Few spots in all of Hawaii are so fabled as Kalalau Beach, a broad expanse of bright sand tucked against extraordinary cathedral cliffs looming thousands of feet southward into the Kauai highlands. This is the pinnacle of the NaPali Coast, which forms a roughly 14-mile swath of completely roadless, spectacularly rugged oceanfront on Kauai’s northwestern edge.
Many contend the NaPali is the world’s most incredible seacoast; without question, it’s one of them. Backpacking to Kalalau Beach takes you into the heart of it.
You can also take a boat to Kalalau Beach, but those are the only two options for getting here. The remoteness is part of the magic and makes the unbelievable scenery all the more special. Browse one of the many boat tours that will take you to this magical location.
To get to Kalalau Beach by foot, you take the Kalalau Trail, which ranks among America’s most legendary backcountry hikes. It’s 11 miles from Kee Beach in Haena State Park westward to the Kalalau Valley and Kalalau Beach. The trailhead is accessed from the Kee Beach parking area.
The 22-mile round-trip Kalalau Trail traverses sheer sea cliffs (or pali) and dips into five stunning valleys: Hanakapi’ai, Ho’olulu, Waiahuakua, Hanakoa, and, finally, the Kalalau. Lush coastal jungle, tumbling streams, and views from the high green-brown pinnacles and mountainsides out to the wild Pacific make for dazzling scenery along the way.
But it’s a very tough hike, with precipitous sections, occasional washouts, and potentially slick footing and flooding streams after rainfall. Deaths and plenty of injuries have occurred along the Kalalau Trail. Only experienced hikers should tackle the full length, and those with a fear of heights probably should skip it.
Many hikers on the Kalalau Trail are only walking the initial section to Hanakapi’ai Beach as a day hike. Those venturing beyond the Hanakapi’ai Valley need to have an official camping permit for the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park. It would be foolhardy indeed to think about completing the entire 22 miles out and back to Kalalau Beach in a single day, and regardless you need the permit.
Those camping permits can be secured up to 30 days in advance, and sell out quickly, especially in summer. So plan ahead! (To enter Haena State Park where the Kalalau Trail trailhead is, you need advanced reservations. However, a Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park camping permit also gets you entry without the specific Haena pass.)
Kalalau Beach has no facilities save for a composting toilet, there to minimize the impact of its many visitors. This is a precious wilderness area, so remember to pack out all of your trash and abide by “Leave No Trace” principles.
Armed with your permit, you can camp behind Kalalau Beach. The roughly mile-long beach itself is very broad, and the views are incredible. The Kalalau vicinity includes the most spectacular of the NaPali Coast’s grand cliffs: Here, those sheer slopes come intricately eroded into deeply grooved gullies and knife-edge ridge spurs. These high, “fluted” cliffs have starred in many a film due to their astonishing beauty, not least in such close proximity to pounding breakers.
You’ll also find massive sea caves edging the beach, accessible as shelters during the summer but hammered by the ferocious winter surf.
Swimming is sketchy at Kalalau Beach. Only strong, sensible swimmers who know how to read the water and (ideally) who have experience with the Kauai North Shore’s fickle ocean should dare it. Strong waves and powerful alongshore and rip currents can make for very dangerous conditions. Winter’s surging waters should be avoided entirely. It goes without saying you won’t find lifeguards here.
At the western end of Kalalau Beach, Ho’ole’a Falls offers a source of fresh water, but be sure to properly filter/purify it before drinking.
Those who make the journey to Kalalau Beach on the NaPali Coast are pretty much guaranteed lifelong memories of one of the planet’s most spectacular land/sea margins, and enjoy a deep sense of the wild side of Hawaii.
If you’re a very strong swimmer and have swimfins along, it’s possible to swim west from Kalalau Beach to the yet-more-remote Honopu Beach. Given you’re not even allowed to land a kayak on Honopu, a swim’s the only way to visit it. Only undertake this if you know what you’re doing, and don’t attempt it alone: The swimming distance is fairly short, but you may encounter crashing breaks and strong currents, and needless to say, this is a very remote place where you don’t want to get into trouble.