Remote, accessible only by a foot trail and without any sights or sounds of humanity nearby, Hanakapi’ai Beach has certainly earned its place among the most coveted of tropical beach destinations. However, with beauty comes dangers and for those who seek out this beach’s unimpeded views of the Pacific Ocean, proceed with caution.
Hanakapi’ai Beach lies hidden along a northwestern stretch of land on the island of Kauai. Kauai, aptly called the “Garden Island”, is the second-oldest and northernmost of the Hawaiian islands. It is this island’s positioning that lent to the creation of Kauai’s famed cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. Millions of years of erosion created those sea cliffs that now soar thousands of feet into the air. Amidst them roar down waterfalls and hanging valleys and, at the base of one series of these sea cliffs where a small stream meets the sea, Hanakapi’ai Beach.
The only way to access Hanakapi’ai Beach is by the Kalalau foot trail. The easiest way to see Hanakapi’ai Beach is as a day trip starting at the Ke’e Beach trailhead (you will find dedicated parking at the very end of Kuhio Highway/Highway 56, or you can park at the nearby Ke’e Beach Parking Overflow Lot just as you enter Ha’ena State Park). From this trailhead, it is a 2-mile hike that offers spectacular views of the Na Pali coastline and deep inner valleys so characteristic of the island’s tropical backcountry. Note, that this is not an easy trail. Expect a round-trip day hike to take between 3 and 4 hours.
Want to experience more of this part of the island? The Kalalau Trail in full stretches 11 miles in full and is part of the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park. While camping is prohibited on Hanakapi’ai Beach, adventurous campers can apply for a backcountry overnight camping permit for secluded valleys further along the trail. Several magazines and outfitters named the Kalalau Trail as one of the most dangerous hikes in the United States, but also among the most beautiful due to the stunning sea cliff topography and unique sights like ancient Hawaiian ruins. A big part of that danger rating, however, is due to the notorious nature of Hanakapi’ai Beach.
Hanakapi’ai Beach is not a beach you can kayak to. Nor is it one you can swim, snorkel, or otherwise step in. In fact, the short, white sandy shore that might invite a person to swim is only seen during the summer months as powerful tides hide it otherwise. But no matter the season, the rip currents at Hanakapi’ai are extremely dangerous and can and have consistently swept unsuspecting swimmers to sea. This is due to there being no protective reef barrier in front of Hanakapi’ai Beach that would otherwise lessen the ocean forces.
Safety reminders stated, Hanakapi’ai is still a beach very much worth visiting. The Hanakapi’ai stream that flows into the beach offers a nice cool-off area and place in which to sit and soak in the incredible natural beauty of this slice of Hawaii.
-Avoid hiking the Kalalau Trail on days with expected showers as this area is prone to flash floods.
-Start early and end your day with a swim or stretch at Ke’e beach. Ke’e is a two-minute walk north of the Kalalau Trail and, unlike Hanakapi’ai, does have a protective reef that calms the currents and makes the waters safe for swimming and snorkeling. Ke’e Beach also boasts showers and restrooms.
-During busy months, advanced reservations are often required for everyone (except Hawaiian state residents) entering Ha’ena State Park (which is where the Kalalau Trailhead is located). You can reserve your voucher on the website.