litter problems, except for a few hidden and perhaps abandoned camps here and there. Hanakapiai was trashed around the composting toilet, and Hanakoa shelters can get muddy and people leave damaged gear there. But outside those points, the biggest problem is the lack of trail maintenance, in my opinion.

    I’ve responded more in depth about the helicopter landings in response to your comment on the post: great-hikes.com/blog/busted (sorry, not a live link, you need to copy-paste it into your location bar).

    Now the helicopter flyover at Red Hill does sound very illegal. Tour copters must stay 1500 feet above trails and roads. If you have identifying information about the craft, as well as an accurate time of the incident, you can report it to the FAA in Honolulu. The number I had for them is: 808-837-8300.

    Finally, I can see how you can be disappointed in Kalalau if you were looking for a wilderness experience. Yes, it is far from the road and far off the beaten path, but I don’t usually see Kalalau advertised as wilderness. It is nothing more than a state park, accessible only by trail but with the issue of “outlaws” as you noted. You do go through some nature preserves on the way there, but at the beach and in the valley, there is no mandate to preserve the natural state. And so camps aren’t eradicated, residency isn’t strictly discouraged, and the campground sites are rather well developed with handmade walls, etc.

    Calling it trashed in national magazine, and leaving the trail unmaintained are however great ways to limit the influx of park users. There is a little bit of provincialism at work here, but you do have to realize that Hawaii has different attitudes towards the situation there than might be enforced in a National Park.

  3. dan says:

    Hey Andy, thanks for the reply. Being my first time to the island, I can understand your points. I am from Utah, where wilderness is relatively easy to find access to. I apparently incorrectly assumed that the beach is in Na Pali Coast State Park? And as such, assumed that it not necessarily to be treated as wilderness, but that some of those issues would be addressed. The idea of trash collected in large amounts waiting to be picked up by helicopter or boat seems strange to me. How does that trash get there? Can’t people pack out what they pack in?

    Not sure where the “blame” falls (if you can call it blame?) or if I simply misunderstood what the trail had to offer. It is advertised as the premier backpacking location in all of Hawaii, and I’ve seen it in multiple magazines. I guess, based on my experience, I assumed it would be similar to those other “premier” backpacking locations.

    Based on the permitting process, and the designation of official campsites, I also assumed that preservation was somewhat important. Although, it is obvious that there is little to “preserve” that hasn’t been changed by the hand of man over the last two centuries. The terraces, non-native plants, feral animals, etc… Wilderness is a stretch, but the amount of trash was still disappointing.

    By the way, I discussed the helicopter issues with folks I met in Kauai, and apparently there have been landings near the head of the valley, where passengers can jump out and take pictures of the waterfall, then get back in the aircraft.

    Thanks for the info on the FAA. I’ll be sure to call them. I couldn’t get identifying information on the aircraft, but I know the low-flying ones tended to be Blue Hawaii? and the one that landed and buzzed us in the valley was Inter-Island, based on the paint jobs on the aircraft, and seeing commercials and brochures while in Kauai. Unfortunately, didn’t have my camera available to photograph them.

  4. dan says:

    btw, great blog. wish i would’ve found it prior to my trip. would’ve been enlightening, to say the least.

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