5 soul-boosting reasons to hike the PCT

Die-hard “thru-hiker” or aspirational backpacker (like myself), a trip along America‚Äôs infamous Pacific Crest Trail has much to offer. Here we explore 5 reasons why hitting the trail is a no-brainer. Could a call to the wild be just the life-altering experience you need?

1. Fresh air anyone?

With 2,650 miles of primitive trail snaking all the way from Mexico to Canada, one thing the PCT has in abundance is space. In epic proportions. Rarely will you find yourself crossing a road or treading tarmac of any kind. How refreshing it is to walk a path absent of crowds and wafts of other people’s cigarette smoke. Whilst you‚Äôre enjoying this new-found clean air, expect to repetitively utter the word ‘awesome’ to describe the surrounding scenery, in a totally non-ironic way. Take for example, Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness. Home to the oft-photographed “Knife’s Edge”, where you will inhale lungfuls of frigid mountain air as you scale across its perilous ridge. The remnants of an eroded stratovolcano, these sharp, serrated peaks resemble a Stegosaurus’ spine, perfectly sandwiched between deep valley drainages – vertigo-sufferers be warned!

2. The opportunity to finally disconnect

Unsurprisingly, the wilderness isn’t known for its high-speed data connectivity – in fact, good luck if you find any mobile signal out there at all! When was the last time you didn‚Äôt sneak a peek at your phone’s captivating screen for more than a couple of hours? Yet, being forced to switch off those swiping reflexes and tap-out of the bombarding online world is invigorating. It may take a few days to adjust, but once you do it‚Äôs incredible just how far your other senses are heightened. You will begin to appreciate your surroundings in a whole new light, the small things we otherwise miss, such as the vibrating tones of circling hummingbirds, or the fragrance of evergreen pines so indicative of Christmas. Call it mindfulness, a digital detox, or whatever you like, but clearing your headspace of over-stimulation to get in touch with your more intrinsic-self should be on everybody‚Äôs To-Do list.

3. Trail Magic

I probably shouldn’t even list it here, because the whole point of “trail magic” is the unexpected element associated with receiving a gift of unsolicited kindness. Yet, the PCT is renowned for attracting just this. Total strangers – with no hidden agenda – time and time again aid hikers by providing free rides into town, food donations, and even sometimes hosting them in their homes. At my lowest point on the entire trail, having hiked through rain for three days solid, a chance encounter with an American-Irish family reunion saved me. Welcomed into the fold, within 24-hours of being fed, laundered, and provided an actual bed, I hiked out not only stronger, but with a restored faith in humanity. You will undoubtedly meet a plethora of genuine people from all walks of life on the PCT. Often known solely by a playful trail meme, many a colourful character will become a life-long friend.

4. Appreciating simple things

There’s nothing like an extended trip along the PCT for highlighting the simple things we often take for granted. With an average of five days living in the wild standing between any facilities or food resupply, you will begin to appreciate things like never before. Take for instance, being able to drink clean water straight from a tap – without the need to source and filter it first. Simply mind-blowing. Not to mention how good it feels to remove days of sweat and grime with a steamy shower, or the pleasure derived from a hot meal that wasn’t once dehydrated. The modern world has desensitised us from the wonder of such utilities. Reaching them becomes an exciting, tangible goal. One that holds with it an unparalleled sense of achievement because let’s face it, it requires sheer grit and determination in the face of mental and physical hardship to make. After all, there’s no Amazon on call when you’re days away from the nearest extraction point.

5. Freedom

It’s human nature to lust after a sense of freedom. We didn’t always live crammed into cities after all. So where better than the vast American wilderness to embrace your liberty? Nowhere else have I ever experienced the thrilling delight of marching to the beat of my own drum. Gone were the days of bus timetables, clocking-in, and struggling to figure out my tax obligations. Life sure is liberating when the usual mix of daily worries are dissolved into a simple but variable rhythm: Walk, Eat, Sleep, Repeat. What’s more, no two days are ever the same. Each morning I would awake – slightly sore from sleeping on the ground – to pumping of adrenalin supplied purely from the exhilarating anticipation of facing the unknown. Who knew if I would be mauled by a bear or fall into a ravine? I can’t say that ever happens to me in London.



If the above sounds tempting, but you find yourself short of the circa five months required to attempt hiking the entire PCT, just pick a section. Whatever section you choose to discover, one thing’s for sure: the trail will embed in your soul a vivid collection of images and memories that will last a life-time. So, why not try it for yourself? I am living proof that even the unlikeliest of backpackers can not only survive, but be completely moved by the wild.

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For more information on hiking the PCT see: https://www.pcta.org
Free trail maps can be downloaded from: https://www.pctmap.net

Gem of the Eastern Sierra

Tucked 10 miles into Rock Creek Canyon lies Little Lakes trailhead and my favourite hike in the Sierra.  So far at least.  From the very beginning of the 7.5-mile walk, the rewards felt endless.

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Keep left on the first fork towards Mack Lake/ Barton Pass

The trail departs from a peaceful campground sat beside the babbling creek and slowly ascends 994 feet through the valley.  As it does a handful of alpine lakes appear, happily nestled below rapidly melting snow-capped peaks.

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We managed to keep our feet dry!
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Long Lake – far too big and deep for a dip this time of year

The path that eventually ends at Gem Lake isn’t overly difficult and contains all the drama and beauty you could possibly want from a hike in the Sierra.

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For some, the path to a closer Lake such as Long or Chicken Foot is enough.  We pass by the odd angler peacefully fishing in crystal-clear waters.  And here lies the charm of this trail Рyou don’t have to make it to the end to feel rewarded. You could spend 4 hours hiking all the way to Gem Lake like we did, or find yourselves happily lost in the views almost anywhere in between.

 

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Aquamarine Gem Lake

 

 

 

Not that you will get lost Рvery little navigation is required.  The trailhead contained a map detailing the various lakes and 2 passes further along different splinter trails.  Some brave people trek all the way to Mono Lake more than 50 miles north, but for those with little time to spare, this trail is still well worth the drive.

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The last lingering signs of winter
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Verdant meadows

A frigidly cold breeze sometimes whipped us as we rambled the rocky path, hopping across stone water crossings.  Yet at this elevation, the sun certainly left its mark.  Bring mosquito spray, and even better Рif you have the time Рpack a tent and s’mores to spend the night under the endless sky.  Happy trails.

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Returning along Rock Creek

 

Colorado’s [not quite] Four Pass Loop Trail

Road-tripping Colorado last September our entire journey centred around completing the Four Pass Loop trail. ¬†Situated close to Aspen in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, I first learnt about the hike from an Instagram photo. ¬†The image of an impossibly steep mountain pass covered¬†in wildflowers caught my imagination. ¬†Eager to find out more, I searched YouTube where after a few hours my excitement had been fuelled by the epic mountain scenery and numerous ‘awesome’ references. ¬†I knew the hike would be challenging – twenty-eight miles of rocky terrain, ascending four 12,000-foot passes, at an altitude we were not acclimatised to – but since our PCT hike ended the previous year I longed for adventure. ¬†After convincing a reluctant husband that sleeping outdoors wouldn’t be too bad, we packed the camp set-up we vowed never to use again for 3 days in the wild. Continue reading Colorado’s [not quite] Four Pass Loop Trail

Road-tripping USA: Yellowstone to Vegas in 21 Days

I first became captivated by Yellowstone watching a BBC documentary. ¬†It charted the dramatic seasonal changes to the park’s ecosystem, including majestic elk migrations, ¬†hibernating bears, and the ever-changing foliage. ¬†Animals fought the harsh perils of winter. ¬†Not all survived. ¬†The geothermal landscape struck me as hostile and wild. ¬†With a land mass larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and sitting on top of a super-volcano thought powerful enough to cover the continental US in ash, Yellowstone sky-rocketed to the top of my bucket list. ¬†But America’s first National Park is not the most convenient place to reach from the UK, so we put it on hold until we had the time to take a big trip.

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The rainbow-hued Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone’s largest hot springs

Our chance finally arrived in September 2015.  In-between jobs we took 21 days to explore a chunk of the wild west, flying into the mountain town of Bozeman Montana via Denver.

Our plan was long but simple. ¬†Hiring a car and beginning with Yellowstone, our route to Vegas would transport us south through 5 National Parks, 3 State Parks, and a National Monument. ¬†It would span 4 states – technically 5 but I’m not counting Idaho’s 44 miles – with most of the driving distance concentrated in Utah. ¬†We would stick to the scenic, off-beat roads wherever possible, aiming to avoid the dreaded interstates at all costs. ¬†Thanks to the ever-changing scenery and epic natural wonders dotted along almost the entirety of the drive, I can truly say this trip was the most memorable, completely awesome¬†of all time. ¬†I only wish we had longer. ¬†I thought I’d share our itinerary along with some highlights for anyone hoping to visit this part of the US.

The High-level Itinerary

Day(s) Key Locations Rough Driving Route
1 Bozeman to Gardiner – Yellowstone North Entrance I-90 & US‚Äď89
2-4 Yellowstone N. Park Mainly Grand Loop Rd
5-6 Grand Teton N. Park US-20, US‚Äď191/ US‚Äď287, Teton Park Rd
7 Jackson, WY [via Mormon Row] Teton Park Rd, Moose Wilson Rd, US-26, Antelope Flats Rd, Mormon Row, Gros Ventre Rd
8 Logan, UT US-26 & US-89
9-10 Salt Lake City [+ side-trip to Cottonwood Canyon] US-89
11 Richfield, UT [Via Park City] UT-224 [Guardsmen Pass Scenic Byway], US-189 and US-89, UT-24 & UT-118
12-13 Bryce Canyon N. Park [Via Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument & Capital Reef N. Park] UT-119, UT-24 [short detour], UT-12 [Scenic Byway 12]
14-17 Springdale, UT – Zion N. Park UT-12, US-89 S & UT-9
18-21 Vegas [Via Valley of Fire S. Park] UT-9, I-15, NV‚Äď169 & I-15S
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Map created on Roadtrippers
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Catching views of the mighty Yellowstone Canyon from North & South rims
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The view from the Fairy Falls trail – after a brief scramble up an adjacent hill
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Staying for 2 nights in the historic Yellowstone Lake Lodge the animals came to us
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Making it to Yellowstone sights early and having them to ourselves: West Thumb Geyser
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The Colter Bay Nature trail, giving us this screen-saver worthy view of the Tetons
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When a lone elk crossed our path on the String & Leigh Lakes trail releasing an echoing cry
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Watching the sun go down from the bar of Jackson lake Lodge

 

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Catching these frisky moose at it whilst driving near Jackson Hole
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White Water rafting on the Snake River: FREEZING but beautiful

 

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Taking a bike tour of Sat Lake City and learning all about this quirky place

 

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Hiking in Big Cottonwood Canyon outside SLC where we saw even more moose

 

 

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The scenic overlooks of Bryce Canyon

 

 

 

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Attempting to reach the top of Angels Landing in Zion [before loosing my nerve!]
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Meeting friends in Vegas

 

A parting word of advice: ¬†A week before our trip commenced I was glancing over the Yellowstone N.P website and discovered – to my horror – that a section of the grand loop road (the only road through the park) would be closed for construction works during our visit. ¬†This changed some of our plans and might be the reason why our route looks a little disjointed. ¬†I would recommend checking out this kind of information on the park’s website¬†long in advance – ops!

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Regional View of Yellowstone & Grand Teton Parks. [Click on map for detailed park maps]
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Channeling my inner park ranger

 

 I hope to write some separate posts containing more details once I get around to sorting out the hundreds of photos!

Lessons from the PCT: Why People Quit

Mauled by bears.  Eaten by mountain lions.  Shot by poachers.  Murdered by a rogue driver whilst hitch-hiking.  These were some of the many fears that accompanied me onto the PCT in 2016.  But you know what?  During my travels through Oregon and Washington I never met a single person who departed the trail for any of the above reasons.

A wealth of information already exists regarding why thru-hikers quit. ¬†I shall not attempt to cover the same ground. ¬†If you want to read more about the PCT specifically, I recommend¬†Halfway Anywhere’s¬†annual thru-hiker survey. ¬†The latest survey for 2017 showed a 52% drop-out rate* – based on 556 thru-hiking hopefuls who responded to the survey. ¬†Of these, the top 3 reasons for an early trail exit were: Injury (29%); Snow (14%), Fires (14%).

*It’s worth noting that the number of people who actually quit is far greater. ¬†Based on the number of thru-hiker permits the PCTA issued in 2017 (3934) versus the number of people reported to have completed the trail (461), the drop-out rate is closer to 88%! ¬†But as a lot of people never report back after receiving their permits and there is no turnstile at the end of the trail, we can’t say for sure what the true success rate really is. ¬†Most guess-timates average between 50-60%.¬†

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Hard times

Year-after-year the stats identify obvious trends, but from my own trail experience the personal stories of those who didn’t make it to Canada were sometimes surprising. ¬†A lot of this boils down to¬†the diverse range of people hiking the PCT to begin with. ¬†The vast majority of trail stories and images seen on social media are posted by young, fit, thru-hiking hopefuls which makes for a misleading representation. ¬†Not everyone on the trail are thru-hikers. ¬†And many are older, with different backgrounds and motivations for being out walking. ¬†Let’s face it, your average 30-50 year-old with kids can rarely quit their job to go hiking for months on end! ¬†There is also a wide variety in skill levels. ¬†From your TOTAL¬†amateur¬†– such as yours truly – all the way to 80-year olds who have been backpacking and camping in the woods their entire lives.

I only set out to complete a 900-mile section of the northern route, so I mostly met long-distance section hikers on my travels, but there were some encounters with thru hikers who had endured everything that California had to throw at them only to call it a day once conditioned. ¬†Some stories highlight human error or poor preparation, but others prove that not every obstacle can be mitigated against. ¬†I’m a big advocate for believing that while completing a full thru-hike is a highly impressive feat, it’s more about the journey than the destination. ¬†Meaning perhaps the rationale behind a persons decision to join the trail doesn’t actually require the completion of 2650 miles for the experience to be deemed ‘successful’. ¬†Here are a few tales from the people I met who decided to head home short of their original goal. ¬†I have changed or omitted people’s names to protect their dignity…

Our most challenging day: Leaving Crater Lake with a huge water haul and still having to sit besides the road melting snow to get enough hydration. I wanted to go home so bad.

Larry – was a veteran hiker and PCT advocate who spends a large amount of his retirement in the mountains. ¬†Over the years Larry has been gradually completing the PCT in sections – a great idea I thought – and was very close to completing the entire trail when we met one afternoon in central Oregon. ¬†Larry reminded me of a full-grown Boy Scout. ¬†He had all the gear and knew how to use everything, which I found both entertaining and highly informative. ¬†I learnt a lot from Larry from just a single shared camp, and I was sure he was about to smash the few hundred miles he had remaining. ¬†But not everything is a dead-cert. ¬†Within three days of saying our goodbyes I received an email from him confirming he had given up. ¬†He described the ‘negative fun’ of his experience brought on entirely due to those pesky little fuckers:¬†mosquitos. ¬†Yes, their blood-crazed persistent attacks had transformed his solitude into a constant battle, one which he simply wasn’t happy to endure.

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Zoning out from the mozzies

GI Joe was an 18-year old adrenaline junkie hoping to join the marines after completing the PCT. ¬†We met him in Fish Lake Oregon, as he stumbled into the resort with a bleeding head and cut up legs. ¬†Within minutes of his arrival the resort’s owner was on the deck with Joe’s mother on the phone in a frantic state wanting to report her son had an accident nearby and couldn’t be reached on his cell. ¬†After being patched up from the blow to the head he sustained whilst climbing over a fallen tree in a lava field, Joe decided to quit. ¬†Strangely he didn’t attribute his decision to the accident. ¬†Instead he declared he was simply ‘bored’. ¬†I was shocked at the time – his adventure had included ice-climbing summits on the side just for the fun of it, and he was still far ahead of most thru-hikers so he obviously possessed exceptional fitness, but conversely he had underestimated the mental grind. ¬†Maybe Joe’s hike didn’t came with high stakes. ¬†Maybe giving up made no material difference to his life. ¬†Maybe he got a better offer for spending his summer.

‘Ultra-lite’ Lucy was a lady from Alaska with years of hiking under her belt – in fact she had previously hiked the entire trail when I met her travelling south-bound through Washington. ¬†She presumably therefore knew what she was doing. ¬†But after meeting her in 2016 another hiker told me about what happened the year before. ¬†In 2015 Lucy set off her emergency beacon after getting lost in a snow field and had to be airlifted off the mountain. ¬†You see in going ‘ultra-lite’ she had made the mistake of not being adequately prepared for cold temperatures: remember what the Boy Scouts say about being prepared? ¬†She also elected to not carry a GPS which could have been used to navigate her way out of such pickle. ¬†Maybe she was over-confident in her abilities, but hyperthermia actually happens in the wild so it’s best to do whatever you can to protect yourself and carry the necessary provisions.

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Photocredit: Marc Fendel

The Drifters. ¬†Trail life seems to attract some transient-types. ¬†Not every person who sets foot on the trail does so for the physical challenge. ¬†Some individuals who are perhaps a bit lost in life turn to the trail for solitude or companionship, uniting with strangers through the common hiking path. ¬†We met one such guy on our second day in Oregon who certainly didn’t resemble your typical hiker. ¬†He stood perhaps 3 stone over-weight – not that I’m judging – and never seemed to be in a rush. ¬†The verbal trail grapevine later reported how the big guy had made it as far as Fish Lake before getting talking to an elderly couple in an RV. ¬†They offered him some casual yard work at their home so he left with them just like that. ¬†Another drifter¬†made it to Crater Lake (where he started from I was always unclear), before getting so smashed on $1 cans of beer that no reports showed he ever re-joined the trail. ¬†We left him in a drunken stupor in the middle of the free PCT campground ranting away incoherently, totally oblivious to the mosquitos.

Nature boy was out section-hiking through Oregon when he stood on a piece of glass in camp and had to hitch-hike out to hospital. ¬†Shame he hadn’t thought to put some shoes on.

Stevo was off to college in the fall. ¬†Beforehand, he and a group of buddies decided to hike through Oregon and Washington, inspired so it seemed by the legalisation of recreational pot in these two states. ¬†But his buddies were not committed. ¬†For them it was one big party which had lost its appeal by the time they reached Timberline Lodge. ¬†They waited until Cascade Locks though to inform Stevo they were not going any further. ¬†Stevo found himself in a dilemma because he, unlike them, was relying on the hiking experience for material inspiration for the college submission essay he still needed to write. ¬†When the others departed for Portland Stevo persevered, crossing the Bridge of Gods into Washington alone. ¬†This was it, he would show them. ¬†But in less than 100 miles he realised camping alone was not for him. ¬†It wasn’t what he had signed up for, in fact it made him very anxious, so he shared camp with us for a few nights before getting a ride back to Seattle. ¬†I hope he managed to write that essay.

We had to get over Devils Peak somehow…

Snow. Those set to hike the full PCT will expect to inevitably encounter snow somewhere along the way, but those on shorter hikes may not. ¬†Surely by late June one can enjoy a hike on the PCT without snow – right? ¬†Well this wasn’t the case in Oregon when we started on 20th June. ¬†An ‘exceptional’ snow year, meant that areas typically snow-free by then were still buried. ¬†This caught a few people out, and not prepared for the white stuff they decided enough was enough. ¬†These included an older otherwise care-free couple, who drew the line when it came to the possibility of loosing their tracking on Devil’s Peak, but also a young and highly experienced hiker. ¬†He lived in Oregon and was familiar with the mountains, but his ‘downfall’ if I can call it that, was over-ambition. ¬†You see, not anticipating how much the snow and tree blow-downs would slow him down, he overestimated his daily mileage and therefore hadn’t packed enough supplies. ¬†This motivated him to walk a 14-hour day to reach the next resupply stop at Crater Lake, which by the time he made it his legs had seized up and he was walking like a robotic Bruce Wayne. ¬†He admitted defeat and called his parents to pick him up.

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Finally – and especially for any thru-hiking hopefuls out there – completing a long-distance hike often requires a large degree of luck. ¬†Take this last hiking year for example. ¬†In August, wild fires began blazing near Mount Rainer National Park closing a 70-mile section of the Washington PCT. ¬†These closures lasted long into winter. ¬†By March 2018 the PCTA still couldn’t comment on the resulting damage or say whether detours would be required in the months to come. ¬†So following miles of pain, sweat, and blisters, one may have to accept the heartbreaking reality: it can all suddenly end thanks to Mother Nature.

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Image credit: tokkoro.com

Hiking Hawaii’s Kalalau Trail

Where: Kauai, Hawaii

When: Sep 2016

The first time we tried hiking the famous Kalalau Trail it didn’t happen. ¬†It was 2012, and having woken before sunrise to get a parking spot at the trailhead, a string of yellow police ‘warning’ tape – the kind you see in CSI – ¬†completely sealed off the trail. ¬†How can a trail in sunny Hawaii be closed? ¬†While loitering around trying to figure this out a ranger arrived. ¬†His explanation seemed even more bizarre. ¬†Apparently a ‘fugitive’ was on the run, having pushed a tourist from the cliffs the day before. ¬†I shuddered at the horror of it, but still couldn’t help feeling utterly disappointed. ¬†The trail would remain closed for the foreseeable future. ¬†Hike aborted, we left to cheer ourselves up with a cooked breakfast.

Say what?

We had travelled a long way to hike the trail. ¬†Stretching 11-miles along the breath-taking Na Pail coastline of Northern Kauai, the Kalalau Trail regularly features in lists of the worlds ‘greatest’ hikes. ¬†The reason for it’s fame is simple – the scenery is sublime. ¬†A certain degree of ‘exclusivity’ also adds to its allure, with land access to the fluted coastline only possible by foot. ¬†The trail promises to transport hikers into landscape preserving the very essence of Aloha. ¬† Carving a path along towering Pali – sea cliffs – high above the turquoise ocean, it traverses 5 lush valleys, crossing streams and passing waterfalls, to reach a secluded beach.

Using the excuse of needing R&R after our PCT hike, we returned to Kauai 4 years later. ¬†With our camping gear in tow, and considering ourselves now super fit, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attempt the hike once more. ¬†On setting out we even half-wondered whether we might complete the entire out-and-back hike in a single day…

Back again 4 years older!

It’s 6:30am and we’re ready. ¬†Parking space secured at the now familiar Ke’e Beach trailhead, I’m feeling eager to clock off some miles before the sun heats up. ¬†We join the trail passing multiple signs warning of potential dangers, such as flash flooding. ¬†The initial climb along a cobbled path is significantly slowed due to thick, slippery mud following overnight rain.

Early morning tranquility

The first couple of miles form a popular day hike. ¬†As such we are regularly overtaken by people not heaving huge backpacks, and some remarkably wearing flip-flops. ¬†I try not to let that bother me, instead stealing glimpses of distant coastal views whenever the thick foliage allows. ¬†At Hanakapai’ai, most people either turn around after visiting the small cove beach, or take a 2-mile trail inland to view the falls. ¬†We continue, crossing the stream by hopping over rocks, fortunate that the water is low. ¬†Apparently some people haven’t been so lucky, with danger signs warning of deaths caused by flash flooding and strong currents. ¬†There is a key message: don’t go near the water if levels are high.

A warning sign at Hanakapai’ai stream
Popular Hanakapai’ai beach (taken early afternoon the next day)

Once past Hanakapai’ai the trail instantly feels remote. ¬†Our miles slow down even further, travelling along narrow switchbacks that climb 800 feet through dense tropical vegetation. ¬†We find ourselves sweating buckets in the humid conditions. ¬†The views are not as expansive, but bright colours of vivid green flora and fauna, contrast against the red clay soil. ¬†I also notice the strong smell of sweet fruit. ¬†We see wild guavas and passionfruit, many of which lay rotting on the ground. ¬†The trail doesn’t level out. ¬†We climb up and down into deep, narrow valleys, until 4 miles later we reach the forth valley: Hanakoa.




Hanokoa is the first of just 2 permitted campsites. ¬†It’s rustic. ¬†Spread over old agricultural terraces, the site contains two sheltered picnic tables, a compositing toilet cubical, and an emergency helicopter landing pad. ¬†Seeing the grassy helipad I can’t help but hope we keep it together. ¬†Sadly the camp has no beach access as it’s located on top of a hanging valley on the edge of a stream. ¬†We long for a break at this point, but a small group of hunters – complete with scary-looking crossbows – seem to have taken over the camp. ¬†Most likely out hunting wild boar (at least I hope that’s what they’re doing), we smile but they don’t reciprocate. ¬†In fact I get pretty negative vibes from them, so feeling a bit vulnerable in such isolation we swiftly move on.



The next 5 miles are more exposed, offering little shade from the midday sun. ¬†On exiting the valley onto drier terrain, panoramic views of cliffs rippling along the sparkling ocean appear. ¬†The views are everything. ¬†I keep stopping to take it all in, fearing I’ll slip on the vertigo-inducing trail if I lose my focus. ¬†This is not a hike for the faint-hearted. ¬†Erosion between miles 7 and 8 are perhaps the sketchiest, with crumbling drop-offs such as those at Crawler’s Ledge definitely requiring concentration, nerve and single-file traffic.

Wild goats grazing on the precarious cliff edge
Crawler’s Ledge on the return trip next morning

The trail begins to ease up on us for the final 2 miles as we lose elevation heading towards sea-level.  Reaching the Kalalau Valley, we ford the fast-running stream, and spot ruins of early Hawaiian settlements hidden amongst the trees.

The sight of tents dotted underneath a shaded grove, provides sign that we’ve made it. ¬†Just a few minutes further and a long, deep beach of fine white sand appears. ¬†We watch as the cool sea invitingly laps against the shore. ¬†But first things first – we need to establish camp. ¬†Somehow – and I have no idea how – the last 11 miles have taken us 9 hours, with minimal breaks. ¬†We feel exhilarated to have finally made our destination, but ridiculously tired. ¬†It’s been hard work! ¬†On closer inspection, the premium camping spots – those located just behind the beach with a degree of shelter from the wind – are already taken. ¬†We haven’t seen¬†many fellow hikers during the day, so it’s surprising to see around 30 people. ¬†Perhaps they’re on a multi-night break, or it’s possible they arrived by [prohibited] boats. ¬†We check out the waterfall nestled in the steep valley walls, but are too lazy to walk all the way to the end of the beach to investigate a series of caves. ¬†We finish the day with a dip in the sea, where we’re rewarded by a beautiful rainbow right before a dramatic Hawaiian sunset.

It doesn’t get much better! Kalalau beach.
Temporary rain shower
It might not look it, but the waves were really strong!
Magic hour looking into the Kalalau Valley

Fine ripples in the sand are made by the strong winds
Totally worth it

We pack up camp and make the return hike early the next morning. ¬†We make slightly better time because it keeps raining on us. ¬†The warm, tropical showers mean the camera comes out far less frequently, and the air is thick with humidity. ¬†By the time we reach Hanakapai’ai, many people are enjoying the beach and in the sea, despite warning signs of hazardous rip currents. ¬†Once again, we share the trail from that point. ¬†Just after lunchtime we emerge at the trailhead, exhausted and covered in mud. ¬†We hose off the worst of it at Ke’e beach showers, attracting strange looks from the beachgoers. ¬†I am so happy to finally fall into the car seat. ¬†I’m not going to lie – the hike was TOUGH! ¬†Much tougher than we had anticipated, but WOW.

Rain selfie!

I’d love to return to the trial. ¬†But if I were to do it again, I would plan on spending at least an extra night to enjoy a rest day on Kalalau beach. ¬†That would offer the opportunity to explore further the Kalalau Valley, and maybe even hike the spur trail to Hanakapai’ai falls. ¬†I would not recommend attempting to do the 22-mile round trip in a single day – who would even dream of such a crazy thing ūüôā ¬†As always, the pictures don’t go anywhere near capturing the stunning views. Hawaii, and Kauai in particular continues to capture my heart.

 

Some Trail Information

Permits¬†are required to hike past Hanakapai’ai. ¬†They are limited in numbers, and cost us 20 USD per person. ¬†Apparently they sellout months in advance, so book¬†here.

Water:¬†There is no tapped water along the trail, but plenty of opportunities to fill up from fresh streams. ¬†It’s recommended that you treat it though, so pack a filter or purification tablets. ¬†We used the Sawyer Squeeze.

When to go:¬†The trail is most advisable during summer (May-October), due to less predictable winter weather. ¬†It doesn’t rule out a winter hike, but check weather forecasts before you set out – spontaneous, heavy rainfall can be dangerous, with its ability to turn streams into raging rivers within minutes.

What to bring: I recommend using hiking poles for stability on the uneven terrain. Also pack: bug spray; waterproofs (at least to keep your gear dry); shelter (tent or hammock); hat (for sun protection); water filter; head torch (if you want to see at night).

And afterwards…

Duke’s Hula Pie to celebrate

The Sacred [Shorter] Inca Trail

Where: The Sacred Valley, Peru

When: November 2012

Want all the drama and beauty of Peru’s famous Inca Trail, but don’t have 4 days free to hike it? Or perhaps like us you’d rather opt out of camping? Well fear not, there is a less publicised alternative option – The Sacred (or Royal) Inca Trail. Given the 6.3-mile (10km) trail can be hiked in a single day, it’s surely a no-brainer for getting a taste of the ancient Inca civilisation, without any camping involved!

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A map of The Sacred Valley to show the main Inca Trail (green/yellow) verses the shorter version

In 2012 our trek began as the early morning Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes Peru Rail train came to an abrupt stop at a seemingly nothing piece of track.¬†There certainly wasn’t any platform, as we jumped straight onto the sidings of the narrow track that snakes through Peru’s Sacred Valley. Only 6 people got off the crowded train – Conrad and I, our guide Oscar, and another couple also with a guide.

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Departing Chachabamba into the clouds

After crossing a hanging footbridge over the Urubamba River, I was surprised to see two men sitting in a tiny palm-rooved kiosk in what appeared to be a deserted forest. They took their time inspecting our paperwork before stamping the permits. Once through, we somehow skipped over the archaeological complex of Chachabamba, a site dedicated to water with various channels and fountains, eager/ anxious to get going before the sun really heated up.

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This is apparently what Chachabamba looks like (photo not my own!)

Starting at an elevation of¬†2,170 meters, we progressed along the narrow passage etched into the steep valley. The views were expansive, with the river below becoming increasingly faint, and distant peaks coated in heavy clouds as far as the eye could see. I’m not going to lie, the first part of the hike was arduous in the humid conditions. The trail offered no real shade – hence our cringe-worthy ‘on-trend’ headwear – but luckily Oscar coached us to take it slow. At this elevation, the first miles felt tougher than I had expected.

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You can just make out the faint trail leading to a rare shaded viewpoint
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Fantastic panoramas of the Andes mountains all around us
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Wow I look rough!

As we hiked Oscar entertained us with stories from the World of the Incas (most of which I have now helpfully forgotten!) But what I do remember is that the [full] Inca trail to Machu Picchu was originally intended as a religious pilgrimage. This made it almost unique, as unlike most of the thousands of miles of Inca trails stretching across the Empire, this one had no commercial use and hence was referred to as the ‚ÄúRoyal Road‚ÄĚ, ‚ÄúRoyal Sacred Highway‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúThe Road of the Inca King‚ÄĚ. ¬†Whilst citizens completed their 26-mile pilgrimage, the shorter route we now treaded was believed to be reserved for nobles and religious leaders to access the royal city in relative ‘ease’, the ancient equivalent of travelling first-class!

After over 3 hours of hiking through verdant cloud forest, having had a brief rest stop at a waterfall, we arrive at Wi√Īay Wayna. The concave mountainside site is supposedly the second most important Inca Trail ruin. It consists of¬†multiple agricultural terraces steeply cut into the mountain, and is believed to be the place the Incas used as a final rest spot before reaching Machu Picchu. A number of stone baths where Incas would have completed ritual cleansing before arriving in the sacred city are still distinguishable, and probably provide the symbolic meaning behind the name¬†“Forever Young”.

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Wi√Īay Wayna terraces leading down into the Scared Valley

At this point in the day we break for lunch, sat with our feet dangling over the suddenly vertigo-inducing terraces. But there is a problem. Our porter Eranjelio, who is charged with carrying lunch is no where to be seen. He had taken a later train because it was cheaper, but it’s only when we quiz Oscar about it that we discover the train in question was due to depart nearly 2 hours after our own! I instantly regret not packing some snacks in my day-pack (what an idiot!) So we take a few more pictures and patiently wait. Less than 10 minutes later a tiny dot appears further down the trail. It seems to be moving rapidly. As it gets closer Eranjelio can be made out, and he is an astonishing sight. The small-framed man glides along at a joggers pace complete with towering backpack, and a radio playing¬†Peruvian¬†folk music tied around his neck! Happy to see him, we eat a lunch of sandwiches, fruit and crisps, baffled as to how he had caught us up in little over an hour!

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After running the trail to catch us up Eranjelio is somehow still smiling!

From Wi√Īay Wayna our path joins the main trail. As we pass through the camp where those taking the full Inca trail stay on their final night, a swarm of relief follows. I observe all the things I hate most about camping, such as being made to sleep in close proximity to toilet facilities, in dirty conditions whilst surrounded by other noisy people. I’m so happy to not be sticking around.

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Permit checkpoint next to the last camp where we join the main trail

The remaining 4km of the hike felt less physically demanding, with the majority of the elevation gain past us.¬†The landscape also changed quite drastically. The temperatures became cooler, the vegetation greener, and at times it felt like we were walking through a moss-covered jungle. It was a welcomed change after the hot temperature and dryer landscape we had experienced earlier in the day.¬†That is until we reached what felt like a never-ending stone staircase. We crawl up the 50 steps, passing through the Sun Gate (“Inti Punka”) and it appears. In the distance our first glimpse of the one-time hidden City of the Incas, Machu Picchu sat saddled in the mountains below.

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The “Monkey Stairs” leading up to the Sun Gate
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Covered in sweat at the Sun Gate, 5.6 miles (9km) and 1800-feet into the day
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Taking a moment
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The Sun Gate once we pass through it

The last mile winding down the royal flagstone walkway to the citadel must have taken us an hour to complete, because each step brought even better views to photograph. Our pictures of the entire hike fail to do any of it justice – not only were we TOTAL photography ammeters, but during our tour around South America we travelled with a pretty cheap point-and-shot camera which washed out and over-exposed everything! Cameras have come a long way in the last 5 years.

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First glimpse of the hidden city of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

Built over 500-years ago, Machu Picchu provided a sacred religious site for Inca leaders. Yet historians believe the site was only occupied for around 80 years before mysteriously being abandoned, some time in the sixteenth century during the Spanish Conquest. The site remained unknown to the outside world until¬†Hiram Bingham, an American academic and explorer, ‘discovered’ ruins after stumbling across an overgrown section of adjourning trail in 1911. Today the site is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and draws visitors from all over the world.

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From a distance

Gazing down on the city as we inched closer, what struck me most was the dramatic surroundings. The city sits perched between two mountains, framed by steep, expansive valley drop-offs on either side. It began to make sense, in such a seeming isolated place, how over the course of a few hundred years of vegetation growth, an entire city was reclaimed by nature, and hidden from the unknowing eye.

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Getting closer…

With a tour of Machu Picchu planned for sunrise the next day, we didn’t hang around to explore that afternoon. It was hot, and after hours of hiking we felt tired and hungry, so we departed for the bus into town happy in the knowledge that the night would be spent in a hotel bed and not a tent! ¬†For now I wanted to share this hike because until I spoke to the tour company about the 4-day trail I had no idea that this route was even an option. It was hands-down one of the most spectacular hikes we have ever taken, and made all the more special by the comparative lack of foot traffic on the route.

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“Machu Picchu” means “Old Peak” in¬†the Quechua language

I would classify the hike as ‘moderate’ if taken slowly. The route certainly follows an established path with no scrambling skills required. It also helped enormously that we only had to carry small day packs with our water, a few sundries such as suncream, and some toiletries for the overnight hotel stay (once again, I should have packed snacks!).¬†So if you are running short on time, or feel the full trail maybe too physical, take a look at following the [shorter] route of kings!

Important Trail Info

Hiking independently along any part of the Inca Trail is no longer permitted, so bookings must be made through a registered trekking agency who for a fee will provide a registered guide and usually also arrange permits. Our permits, guide, and porter were all included in our wider Peru tour that we booked with the company Amazing Peru.¬†If booked separately I believe that the approximate price of a basic group service is between US$320 and US$380 per person, with the price for a basic private group of just 2 persons about US$450-500 per person. It’s also worth noting that the Inca trail closes for a number of weeks each year for maintenance, so plan ahead. And lastly, remember to carry some cash to tip your porter and guides – they work hard for it!

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