The Kalalau trail has been pretty high on our list of trails to hike ever since we saw pictures of the Na Pali coast a few years ago. Up to now, we were always deterred by the high cost of travelling to and staying on Kauai compared to other destinations on our travel list. When prices finally came down enough, we rounded up our usual travel companion Ray, and made a 4 day trip specifically to hike the trail.
We went on a plane ride with Wings over Kauai. We went up with Bruce, who runs the company, and he was great at pointing out all the sights from the air. The aerial view of Kauai really added a lot to the trip fun level. Ray is a flight instructor and flew the plane on this trip. It's probably easier to get nice panoramic photos from an airplane than a helicopter because the airplane flies higher and so you're better able to appreciate the sweeping landscape. On the other hand, a helicopter brings you much closer, and I can imagine that the waterfalls and pali are quite spectacular up close.
The Kalalau trail is about 22 miles round trip with an elevation change of around 4500 ft each way. The reason for all that elevation change is because you have to traverse through a number of valleys on the way to the Kalalau valley, each of which involves a moderate amount of elevation change. Hikers typically tend to do the Kalalau trail as an overnight backpacking trip where they hike in the first day, camp overnight on Kalalau beach, and then hike out the next day. A permit is required to even dayhike the trail, and we weren't able to secure permits in advance before leaving on the trip. We decided to day hike the trail because none of us wanted to camp overnight in hot and humid weather, and we also thought it would be easier to get a permit for one day rather than two.
On the day we arrived in Kauai, we showed up at the permit office, stood in line, and managed to secure the last permits for the next day --- our luck in securing permits at the last minute was probably directly related to the low prices (i.e. low demand) that enticed us to Kauai in the first place.
The hike lived up to our expectations, with interesting flora on the first half of the trail, and spectacular views in the second half of the hike. The views only started getting really good after Hanakoa beach when the trail emerges from the vegetation and becomes more exposed.
For this hike, we brought about 24 gels each (1/3 caffeinated), and a bar of chocolate for the rest break at the end of the beach. After too many long alpine climbing days in the Sierra where I hit the wall after 10 hours or so, I discovered that you had to eat every hour despite not feeling hungry, and so you should just bring food that you can stomach. Forcing yourself to eat is a more serious problem at altitude where you lose your appetite, but a similar kind of appetite suppression occurs in hot and humid weather. As a result of the constant eating and hydration, Serene and I felt great throughout the day and maintained a reasonable pace without feeling tired on both sections of the hike.
We were also lucky with the mud and we only encountered one small muddy section on the trail (we'd read trip reports complaining about horrendous mud along the trail). The reputed narrow section called the Balcony was actually quite wide and wasn't bad at all. The main problems on the trail was dealing with the heat and humidity, which we were prepared for by wearing very thin synthetic long sleeve tops, running shorts for me, and trail runing shoes. Hiking poles weren't as useful as I anticipated because the trail was frequently too narrow to effectively use them. Shorts weren't the greatest idea either because the trail was quite overgrown at many sections and it would have been nicer to be wearing pants then. The only equipment snag on the trip was that the batteries in Serene's headlamp were completely drained when we turned it on about a mile from the trailhead. I gave Serene my headlamp and used a keychain emergency light that worked, but made for slow going. I thought that light was pretty bad until we ran into a couple about half a mile from the trailhead who were slowly making their way back using the light from the guy's watch. We bracketed them with our two functioning headlamps and we all made it out to the trailhead safely.
In between the hiking and flying, we went on a boat trip along the Napali coast, and also drove along the Waimea Canyon drive. The boat ride was not bad, but it was probably our least favourite way (out of hiking, flying, and boating) to see the Napali coast. The drive along Waimea Canyon Road was quite good, and there were good views of the canyon, as well as the waterfalls along the way. Unfortunately Kalalau valley overlook was clouded in and we couldn't see into the valley from up high.