The Kalalau Trail has grown to become a world famous backpacking trip and something that all outdoor enthusiasts should add to their bucket list. The trail traverses the untouched, rugged Na Pali Coastline in Kauai and gives access to Kalalau Beach, often said to be the number 1 beach in the world. Here’s everything you need to know about hiking or backpacking the Kalalau Trail.
The Kalalau Trail is a backpacking trail that has been on our bucket list for a very long time. For nearly 10 years, I took annual trips to Kauai’s north shore with my family and no trip was complete without a day spent hiking the Na Pali Coast.
Back then, we weren’t really adventurous and even the short 4 mile roundtrip trek to Hanakapi’ai Beach felt like a lot for us. Now, after 5 years of traveling the world in search of outdoor adventure, the Kalalau Trail is everything we crave from the outdoors.
It’s challenging, stunning, long, strenuous, and simply breathtaking. It’s not for the feint of heart nor the beginner hiker.
Somewhere between the time where we visited Hawaii annually and the time that we got all adventurous, the Kalalau Trail started showing up in many major outdoor publications and ranked among lists of greatest backpacking trips in the world. It was then that we decided that on our next trip to Kauai, we just had to find out what lay further down the coast of Kauai, in the depths of the Na Pali coast wilderness.
Kalalau Trail Stats
Distance: 11 miles (each way); Out and back
Elevation gain/loss: 5,000 feet (each way)
Trailhead: Ke’e Beach, Na Pali Coast State Park
Nearest city: Hanalei, Kauai
What’s the Kalalau Trail?
The Kalalau Trail is the only way for foot traffic to access the Na Pali Coast, the famous lush coastline on the Northwestern corner of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
While it’s increasingly popular to take helicopter tours of the coast, hiking the Kalalau is a much more rewarding experience in my opinion.
Though it’s merely 22 miles round-trip (short by backpacking standards), it’s a trek that makes you question how tough you truly are, how rugged, and what being an outdoorsmen really means when the energy of a thousand trees threatens to consume any open space available.
The Na Pali coast, translating to “high cliffs” of Kauai, is a place that surprises you with its tenuous difficulty. Its statistics would tell you that it’s merely a hike, one that demands slight exertion and relative peace, whereas the feet of those who have walked it would tell you otherwise.
This trail that weaves its way in and out of more than a dozen valleys and coves never lacks in elevation change and contains more traipsing through dense brush than any other designated trail I’ve seen, aside from the adventures I experienced in Alaska.
A hike like this a constant mental roller coaster that varies from “Why the heck am I doing this?!” to “That must be the most beautiful ocean on the whole planet” and so when my feet were finally planted back at sea level, I had eaten at least half my body weight, I took a holy shower cleansing the sweat, grime, and essentially the shell of an old self—a shell full of ego and consciousness— off of me, and slept 12 hours, it’s comes as no surprise to me that the profound experience of peace that came after made every step worthwhile.
On the Na Pali Coast, everything is alive and the ocean crashes in crisp perfection. The blues fade to teal and the teals glow with white. The ocean moves eternally in a great, blissful ripple..
So yes, the Kalalau Trail is not easy and it’s not like most hikes you may have tackled. But it’s raw and it’s real and it’s the essence of Hawaii. It’s a trek you will never forget.
Kalalau Trail Tips
Kalalau Trail Permits
The Kalalau is challenging for sure but what’s more challenging than the trek itself is snagging a permit to spend the night at one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.
Fortunately, getting a permit does not currently require a random lottery but you do have to plan in advance. Click here to search for permit availability Hawaiian DLNR online reservation system. Permits cost $20 per person per night.
How far in advance you need to plan depends a lot on the time of year. Permits become available 90 days in advance however in the summer, permits sell out within minutes.
Best Time to Hike the Kalalau Trail
Due to its location in beautiful Hawaii, the Kalalau Trail is graced with warm weather and can be hiked year-round.
That being said, Kauai, the Garden Isle, is known as the wettest place on earth and if you plan on visiting from November through May, you’re much more likely to experience rain.
The trek can still be done in the rain but it gets sketchy. With how hard it is to get a permit, most people don’t choose to forfeit their reservation just because of rain in the forecast. On the positive side, winter permits are much easier to get.
During our trip on the Kalalau Trail in late January, we somehow managed to score a few days of great weather between the storms that preceded and followed our trek. In the wintertime, it’s really all luck. You might score a sunny, crowd-free trail or you may get soaked.
Hiking in the sunny summer and fall months is beautiful and often usually free of any storms. You will have to be a little more well prepared with sun protection and proper hydration due to heat that usually runs in the mid to high 80s during the middle of the day.
Trail Conditions + Flash Floods
Trail conditions is something most people don’t talk about. The Kalalau Trail is no walk in the woods. The trail is extremely overgrown but not in the way that you worry about getting lost. The forest is basically trying to encompass the trail. It’s no wonder other tropical destinations don’t have trails, it’s just not natural to cut through a rainforest this thick.
The overgrown nature of the trail doesn’t inhibit you from actually hiking it, but since you’ll spend at least 5 hours scraping by sharp plants and bushes, I would highly recommend long pants which is brutal in itself due to heat and humidity.
Besides the plants, the trail is also known to be narrow and exposed in some sections.
For the most part, there are rarely sharp drop-offs or steep ledges but there are some. There is a famous spot along the full Kalalau Trail known as Crawlers Ledge. To this day, I still don’t know where it is exactly but overall, the entire mile 7-9 will be unnerving to those afraid of heights.
Key phrase is “THOSE AFRIAD OF HEIGHTS.” The trail here is truly no narrower than the rest of the hike but due to steep ledges that give way to the ocean moving below you, it’s more of a mind game than anything. Be cautious but don’t let the name of “Crawler’s Ledge” deter you.
Finally, note that there are 3 main river crossings that could pose a flash flood threat. It seems obvious, but just as a reminder, don’t try to cross the river during a flash flood. This can be signified by extra fast running water and red-ish orange sediment in the river.
Numbers Mark the Way
Though this isn’t an essential must-know, it’s nice to have the re-assurance of mile markers during the whole trail.
Each mile is marked with paint on obvious rocks for the whole trail (except for mile 10 where there is no marker as of 2020 due to trail reconstruction). The mile markers are a teensy bit off but even still, it helps to know how far you have to go.
Remember when I said this is no walk in the woods? Since this trail starts and ends at sea level, it often leads people (myself included) to believe that the trail can’t possibly be that strenuous. Wrong.
The trail is CONSTANTLY gaining or losing elevation. It’s almost worse than hikes where you just go straight up a mountain and back down because you’re constantly shifting gears between up and down.
Statistically, the trail weaves its way in and out of dozens of valleys and hills, contains 50+ switchbacks, and has a combined elevation gain of 5,000 feet which, in turn, correlates to 10,000 feet since you’re doubling back on this trail as an out-and-back.
In addition to trail difficulty, the Kalalau Trail is also exposed to very warm weather and high humidity, even in the winter, making it much easier to tire on the undulating hillsides.
Basically, it’s very strenuous and just because it’s Hawaii doesn’t mean you should underestimate this backpacking trip.
Water on the Trail
I’ll be honest, I was a little worried about where exactly we were going to be able to refill. It was totally unnecessary to be concerned because there are SO MANY streams, falls, and rivers.
There are 3 primary river crossings with fast-flowing water that are most ideal for filling fresh water: Mile 2 at Hanakapi’ai Beach, mile 6 at Hanakoa Valley shelters, and mile 11 just half a mile before Kalalau Beach. If need be, there are dozens of other small streams and rivers but they are more stagnant.
Trash + Bathrooms
Compost toilets are placed along the Kalalau Trail at mile 2, mile 6, and at Kalalau Beach. Normally I would appreciate the fact that the state is trying to keep the trail clean and well maintained but unfortunately, the portable toilets are nearly unusable. A State Park ranger who was informing us of trail conditions at the beginning of our trek told us that hikers are encouraged to use the toilets but also warned us that you probably won’t want to.
I had no idea bathrooms could be so disgusting (and dude, I’ve seen some gross bathrooms) plus, dozens of massive orb spiders filled the bathrooms at Kalalau Beach. Pretty sure, no one tried to use those bathrooms.
On top of that, due to the thick shrubbery and little tree coverage, there are very few places to go to the bathroom in nature.
This doesn’t really help you, it’s simply just a warning because the whole bathroom deal is unexpected.
Also note that ALL trash must be packed out.
Camping at Kalalau Beach
When you arrive at Kalalau Beach, all the effort is worthwhile. Kalalau Beach is stunning and is by far one of the most beautiful campgrounds in Hawaii, if not the world.
Tent camping sites at Kalalau Beach are located in mixed sand and dirt campsites under treeline just a stone’s throw from the sandy shores. We didn’t use sleeping pads because we were on the sand, however, we would’ve needed them had we been on dirt.
While views from your tent aren’t particularly beautiful, it’s the views seen from the water’s edge that make this hike so famous. From the beach, you’ll see the Na Pali Coast’s iconic ridgelines and a beautiful waterfall pouring down on the west edge of the beach.
This waterfall is the closest place to access freshwater besides the final river crossing .5 miles back on the trail from the beach.
While all of the campgrounds are pretty far away from the ocean, during large swells combined with high tides, take extra caution to make sure your site is away from the shoreline.
How Long Does it Take
One of the most important things to know about the trek is that if you’re going to go through the long hard hike to get to Kalalau Beach, you’re going to want some time to enjoy it. For some, that could mean a few hours or for others, it could mean a whole day.
Because of this, many choose to stay 2 nights at Kalalau for a full day on the secluded beach.
Personally, I don’t think I would’ve wanted to spend a full 2 nights at the beach just because I’d get bored. I would recommend leaving the trailhead early in the morning (like 6-7 am) to have a few hours to take in the beauty of the beach before dark.
Note that the one-way trek itself can take anywhere from 6-10 hours depending on the hiker’s speed and experience.
For reference, we’re pretty experienced backpackers and are pretty fit but even still, the hike took longer than we expected. We left the trailhead around 11am and arrived just in time for sunset at 6pm, which was nice but we didn’t have much time to take it in before hiking back out at dawn the next day.
Getting to the Kalalau Trailhead
The trailhead is located 10 miles down the windy, paved road at the northwest tip of Kauai.
After the major storm that eroded the Na Pali coast in 2018, the trailhead has developed into a more structured state park. This development is what generated the permitting system in addition to improving the trail conditions.
Now, not only is the trail permitted but so is overnight trailhead parking at Haena State Beach and with that comes some extra logistics and planning for hiking the Kalalau Trail.
There are a few different options for getting to the trailhead:
- If someone in your group is not doing the trek, they can drop you off and pick you up.
- You can drive your own vehicle to and from the trailhead but you’ll need to reserve and overnight parking permit for the trailhead. You can reserve a parking permit by clicking here but you cannot make a parking reservation until after you’ve obtained a Kalalau camping permit.
- The third and probably easiest option is to take the new hiker shuttle which runs to/from Princeville or Waipa to Haena Beach. The shuttle costs $15 per person (each way) and runs 9 times a day. Kalalau bound busses have departures between 7am and 4pm and Princeville bound busses leave between 8am and 5pm. Walk up shuttle rides are not allowed, you need to have reservations both ways. Learn more here.
- A lot of people hitchhike in Hawaii. I know some people may guffaw at the idea but some may find it perfectly suitable and with how many tourists drive to Haena State Park every day, your odds are high of getting a ride.
Since reconstruction of the Haena Beach, the trailhead now feels more like a national park and includes bathroom facilities, water, outdoor showers, trash cans, and parking.
Kalalau Trail Guide
The Kalalau Trail is really obvious and self-explanatory once you begin. There are only 2 trail junctions during the whole 11 miles and it would be really hard to get lost out there.
As an overview, here’s a brief trail guide.
The first 2 miles of this trail is highly trafficked and extremely well maintained. Those 2 miles takes 1 hour on average and will bring you to Hanakapi’ai Beach. Though this is the section that doesn’t require any hiking permit, it is surprisingly one of the most beautiful sections of the whole Kaalalu Trail so be sure to soak in those coastal views.
At Hanakapi’ai Beach, you can fill water here, use the bathrooms, and take a short rest on the beach.
Here you can opt to take a 4 mile (roundtrip) detour to the popular Hanakapi’ai Falls, otherwise, continue on the Kalalau Trail where you’ll now enter the permit-only hiking section.
Here, the trail begins its strenuous undulations and weaves in and out of valleys for the next 5 miles with very few views of the coast.
At mile marker 6 (about 3-4 hours in), you’ll reach the second of the three main valleys, Hanakoa, where there are more compost toilets and a stream to fill water. We each had one 16-oz water bottle and after 3 hours of hiking, we had to filter our first round of water here.
Another relatively dull mile, much like the last 4, will bring you to mile 7, the most exposed section and at last, one of the truly beautiful sections of trail that will make you realize why the Na Pali coast is so famous.
The trail first traverses around a rocky ledge that juts out toward the sea. This is what I believe to be Crawlers Ledge but I’m not sure. Like we mentioned earlier, the ledge is no narrower than the rest of the trail but the ocean swirling beneath your feet can be scary for some. After this 500 yard ledge, the trail becomes less exposed again but the ecosystem changes a lot. Grassy hillsides emerge filled with adorable little mountain goats and you have fantastic views of the mountains layered along the horizon.
Around mile 8, there is one more exceptionally exposed section located along a red dirt hillside. This section is one of the areas that had fully eroded back in the 2018 storm but trail builders have gone in and re-created segments of path along the coast. This section is perhaps more precarious than the edge at mile 7 mile it’s nothing to worry about, just be cautious.
Finally, just after mile 10 (estimated), you’ll reach the beginning of your final descent to Kalalau Beach. The start of this descent is marked by a sudden opening onto orange sandy ridges, expansive views of lush Na Pali ridgelines ahead and to your left, and a sandy beach seen in the distance.
You’ll also have beautiful views of deep blue waters and waves crashing off the point to the right.
At the bottom of this final valley, you’ll cross 1 more river and a short 15 minutes walk from that river and will bring you to beautiful Kalalau Beach.