Labeled 'the' hike on Kauai, the Kalalau Trail is a 11 mile trek into paradise. A vast array of verdant valleys, waterfalls, sea caves, and gorgeous vistas lay ahead of you.
To reach the trail head, take Hwy. 56 all the way north to the end of the road and park at Ke'e Beach. On the left, in the parking lot before you reach the beach, you'll see the trailhead next to a large sign labeled 'Kalalau Trail.'
To hike the entire trail and also spend time exploring Kalalau Beach and Valley takes 3-5 days. Most people are day hikers that don't ever make it all the way out to Kalalau. The popular day hike from Kee Beach to Hanakapiai Beach, approximately 2 miles along the trail (four miles round trip) receives the bulk of hikers.
Ke'e Beach to Hanakapia`ai Beach (2 miles one-way or 4 miles round-trip)
As you begin the trail you'll traverse through a lush jungle-like scene of pothos and other philodendron. The trail can be steep and rocky in places, but trust us - it's the climb you'll notice most. Use extreme caution in any wet portions (granted, it's almost all wet along this stretch), and expect mud if it has rained recently. After the first leg of the climb, at about half a mile, you emerge on a red dirt path that borders the cliffside overlooking the gorgeous Na Pali coastline. Azure blue waters lie beneath you to the right overlooking Ke`e Beach below.
You've climbed to the highest point between Ke`e and Hanakapi`ai; about 500 feet above sea level. The short portion of the trail to this point can be a lot of work, but this is one of the most gorgeous views of the hike. If you can't or don't want to day-hike to Hanakapi`ai Beach, at least try to make it to this overlook (one mile round trip). During the winter months you will be rewarded with views of outstanding waves, while in the summer you may see a group of kayakers floating along the current on the calm seas. After you finish your first mile you'll really start to be rewarded with stunning view of the Na Pali coast. You're well on your way down to Hanakapia'ai beach now, and be sure to enjoy the trek down - it's mostly uphill on the way back.
Just shy of two miles, the trail dips steeply downward through several switchbacks and you'll soon find yourself at Hanakapia`ai Stream.
IMPORTANT SAFETY CONSIDERATIONS FOR HANAKAPI’AI BEACH AND STREAM:
Use extreme caution crossing the stream and if there has been consistent heavy rain recently or the flow is high, do NOT cross at all. If you want to cross without getting your feet wet, you can sometimes skip across the rocks if you head inland a few meters; however it is far safer to get your shoes wet (or take them off and put them back on the other side) than it is to potentially slip on a rock and fall. For anybody carrying a heavy backpack; standard safety protocol is to unbuckle the waist and chest straps prior to crossing the river; that way if you fall in the river you can easily escape your pack and come up for air.
At times there is a rope tied across the river to help with crossings, however the general rule it to not cross unless you are sure you can do so safely. Although Hanakapi'ai Beach is a dangerous swimming spot, most drownings and near-drownings in Hanakapi'ai are in the river when people try to cross in water that is too fast and deep and they are swept away by flooding river waters. The water at Hanakapi'ai is usually clear and ankle-knee deep with enough rocks visible above the surface to rock-hop across – if it looks like a muddy, raging torrent; do not try to cross!. Crossing the river in waist high water requires skill and extreme care. If the water is over waist high, do not try to cross the river in any circumstances – just wait; eventually the flood waters will subside!
Please do not place yourself at risk by walking on boulders that are wet with sea water - if the boulders are wet it means that the waves come up that high (even if they are far away when you are looking at it - wave heights vary greatly between sets and getting washed off the rocks is a very common way people get injured or drown). Even in the summer time, when the beach is deep with white sand; people sometimes venture along the lava rock shelves on both ends of the beach. Many people have met their demise by being swept off these shelves by large waves after venturing on them at a low point in between sets. If the rocks are wet - stay off! A local rule of thumb is to watch the ocean for 20 minutes before going in or walking in a tidal zone.
We also highly recommend that you do NOT swim in the ocean at Hanakapi'ai Beach. There is often strong undertow, rip currents, a dangerous shore break and the reflection of the surf off the rock walls of the shoreline creates irregular and unpredictable waves.
After crossing the stream, to your right is Hanakapiai Beach. Some pit toilets, that leave much to be desired, are also to your left (near where the trail continues and/or heads back to Hanakapi'ai Falls). In the summer months, there is plenty of sand on the beach, but in the winter you'll be surprised to see only lava boulders at times. Every year the current carries the sand into the ocean only to return it in the spring!
Total elevation gain (going and returning along all inclines) between Ke`e and Hanakapi`ai is 1060 feet and the hike takes approximately an hour and a half at a moderate pace.
Hanakapia`ai Beach to Hanakapi`ai Falls 2 mile side hike (4 round trip)
As a side trip (extended day hike) you can follow the un-maintained Hanakapiai Falls trail upstream for two more miles to reach this spectacular 100-foot high Hanakapiai Falls. Please note this is an additional 2 miles (4 miles round trip) not included on the Kalalau Trail. It can take up to two hours just to reach the falls, and requires numerous stream crossings. Total elevation gain to the falls from Hanakapi'ai beach is 760 feet. This is a fairly strenuous hike
Hanakapia'ai Beach to Hanakoa Valley 4 miles
The hike out of Hanakapiai is a rather arduous climb and the views are mostly behind you (be sure to look behind you at the beach as you climb). You'll hike through a 'grove' of some of the largest Sisal plants you've likely ever seen; they range in size from that of a small bean to the size of your house. You also can't help but notice how much the trail has narrowed - only a fraction as many people hike this portion of the trail as that between Hanakapi'ai and Ke'e.
After doing a good bit of climbing, you'll come to 'Space Rock', the highest point anywhere on the Kalalau trail, approximately 700ft above the waves below. Space Rock is 3.25 miles from the trailhead.
As you keep going you'll begin the hike into Ho'olulu Valley, which is the first major valley after Hanakapi'ai Valley along the Kalalau trail. It's approximately 3.7 miles along the trail, and the 4 mile marker is inside the valley. ho'olulu means the sheltering place, so named for the sea cave far below which was used in ancient time to shelter voyaging canoes.
Parts of the trail here can be steep, so use caution. At approximately the 4.5 mile mark is the entrance of Waiahuakua Valley. The views here up the Pali are stunning. From this point it is still another grueling 6.5 miles to Kalalau Valley. If you are doing a day hike past Hanakapiai, this a good place to turn back and head for the trailhead. For the bold day-hiker, you can continue to Hanakoa Falls and still make it back in the same day; however it is a very long day. If you're hiking all the way to Kalalau Beach and want to split the hike into 2 days; Hanakoa is a good place to camp. I personallyprefer the camp sites on the Kalalau side of the river.
Hanakoa to Kalalau (5 miles)
After Hanakoa Valley, you climb up and then descend a series of switch backs onto what is affectionately known as 'Crawlers Ledge' because people who are scared by the narrow and exposed ledge have been known to crawl across on hands and knees. If you are not used to exposed heights and ledges; this can be a nail-biting experience for you. Of course if you grew up hiking to Kalalau and back; then it is a nice place to take a break and have a snack (just make sure that there are no mountain goats crossing above you as rock fall from goats can be quite dangerous).
Crawler's Ledge is often a windy place; navigating it with a full pack can be challenging if you are not used to it. Once around the corner from Crawlers Ledge, the wind stops, you pass several beautiful little calletys before coming up to the 8 mile bluff with a clear shot view of Kalalau. From 8 mile, it is only 2 more miles to Kalalau Beach. You have passed all the major valleys already so the trail from this point on meanders quickly in and out of little valleys. There is a nice 2 tier waterfall about 1/2 way to Kalalau - it is a good place to rest before your final push to the top of Red Hill. Red Hill is the gateway to Kalalau, a large cinder cone guarding the entrance. Before descending into Kalalau, make sure to take a moment and really consider the sign which encourages visitors to remember that Kalalau is a sacred valley to the Hawaiians and to depart knowing that you have preserved it for future generations.
Kalalau is an amazing place; it used to be home to over 6,000 indigenous people who lived sustainably off the land. It is also a major archaeological site; although many of the rock walls and intricate irrigation structures were destroyed by cattle brought in by ranchers to graze here in the first part of the 20th century. There is an abundance of good camping and lots to explore in Kalalau.
Kalalau Trail with a Guide: Outfitting for a 3-5 day backpacking trip is a skill in itself; likewise, undertaking such an adventure is best done if you have previous experience in these types of endeavors. If you want to camp in Kalalau but are unsure if you want to do it on your own, Kauai Hiking Adventures has a team of experts who can help you out. Some of the guys have hiked the trail 50 or more times, and they know the trail, and valley better than their own neighborhoods. If in doubt about your skill set or if you just want to enjoy your time with the company of knowledgeable locals, we highly recommend contacting them.
STATE AND KAUAI COUNTY RELEASE KALALAU TRAIL SAFETY VIDEO
Designed to Inform Hikers About Preparation and Risks
The Kalalau Trail in the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park is likely the most heavily used hiking trail in Hawaii. An estimated 500,000 visitors and residents use the spectacular trail each year. Sandwiched between the ocean and the towering cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, the trail is widely featured in guide books, on travel websites and in blogs.
“There’s little doubt the Kalalau Trail is one of the crown jewels of the entire system of Hawaii State Parks,” said Dan Quinn, administrator of the DLNR Division of State Parks. “Due to its immense popularity, hikers often arrive at the trailhead without having made the proper preparations for what ultimately is a pretty tough trek, especially for beginning hikers,” Quinn went on to say.
The six-minute-long video, produced by DLNR in cooperation with the Kauai County Fire Department and Civil Defense Agency, highlights some of the challenges hikers might face on the Kalalau Trail. It focuses on the first two miles of the hike to Hanakapiai Stream, which is the length the majority of hikers make. A state permit is required to traverse beyond Hanakapiai Stream or Hanakapiai Falls. The entire trail is 11 miles long and those wanting to go beyond Hanakapiai can obtain permits from the Division of State Parks.
Kalalau Trail Visitor Safety Video:
Article Edited/Contributed by: John Derrick & Victoria Derrick