Hikers: ‘Neglected’ Kalalau Trail unsafe

Hiking Napali Coast for its stunning views may not be worth the staggering risks until the state makes major repairs, local trail veterans said.

Gabriela Taylor, the Sierra Club’s Kaua‘i group conservation chair, in mid-June backpacked the rugged 11-mile North Shore path from Ha‘ena State Park to Kalalau Beach. Despite 36 years of experience hiking the trail, she considered turning back.

Erosion has reduced portions of the world-renowned Kalalau Trail to less than 1 foot wide, she said. At 66 years old, it was safety, not age, that made her think twice about traversing the path’s lush stream valleys and soaring sea cliffs.

Environmentalists and concerned locals have asked the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources to make the path safer.

“The Sierra Club has repeatedly requested state funding for substantial trail improvement along Napali,” Judy Dalton, Hawai‘i Sierra Club executive committee officer, said. “But apparently the state has yet to consider it a priority.”

The department’s Division of State Parks officer, Wayne Souza, did not return calls for comment at press time.

Between miles 6.5 and 8, Taylor said hikers must shimmy along ledges with 100-foot drop-offs to the ocean.

“Many people turn back because they are afraid to go on,” she said. “The most recent I’ve seen were two young German women who came all the way to Kaua‘i this month to hike the trail and had to turn back (at) about mile 7.”

Kathy Valier, a published author who wrote her master’s thesis in geography on Napali Coast, considers the trail an island gem but is distressed about its continued neglect.

“It’s really crumbly when it’s dry, or really slippery when it’s wet,” the Sierra Club hike leader said. “The trail bed is just not being maintained.”

For five to eight years now, the trail has been deteriorating much faster than maintenance can keep up, according to Hanapepe resident Arius Hopman, who has hiked the path about eight times annually for the past 13 years.

The DLNR which consistently cautions hikers about the trail’s varying conditions, closes the path when especially hazardous weather increases safety concerns.

After receiving two public complaints, the parks office closed Kalalau Trail on April 16 for repairs. It reopened a few days later after a DLNR crew inspected the path and conducted routine maintenance in the Pohakuao section beyond Hanakoa, according to an April 23 news release.

“Trail closure was a temporary measure to protect public safety while we checked on conditions following two reports,” former DLNR Chairman Peter Young said.

Horror stories have deterred experienced hikers, according to Dalton.

“One of my friends who hiked Napali to Kalalau came to a portion of the trail that had eroded and become so narrow only one person could safely walk on it at a time. When my friend saw someone coming from the opposite direction, she tried to make room for them to pass,” she said. “In doing so, she slipped off the trail and fell several feet down the cliff toward the beach, which was over 100 feet below. She grabbed the roots of a tree, which stopped her fall down and hung on until her boyfriend could help her crawl back up.”

Day-use permits are required on Kalalau Trail beyond Hanakapi‘ai Valley. The path offers a recreational experience under primitive conditions, according to information on the department’s Web site.

“Local residents are akamai enough to know that the trail is now dangerous,” Hopman said, “obstructing access to one of the best places on the island.”

The trail head is located at the end of Kuhio Highway near Ke‘e Beach. Napali Coast State Park covers 6,175 acres.

• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or neagle@kauaipubco.com.

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