Kalalau Trail: a hiker’s perspective – Part 1: Trail conditions

Editor’s note: This is a three-part series on the Na Pali coast and Kalalau by Hanapepe gallery owner and trail enthusiast Arius Hopman. Part 2 will run May 4 and Part 3 will run on May 18.

The public usually only gets official reports in the news. This series is intended to balance the picture. I feel privileged to hike this beautiful trail nearly every month. 

Kalalau is a world-class nature destination of unsurpassed and unique beauty. Features include pristine beaches, many thousand-foot high spires and cliffs, an arch (Honopu), several spring-fed waterfalls, caves, breathtaking views, rare endemic species, many archeological sites, rare birds and drinkable streams. There are more endangered species per acre in the Pali than in any comparable acreage anywhere on the American continent.

In this three-part series I will address trail conditions in the first part, enforcement in the second part and new opportunities in part three. This is a public park; these are community issues, not just DLNR state park issues. Accurate reporting is an essential starting point to finding proactive win-win solutions. 

The trail: According to Uncle Samson Mahu’iki, whose family was the last to leave Kalalau, when the DLNR took over the stewardship of the Na Pali Coast from the Robinson family in the middle of the twentieth century, the trail leading to Kalalau was well maintained and wide enough to accommodate loaded mule trains passing each other periodically. The stonework and trail cuts of the original Robinson trail are still visible in many places, but the trail has deteriorated so badly that now the trail vanishes completely in some sections, or it is less than a foot wide and slanted. Over the last five years especially the trail has deteriorated dangerously. 

There are five main types of deterioration on the trail. In descending scale of danger they are: dirt cones, lateral trail sloping, trail pukas, encroaching brush  and gullying. All but encroaching brush are erosion phenomena and all trail deterioration gets worse during the rainy season. Any trail cut artificially across natural erosion features that are constantly moving with gravity to reclaim their original steep profile. Goats accelerate erosion and open up raw earth that slides down, burying the trail. There is a goat overpopulation.

Dirt Cones: These cones result when sliding dirt funnels through a narrow opening onto the trail and builds up as cones with an incline similar to the steepness of the traverse they occur on. The hiking trail is then forced up one side of the cone and down the other. Crumbly dirt cones are treacherous even in dry weather. When it rains, the dirt turns to slick volcanic mud and even the goats slip off. Other photos show numerous slip marks from boots. If a hiker slips off the trail during these conditions and over the vertical Pali below, there is a likelihood of injury or death. Many conditions could result in a fall off the trail: inexperience, overexhaustion, strained ligaments or muscles, rain, excessive wind, an over-heavy pack, poor health, poor preparedness, poor visibility conditions (dawn, dusk), distraction , hypothermia (rain), vertigo, poor eyesight, improper footwear, improper medication or drugs, inattention etc. The hiker could be over the edge in a second. A heavy pack brings a hiker down very fast. Fatigue is likely. The 11-mile trail encompasses a total of 5,000 feet of ascent and 5,000 feet of descent. Knees become wobbly.

Cones are particularly dangerous at mile 7.75 called “Chivalry Pass” (ie. “Please, ladies go first!”) aka. “Terminal Traverse.” One person has been known to slip off and survive. She had to be rescued by her husband, a captain on one of the cruise boats. How many “missing hikers” have met their fate here, never to be seen again? There are 7-10 dangerous cones. All could be broken down in three days by a crew of two.

We are reminded about David Boynton’s recent tragic fall off a Pali farther south. David was a friend of mine, and his passing is part of my motivation to improve trail conditions on the Kalalau Trail. Before I was a professional photographer, I had one of David’s framed photos in my gallery. It was a constant inspiration.

The safest way to deal with dirt cones is to build a retaining fence with heavy galvanized horizontal mesh a few feet below the cone. Sliding dirt then becomes an asset as it accumulates in the mesh and can create a new trailbed. Meantime the mesh will also save slipping hikers. Alternately, break them down to horizontal (original) trail level from either approach to the cone. Surely, if management understood the real conditions on the trail, these cones would be carefully removed and monitored. 

Dirt cones are the easiest to deal with and maintain. Policy is evidently lacking, possibly because the problem has not been defined properly, and possibly because of a disconnect between parks management and actual trail conditions or maintenance crews. The trail conditions are now so critical that I feel motivated to warn people publicly. My hunch is that the administration in Honolulu or Lihu‘e may not understand the actual trail conditions. This series may help.

Lateral trail sloping: This problem is closely related to dirt cones, except that the sliding dirt is not funneled onto the trail in one spot, but comes down as a sheet onto a whole section of trail. If the original lateral horizontally of the trail is not maintained by crews, the lateral sloping of the trail begins to approach that of the natural slope. Trail sloping occurs all along the trail in short sections, but is most critical after mile 6. The remedy is to re-cut the trail bed into the cliffside.

Trail pukas: If brush is not cut back periodically, holes in the makai side of the trail are likely. There are about 20 serious pukas and at least 100 more growing ones. When there is brush overgrowth on the mauka side of the trail, hikers get pushed onto the makai shoulder of the trail, breaking it down. This is an example of neglect in one area causing spin- off problems in another. Likewise, it also shows that it is cost-effective to control a small problem to prevent it from becoming a larger one. Brush can also hide the pukas, making them quite treacherous. 

Trail pukas can be remedied by radically cutting back the mauka brush and widening the trail on the mauka side.

Gullying: If drainage is not maintained, gullying is a likely result. Gullying is most severe between miles 1 and 2.5, where the trail turns into a deep, slippery, muddy gully and an artificial stream 1/4 mile long after rain. This could be remedied by cutting periodic lateral drainage ditches. The dangers are steep, slippery slopes that cannot be avoided.  

A drainage specialist from the Mainland was hired by parks several years ago, but no solutions resulted on the ground. All the money spent on bringing in the specialist could have been used on common sense trenching so the water on the trail could harmlessly dissipate into the vegetation. This is also an example of a compounding error that could have been avoided with a small amount of early drainage control. There is either a lack of understanding of conditions, a lack of policy, or a lack of execution. More public input and encouragement could be helpful.

Brush overgrowth: This problem compounds during the wet season. The dangers are several: further trail erosion, as we have seen; poor visibility of the trail rocks, pukas or sloping. 

Here also, maintaining/removing short succulent weeds is much more cost-effective than waiting until they become big and woody. Even though overgrowth is not as serious a danger as dirt cones are, maintaining it should be a priority to avoid all the compounding problems  (pukas, slopes, visibility, staff infection, scratches, snagged backpacks and eye injury). A small camp saw and gloves are basic trail tools. 

All five of these problems  get worse during the wet season and after rains. 

In general the trail conditions have been deteriorating since DLNR Parks started charging $10/night for permits. The public expected improved services, not worse. Where does the money go? As we shall see in Part 2 of this series, while Parks is weak on trail maintenance, it is aggressive on enforcement. Is that policy? Budget? Administrative oversight?

Self-responsibility and volunteerism are on the rise, especially where official services fall into neglect. This is a world-wide trend as our global crisis gets more acute. There is a great deal of good will and volunteerism on Kaua‘i and in Kalalau — more on this in Part 3. 

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