CONTINUATION OF “Beyond the End of the Road: CANYON – Part 1”
Alaka’i Swamp Trail
It had been an uncomfortable night. The temperature was torturously cold and I woke with chattering teeth. I had been sleeping on the hard-packed earth making it feel like I had spent the night on a cold slab of cement. No matter how I turned, I could simply not get comfortable. Forcing ourselves awake with the alarm, we sat up at looked at each other finding it impossible not to break into a smile both thinking “well, were still here then…”
We had an apple and a Clif® Bar for breakfast before waking up our joints and muscles which were still tight from the hike up and out of the Kuku’i trail the day before. I did some star jumps, jogged on the spot and did some push-ups in the pre-dawn light to get the blood pumping. We broke camp and hit the road. As the sun rose and flecked the roads in a dappled light in between the trees, I was in excellent spirits. We hadn’t walked a mile before a friendly couple from Kansas City, Missouri picked us up in their rental car. The husband was telling us that he planned to play golf in 50 states. “Already up to 30,” he said proudly glancing up into their rearview mirror. The wife patted his arm and turned around to us saying, “we all need goals.”
They were planning to stop at the Kalalau Lookout, but Leigh Anne did an excellent job of convincing them to keep going up to Pu’u o Kila Lookout at the end of Waimea Canyon Drive instead, where we needed to get to for the start of our trail. However, it wasn’t a purely selfish act – the Pu’u o Kila Lookout offers far better views than the Kalalau Lookout. We walked around the ramp up to the lookout and passed the sign pointing to the Pihea trail which would connect to the Alaka’i Swamp trail after a few miles. I walked up to the ridge and the wind was knocked out of me. Before me lay the entire Kalalau valley, with towering jagged cliffs draped in dense jungle that plummeted down in deep creases of rock. The valley floor led to a beach with perfect waves rolling in and beyond it was the endless, intensely blue ocean stretching out into infinity. I was speechless. Overcome and moved. It was so insanely beautiful and the sheer scale and grandeur of it was so immense that the greatest fabulist could not have invented it.
We stood in silence, awed for a moment before continuing on our way down the steep bank of packed red clay. The whole first portion was a wide plain of red dirt which required delicate footing. As we skidded down, I kept gravitating back to the edge of the trail to once more gaze out at the epic view. The path led down to a narrow ridge with the valley to our left, and the right fell away to endless miles of tightly packed forest. The track got more difficult the further we went and seemed after a while to consist primarily of steep climbs and slippery descents, causing us to skid and grab onto exposed roots for support. Parts of the path were extremely muddy and had logs thrown across it acting as balance beams, allowing us to pass without getting mud up to our knees. Then, after about half a dozen such climbs and marsh crossings, we reached a T junction.
The left went up to the Pihea Lookout and the right continued down to join up with the Alaka’i Swamp trail. After more downhill skidding and sliding, swinging from roots and trees, we became enveloped in dense bush dripping with shawls of moss. It was at this point that the boardwalk, which is one of the most noticeable characteristics of the trail, started. The boardwalk which was built in the late 90’s was covered in wire mesh which made the going easier and had been fairly well maintained. We reached the signpost directing us left to the Alaka’i Swamp. The trail started with a never-ending staircase descending down, making us dread the hike back up. We broke out on a fairytale river, flanked with grassy lawns and almost man-made boulders to hop across. We made our way up the other side once more using roots and trees for leverage on the steep ascent. After a brief time in the forest we once again found ourselves on the boardwalk which led us out onto Alaka’i Swamp, the highest swamp in the world. By now the sun was out in full force and beat down on us as we hiked on. Exposed to the sun, we were no longer surrounded by tall trees but scrub and tussock-like grasses lending the landscape an almost-alpine feel.
Although the word “swamp” conjures up unattractive images, it was truly beautiful, the light ochre and sandy brown grasses contrasting with the unblemished blue sky and the striking red flower of the ohi’a tree. We stopped from time to time to take in the view and feel the sun on our face. After being enclosed on a tight little bush path, it felt liberating to be cutting through this vast swamp that seemed to stretch on forever. At one point I looked to the sky and closed my eyes, hearing the light twitter of birds and feeling the warm breeze on my face. Supremely happy, I thought, not for the first time on this trip, “this is why I’m here; this is why I do this.”
The boardwalk had brought us along through the swamp before breaking out onto the Kilohana Lookout, offering yet another incredible view. The day so far had almost been a sensory overload, but this really did it. A truly breath-taking panoramic vista lay before us, the huge accordion-like peaks dropping almost vertically into the majestic valley with Ha’ena, Hanalei Bay and Kilauea stretching out into the distance.
It felt amazing to take off my pack, shirt and shoes, and to just be sitting on this little wooden platform out there in the middle of the mountains, perched out over this vast valley of indescribable scale. We stayed for a while at the viewpoint, soaking up the sun unable to tear our eyes away. We bumped into a local guy before heading back and he said in the 9 or so times he had done this hike, this was the clearest he had ever seen it.
We reluctantly decided it was time to head back before sundown, so after a pretty pitiful lunch (almost laughing as we discussed our rations and counted out peanuts) we threw our packs back on and headed back. We got a ride from David and Alice from Montana who we had chatted with on the trail and they had decided to wait for us at the parking lot. They drove us straight to the lodge and that evening, and as the sky turned orange, we cooked up the first of our Mountain House® freeze dried meals. Never has teriyaki chicken and rice tasted so good.
We set up camp in a new spot, about as far from the hard packed earth and freezing shady spot we had slept at the night before. This was in a pretty little clearing in the middle of what looked like a miniature corn field, the ground of soft cushy grass a welcome change. Feeling ragged and tired, we fell asleep after some hot tea, both feeling content and happy with our aching bodies.
Honopu Ridge Trail
We woke at 6:30am in the dark to a dew-drenched tent. We decided to leave the tent and sleeping bags in the same spot and return to them that afternoon. We took off, still half asleep, with the early morning mist rolling across the field adjacent to us, the moon still high in the sky. We silently climbed up the hill as once again the sun rose, causing us to come alive. We walked 2 miles until we spotted what we assumed to be the trailhead about halfway between mile markers 17 and 18. There was a big turnout on the curve of the road with a small trail winding into the bush, left, towards the coast. From there we followed a maze of goat trails and it was nearly impossible to tell if we were going in the right direction. The only clues were fluorescent ribbons tied to trees that thankfully were relatively new and frequent enough to ensure we didn’t wander off into the canyon. Apparently this track was just maintained by volunteers, so the state of the trail was anyone’s guess, depending on when the last volunteer decided to trim back those pesky native ferns…but we’ll get there. A general rule of thumb is that obviously the best worn trail is most probably the right one. The hunters’ trails also usually had logs thrown across them to deter hikers from entering.
Our guidebook told us to “look out for the native pacific false staghorn ferns,” so when we spotted the scrubby ferns, we were overjoyed that indeed we were on the right trail after all. Our enthusiasm for the ferns soon turned to dread as they began to scratch at our legs, causing them to look as if they had just survived an attack of feral cats. They were still wet from the morning dew and it was impossible to get through without them soaking us through and clawing at us like desperate beggars. A word to the wise: wear long pants. For what seemed like whole miles we battled through the domain of the ferns before reaching the start of our 1,000 foot elevation loss. After a brief respite in the sun as the trail broke out onto a ridge exposing a lush valley, we were plunged once more into the mercy of the ferns and a long disorientating jungle descent. We found ourselves scrambling over fallen trees and trying to keep our eyes out for those ribbons to ensure we weren’t bushwhacking blindly to some unknown destination. After a while, the ferns brought us out into a tree-filled valley, and after a hefty climb through the ferns the trees fell away to reveal the grand Honopu Valley. Once more, those epic valleys and rippled ridges lay out before us like a green cloth had been laid across a jagged piece of wire, with the sun just so that every crease and fold was accentuated by shadow. A tiny, thin line of white water threw itself over the cliffs while sea birds circled down below us.
We cut along a little ridge path that led us to a small grassy viewpoint, but we knew that if we pushed on, the panoramic view would reveal itself further with each step. As this happened, the track narrowed, giving great views of Honopu on one side and Awa-‘awapuhi on the other. The trail was pretty hard to negotiate, and in parts I found myself ducking low to avoid the wiry overhanging trees while trying to keep my footing on the crumbly steep path. By now we had both heartily agreed that this was a “destination hike,” but boy would the destination be worth it.
It got to the point where the track kind of petered out and we were left to walk on the narrow ridge across a plain of red clay with the grand valleys on both sides. As we walked further on, more and more of the Na Pali coast would emerge, adding a whole other dimension to the vista, with each layer of its jagged green cliffs fading away into lighter green then grey beyond. At one point, we reached a spot where a whole portion of the cliff had recently fallen away, forcing us to hug the treeline as we shimmied across. We made our way up the almost volcanic red soil to the highest peak. We stood there panting, backs bent and hands on knees to take in the wild scene that had slowly been revealed to us: the enormous cliffs, waterfalls, the river which led to the pounding ocean 3,000 feet below with a pod of Humpbacks thrashing and fluming out to sea. The Na Pali lay dramatic and dangerous behind it. I simply didn’t know where to rest my eyes.
We began on the trek back, a strenuous mission climbing up those mighty inclines. It felt almost as amazing as reaching the viewpoint when we had finally passed the end of the ferns, which both of us were ready to take to with a weed whacker. It certainly hadn’t been an easy trail. We reached the trailhead and it didn’t take long for us to get a lift (in a mustang convertible) with a nice couple from Oregon. We ate some early dinner, filled our water bottles at the same stone pavilion we had been using, and made our way back to camp. We were both exhausted, so after some hot tea we faded off to sleep, giving our fern-scratched and aching legs a chance to finally rest.
It now seemed routine to be freezing and a little damp when we woke up, and today was no exception. The tent was soaked through with dew and condensation, my nose was blocked up (I had felt this coming) and my body was aching. I limped outside which revealed an uncomfortable pain from my Sciatica, which I had never heard of but that Leigh Anne told me was the pain in my hip, ass check, upper thigh region, probably from night after night sleeping on hard surfaces. It seems like every time I go on a really lengthy camping trip, I always come out of it saying, “Alright Avi, next time you definitely need a little air mat to sleep on,” because man, they actually make a world of difference. Of course, that little reminder was forgotten by the time this trip had come around.
Once more we had the silent routine of the tying on of wet shoes, star jumps to warm up, and the break down of camp with numb fingers. We walked down the hill for a mile or so until we reached the trailhead for Waipo’o Falls between the 14 and 15 mile markers, which started as a long downhill 4WD track with a 240 foot elevation loss. We had munched down an old granola bar first thing that morning and already had little fuel in the tank, but it would get much worse.
Once we reached the turnoff from the 4WD track, the trail became a nice trek through gum trees, making it reminiscent of an Australian trail I might have done once. I half expected to see koala bears lounging in the branches. We zig-zagged down to a ridge trail, catching glimpses of the canyon through the trees before breaking out onto a stunning view of the full canyon in all its glory. We were standing on a plateau of red clay taking in the awesome 360 degree vista surrounding us, massive canyon walls plummeting down all around us. As we made our way across the plateau, the view opened up even more (if possible), so we could see the canyon floor stretching off into oblivion, even identifying the unique rock formation far down the valley where we had camped on night one. The plateau turned into a steep decline that took us around to the first set of falls. They were small falls, pretty and surrounded by wild ginger with a good swimming hole, but it wasn’t until we made our way to the waterfalls further down the trail that we found out why this was considered to be a favorite of the canyon hikes. It happened quite suddenly when we realized we were standing at the top of a massive two tier waterfall that plummeted at the cliffs’ edge 800 feet down to the canyon floor.
We scrambled down the river to a flat rock that we stood on; only big enough for one person at a time, that jutted out over nothing, air, with the waterfall falling down beside us to the right. I stood there, legs trembling a little from the sheer drop around me on all sides. I felt like yelling out, like this great force inside me couldn’t handle looking at such a scene. The painted rocks towering in all directions, rock arches and pillars, the green scrub against the red rock, the layered ancient cliffs that just went on and on and on before fading in a haze…and here I was once again at the edge of the earth looking out over all of it.
We couldn’t help but stay in the spot for a while. I took my shirt off and lay on a rock in the sun while Leigh Anne took a bath in the icy pool and washed her hair in the little sub falls. We made our way back up to the plateau, only now realizing how damn hungry we were. In fact, as soon as we realized it, the hunger and the fatigue came in full force. Yet, as hungry as we were, we still took the time to soak in the canyon views as this would be the last of it. It was a pretty rough struggle to get back to the main road, our legs clipping exposed roots and we simply couldn’t lift them higher. We had reached the end of our rations. After 5 days of light snacking and intense hiking, it had all caught up with us, especially as our only fuel for the day had been that little granola bar that we dug out from the bottom of Leigh Anne’s pack.
It seemed like a minor miracle when we reached the road and groaned as we slowly eased the off the backpacks. We got a ride fairly easily in the tray of a truck. It felt great. It felt like we had successfully completed chapter one, and we grinned at eachother as we passed mile marker 9 where we had first set out down into the canyon 5 days earlier. The air turned noticeably warmer as we made our descent and I looked out silently thanking and farewelling the canyon. Now we could see the sea, the sun was hot on our faces and it felt like the start of a new chapter.
CONTINUE THE JOURNEY “Beyond the End of the Road: POLIHALE“