Everything You Need to Know about Hiking the Kalalau Trail

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Kauai’s Kalalau Trail is one of the most fabled hikes in the world. After all, this 11-mile trail traverses a good chunk of the Na Pali Coast, which sits pretty easily on a shortlist of the globe’s grandest oceanfronts. This roadless northwestern shoulder of the Garden Isle presents soaring cliffs (pali), sawtooth ridges, and deep valleys emptying to back-of-beyond beaches. It’s utterly gorgeous and tantalizingly remote.

The Kalalau Trail begins at the road’s end on the north shore of Kauai and crosses multiple Na Pali valleys before accessing paradisal Kalalau Beach. Any outdoor enthusiast who’s fit (and prepared) enough ought to consider tackling this downright classic Hawaiian adventure.

Kalalau Trail Overview

The Kalalau Trail begins in Haena State Park, set at the northwestern terminus of Route 56—the Kuhio Highway. But the trail itself primarily lies within Napali Coast State Wilderness Park

The trailhead is at Haena State Park’s Kee Beach. The Kalalau Trail proceeds 14 miles southwest from Kee to Kalalau beaches. This involves crossing five great valleys of the Na Pali Coast: the Hanakapiai, Hoolulu, Waiahuakua, Hanakoa, and Kalalau.

The full Kalalau Trail is not a beginner-friendly undertaking. It involves edging steep headlands and sea cliffs (pali), dropping down into valleys, and fording streams. While you’ll certainly pass through some lush groves and tangles, much of the trail—especially the southwestern section—is exposed: sun- and wind-blasted. As we’ll get to, weather can produce dramatic changes in the trail tread and the streams that must be crossed.

Whether because of time constraints, physical limitations, or hiking inexperience, many opt not to do the full trail. The four miles round-trip from Kee Beach to Hanakapiai Beach makes it a very popular day hike. Some extend this day hike to take in Hapakapiai Falls for an eight-mile round-trip undertaking. And strong hikers (with a permit) might attempt a long day’s trek between Kee Beach and Hanakoa Valley.

Tackling the full Kalalau Trail is not a day hike. The only feasible way to do it is to backpack. And the only legal places to camp are at Hanakoa Valley or Kalalau Beach.

Permits, Reservations, and Passes for the Kalalau Trail

If you’re only hiking to Hanakapiai Beach (or Hanakapiai Falls) from Kee Beach, you don’t need a permit for the Kalalau Trail: only a Day Pass reservation. (Hawaii residents—or those with a Napali Coast Wilderness State Park camping permit—don’t need entry reservations for Haena State Park.) You can make these reservations up to 30 days in advance, and they tend to sell out in pretty short order. You’ll need to arrange shuttle transportation, pay for Haena State Park parking, or be dropped off at the trailhead.

Anybody hiking past Hanakapiai Valley, even day hikers headed for Hanakoa, must have a permit. Again, a camping permit for the Kalalau Trail means you don’t need to get the Haena State Park entry reservation. 

Essential Gear & Safety

The Kalalau Trail is a wilderness hike through superbly rugged terrain and fitful tropical weather. Even day hikers should pack backcountry essentials such as snacks, water (and ideally a water filter), emergency layers, sunscreen, and a good map. Sturdy footwear is a must, though lightweight hiking shoes often suffice. Backpackers need to bring a tent, sleeping pad and bag (or blanket), cookstove and fuel, and water filter/purifier.

There’s no reliable cell service on the Kalalau Trail. Help can be hard to request and slow in coming. Don’t hike the trail alone, and study the weather forecast beforehand. Rainfall can turn crossable streams into dangerous flash-flooding flows that should not be forded. Better to bail on the hike than risk floodwaters.

Wet weather can also make the already-precarious footing in narrow trail sections downright hazardous. Beware of rockfall and landslides in any steep terrain, including on the beachfront at the base of the sea cliffs. People have died on the Kalalau, which regularly lands on lists of the globe’s most dangerous trails.

So pack the essentials, don’t push your limits, respond to changing conditions, and use common sense.

At Kalalau Beach, beware of strong waves and gnarly alongshore and rip currents. The surf in winter should be avoided, but it can also be too dangerous for a swim in the summertime. 

Hiking the Kalalau Trail

A bench to rest with a view

Gorgeous hala stands, Pacific vistas, fluted cliffs, and knife pinnacles that define the Na Pali Coast. The scenery along the Kalalau Trail is unforgettable. 

That scenery gets fabulous early on in your hike. Dayhikers headed for Hanakapiai can feast on amazing down-coast views of the sheer pali not far from the trailhead. While many turn around after Hanakapiai Beach, hikers capable of the long walk may trek up the valley to see stunning Hanakapiai Falls.

It’s tougher going crossing the Hoolulu and Waiahuakua valleys to reach Hanakoa Valley. A half-mile trail heads up the east fork of the Hanakoa Stream for a fine view of another waterfall. Hanakoa Valley includes a backcountry camping area with two covered shelters and a composting toilet.

Spectacular sightlines—and some iffy, narrow, sheer-edged stretches of the path—await those venturing onward to the trail’s end at Kalalau Beach. This ravishing beach comes backed by some of the most magnificent terrains along the Na Pali Coast, with tiered, deeply grooved cliffs and sharp pinnacles. Those pali are some of the tallest and most dramatic sea cliffs on Earth. This is the other (and best-known) camping area of the Kalalau Trail, with composting toilets available.

Sea caves front Kalalau Beach. Nice summertime hangouts, but often dangerously wave-lashed in winter. Very strong swimmers who exercise caution can, when the surf’s not too fierce, swim from Kalalau Beach westward to the wilderness sands of Honopu Beach.

Keep your eyes peeled for feral goats along the Kalalau Trail. They’re regularly sighted—and also draw hunters, mainly to the backcountry of the upper valleys above the trail. 

Experience Hawaiian Hiking at its Best on the Kalalau Trail

Challenging as it is—and downright dangerous during wet or stormy weather—the Kalalau Trail is one of the undisputed jewels in the crown of Hawaiian hiking. There’s certainly no more legendary hike on Kauai, and no better way to get a firsthand feel for the staggering Na Pali Coast.