It’s mid-December, cold in Utah, and we still haven’t received much snow in the mountains. What to do? Uh, why not Hawaii?

And with about that much forethought, I called Lauren, and the plan was on. We had about a week to figure out an itinerary, and since we both wanted to do it on the ultra-cheap, it wasn’t too hard. Camp on the beaches of Kauai, and spent 4 nights on the famous (or infamous) Kalalau Trail.

We arrived in Kauai in the middle of a ridiculous storm. I’ve never seen so much rain. We expected to camp every night, but within two hours, we had been beat into submission, and settled for a “budget” hotel. In other words, we slept in a concrete box. Hey, at least we were dry though. (We ended up 8 for 9 on camping, so still budget-friendly…)

Turns out, the storm was unusually powerful. Caused a ton of floods, shut down roads, and effectively shuffled our plans for the next week. We couldn’t even get to Hanalei to buy fuel for our stove, so we had no way to cook all the food that we had strategically packed into a separate suitcase back in Colorado. (I think I’m officially a dirtbag now.) Thank god for $5 footlongs in Hawaii.

So, with a few day delay, we did in fact make it out onto the Kalalau Trail, and not a minute too soon. We were both getting pretty anxious to do something besides sit in the rain. The Kalalau is rumored to be the finest backpacking destination in all of Hawaii. Kind of made it an easy decision when deciding where we wanted to go. But beyond a few descriptions we had read describing the beach, trail, and valley as perhaps the most beautiful place on earth, we really had no idea what we were in for.

Perhaps I was expecting a bit too much. I am, afterall, from Utah, where it is relatively easy to find real wilderness experiences (you know, the kind where you are removed from modern conveniences, don’t see crowds of people, experience solitude, peace, etc…) But this… This is far from a wilderness experience. The scenery was every bit as good as advertised, but the experience in general left me feeling unsatisfied. Ripped off, to a certain degree. And certainly frustrated, if not angry.

The first two miles of the trail are crowded with the usual tourists, which I have absolutely no problem with. I enjoy meeting people on the trail, and swapping some tales. After two miles, it’s time to cross the Hanakape’i river. At the trailhead was a sign posted “Do not cross river, you will drown! Water levels too high.” Apparently left by the park ranger. We did a little questioning of some folks coming back down off the trail, and their accounts of the crossing were nothing like that on the sign. At any rate, we decided to wait a day. Again, no big deal, better safe than sorry.

Upon reaching the crossing, we found it to be little more than some rock hopping. Literally, didn’t have to get your feet wet. Now I understand that the river could have been flooded the day before, but it was obvious from the evidence near the river, that it wasn’t life threatening the day before. This was the first in a pattern of over-exaggerations about the place, that by itself didn’t annoy me, but by the end of the trip, I was plain exhausted of.

Once the river was crossed, there were some toilets that seemed poorly maintained, as the stench from them was overpowering. We quickly continued on. A few hours later, and we reached the second river crossing, the Hanakoa. This may have been the most depressing place I have ever experienced while backpacking. Garbage was thrown everywhere, the place was muddy, buggy, and swampy, and genuinely trashed. There were even feral cats tearing through the garbage. Our permit called for us to camp there the first night. At $10 a night, there was no way I would sleep there. We kept on moving.

Within a couple miles, we reached the section that is known as “crawlers ledge.” It is, no doubt, a place that demands your attention. But it is not THAT exposed. And I am terrified of exposure. Certainly no need to crawl, even in the muddy conditions we had. It is in fact, quite safe. Still, a very beautiful place. One of the really “wild” sections on the trail. The raw beauty of the barren cliffs and the unrelenting pounding of the surf was pretty dramatic.

An hour or two later, we arrived at the Kalalau river crossing, and the beach. Because of the storms, there was almost no one on the beach, save one of the “locals” who had lived there since May. We scouted around for some campsites, and I was immediately disappointed again. Shattered surfboards, abandoned beach chairs, all sorts of piles of garbage, caches of gear people had left behind, and the list goes on. This was the beach I had heard to be one of the most pristine and beautiful on the island? Wow. Again, the place was positively trashed.

The garbage, in and of itself, was not a terribly big deal. It was exponentially compounded by the rest of the experience. Namely, those damned helicopters! Without any exaggeration, there were two instances where a helicopter flew over us within 75 feet of our head. Seventy-five friggin’ feet. What in the hell? Once when we were resting on a small pinnacle before heading down Red Hill, and another time while in a nice orchard in the valley. Certainly, this can’t be legal. It’s bad enough you have to hear helicopters flying over your head every 15 minutes throughout the daylight hours, but to be buzzed closely, and nearly landed on? Completely inexcusable.

What’s more, we had another helicopter (from Inter-Island Helicopters, easily identified by their trashy looking helicopters with doors off) that landed on the beach. Again, without exaggeration, 75 yards from where we were camping. WHAT THE #@!%? I couldn’t believe it. We went through the hassle of getting permits, paying $10 a night per person, and hiking all the way out to this beach, under the assumption that it would be an experience in a place relatively removed from this type of nonsense. What a bummer.

In general, my feeling is that the park is either cash-strapped, or is simply poorly managed. While we were picking up our permit, we went into the office, where a couple of guys from the Big Island were trying to draw a permit. The lady behind the counter explained to them that the storm was too dangerous, and no permits were being issued for the hike. Too bad, as these guys had flown in specifically to do the hike, hoping for a permit. Bad planning on their part? Probably. But what happened next is beyond explanation. We asked to draw our permit that we had reserved over the phone the week before. Without as much as a moment’s hesitation, the lady pulled the paperwork, accepted our payment, and issued the permit. Thirty seconds earlier, she had told two dudes that the trail was too dangerous, and refused to issue a permit. Huh???

Obviously, it worked out for us, but where’s the logic in that? We reserved, so we can go. But it’s too dangerous for anyone else. Hmm…. Truly bizarre.

It is obvious there is little in the way of enforcement for the helicopter companies. I have no idea what the ceiling is they should be flying at (I’m assuming above 1,000 feet?) but I don’t think we saw more than 2 or 3 aircraft that actually observed that. The ironic thing is the park is very popular, and relatively expensive and difficult to draw permits for. What exactly are people paying $10 a night per head for? Certainly there must be some solutions. Volunteer organizations in place? Clean up efforts? Increased enforcement? Explaining to permit holders to look out for bad-mannered helicopters, and reporting them? I can’t believe a resource like this would be essentially trashed.

Despite the obvious short-comings of the trail, it should be said that the scenery is unparalleled and breathaking. It is, as one local told us, “the garden of eden.” We were not disappointed. It is a place, however, that is in no way an opportunity for solitude, for wilderness, or even a feeling of remoteness. Count me as one who was underwhelmed, and perhaps expecting too much.

But hey, it’s mid-December in Utah, and there aren’t too many opportunities for backpacking in shorts and a t-shirt around here. So, I guess it’s all a compromise.

p.s. I hate helicopters.