Hikes & Trails

Hiking the Kalalau Trail – Kauai’s Treacherous Hidden Gem

POSTED ON April 11, 2023 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Hawaii is known for its beautiful scenery, pristine beaches, and some of the best hiking trails in the world. One particular trail that stands out, from the rest, is the Kalalau Trail, a legendary hiking gem along Hawaii’s rugged Na Pali Coast, offering a jaw-dropping adventure for all who dare to explore its captivating beauty.

This iconic 11-mile/22-mile round trip (17 km/35 km round trip) trail on the island of Kauai draws experienced hikers, Hawaii residents, and day hikers alike.

As you venture along this narrow trail, it drops precipitously, revealing towering sea cliffs that kiss the ocean below. Panoramic views of the majestic Kalalau Valley, Hanakoa Valley, and the sparkling Kalalau Beach await at every turn.

Along the way, you’ll encounter natural wonders like the enchanting Hanakapiai Falls (location) and the refreshing Hanakoa Falls (location).

The Kalalau Trail also offers intrepid explorers the chance to discover hidden caves, adding an element of mystique to the journey. You’ll understand why it’s often hailed as one of Hawaii’s most beautiful and isolated beaches when the trail finally leads you to the remote Kalalau Beach.

In this post, we’ll guide you through the enchanting experience of hiking the Kalalau Trail, sharing tips that await along the way.

Whether you’re an experienced hiker or a newcomer to the trail, join us on this journey to uncover the secrets of this paradise tucked within Kauai’s Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park and Hāʻena State Park.

Kauai Island

History of The Kalalau Trail

The Kalalau Trail is more than just a hiking path; it’s a gateway to the past, with a rich history that adds depth and intrigue to the breathtaking landscapes it traverses.

As you embark on your journey along the Na Pali Coast, take a moment to step back in time and discover the fascinating history of this iconic trail.

The history of this Trail begins with the indigenous people of Hawaii (Native Hawaiians), who settled in these remote valleys centuries ago. These early Hawaiians established thriving communities in the Kalalau Valley, relying on the fertile land for sustenance. They cultivated taro fields, fished in the bountiful sea, and lived harmoniously with the rugged terrain.

While the trail itself, as we know it today, didn’t exist in its current form, the ancient Hawaiians established a network of footpaths that crisscrossed the Na Pali Coast. These trails served as vital connections between different valleys and communities, facilitating trade and communication.

In the late 18th century, European explorers, including Captain James Cook, arrived in Hawaii, bringing new influences to the islands. This marked the beginning of a transformation in Hawaiian culture and introduced a different perspective on the remote Na Pali Coast.

The Kalalau Trail, as we recognize it now, was developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. It was initially created as a horse trail for the transportation of goods between the remote communities of Kalalau and Hanakoa. The trail’s construction posed significant engineering challenges due to the rugged terrain, but it eventually became a lifeline for the inhabitants of these isolated valleys.

Today, the Kalalau Trail stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of exploration and adventure.

Kalalau Trail

Key Facts about the Kalalau Trail

Total Length: Approximately 11 miles (17.7 kilometers) long, one way.

Number of Visitors: An estimated 500,000 visitors in a year.

Establishment Date: Early 19th century, as a horse trail for transporting goods between Kalalau and Hanakoa.

Total Elevation Gain and Loss: Around +/- 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) along the entire trail.

Lowest Point: At sea level, where it begins at Ke’e Beach.

Highest Point: Space Rock, about 700 feet (213 meters) above sea level.

Hiking Time: Allow for a long day (8+ hours) to complete the round trip from Hā’ena State Park to Hanakoa. Recommended only for experienced hikers in excellent shape. Day hikes beyond Hanakoa are not recommended.

Best Time to Hike: May to September

Difficulty Level: Challenging

Kauai's Napali Coast

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Directions

The Kalalau Trail is rugged and uneven, with steep climbs and descents. The trail also requires you to cross streams and navigate through slippery rocks and narrow paths. It is considered to be one of the most difficult hikes in the US and therefore recommended only for experienced hikers.

Along the trail, you will be surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, including the stunning Pacific Ocean, lush green valleys, and towering cliffs that rise from the shoreline.

The trail takes you through a variety of landscapes, ranging from rainforest to barren cliffs, offering a unique range of views and experiences. However, it’s essential to be well-informed about the route options, which offer a variety of experiences along this breathtaking journey along the Na Pali Coast of Hawaii’s north shore, when preparing for your hike.

You also need to understand the difficulty levels of this iconic trek and the directions to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

Trail Sections:

Here are some details about the key sections of the trail, distances, and notable features to help you plan your hike.

Kee Beach to Hanakapiai Beach (2 miles / 3.2 kilometers): The trail begins at Kee Beach in Ha’ena State Park (location). This first mile provides a spectacular view of the Na Pali Coast’s towering sea cliffs and fluted cliffs. Exercise extreme caution, especially on the narrow trail and cliff faces. But be prepared for falling rocks and slippery conditions. You will enjoy a panoramic view at Hanakapiai Beach (location).

Hanakapiai Beach to Hanakapiai Valley (2 miles / 3.2 kilometers): After crossing Hanakapiai Stream, the trail leads to Hanakapi’ai Valley. This section is known for its challenging Hanakapiai Stream crossing, where you might need to get your feet wet. Experienced hikers often choose to make this their turnaround point for a rewarding day hike. Swimming holes and shaded terraces add to the allure (direction).

Hanakapiai Valley to Hanakoa Valley (2 miles / 3.2 kilometers): The next two miles take you to Hanakoa Valley, where you’ll find authorized camping areas. This part of the trail includes Crawlers Ledge (location) and Red Hill, making it one of the more dangerous hikes on the route. Exercise extreme caution, especially during wet conditions, and watch for flash floods.

Hanakoa Valley to Kalalau Beach (4 miles / 6.4 kilometers): The final push covers four miles to reach Kalalau Beach, with a total elevation gain of approximately 700 feet (213 meters). You’ll traverse lush landscapes, encounter the East Fork of the Kalalau Stream, and finally reach the Kalalau Valley and the beach. Camping is permitted in designated camping areas here.

Kalalau Beach: At Kalalau Beach, you’ll find camping areas along the shore. This is the turnaround point for those hiking the full route. Take time to relax, explore the beach, and soak in the beauty of the Na Pali Coast before beginning your return hike. Also, don’t forget to carry lightweight hiking shoes.

Kalalau Trail along the pacific ocean

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike and Weather Conditions

Hiking the Kalalau Trail is an unforgettable experience. However, understanding the climate and weather conditions is essential to ensuring a safe and enjoyable journey along the iconic Na Pali Coast. Each season brings unique challenges and rewards for hikers.

Spring (March to May)

Spring is an excellent time for hiking the Kalalau Trail. The weather is generally mild, and the trail is lush with greenery. However, be prepared for occasional rain showers, especially in April and May. Trail conditions are typically good, making it suitable for day hikers.

You can expect daytime temperatures to range from 21°C to 29°C (70°F to 84°F). Nights are cooler, with temperatures dropping to 15°C to 21°C (59°F to 70°F).

Summer (June to August)

The summer months bring warmer weather, with daytime temperatures ranging from 24°C to 31°C (75°F to 88°F). Nights remain relatively warm, between 18°C and 23°C (65°F to 74°F).

Summer offers the best chance for good weather, but it’s also when the Kalalau Trail sees the most visitors. The trail can be crowded, so finding a camping permit can be challenging. So, it’s crucial to plan and secure your permits well in advance.

When visiting, carry plenty of water and be prepared for hot and humid conditions. Also, be cautious of falling rocks and flash floods, especially during heavy downpours.

Fall (September to November)

In the fall, daytime temperatures range from 23°C to 31°C (73°F to 88°F), while nighttime temperatures drop to 17°C to 22°C (63°F to 72°F).

Fall is a pleasant time for hiking, with fewer crowds than summer. The weather remains warm, and you’ll still experience lush landscapes. However, be aware that the trail can become slippery after rain, so use caution, especially near areas like Crawlers Ledge and Red Hill.

Winter (December to February)

Winter sees daytime temperatures ranging from 20°C to 27°C (68°F to 81°F) and cooler nights, with temperatures dropping to 13°C to 18°C (55°F to 64°F).

While winter brings cooler temperatures, it’s still possible to hike the Kalalau Trail. However, the trail can become muddy and challenging, especially after heavy rain. Flash floods are also a significant concern during the winter months, so monitor weather forecasts closely. The reward for braving the elements is fewer crowds and a unique perspective of the Na Pali Coast.

No matter the season, always check the weather forecast (available here), plan, and carry essential gear.

Hawaii's Coast

Recommended Gear

A successful Kalalau Trail hike, whether for a day or an extended camping trip, depends on having the right gear. The rugged terrain and variable weather conditions along this iconic trail demand careful preparation.

Here’s a list of recommended gear to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable experience:

  • Footwear: Invest in reliable footwear, either lightweight hiking shoes or hiking boots with good traction. The trail’s rocky and uneven surfaces require sturdy support for your feet. check out our guide to choosing the perfect hiking socks.
  • Camping Gear: The Kalalau Trail has designated camping areas with composting toilets. So, bring lightweight camping gear, including a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad, if you plan to camp overnight.
  • Water Purification: While there are freshwater sources along the trail, it’s essential to carry a water purification method, such as a filter or purification tablets, to ensure safe drinking water.
  • Rain Gear: Be prepared for wet weather, especially during winter. Pack a waterproof jacket, pants, and cover for your backpack to keep your gear dry. We have a guide to choosing the best hiking clothes.
  • Navigation Tools: Carry a detailed map and a compass or GPS device to navigate the trail, especially in challenging sections.
  • First Aid Kit: A basic first aid kit can be a lifesaver. Include bandages, antiseptic wipes, pain relievers, and personal medications to avoid blisters and other injuries.
  • Headlamp/Flashlight: Ensure you have a reliable light source, as the trail can get dark quickly in the valleys.
  • Safety Gear: Bring a whistle, a multi-tool or knife, and a firestarter for emergencies. We have a guide to wildlife safety.
  • Backpack: Use a comfortable and durable backpack to carry your gear. Consider a waterproof cover or dry bags to protect your belongings from the rain.
  • Proper Clothing: Dress in layers to accommodate changing temperatures. Lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing is ideal for comfort during the hike.
  • Food: Pack lightweight, high-energy snacks and meals for the duration of your hike. The trail does not have food vendors. You can get some ideas from our list of 25 delicious backpacking foods for hiking.
  • Sun Protection: Bring sunglasses, sunscreen, and a wide-brimmed hat to shield yourself from the sun’s rays.
  • Trash Bags: Follow Leave No Trace principles and carry out all your trash. Bring extra trash bags for this purpose.
  • Camera: Capture the breathtaking views of fluted cliffs, sea caves, panoramic vistas, and more. Make sure your camera is protected from the elements.
  • Permits: Don’t forget your camping permit and ID, which are required for all overnight stays.

Remember that good weather can quickly turn into wet and challenging conditions, so it’s essential to be prepared for all possibilities.

Maui in Hawaii

Preparing for the Trail: Physical Fitness and Safety Tips

The Kalalau Trail is known for its challenging nature and is considered one of Hawaii’s more dangerous hikes. Prioritize safety, stay physically fit, and always exercise caution to ensure a safe and enjoyable journey along the rugged and challenging terrain of the Nā Pali Coast.

Physical Fitness

  • Cardiovascular Endurance: The Kalalau Trail covers approximately 11 miles (17 kilometers) from Kee Beach. It includes steep ascents and descents, making cardiovascular endurance crucial. Regular aerobic exercise like jogging or hiking on less challenging trails can help prepare your cardiovascular system for the hike.
  • Strength and Stamina: Strengthen your legs, core, and upper body to navigate the uneven terrain, steep climbs, and the trail’s many drops. Incorporating strength training and endurance exercises into your routine will be beneficial.
  • Balance and Coordination: Hiking the Kalalau Trail involves narrow paths, rocky sections, and potentially slippery conditions. Improve your balance and coordination through activities like yoga or balance exercises.

Kindly check our guide to hiking exercises to help you get in shape.

Safety Tips

  • Stay Informed: Familiarize yourself with the trail, its conditions, and any closures or warnings before starting your hike. Check with park rangers for updates and advice.
  • Start Early: Begin your hike early in the day to allow ample time for completion and to avoid hiking in the dark.
  • Permits: Ensure you have the necessary camping permits, which are available 90 days in advance if you plan to stay overnight at authorized camping sites along the trail.
  • Hydrate: Carry enough drinking water for the entire hike, as freshwater sources are unreliable. Dehydration can be a significant concern, especially during the summer months.
  • Trail Hazards: Be cautious of falling rocks, especially in areas like Crawlers Ledge. Watch for loose rocks and soil on steep sections.
  • Stream Crossings: Exercise caution when crossing streams like Hanakoa Stream and Hanakapi’ai Stream. Water levels can rise rapidly during heavy rain.
  • Day Hike Safety: If you’re hiking only a portion of the trail as a day hike, make sure you’re aware of your turnaround time and allow for plenty of time to return before dark.
  • Swimming Holes: While the allure of swimming holes like Hanakapi’ai Falls may be tempting, use caution. Fast currents can pose dangers, and rocks can be slippery.
  • Cliff Faces: Stay well away from cliff edges, as they can crumble. 
  • Emergency Contacts: Have a plan for emergency contacts and inform someone of your hiking plans and expected return time.

Haleakala Crater

Camping near the Kalalau trail

Camping near the Kalalau Trail allows you to fully immerse yourself in the breathtaking beauty of the Nā Pali Coast. So, it’s crucial to understand the available campgrounds and the permits required to ensure you have a spot to rest after your hike:

Kee Beach Campground

This campground is located at the trailhead of the Kalalau Trail in Ha’ena State Park (location). It offers overnight parking for those with valid camping permits which are required and must be obtained in advance. It is an ideal option for those starting their Kalalau Trail hike early in the morning.

Hanakapi’ai Valley Campground:

Found approximately halfway along the Kalalau Trail (location), with a composting toilet for campers’ use, this campground is well-suited for those planning a more leisurely hike and exploring the Hanakapiai Falls or other nearby attractions. However, camping permits are necessary to stay here. You can get one here.

Kalalau Beach Campground:

Situated at the end of the Kalalau Trail (location), this campground offers spectacular views of the Nā Pali Coast and the remote beauty of the area, but you need a valid camping permit, which should be secured well in advance due to limited availability.

Requirements and Additional Tips

  • Camping permits are mandatory for all campgrounds along the Kalalau Trail, including Kalalau Beach. These permits can be obtained through the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources [1] and are highly sought after.
  • Always remember to check in at the trailhead and display your permits.
  • Be aware of the half-mile mark, where the trail drops dramatically. You need to be cautious in this area.
  • Plan your crossing carefully because the Hanakoa Stream crossing can be challenging, especially during wet weather.
  • A valid camping permit is required for overnight stays along the trail and parking permits are needed for overnight parking at Kee Beach.
  • Respect the environment and fellow campers. Use the provided composting toilets and follow Leave No Trace principles.
  • Plan your return hike with sufficient time to reach your starting point before dark.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Visiting Hāʻena State Park and Kauai’s Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park where the Kalalau Trail is located is an adventure you won’t want to miss.

Here’s how to get to these stunning parks and navigate the area to help you plan a successful journey:

Getting to Haena and Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park:

The nearest airport is Lihue Airport (LIH), located on the eastern side of Kauai.

From Lihue Airport to Haena State Park and Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park:

  • Car Rental: Renting a car at Lihue Airport is a convenient option. Once you have your rental car, follow Kuhio Highway (Route 56) to the north shore of Kauai (direction) about 37 miles (59 km). This scenic drive will take you through charming towns like Hanalei and eventually lead you to Haena State Park.
  • Shuttle Services: Some shuttle services, like GoHeana operate between Lihue Airport and Haena. These shuttle services can be a convenient option if you prefer not to drive or are looking to reduce your environmental impact.
  • Public Transportation: Public buses do serve Kauai, but the routes to the shore can be infrequent and time-consuming, about 2h 18m, and cost $27 – $35. If you choose this option, be prepared for longer travel times.

Getting Around Haena State Park and Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park:

  • Walking: Once you arrive in the area, much of Haena State Park and the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park can be explored on foot. This is the preferred way to access the trailheads and other nearby attractions.
  • Bicycles: Some visitors opt to explore the area by bicycle, which can provide a more leisurely and environmentally friendly way to get around.
  • Shuttle Services: Haena State Park operates a shuttle service called the Haena State Park Shuttle. Using this shuttle is highly recommended due to limited parking availability. It transports visitors between the parking area near Ha’ena Beach Park and the park entrance.
  • Kauai Tours Operators: For guided tours or boat tours, various tour operators offer transportation and excursions that allow you to explore the coastline and its sea caves. You can select any tour company of your choice from here.

Na Pali Coast

Conclusion

The Kalalau Trail is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful, but also one of the most challenging trails in Hawaii and even in the whole United States. The trail offers a unique and unforgettable experience that should be on every hiker’s bucket list. While the trail is challenging, the rewards of the hike, including stunning ocean views, towering cliffs, and the beautiful Hanakoa Falls, are well worth the effort.

If you are a hiker, trail runner, or backpacker looking for an adventure, the Kalalau Trail is a must-do experience that you will never forget. So pack your bags, grab your hiking boots, and head to Kauai to tackle the Kalalau Trail.

You can find more exciting trails like this on our Hikes & Trails Archives.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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