Wow, just thinking about my 22-year-old self taking on the infamous Kalalau trail takes me to an indescribable place.
Let me start by answering the #1 question I get asked about hiking the Kalalau Trail:
“What in the hell made you decide to hike one of the top ten most dangerous trails in America…alone…at night….and barefoot?”
I guess the answer to that is simply young, wild, naive ambition. I had a fire under my ass that I just couldn’t explain or put out.
I went to Hawaii with two dear friends with the intent to stay and work on a farm. And I did that… but something in me was still unsatisfied. I wanted something more. Something different. And I was determined to get it, no matter the means.
I had heard about the Kalalau Trail and it sounded amazing. Like what I was looking for. So I told my travel buddies that I was going to do the trail. I told them, “Come or stay, but I am going in five days no matter what.”
A Slippery Start
Five days later, I was dropped off at the trailhead on Ke’e beach with my 30-pound pack and absolutely no idea what was ahead of me. It was around 7:00 PM (pacific time) so it was dark. One of my friends tried to tell me to wait until morning but I told her, “Nah, I said I was leaving in five days and today is day five. So… peace.”
A big storm that lasted three days had just ended and the remnants of it were still lingering in the sky and on the trail. I didn’t know this at the time, but hiking the first two miles of the trail right after a storm is probably the worst idea ever.
My bare feet were slipping and sliding the entire way. I had no idea how thin the trail was and directly to my right was cliff edge.
I held onto plants, roots, and stable rocks the entire time to help keep my balance and prevent me from slipping to my death.
I was told there was a camping point at the two mile mark and that it would take me about two hours to reach it. They said I would know I had reached it once I crossed the big river, Hanakapi’a.
Yeah, well it took me four hours, and due to the rain there were dozens of little rivers that I thought were “the big river”. I kept expecting to see the camping spot and after crossing each river, I was left confused and disappointed.
“Where the f*ck is the camping point?!” I began to think I was lost on this infamous Kalalau trail hike.
FINALLY, I reached the REAL big river. I didn’t know this at the time, but that real big river is the number one reason why the Kalalau Trail is classified as one of the most dangerous trails in America.
Almost 100 people have died crossing the river, because they are unaware of its dangers. As was I. Thinking back on it now, I am incredibly lucky. Usually after a three-day storm the river is not crossable.
I remember first stepping in the river and the water reached my mid-thigh. The push was so strong, I pulled my leg out and wondered how the hell I would cross this thing with my fat-ass pack without falling.
I still don’t really know how I did it, but I did. Exhausted and relieved, I hung up my hammock at the camp area and passed out.
Kindred Spirits on the Kalalau Trail
The next morning, I met a lovely couple who were all too familiar with the trail. They were hiking OUT of Kalalau. They asked me when I arrived, and I told them I had just arrived the night before. They exchanged looks and then looked back at me and said, “You crossed the river?!”
I told them yes, and they said they decided to camp out and wait till morning to cross because it was too high. They were amazed I made it. Honestly, at the time I was so naïve I just shrugged my shoulders to their remark and continued onward
It was just another sign of how lucky I was to have made it.
So day two hiking the Kalalau trail was a clear and hot day. The rain completely stopped and the trail was drying up. The next four miles were not easy. So many switchbacks, uphill and downhill.
I couldn’t wait to get to the 6-mile point to set up camp again. There was absolutely no way to camp anywhere along the trail (actually, I found a way once when my flashlight ran out of batteries while hiking, again, at night…but another story for another time).
On my way up the trail I would see here and there, girls going topless. It was hot and I was comfortable with it, so I joined that club.
Hiking topless through Hawaii with a 30-pound pack….doesn’t get much better.
Just before I reached the six-mile point I met a boy I’ll just call Wild Wiley. He was also barefoot, no shirt, crazy hair, and a missing tooth. Not only that, but he was effortlessly hopping from rock to rock making weird calls like, “OOOOOHHHHWWEEEE!!” and then listening for a response. I was like….Oookaaayy….he’s lost his marbles somewhere in the jungle.
He looked at me all frantic and out of breath and said, “If you see a red-head girl with curly hair tell her I went to help Sam!” And he sprinted off into the jungle.
Again, I said, “Oookaaayyy.”
Moments later, a naked red-headed girl emerged from the jungle holding a knife with traces of blood on her arm and stomach. She looked at me and hurriedly spit out, “Have you seen two dogs?!”
I said, “Um no, but a guy with a missing tooth said he went to help Sam.”
She replied, “Ohh, Wild Wiley…Good. If you want to stay for dinner, our camp is up there. Our dogs just caught a pig.”
So things slightly started to make more sense…but not really. So I sat…and I just waited.
Finally, the whole jungle family emerged – Wild Wiley; Bella, the naked girl with blood on her; and Sam, the man carrying a dead pig followed by two young dogs.
Turns out these nine-month-old hound dogs caught sight of a pig and went after it. They caught it and started tearing at it. Sam held down the pig and Bella finished the job with her knife. It was the pups’ first kill as well as Bella’s. Wild Wiley wanted part of the action and was using jungle calls to hear where they were and help out (as one does).
And then there was me. Topless, with my 30-pound pack, and in complete amazement. I stayed for two nights with these lovely people and me and Bella became wonderful friends. We still keep in contact and her old hula hoop (which I found while hiking the Kalalau Trail) became my first hula hoop.
So after two days in Hanakoa Valley (which I learned was the six-mile point of the Kalalau Trail), I continue on for Kalalau. I had five more miles to go. I was happy to hear that Wild Wiley would also be hiking into Kalalau and would make the journey with me. As weird as he was, it was comforting to know I would not be alone during this part of the trail.
The 7/8 mile point of the Kalalau Trail hike is called Crawlers Ledge and for good reason. The trail is practically nonexistent and you literally have to crawl on the ledge of a cliff for about half a mile. This is the point where 50% of hikers turn back.
“Not I!” says Marissa. I crawled that ledge….and over the next several months did so about nine more times (I hiked the Kalalau Trail in and out, a total of maybe 8-10 times). After Crawlers Ledge, the remaining miles were uneventful. But they were not easy. That 11.5 mile hike was the most difficult hike I have ever done in my life.
I Found My Something More
Finally, I reached Kalalau. I stayed there for six months.
I cooked over an open fire, ate from the mango trees and vegetable gardens, drank from the river, got lost in the jungle, developed a family, swam in the ocean, lived without a phone or any outside service whatsoever, planted gardens, and learned immensely about myself…all while butt-ass naked.
Hiking the Kalalau Trail that first time, changed my life. Kalalau is a huge part of me and without the Valley I wouldn’t be so connected to earth and spirit.
I experienced magic that only fairies of the valley can experience. I really believed Kalalau was where I would live for the rest of my life, and nowhere else has ever given me that feeling.
I cried pitiously when I left because I knew I wouldn’t be back for a long time.
Four years later, I still haven’t gone back. I don’t know if I will. I don’t want to taint the precious memories with expectations that it will be the same.
Disclaimer About My Kalalau Trail Hiking Story
I would like to end this post by stating that I do NOT advise anyone hiking the trail for their first time to do so at night, barefoot, alone, and after a big storm.
Many experienced Kalalau Trail hikers do hike the trail like I did, but again…EXPERIENCED Kalalau hikers. And even then, most of the experienced hikers know better than to take on the powerful trail after a large storm.
I was an unexperienced, naive, and damn ambitious 22-year-old with a dangerous hunger. I was blessed to have survived my first time on the trail. And even more blessed to, afterwards, become an experienced Kalalau trail walker and learn the best and safest ways to conquer the trail over and over again.
I still did the trail alone sometimes, at night sometimes, barefoot every time, but never again after a large multi-day storm.