Today was a BIG DAY! You may recall me waxing poetic about the Alaka’i Swamp Trail back in my 2014 post and how I was so excited that day to have actually made it past the Pihea Trail and a ways onto the Alaka’i Swamp Trail. That was a good day, but I knew we hadn’t actually made it as far as the swamp on that trail before turning back and, as she has since 2004, the swamp was continuing to call to me.
There was only one thing for it. We had to rent a 4WD to drive to the actual swamp trailhead rather than hike the Pihea Trail to get to the junction. It would still require a 1.2 mile hike in order to get to the junction with the Pihea Trail, but it was a much easier hike than taking the Pihea Trail, which wears us out before we even get to the swamp trail.
So, after perusing options for short-term Jeep rentals on Kaua’i, I decided to make a 2-day reservation through Kaua’i Jeep Rental. Booking a Jeep for 2 days directly with the company from which we had our regular rental car would have cost at least twice as much. The reviews were good, there was an “any time” cancellation policy, and I didn’t need to provide a credit card number until we picked up the car, so I decided to take the plunge.
The woman at the name brand rental counter was reassuringly enthusiastic as she took us to “our” Jeep, and, although we still had no intention to beat it like a rented mule, we were also pretty sure we could return it with a couple extra short scratches and some mud on the sides with no trouble.
And so we were off to the hike! After my months of planning, Steve had considerately waited until the night before the hike to start expressing some concerns about the condition of Mohihi Road, which would take us to the Alaka’i Swamp trailhead. I searched quickly and found a video on YouTube of some women taking a Jeep down the road. Although their commentary, complete with bad jokes and giggling screams, was a bit annoying, it was actually very helpful to get a general sense of how steep the road was and get some of the guide markers along the way.
Even so, I decided to call ahead to the Koke’e Museum, where you are supposed to be able to get trail and road conditions. What I got was a crotchety grandmother who clearly didn’t think anyone should do anything but drive along the main road and get out at the appropriately designated overlooks. I’ll come back to justify this impression much later in this tale. When I politely asked if I could get the condition of Mohihi Road and the Alaka’i Swamp Trail, I was instead told unequivocally that we should not take it, that our rental Jeep didn’t have the tires for it, and we would get stuck down at the bottom.
After a fair amount of this, I again politely, but a bit more firmly, asked her if I could get the condition of the road itself – was it a normal state of bad or much worse. “Oh it’s horrible, much worse,” she told me. But the whole of the conversation, the tone of her voice, her absolute unwillingness to provide the information, and her overall dismissiveness made me deeply suspicious that she would never tell anyone to take the road. We decided that, having already paid for the Jeep, we had nothing to lose but our time and the gas of the drive, so we continued on our way to the park.
We stopped briefly at the museum to use the facilities and get a trail map, and my impression of the woman was immediately confirmed by the sour-looking old woman at the desk who had to take her yippy little ankle-biter of a floor mop out for walkies while we were there. I knew her on sight, but it was her voice that drove in the nail and I was sure it was her. Notably, Steve made the map purchase rather than me, just to be on the safe side.
[rant] Now, I’m sure it is true that in the past tourists have gone down the road in inappropriate vehicles and conditions and have had some trouble. But isn’t it just possible that people who actually call ahead to get the condition of the road are mildly more responsible than the average Joe? Wouldn’t it be better to just honestly give us the condition of the road, or a caution about being sure our tires were up to it since rental Jeeps often didn’t have the right kind of tire? Just say, “Oh we had a horrible storm a couple of weeks ago and it’s a muddy mess down there right now. You might want to wait until next time if you have a rental Jeep.” Something of that sort would actually be helpful information. I say to the Hawai’i Division of State Parks, if you are going to advise travelers to call the museum to get accurate and current hike and road conditions, you’d best be sure that role is staffed by someone who is willing to provide the information rather than just sell bookmarks and instruct people to head on up to the lookout. [/rant]
And so we were off for the unpaved road, responsibly ready to turn back at any point that Steve, who was driving and has significantly more experience with this kind of driving than I do, decided it was best to do so.
The road was fine. It wasn’t great, it was bumpy, there were large pot holes you had to be careful about, and it took about 20 minutes to make the 3-mile drive because we were super careful. But it wasn’t muddy except in a couple minor spots at lower road sections, and the Jeep and Steve were able to handle the road with no problems. Go slow, don’t go if it’s been raining or looks like it might rain, don’t go if it’s muddy from the start, and keep a careful eye on the large potholes (and know how to drive around them), and you should be fine.
We arrived at the Alaka’i picnic area around 11:45, took some pictures of the canyon overlook, ate our sandwiches, and used the remarkably clean and unsmelly facilities.
Then we were off to the trailhead around 12:15. Remember the energy and enthusiasm evident in this picture when you come to another photo from the same location near the end of this post.
The first portion of the trail was a bit harder than anticipated, with a mildly steep down, then up section, but we were past that within the first 10 minutes. From there to the intersection with the Pihea Trail, it was level, although the lack of tree cover in this area made it a bit warm. The first big milestone was getting back to the junction point. Steve and I agreed that it was a much easier way to get there than taking the Pihea Trail from the Kalalau Lookout.
We began our descent on the wooden stairs, stopping a few times to take in the fabulous scent and site of the fields of Kahili ginger, which I know is extremely invasive, but it’s also quite beautiful.
We barely even paused at the stream where we had turned back last time, instead forging ahead triumphantly to the point where every step was new ground for us! This is the point where I should mention what the trail descriptions I read in advance omitted – there is a very difficult, steep, and muddy section climbing up from the stream bed that is very much like the last section of the Pihea Trail before turning off of the ridge.
The trail guides I had read talked about the easy boardwalk section through the swamp, and this was certainly yet to come, but the emphasis on the ease of getting through the swamp neglected the reality of getting to the swamp. Because, you see, we hadn’t actually made it to the swamp on our last attempt and we were still about an hour of hard scrabble climbing away from it when we reached the stream.
As usual, my hike map reading also focused too much on the distance and not at all on the elevation change, so I missed that we would go from 3,688 feet at the stream up to 4,041 feet rather quickly. In other words, this:
The other part of this elevation question has to do with how long is the hike, really? In a pure, start-to-finish, point A to point B equation, on flat terrain the trail is 3.6 miles one-way. But is that really accurate on a trail with elevation changes? If you take X number of steps in a mile of flat terrain and the same number of steps only covers 0.8 miles of pure GPS distance on a hill, have you really somehow walked less? Geometry was my weakest subject in high school, but I’m pretty sure the hypotenuse of that incline triangle is longer than its horizontal leg. According to Steve’s Band fitness device, the trail was more like 4.6 miles one way, which makes sense if you measure the inclines and declines geometrically, rather than concentrating on a flat line, point-to-point calculation. We may have only traveled 3.6 miles, but we walked 4.6 each way. So, yah, it was harder than anticipated.
We made it to the top of this worst section and found a rock to sit on for a much-needed rest. After our pulses slowed down to an easy gallop, I told Steve that the section ahead looked okay, but we could turn back if we encountered another section like the one we had just gotten through. I didn’t really want to kill him, after all.
Pulses throttling down and sweat finally evaporating, we pushed ahead. There was one more uneven muddy section and we kept wondering where the boardwalk was, but it wasn’t enough to make us turn back and we finally made it to where the boardwalk starts up again.
The park service really takes the word “boardwalk” literally, it being just a series of 2×10 planks, laid end to end, coursing through the swamp. Although it was fairly easy walking from that point, we had to be careful of our step, not just to keep our balance on stable planks, but also because some of the boards were broken, or would shift as we stepped on them, slapping into the water beneath.
As we were walking through the swamp, we came upon a very pretty Pacific Golden Plover.
In a running theme for this hike, making our way through the swamp was also a much longer walk than expected, taking at least another 30 minutes. It was beautiful, but we didn’t really know how much further it would be, and every time we thought we were coming to a potential overlook point, the trail would veer off in another direction.
But suddenly we were there. Coming around one last turn, through one last cluster of trees, and we were abruptly at the Kilohana Lookout.
When we got there, the view was covered by a fairly dense fog layer, so we sat down to take out our snacks of almonds, raisins, and beef jerky. On the final stretch to the lookout, we had encountered another couple coming back who said they had sat out there for 20 minutes, but the fog never cleared. We were hopeful, but realistic. We certainly both really wanted the fog to clear so we could call this hike accomplished and I wouldn’t feel the need to do it again!
We had barely dug into our provisions when Steve glanced up and saw the view opening before us. As the fog shifted, he quickly grabbed his camera and got several shots before the fog came in again. The fog kept weaving in and out, but we had several minutes of clear views during the 20 minutes we were on the platform resting and eating.
The view is of the North Shore, looking over part of the unpassable stretch of land that, along with the Na Pali Coast and the Alaka’i Swamp itself, makes a road fully encircling the island impossible. Hanalei Bay, where we had napped just a couple of days ago, is over on the right.
Just as we were finishing up our snacks and contemplating the return hike, another couple emerged onto the platform to find the fog-covered overlook. We chatted with them a minute, telling them that the fog was moving in and out and they probably just needed to wait a few minutes to get a view. This is where the cranky old lady at the museum comes back into the story, and my impression of her was fully confirmed.
As we were chatting with this couple, we were asking about the route they had taken. They actually had managed the hike via the Pihea Trail from the Kalalau Lookout. Mad respect. Steve was telling them about our previous attempts at the hike and how we had decided to rent a Jeep this time and take the unpaved road down to the swamp trailhead. He mentioned that the woman at the museum was thoroughly discouraging of us taking the road, but that it was fine. At this point, the man said, “She was really grouchy, wasn’t she!”
Apparently when they had attempted to get information about the condition of the Pihea Trail to the Alaka’i Swamp Trail, she was equally discouraging, emphasizing that it was muddy and rough, and it would take hours, if they made it at all.
Now, all of that was true, but they, like us, wanted to make the attempt. We wanted to get out of our cars and see the beauty of Kaua’i – the Kaua’i that not everyone sees, the one where the journey is part of the experience and a bit of an achievement all on its own. It becomes a quest, something to strive for and that calls you back even if you don’t make it the first time.
The woman at the museum just doesn’t get this. She should focus on providing information to the tour buses that come through the area. I’m sure she’d be great at that. But hikers should be directed to a ranger, or at least to a person with more adventure in their heart.
Steve and I finished packing in our gear and wished the other couple good luck on the hike back, just as the fog rolled out again and they were treated to their first view of the valley below them.
We made our way back along the swamp boardwalk and the minor muddy section, taking a short break at the same rock where we’d wondered about our survival an hour earlier to rest before tackling the horrible section again. It was much easier on the way down, but still very slippery and our legs were already quite tired.
This time we did stop at the stream for a few minutes, once again gearing ourselves up for the steep climb up the stairs and back onto the boardwalk that would take us on the last leg of our journey.
Steve has for years “jokingly” complained about the Death March vacations I plan for us, full of hikes and early morning activities, with little time for napping or resting. I don’t see any purpose in flying someplace new if you’re just going to sleep the whole time. Plan a staycation if you want to do that; I want to see things and do things in my vacation locales.
Perhaps it’s ironic that on this vacation, the one that actually had a fair amount of resting built in, at least for my vacations, we finally achieved a Death March. We were thoroughly spent by the time we reached the junction with the Pihea Trail. Even though the trail was flat from here until almost the end, there was still another mile to go.
This was the silent time of our hike, neither of us having the energy to talk, just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other over and over and over again.
We made it to the end, getting back to the car just after 5:00. Round trip, the hike took about 4.5 hours, plus the time spent enjoying the overlook. Or perhaps I should say it took us 12 years, start to finish.
Either way, we have now officially done the Alaka’i Swamp Trail to the Kilohana Lookout. As Steve says, “Anne ‘Ahab’ Barker is looking for a new white whale to pursue.”