Not many comparably sized places anywhere in the world boast the incredible high-level scenery that Kauai packs into its 550 square miles. Arguably the most celebrated piece of that scenery is the Na Pali Coast of northwestern Kauai. And the Kalepa Ridge Trail provides one of the very best views of this staggering landscape.
The Na Pali Coast is roadless: a reflection of its almost mind-boggling ruggedness. Between Kee Beach and Polihale Beach, soaring pinnacled cliffs (pali), knife-blade spur ridges, and deep remote valleys define Kauai’s northwestern seaboard. The centerpiece of scenic helicopter flights and boat tours, this eroded natural fortress isn’t easy to eyeball from land. The Kalalau Lookout offers the best-known terrestrial vantage. The Kalepa Ridge Trail, which starts from the Lookout, provides the shortest hike into the Na Pali wilds, with even more dazzling vistas.
This is about a 1.9-mile one-way trek involving about 600 feet of elevation change. The first part of the trail is quite steep, and slips and scrambles are to be expected. So consider this a fairly challenging undertaking best suited to moderately fit hikers who don’t mind getting a little dirty. Sturdy hiking shoes or boots are best, and trekking poles are a major help.
Don’t even think about tackling the Kalepa Ridge Trail in wet weather, or shortly after rains. It’s often a bit slippery even in dry weather. If the tread’s turned into gloppy muck, save this for another day. The treacherous footing and sheer drop-offs edging the route amp up the danger level in such conditions.
It’s important to note that the Kalepa Ridge Trail isn’t an official route. Indeed, whether or not it’s even legal to hike it isn’t really clear. At the fence to the left of the Kalalau Lookout where the trial begins, you’ll see closed signs prohibiting travel beyond. But many folks hike this trail—you’re unlikely to be the only person on it—and while it isn’t regularly maintained, it’s well-beaten and obvious. The likelihood of being fined is pretty low.
There may or may not be a hole in the chain-link fence at the start of the trail. If not, people detour around the fence or hop it to access the path.
The first part of the trail is steepest, but then it levels out some. The route traces the knife-edge Kalepa Ridge, one of the numerous divides along the Na Pali Coast. It extends northwestward from the high rim where the Kalalau Lookout is situated in Kokee State Park. The Honapu Valley lies to the southwest, the Kalalau Valley to the northeast.
Striking between these breathtakingly beautiful, walled-in glens on the Kalepa Ridge is all-out magical. The ridgeline supports groves and fern thickets, with mostly unobstructed, far-reaching views throughout the hike. You can peer down to the valley floors and the deliciously removed beachfront at the foot of the Na Pali cliffs. Down the ridge, gazing northeastward, you can pick out the distant green pillars of Mount Makana in the vicinity of Kee and Haena beaches.
More likely than not, you’re going to see some clouds as part of the viewshed. Mists form and vanish relentlessly along the Na Pali Coast, and it can be mostly socked-in for periods. Honestly, though, the interplay of cloud and sunlight over this mythic-looking terrain is astonishing to behold.
We’ve said it already, but it bears repeating: Stick to the trail! There’s not really an exact endpoint to the Kalepa Ridge Trail, but past that roughly two-mile mark, steep descents are involved that are best left alone. Believe us: You’ll be basking in some of the most incredible scenery in the world right off the bat on this trail. No need to push your luck following the gradually dropping-down ridgeline.
Watch your footing, bring plenty of water, and avoid reckless impulses—like getting right up to the ridgebrow brinks—and you’ll have an amazing time on the Kalepa Ridge Trail. And you may well end up concluding, as more than a few others have, that this is the most eye-popping scenic hike on the Garden Isle!
-In good weather, aim for the Kalepa Ridge Trail in the late afternoon for the best lighting. Earlier in the day, shadows obscure much of the Na Pali Coast and its deep valleys.
-The Kalalau Lookout offers some parking nearby the trail, linked to above.
-If you’d prefer official and maintained trails into the ridges of the Na Pali, consider as alternatives the Nualolo or Awaawapuhi trails. These are longer and more all-around strenuous than the Kalepa Ridge Trail, though.