Northern America

Perilous paradise


The old trade route along the Nā Pali coast recently deteriorated, but brave workers are restoring its pride.

The scenery befits movies such as King Kong and Jurassic Park. On Kaua’i, the fourth largest island of the Hawaii archipelago, deep naked valleys and rugged mountainsides blend with canyons and wild waterfalls to create a landscape close to utopian. Imagining giant gorillas and dinosaurs here is hardly difficult. In fact, the island featured in both movies.

Kaua’i grew from an ancient volcano that rose more than eight kilometres (five miles) from the seafloor. With time, rain has carved out deep ridges in the mountains. National parks now protect an area that continues to be shaped by Hawaii’s unpredictable weather. On the land, the primitivism of past settlements is retained. There is no drinking water, no showers and no camping facilities for visitors.


Uncompromising and occasionally hazardous conditions leave visitors undeterred. About half a million people visit Kaua’i each year. Central to their expeditions is the 18-kilometre (11-mile) Kalalau Trail, which crosses five national parks along the north-western coast. It was constructed in the 1860s by the Hawaiian government to improve mainland access for traders and locals residing in the valleys. Chinese immigrants laboured heavily and dynamite paved way for a trail wide enough to accommodated animals loaded with oranges, taro and coffee. It remains the only land-based route to the coastline. The other option is boat.

The trail can be challenging and dangerous. After the first three kilometres (two miles) novices are strongly advised to turn. The slope crosses riverstreams that vary in strength and size depending on climate and season. In the past hikers have been trapped on the wrong side and required rescue. The trail is steep, and often narrow and slippery. National parks warn against flash floods and falling rocks. Down below, steep drop-offs and cliffs lead to an unpredictable ocean in which swimming is strongly discouraged. The island has no on-site lifeguards, no emergency services, no phone signal. In case of injury, hikers must walk back for help.


In recent years the well-used trail has deteriorated. A comprehensive restoration project is scheduled to finish at the end of this year. The initiative is funded by the state of Hawaii and overseen by the Kauai Planning & Action Alliance. Helping out are volunteers from The Friends of the Kalalau Trail, who are fixing the most heavily travelled section.

Why does it need repairing? Well, mainly because erosive forces have gathered soil on the inner side of the trailway. “That accumulated soil supports vegetation, and if both the soil and vegetation are not periodically removed, eventually the treadway becomes narrower and the alignment ‘migrates’ away from the original trail’s inslope,” says Tommy A. Noyes, who coordinates the project. “Additionally, erosion will result in rocks rolling down onto the treadway, or in washouts of whole sections of trail.”

Workers aim to restore the trail to its original width and alignment. Firstly a land management crew trims back vegetation flanking the trail. Next, accumulated soil is removed using picks and shovels. This goes on until the trail has a width of between 60 and 90 centimetres. Wherever the trail’s original alignment has changed, workers will try to shift it back. Various building techniques are applied to fix seriously damages. In some areas log or stone steps are installed.

The process is demanding, and not without challenges. “All this manual labour relies on helicopter transport to move the personnel, tools, and supplies into and out of temporary campsites along the trail,” says Noyes. “The work is logistically challenging, physically demanding, and requires in-depth knowledge of trail reconstruction techniques and the unique Napali environment.” On the bright side, it is sure to delight traveller and hikers alike.

Photos: bierchen, Caleb Foster, Jose Gil [all via].

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