Kalalau Trail

The Nā Pali coast on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai is one of the most rugged and spectacular meetings of land and ocean on earth. Millions of years of erosion have created soaring cliffs, knife-edge ridges and hanging valleys rising immediately from the pounding surf that relentlessly smashes into the rocky shore. This stretch of picturesque coast is protected by Nā Pali Coast State Park and is inaccessible to motorized vehicles but the famous Kalalau Trail enables access on foot. The rugged 11 mile trail stretches from the end of the road at beautiful Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach, which is the turnaround point where the coast becomes even too precipitous for a trail. The full Kalalau Trail is a 22 mile out-and-back but I highly recommend the 1 mile roundtrip side hike to Hanakoa Falls and the 4 mile roundtrip side hike to Hanakapi’ai Falls. Thus, the grand tour of the Nā Pali is around 27-28 miles.  Hanakoa Falls is a taller and thinner falls while Hanakapai’ai Falls is a shorter (but still quite tall) and higher volume falls. Hanakapi’ai Falls is closer to the trailhead at Ke’e Beach (4 miles each way; 8 miles roundtrip) and is accessible without a permit so it is very popular with day hikers. Meanwhile, Hanakoa Falls is much farther beyond the point where permits are required and therefore sees much less visitation with a more wild and peaceful feeling. Both falls have their merits and if you can I would make the side trips to see both.  As the Kalalau Valley and Beach are fragile and sacred lands, a permit system limits the number of visitors beyond Hanakpi’ai beach. These permits are easily obtained online but must be reserved well in advance as the quota can fill up months in advance. The vast majority of folks beyond Hanakpi’ai beach are backpackers headed for overnights at Hanakoa Valley and Kalalau beach. The park seems to have a policy against day trips in the permit zone, undoubtedly due to hikers and/or trail runners that were ill prepared for the rugged trail and/or conditions and had to be rescued. However, if weather and trail conditions are fine it is very possible to hike the entire trail in a day and run the entire trail in a matter of hours. A more casual trail run that allows one to fully enjoy the surrounding scenery and make side trips to the waterfalls might be an ideal itinerary. Either way, a permit is required for all trail users beyond Hanakapi’ai beach so advance planning is necessary to obtain the permit before the quota fills up.          The first two miles of the trail from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi’ai Beach are wide and well trodden. After crossing Hanakapi’ai Creek the trail forks with the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail going straight and the Kalalau Trail heading right and up the hill. Both trails become much narrower and more rugged than the first two miles. The four mile out-and-back to Hanakpai’ai Falls from Hanakapi’ai Beach is a wonderful walk in a lush jungle including bamboo groves, a lush under story of ferns, (often) wet creek crossings and some rock scrambling. The falls itself is in a spectacular amphitheater and one of the classic sights of Kauai. Back on the Kalalau Trail, the four mile stretch from Hanakapi’ai Beach to Hanakoa Valley is probably the most rugged of the entire trail with some encroaching brush, slippery sections, and several climbs up and over ridges. Most of this section is under beautiful forest canopy but there are still some amazing vistas.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Kalalau Trail is the changing flora, which starts out with tropical rainforest and progresses to a drier regime as one progresses toward Kalalau Beach, particularly after Hanakoa Valley (at mile 6).  In addition, the trail becomes easier after Hanakoa Valley with more gradual ascents, less overall climbing and less brush. The final three miles to Kalalau Valley and Kalalau Beach are a pleasure with wide open trail and continuous amazing vistas with open red rock surface and grassland versus the thick forest canopy of the first 7 miles. While the entire trail is gorgeous, it seems to get better and better as one moves toward Kalalau Valley, which is a magical and special spot with amazing views in all directions and towering ridges immediately overhead. This area is a treasure and worthy of high levels of protection and conservation. As such, state parks has implemented the permit system to limit the impacts of humans. If you wish to continue beyond Hanakapi’ai beach, it pays to plan well in advance and reserve a permit at least a month or two before you plan to hit the trail. The main destination for backpackers on the Kalalau Trail is Kalalau Beach. The park recognizes that setting up and using a camp is perhaps the highest impact activity of backpackers so they have designated a specific area for camping near Kalalau Beach and explicitly prohibit camping beyond this point. Unfortunately, some selfish people either feel that the signs and regulations don’t apply to them or that their camping activities will not have the same impact as others (not) and choose to camp in illegal spots. All of these folks are missing out on the tenets of respect and utmost care for the Kalalau Valley and are not doing their part to preserve this magical spot for future generations. Please don’t think you’re entitled; make your camp in the designated camping area! Perhaps the most important advise for the Kalalau Trail is to monitor weather conditions and resist the urge to the do the trail in poor weather conditions (even if you had planned a specific date long in advance). First and foremost, the whole point of the trail is to see the amazing vistas. If the coast is being battered by a storm you can’t see anything and it will be miserably wet. As the lush vegetation manifests, it rains a lot here! Second, the trail is slippery enough as-is and doing it on a rainy day would be a sucky slip and slide. Third, heavy rain can make the trail dangerous and life-threatening. The park closes down the trail during and after heavy rain since flash flooding is a real danger as Hanakapi’ai creek becomes impassable. By selfishly ignoring the closure signs you put yourself and rescuers in danger. If you are planning a backpacking trip and you decide to embark with rain in the forecast, prepare to spend an extra night or two with sufficient additional food since you may not be able to exit the trail until waters have sufficiently receded after a rain.   Kauai is an extremely popular tourist destination and not everybody can or wants to hike the Nā Pali coast so this has a created a thriving helicopter tour industry for folks to see the coast from the air. Unfortunately, these helicopters create substantial noise pollution and they travel much too close to the land. It’s sad that the ethos of respect and utmost care for this sacred land is being challenged by the reverberating noise of helicopters on a daily basis. If anything diminishes the Kalalau Trail and Nā Pali coast compared to some other iconic wilderness trails it would be the unnerving sound of the barrage of helicopters that traverse the coast during peak hours. If it were my decision I would ban the helicopter entirely. Otherwise, I strongly believe Hawaii should implement regulations that extend into the airspace above the land to keep the helicopters from traveling into the canyons which amplifies the sound and diminishes the experience for tourists on the ground. In addition, just as there is a limited quota for hikers there should be a limited quota for helicopters. Assuming there is already a quota for helicopters, it is WAY too high. Again, I would ban them entirely but if there must be a “balance” the helicopter numbers should come way down. Unfortunately, the draw of tourist dollars may be too much to force meaningful change 😦   There is also a lot of boat tour traffic along the Nā Pali, but the boats are less of an eye sore and don’t make much noise. My gripe is with the helicopters. As it stands, it appears there is a morning session of helicopters with greatest frequency from around 9 am to 11 am and then an afternoon session from 2 pm to 4 pm. This is based on experience in early February and flying times may change depending on the season. When the helicopters are not buzzing overhead one can best enjoy the spectacular scenery in peace and quiet.As with any spectacular and accessible trail, there are unfortunately some side effects of the popularity. In the case of the Kalalau, it’s loud helicopters and some backpackers that feel entitled to camp in illegal spots. Despite these issues, the Kalalau is still one of the most amazing trails I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing and I look forward to my next visit!   

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Stone Ridge & Aerial Falls

Cone Peak rises 5,155 ft above the Pacific Ocean in less than three miles as the crow flies, making it one of the steepest gradients from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. It’s nearly a vertical mile above the glimmering ocean with a commanding view of the Big Sur Coast. Such steep topography leads to many awesome features, not the least of which is waterfalls! On this day I visited an ephemeral waterfall on the backside of Cone Peak in the headwaters of the San Antonio River, my first adventure into the San Antonio watershed. This falls only flows with any kind of noticeable volume after a period of substantial winter rainfall so on all my times standing on Cone Peak I never noticed the falls. However, when in flow the falls is striking from the summit particularly in the afternoon sunlight. Technically the falls does not drain Cone Peak itself, but from the summit one can gain a great birds eye view of the main 100+ ft drop across the canyon. I named the falls “Aerial Falls” because of the aerial style of the view from Cone Peak and also when standing beneath the falls it seems as if the water is falling from the sky as it plunges off the massive conglomerate rock facade. Beneath the main drop is a series of additional falls and cascades so the total height of the falls from top to bottom likely approaches 200 vertical feet. In order to view the falls from its base one must earn it: first in terms of timing to see the falls in flow (which is admittedly rare) and second in the arduous off-trail adventure down into the depths of the remote, trail-less headwaters of the San Antonio River (it’s farther than it seems).

  

The most prominent ridge on the Cone Peak massif (which includes Twin Peak) is Stone Ridge. The direct route up this ridge is tremendous and worthy of the title “Sea to Sky.” Stone Ridge is easily the most impressive and prominent ridge along the entire Big Sur Coast. While there are a bevy of beautiful grassy ridges near the ocean that I have explored (Boronda, Prewitt, Shouey, East Molera, Kirk Creek, Mount Mars to name a few), each with its own charm and inspiration, none compare to Stone Ridge in terms of height (4,800 ft), length (4 miles) and sheer topography in all directions. In 5.25 miles, one can go from the Pacific Ocean to the 5,155 ft summit of Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur Coast.  Suffice it to say, Stone Ridge is one-of-a-kind. I’ve blogged about Stone Ridge and the “Sea to Sky” route many times before so there really isn’t anything to add except some photos from the latest trip. 

Little Big Loop – Santa Lucia Wilderness

The Santa Lucia Wilderness is a little-known 20,412 acre wilderness at the southern end of the Santa Lucia Range near San Luis Obispo. Only a few trails traverse the relatively small wilderness, including Lopez Canyon Trail, Big Falls Trail and Little Falls Trail. The Little Falls and Big Falls Trails can be connected using dirt roads to form an attractive loop. The dirt road on the ridge is a fire road (closed to vehicles) with stellar views of the surrounding ridges while the dirt road at the bottom is the access road for a surprising number of homeowners holed up in lower Lopez Canyon. While the road in Lopez Canyon is publicly accessible, high clearance is required, especially if there is any kind of flow in the waterfalls since the road crosses Lopez Creek many times (and often quite deep). There is therefore little vehicle traffic on the road. For most folks it makes much more sense to park on the other side of the ridge at Rinconada Trailhead.  From Rinconada, a great 13+ mile lasso loop includes the Big Falls and Little Falls Trails which feature three waterfalls, excellent views of the surrounding mountains and great diversity of flora. Moreover, the out-and-back trail from Rinconada to the ridge is not very long (~1.5 miles) and enjoyable in its own right.    

My last visit to this area was in autumn when the falls were mostly dry so it was a completely different experience with the falls and streams gushing at high flow after recent heavy rain. The centerpiece waterfall feature is Big Falls at around 80 ft in height with a beautiful rock amphitheater surrounding the falls. Lower down the Big Falls Trail is a smaller “slide” falls that plunges into a deep pool that makes for a lovely swimming and diving hole on warm summer days. The third falls is “Little Falls”  which is about half the height of Big Falls but has very charming setting and pretty plunge pool. Little Falls is not visible from the Little Falls Trail; instead one must take a usepath that departs the main trail at the last crossing of Little Falls Creek before it embarks on a lengthy ascent up the Little Falls canyon. If there is flow in the creeks expect dozens of creek crossings, both on the trails and the Lopez Canyon road with guaranteed wet feet.

Silver Peak Traverse

Silver Peak rises steeply from the south coast of Big Sur to a lofty perch at 3,590 ft. The summit sits at the center of the 31,555 acre namesake Silver Peak Wilderness, which encompasses some of the most spectacular terrain and scenery in all of Big Sur. Silver Peak is a broad massif with relatively gradual topography at its uppermost elevations becoming progressively steeper as one descends toward the canyons of Salmon Creek and Villa Creek. One of my favorite aspects of the Silver Peak Wilderness is the amazing biological diversity. The upper elevations are generally a mix of chaparral, Gray Pine and Coulter Pine. The eastern end of the Silver Peak massif includes a rare grove of Sargent Cypress. Middle elevations, especially in riparian corridors, tend to feature oak woodland and bay laurel trees. The upper Villa Creek Canyon includes a rare grove of Santa Lucia Firs and the middle and lower sections of Villa Creek Canyon feature one of the southernmost stands of old growth redwood. Meanwhile, Salmon Creek Canyon has a nice stand of Douglas Fir.  Silver Peak stands apart from the south coast ridge crest so the 360 degree panorama from its summit is tremendous. To the north is an excellent view of Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra. Close at hand is San Martin Top, Alder Peak and Lion Peak. To the south is a commanding view of the Dutra Flats area, Mount Mars, County Line Ridge, Bald Top, Piedras Blancas and the mountains of Hearst Ranch in San Luis Obispo County. The steep topographical relief results in immense orographic enhancement of precipitation in winter storms. This results in a number of impressive waterfalls and beautiful streams flowing over bedrock that drain Silver Peak. The Silver Peak Wilderness includes a lovely network of trails. A loop around Silver Peak can be made utilizing the Cruickshank, Salmon Creek and Buckeye Trails and is a wonderful way to enjoy the many facets of this wilderness, but it does not reach the summit of Silver Peak. In order to reach the summit of Silver Peak, a use path on a narrowed old fire road starts at the divide between Villa Creek and Salmon Creek along the Cruickshank Trail. The old fire road has narrowed to single track in spots as it passes thorugh Sargent Cypress, a stand of Coulter Pines and chaparral. The old fire road passes within a few feet of the summit, at which point a short path cuts through the brush to the summit rocks, which includes a summit register. One may continue along the old fireroad west of the summit to complete the traverse of the Silver Peak massif. The old fire road terminates near Silver Peak usecamp. From the Silver Peak usecamp, “Soda Wildtrail” cuts through the chaparral to prominent point 2,866 (aka “Soda Peak”) which sits near the headwaters of Soda Gulch. “Soda Peak” has one of the best views of the south Big Sur coastline looking south to Piedras Blancas and Mount Mars. The final portion of the Silver Peak traverse continues down from Soda Peak toward the Buckeye Trail and features lovely meadows interspersed with pines and oak trees with spectacular vistas the entire way.  

Ventana Cone & Lion Rock

I enjoyed last year’s Ventana (single) Cone Adventure so much that I came back to explore a new ascent route up Ventana Cone and a new descent route from Lion Rock. I climbed both peaks on the Ventana Triple Crown route last year, but in my opinion climbing Ventana Cone and Lion Rock from the Carmel River is more aesthetic as it includes some amazing creek walking, waterfalls and Santa Lucia Fir groves. Both routes went as planned and proved to be efficient ways to climb both Ventana Cone and Lion Rock with relatively light brush in a trail-less region where bushwhacking is notoriously arduous. Ventana Cone is not visited very often (I was the first entry of 2016) and Lion Rock is visited even less frequently with only on a few parties known to have stood on its rocky summit in the last several decades. The stretch from Kandlbinder to Ventana Cone is the most rugged and wild region in all of the Ventana (and arguably the coastal ranges of the West Coast) so it is always a pleasure to visit this area.  As with last year, the first part of the morning entailed running the Carmel River Trail from Los Padres Dam traveling nearly 10 miles deep into the canyon to Hiding Canyon Camp, a nice camp with Santa Lucia Firs and a tall ponderosa pine. Another 1.5 miles leads to Round Rock Camp. The trail to Round Rock Camp has some brush and blowdowns but still seems faster than walking in the river. Beyond Round Rock Camp is all off-trail, mostly creek-walking through a stunningly beautiful canyon of turqoise pools, slick rock, cascades, house-sized boulders, ferns, and moss. The amazing lushness of this deep canyon with several different varieties of ferns, and moss covering virtually everything creates a scene fit for Jurassic Park. Almost everything is photogenic. However, unlike last year, I took the first creek that enters the main tributary instead of continuing to the head of the canyon (my return route would include the entire canyon). This small creek does not produce enough flow to clear out the riparian brush so it is difficult in its lower reaches and I found much progress on the slopes above the stream bed. Eventually the stream opens up into a long talus field, at first under oak trees but increasingly a Santa Lucia Fir forest as one ascends the steepening slopes. The old growth Santa Lucia firs in the upper part of this drainage are simply amazing. The talus staircase is fairly stable and therefore an efficient route all the way up to a high notch where one must traverse into another drainage for the final climb up to Ventana Cone. This traverse includes some light brush with the burnt vegetation being the greater impediment. A final talus slope provides efficient access to the ridge near the summit of Ventana Cone. The view from Ventana Cone was just as I had remembered it from prior visits with a 360 degree panorama taking in the entire northern part of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Close at hand are the Ventana Spires, Ventana Double Cone, Kandlbinder and Lion Rock. From Ventana Cone to Lion Rock I used the same route as I did on the Triple Crown, generally staying on the east side of the ridge in talus slopes with Santa Lucia Firs. Lion Rock is an unofficial name I gave this majrestic peak that sits at the head of Lion Creek. Lion Rock is rugged and steep on all sides and an attractive peak from every direction. In fact, it’s one of my favorites in all of the Ventana. An old scrap register was left by legendary Ventana pioneer Ward Allison and Toshi Hosaka placed a new mini-register last year (no other signatures after his visit). From Lion Rock I descended the class 3 rock face and worked north to the top of a long and steep talus slope. Unlike the earlier talus slope, this one had much smaller, looser rock and the descent was rather tedious, but still much more efficient and pleasant than a bushwhack. This talus slope continued virtually unabated for over a thousand vertical feet before I reached more more mixed terrain. As the creek picked up flow I found myself increasingly in the stream descending into the lovely canyon with bedrock cascades, fern gardens and moss covered rocks. There are several beautiful waterfalls in this drainage including Spire Falls, Lion Rock Falls, Ventana Cone Falls, Carmel Falls and the Carmel Gorge.

Vicente Falls & Limekiln Falls

While the average annual number of rainy days on the central coast is not particularly notable, the terrain on Big Sur is capable of immense orographic enhancement and staggering rainfall totals when Pacific moisture and jet stream energy align with the terrain. Rises steeply from the ocean to its 5,164 ft summit, Cone Peak is particularly adept at squeezing out the moisture from clouds and when combined with its rugged and extremely steep topography you get some impressive waterfalls on the mountain’s flanks. Two such waterfalls are Vicente Falls and Limekiln Falls.

  Limkiln Falls is a relatively accessible 90 ft drop at the bottom of Middle Fork Limekiln Creek. The short hike to reach the falls from the Limekiln State Park day use and camping area passes through an attractive redwood grove with a carpet of redwood sorrel and pretty cascades along Limekiln Creek. After taking the main trail along Limekiln Creek, turn right at a junction and head up the Middle Fork Limekiln Canyon to the falls, crossing the creek four times along the way. These crossings are usually dry but will be wet in higher flow with no bridges in place. The main drop is measured at 90 ft and that is all that is visible from below, but there are additional drops upstream. The falls has two distinct prongs separated by a massive mineral apron. The prongs spreading outward from the top are reminiscent of the tusks of a mammoth. In the very highest flows, this apron is entirely covered in water, but the general character of the falls is the two prongs with moss and vegetation growing on the mineral accumulation in between. Due to high visitation, vegetation at the base of the falls has been largely trampled to dirt. The falls only features a small, shallow plunge pool.

When in flow, Vicente Falls is a very pretty falls spanning 190 ft from top to bottom. The falls drains the region immediately below the southeast face of Cone Peak, which is the drier, hotter side of the mountain. Thus, appreciable flow is not the norm for this falls (especially in the last few years of drought) and the falls is light at best or more accurately a drip most of the year. However, after a heavy rain, the falls transforms into a beautiful cataract over the immense cliffs tumbling over at least four distinct drops into the redwood forest. From below, the uppermost drops are not visible, but around 120 vertical feet of the falls is visible. Similar to Limekiln Falls, the plunge pool at the base of Vicente Falls is shallow and small. Vicente Falls is located upstream of Vicente Flat in a side canyon of the main Hare Canyon. The trek up to the falls includes some photogenic cascades and small pools in a narrow canyon along with some poison oak and blowdown debris. It is interesting to note that for most of the year the main stem of Hare Canyon has higher flow but after heavy rain the side canyon containing Vicente Falls greatly exceeds the main stem. This is indicative of some large springs in the canyon along the main stem while the Vicente Falls side canyon is largely runoff based flow. Visiting Limekiln Falls, Vicente Falls, or both gives an excuse to spend some time on lovely Cone Peak, one of the centerpiece features of Big Sur with amazing vistas and scenery, some of which I’ve highlighted here.  For additional waterfalls in Big Sur, see the Waterfall Project

Lion Creek Adventure

There are many magical canyons in the Ventana Wilderness and Lion Creek is definitely one of them. The creek drains the southern slopes of Ventana Cone, “Lion Rock” and “Ventana Knob”, a vast expanse of exceptionally rugged and wild terrain that is some of the most remote and pristine in all of the coastal ranges along the U.S. West Coast. In fact, parts of the Lion Creek headwaters have likely never seen human eyes. I joined Flyin’ Brian Robinson for an introductory adventure up this canyon to visit a pair of picturesque waterfalls. The lower falls is a single 40+ ft drop into a large circular pool while the upper falls has two segments with two large pools (main segment 50 ft and lower segment 20 ft).

The entrance to the creek features a very cool twisty gorge culminating in a pair of circular pools separated by a 15 ft falls and some required wading through pools. A fortuitous old growth redwood log stuck in place enables passage from the first pool to the second. The creek then passes through a flatter area with burned old growth redwoods that were sizzled in the Basin Fire in 2007 but appear to have largely survived. These redwoods have sprouted new branches and at this stage look like tall, regal columns. The lower falls seemingly appears out of nowhere and it’s a lovely sight with a consolidated drop fanning out into a horsetail. The lower falls features a lovely bedrock section above the drop including a series of mini pools, aka tea cups. The creek walking above the Lower Falls becomes more arduous leading to the upper falls which flow over a smooth rock face in a spectacular cirque. Our visit came on one of the last days suitable for swimming in the pools and we made sure to take a couple swims underneath the falls. There is much to explore upstream of the waterfalls and also on the tributaries of the main stem creek where perhaps more waterfalls reside. Access is likely very difficult in the winter with some hypothermic swimming becoming a necessity in higher flows. Full Photo album.