Pull up any list of “most dangerous trails” and “hardest trails” and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find the Kalalau Trail sitting pretty well near the top. And it’s easy to see why: The trail is narrow and exposed, crumbly and slick. Clouds hanging over the coastline dump rain onto unsuspecting hikers. The wind picks up and threatens to throw you off the trail, straight into the angry, crashing sea below. It’s long and hot and chances are you’ll be carrying 30 pounds, or more, on your back. It’s not easy.
It’s also not that hard.
Last winter, when we first started talking about hiking the trail, I was a little concerned. Between the list of superlatives that have been applied to this trail (hardest! most dangerous!) and the hair-raising videos on YouTube of people making their way across the so-called “Crawler’s Ledge”, I was convinced that this was going to be it for us. We were going to head to paradise and die right there on that eroding stretch of coastline.
We had seen the first few miles of trail a few years before, on our hike up the valley to Hanakapiai Falls. Nothing about it seemed daunting to me other than the hordes of people that were also making their way down to the beach. It was crowded, but otherwise completely safe. Everything I had read said that things got a lot harder beyond Hanakapiai (mile 2) and that after you leave the Hanakoa Valley (mile 6), things would get really real. This is “death on the left” type stuff.
When we left Hanakaoa on that fateful Monday morning and headed for the ledges, I was a little apprehensive. But the sun was shining and the birds were chirping and we were in goddam paradise and I couldn’t be bothered by it all that much. A half mile or so from the ledge, a man came trotting past in the other direction. He told us that it was beautiful up there but that it was also very windy. He warned us to hang on tight. I felt my chest tighten.
If you’re at all like me you do a lot of research before you do something hard. You read a lot of trip reports. You watch a lot of YouTube videos. And then the moment comes and that thing that you fretted over stares you right in the face.
“There it is.” I said to my husband, pointing down to the narrow chunk of rock and dirt that I had read so much about. “That’s the beginning of the hard part, the stuff that everyone talks about.”
We made our way down to the ledges.
When I say that I”m not afraid of heights I mean that I’m no more afraid of heights than anyone else that isn’t really afraid of heights. I’ve been in a lot of exposed places and nothing has really given me pause. I’m able to block out the consequences of a fall and keep moving forward. I only get shaky if I think about it too much. That is not acrophobia, that is being human.
The ledges caught my attention for sure. They are narrow and rocky and the consequences of a fall are incredibly high. But they’re not hard. The firm footing and abundant handholds give the whole thing a feeling of security. In my opinion, the sketchier parts of the trail are actually a bit beyond Crawler’s Ledge, in the places where the trail is 12 inches wide and made of slippery gravel that slopes gently downward, straight towards the angry ocean.
But really, it’s not that bad. In my experience, Kalalau was all bark, no bite. It was physically demanding, yes, but it wasn’t especially sketchy. And the ledges are way overhyped. I did a little research about deaths on the trail before we headed out for our hike and found one story of someone falling off the cliff to their death. Considering the thousands of people that hoof it out there every year, those are pretty damn good odds. The real danger in Kalalau is the rivers, which rise with the rains and become impossible to navigate. Three or four major river crossings between the trailhead at Ke’e Beach and the Kalalau Valley can make the trail impassable during heavy rains but if you prepare for an extra night or two out in the wilderness, you can safely wait out the storm.
As with many “dangerous” things, it’s all a matter of perspective. Sure, you can fall from the ledges or drown in the river. But in reality, you’re far more likely to crash your car on the way to the airport or die of some condition related to inactivity than you are to fall from a cliff at Kalalau. Perception of risk is a funny and irrational thing.
At the end of the day, just how “scary” Kalalau is well depend on many things. How you deal with heights and any anxiety you have over them. How confident you are with your footing. How easily you can convince your brain to just shut up when it starts reminding you that you are, in fact, mortal. I didn’t think it was all that bad and I’d recommend that anyone with enough fitness to go the full 11 miles at least give it a try.
You can always turn around. But you probably won’t.