Out and Back: The Na Pali Coast Trail
Aly Nicklas is a writer, photographer and filmmaker based in Colorado, with a penchant for cabins and the simple life. She also likes waking up in new places, many of which can be found on her Instagram here. One of those more recent places was Kauai's Na Pali — a stretch of Hawaiian coastline she calls "one the most magical places" she's ever been. Having just returned from the trip, Aly was kind enough to share her story and images with Huckberry.
y favorite places are those only my legs can take me, and when I felt the need for both soul searching and solitude this fall I started for looking for where that would be. When I saw images of the Kalalau along the Na Pali Coast I knew it was where I needed to go, and a few weeks later with one impulsively bought ticket and a pack full of what I hoped was tropical-appropriate gear I was landing in Lihue, Kauai.
It’s a three hour drive from the airport to Hanalei Bay and the Kalalau Trailhead. I spent the night before camped out beneath the stars over nearby Anini Beach. I’m someone who cherishes their solo time but rarely travels alone, and here I was about to spend four days hiking a 22-mile out and back trail called one of the most beautiful and most dangerous in the world. Despite my excitement, I slept well, waking to the call of the roosters long before dawn. In the early orange light, I sort my gear and count just the right amount of meat sticks and granola bars, outfitting my pack with everything I need and nothing more.
Heeding rumors of break-ins at the trailhead parking, I leave my rental car at Ha’ena Beach park, just a mile away and recommended as more secure. It’s easy to catch a ride to the trailhead. I arrive around 9 am, but the heat is already intense. The trail is muddy at first, paved with lava and cement, and busy with humanity. After two miles I find myself at Hanakapi’ai Beach, where you’re not supposed to swim because of the currents.
After Hanakapi’ai there are long stretches of solitude. I pass a few folks heading in, and a few heading out. “In or out?” those hiking out ask, and when I say “in” they smile widely, as if about to share a great secret.
Each valley reveals new sights, and when I come to the boulder-guarded entrance of Na Pali Wilderness Park, it feels as though I’ve travelled back in time to a place devoid of humans or technology or anything of the sort. Six miles in I reach Hanakoa Camp, where I stop to dunk my head into a stream and refill my water. I’ve guzzled nearly three liters already, and it courses out my pores as quickly as I can drink it.
When I reach the infamous mile seven—which reports account as either no big deal or terrifying—the trail is dry, and traversing the exposed mountainside feels airy yet secure. Wet would be a different story.
Trees offer welcome shade, the occasional wild goat that walks alongside me for a pace offers company. I lose track of how many streams I cross as I wind in and out of the countless valleys.
Six hours into the hike I crest the ridge into Kalalau Valley. The entire day was beautiful—but this sight is one that will stay in my bones forever. The peaks are impossibly lush, impossibly numerous. They tower regally above me, green sentinels to the sea. I can see the beach where I’ll camp below, the waves booming, ricocheting off each other to crash against the shore with reckless ferocity.
The tree-shaded campsite bordering Kalalau Beach ends in a waterfall that makes for a perfect shower. I wander in, and find a site amidst the hammocks and tarps. The people are friendly, and clothing is optional. I dance in the waves, watch the sun set with new friends, and sleep deeply to the lullaby of the waves.
The next morning I take a daypack and weave my way through the ancient heiau (temples) that scatter the Kalalau Valley, alone save for the trees and birds. I come back to camp after a dip in a cool blue pool high in the valley, my pack heavy with apple bananas to eat with rice for breakfast the next day before I head out.
As I begin the return hike a Hawaiian Monk Seal climbs onto the beach, burrowing his head in the sand. Extremely rare and highly endangered, there are only 1,200 of them in the world, around 150 of which reside in the Hawaiian Islands, and I consider his presence a good omen.
I take my time on the way back, hiking just five miles to Hanakoa, where I camp with a new friend and swim in the waterfall just a half mile from camp. The next morning I tread the remaining 6 miles back to the trailhead, tacking on an additional four to visit 1,000-foot Hanakapi’ai Falls.
I hitch a ride from the trailhead back to my car, and as I take my mud-encrusted shoes off I feel lighter and my mind is deliciously quiet. I realize that I’ve gotten exactly what I came for. [H]
Words + Imagery: Aly Nicklas