The Na Pali Coast from Above
The Kalepa Ridge Trail
(also, Waimea Canyon)
Wednesday, February 22
A clear night gave way to a clear dawn at Polihale State Park, courtesy of Kaua'i's rain shadow. We packed up and were on our way shortly after 8am, bound for Koke'e State Park.
Sandy campsite, Polihale State Park
After driving back out on the 8 miles of dirt road from Polihale State Park to highway 50, we cruised along south to the town of Waimea, where we turned onto a scenic little highway (called the Koke'e Highway) that led up one of the longer finger-like valleys that come down from Kaua'i's central highlands. Soon the road switchbacked from the valley floor onto a ridgetop, and continued up in fun little twists and through increasingly-dense forest to a junction with highway 550 - the other main highway that leads into Kaua'i's highlands.
Turning left on highway 550 (and now at a fairly high elevation of 2,400 feet, we continued up a nicely paved twisty road towards Koke'e State Park. For the moment, though, we were in Waimea Canyon State Park, which exists because of a very big ditch that was just out of sight through the forest on our right: Waimea Canyon.
Waimea Canyon Lookout
Waimea Canyon is a part of a very large drainage basin that has cut deep into Kaua'i's central plateau. Waimea Canyon itself is the largest of the many canyons that comprise the entire drainage basin, and it is impressive and very scenic. Cutting 3,500 feet into the volcanic rock of central Kaua'i, Waimea Canyon is the largest canyon in the entire Pacific region and is known by an appropriate title: 'Grand Canyon of the Pacific'.
We soon arrived at the principle lookout for the canyon along highway 550, and stopped for a good look. The clear morning offered perfect viewing conditions.
Now, having been to the real Grand Canyon, I can tell you that it is not as impressive as that. It isn't nearly as big, nor does it offer the diversity of rock and color that the Grand Canyon offers. But, it is still pretty damn impressive. It is hard to believe that one is on an island in the center of the Pacific - an island that is only 50 miles across, too - when you are at this overlook. It really does have the appearance of being an impressive canyon that you would see deep in the heart of some continental desert. But no, you are here on a tropical island in the center of the Pacific! Absolutely this is a worthwhile scenic attraction to see while you are on Kaua'i.
Now, as beautiful and awe-inspiring as Waimea Canyon is, this wasn't our primary objective for today. That was reserved for a hike in Koke'e State Park - a hike that would take us from the thickly forested plateau and head north down one of the finger-ridges above the Na Pali Coast. Yes, you heard right - the same Na Pali Coast we had just spent two days and 33 kilometres hiking on. Only this time, we'd be looking down from the top of one of those impossibly corrugated ridges!
Brian and Waimea Canyon
Back in the car again, we continued up highway 550 into Koke'e State Park. Up here, we immediately noticed the change in climate: we had become used to the standard daytime temperature of about 26 degrees C (78F), and up here at 4,000 feet, it was noticeably crisper and cooler - around 18C (64F). We were back in dense forest again, although slightly different in character to the hotter coastal forests of eastern Kaua'i.
The sun continued to shine brightly in a clear blue sky. I was very grateful, because we were not far from the highest point on Kaua'i - 'wettest place on earth' - and you can imagine the kind of weather a place with that moniker usually has.
Kalalau Lookout Parking Area
As I had written earlier, we planned to do some sort of day-hike that showcased the above-the-Na-Pali scenery available from Koke'e State Park. There are two or three main options available - the primary of those being the Awaawapuhi Trail, the Nualolo Trail, and the Honopu Ridge Trail. Those trails were all fine and apparently extremely scenic, but I had another route in mind: a trail that was both more intimate, more off-the-beaten-path, and more relevant to us, given our recent hike on the Kalalau Trail: The Kalepa Ridge Trail.
The Kalepa Ridge trail, as you might expect from its name, runs down crest of Kalepa Ridge. Kalepa Ridge is the ridge that forms the eastern boundary of Kalalau Valley; the very valley at whose mouth lies Kalalau Beach and the end of the Kalalau Trail. So, by hiking down this ridge, we'd be able to get eagle-eye views directly down onto the awesome terrain we had just seen days before at sea level. It would be like taking a helicopter tour without the helicopter!
Additionally, Kalepa Ridge is not an officially-maintained trail. Now, you may think that is a bad thing - but often, it is not. Often it means a nice, solitary wilderness experience without crowds, and without a heavily-eroded trail. I had done my research, and I had a gut feeling that we were more than capable of finding and following (and not falling off of) this trail.
Jenn at Kalalau Lookout
According to my notes, the Kalepa Ridge trail started off pretty much directly from the Kalalau Lookout - a prominent visitor-accessible spot along the upper reaches of the park's main road. We parked at one of the pullouts near Kalalau Lookout and got our day-hiking gear ready. Then we headed over to the broad, green-fenced lookout over Kalalau Valley, and joined the thirty or forty other park visitors for a look over the railing. We recognized the Kalalau Valley immediately, spread out before us under a still-clear sky.
It was not immediately obvious where the Kalepa Ridge trail started. There's no sign for it, and so far, glancing around and over the railing didn't show any sign of a path. We walked back and forth along the one hundred or so feet of railing, and finally noticed something at the extreme left end (western end) of the viewing area.
Yes, indeed, there was a faint footpath here, and it led downwards over a few feet of grass before abruptly entering thick forest. We couldn't see any farther without having a closer look.
Probably much to the consternation of some of the onlookers, we carefully squeezed through a small gap in the overlook's fence and walked down a few feet on the narrow path. Hidden just a few feet into the woods was an old rusted white sign, and I could not make out anything decipherable on it. Still, it felt right, and the path went down on a bearing that was in the right direction. So, down we went - hopefully along the Kalepa Ridge Trail!
Start of Kalepa Ridge Trail
The trail was immediately quite steep and a bit slick, and for a few moments, I regretted not bringing my hiking poles for extra stability. It was still manageable, though, and more importantly, we could see that the trail was indeed following the upper reaches of Kalepa Ridge. We were indeed on the right path.
Approaching the edge
The upper part of the trail cut through fairly thick forest and brush, with no views. It was easy to follow here, though, even though it was slightly overgrown.
Andrew and Kalalau Valley
We only had to hike through about ten minutes of brush before we reached the first views of Kalalau Valley. And what a view it was. Laid out before us at the edge of the red volcanic earth was a spectacular view down into Kalalau Valley. Could the views get better as we descended the trail?
Steep Grassy Descents
As it turns out, they certainly could. After the initial brushiness, the trail was now mostly a faint but beautiful grassy track through open forests of native Lama trees, and all the while off to the right was the beautiful open abyss of Kalalau Valley.
Every so often, the trail would emerge from the open forest to follow along the very edge of the steep slopes into the valley - sometimes on bare red volcanic soil, and at other times on a thick turf of open grass.