Having been to Kauai a couple of times and done the usual tourist circuit, I wanted this trip to be slightly different. On one of my previous visits, I took a rafting tour of the Na Pali Coast, and besides the beauty of the fluted ridges and unreal experience of snorkeling with dolphins, one of the coolest things I remember seeing was a few hikers high up along the edge of a sheer cliff carefully traversing the Kalalau Trail. It looked absolutely insane, but I knew immediately that I wanted to do it someday.
Fast forward to the end of last summer, when I finally decided to book my trip to Kauai and reserve a permit for the Kalalau Trail. I did some research online and knew it was going to be strenuous, even for people who are relatively fit, but I wasn't too worried. It is highly recommended, however, that you bring along enough supplies to stay at least one night at the Kalalau Beach campsite, unless you are an experienced hiker who is capable of completing the 22-mile out-and-back journey in one day. In case you cannot make it to Kalalau in one day, you can also camp in Hanakoa Valley at the six-mile mark.
Kalalau Trail Map
I left the Westin at 7:00 am and stopped by the local Foodland market to pick up some prepared meals for the next two days. Since I didn't have a filter or purification tablets with me, I decided to carry my entire supply of water into the hike, which was a huge mistake. With five liter bottles in addition to the three liters already in my Camelbak, my legs nearly gave out in just the first few miles. And even with so much water, I actually exhausted my entire supply before finishing the following day. Definitely bring a filter and tablets with you, as there are plenty of water sources along the way!
The trail begins at Ke'e Beach, at the end of the Kuhio Highway on the North Shore. When I arrived at the trailhead, there were already a number of people there, most of them day hikers. Since you only need a permit if you decide to go beyond Hanakapi'ai Valley at the two-mile mark, many people opt to do the first section only as a half-day hike. It is moderately strenuous and great for families and those who just want a taste of the Na Pali Coast but are short on time.
You would think that a trail going along the coastline would be relatively flat and easy, but that's definitely not the case here. There is hardly any part of the trail that is level, and elevation gain/loss totals 5,000 feet from start to finish. I have to admit I underestimated how strenuous the entire hike would be, and wasn't nearly as prepared as I should have been.
Kalalau Trail elevation
After the first two miles, you arrive at Hanakapi'ai Beach, a beautiful place to rest your feet before taking on the most strenuous climb of the trail. Be aware that the beach is notoriously dangerous for rip currents. A sign posted even documents the number of deaths that have occurred. Definitely do not go swimming in the waters there. A side hike up Hanakapi'ai Valley to a waterfall takes an additional two hours round-trip, so plan your time accordingly. I opted to skip this as I probably would not have made it to Kalalau Beach by nightfall.
View of Ke'e Beach
First view of Na Pali Coastline
View of Hanakapi'ai Beach
There are multiple stream crossings along the trail, and they can be rather treacherous. After heavy downpours (as can regularly occur along the Na Pali Coast), be on the lookout for rising waters and flash floods. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful that day. When I arrived at the first crossing just before Hanakapi'ai Beach, I was a bit nervous about leaping over the few exposed rocks to get to the other side, especially with my heavy backpack on, but luckily I didn't lose my balance.
Immediately after the beach is a 700-foot climb up the valley wall. This part was definitely rough, but at least there was some vegetation cover to protect from the harsh sun and humidity. From there, the trail snakes in and out of breathtaking hanging valleys and along sheer cliffs. The scenery was simply sublime, and it was easy to see why the Kalalau Trail has often been called the most beautiful coastal hike in the world. Words cannot begin to describe and pictures can hardly capture the scale and majesty of the landscape.
Climb out of Hanakapi'ai
After an exhausting three and a half miles from Hanakapi'ai Beach, you arrive at Hanakoa Valley, a great resting stop to replenish water supplies and cool off in the stream. There are also campsites and composting toilets here for those who cannot or do not wish to hike all the way to Kalalau in one day. After a brief stop for food, I continued on to the most notorious section of the trail, where the path literally hugs the edge of a cliff and one wrong step can send you tumbling hundreds of feet down into the crashing waves below.
I'm exaggerating slightly, of course, but Crawler's Ledge, as it's known, is really quite scary upon first view. If you have a severe fear of heights, this section might actually terrify you. For the most part, however, as long as you proceed slowly and stay cautious, most people can navigate it without any issue. I actually felt that the section just prior to Crawler's Ledge was a bit scarier, as the trail was noticeably sliding down the slope and the ground was very unstable.
Slide area of Kalalau Trail
This entire section is exposed to the sun, with very little cover, so be prepared with sunscreen, hats, and plenty of water. After a final push up 400 feet, you get your first sight of Kalalau Valley and beach. And what a sight it is. Stunning fluted ridges in shades of red and green tower over the tiny white-sand beach in the distance. I must have stood there for a good 15 minutes just taking in the view and snapping photos. The descent down the red hill is a bit precarious, with loose dirt sliding everywhere, but once you get past that section and one last stream crossing, it's fairly flat for the last mile into Kalalau Beach.
First view of Kalalau Valley
Kalalau Valley and Beach
The first thing I did after arriving was find a decent campsite (it wasn't crowded at all), throw my backpack down, and run straight into the Pacific Ocean. It was pure bliss to feel all the sweat and grime wash away in the cool water. The mile-long Kalalau Beach is absolutely stunning, flanked by towering ridges in a beautiful maroon color. Be sure to walk the entire length of the beach, as there is a nice waterfall at the end along with some imposing sheer cliffs and sea caves. My feet were aching and I had a couple of blisters, but it still felt amazing walking along the nearly deserted beach.
No boats are allowed to dock at Kalalau, but some do allow passengers to swim ashore. I've also heard that the semi-permanent hippies that reside at Kalalau Beach pay for boats to bring in supplies and take out garbage regularly, though I don't know the exact details. Speaking of the residents, many have set up tents and other makeshift structures along the far end of Kalalau Beach, and it was common to see naked people walking about the campsite playing a flute or doing other random activities.
I heard from other hikers that there were more residents further up Kalalau Valley, and that evening they were going to kill a mountain goat for a feast. I didn't partake in the festivities, but I can imagine it must have been an interesting experience. With only a few hours of daylight left, I set up my tent and ate some food. Other than that, I was way too tired to do anything else. After dinner, I made my way back onto the beach and watched the setting sun, although it was mostly overcast that evening, so unfortunately, I didn't get to experience the beautiful Kalalau sunset.
Kalalau Beach campsite
Fluted cliffs along Kalalau Beach
Kalalau Beach waterfall
That night, I was eaten alive by mosquitoes. I had bug repellent, but being the idiot that I am, I had bought an "all-natural" concoction made of citrus extract or some nonsense like that. When I went to the bathroom during the middle of the night and multiple mosquitoes got into my tent, they dined on my sweet blood for hours, and when I woke up the next morning, I counted over 70, yes 70, bites covering my legs, arms, and even my back! It was a massacre, and my legs looked like a swollen polka-dotted mess for the rest of the trip.
I couldn't worry too much about the bites though, since I had another 11 miles to tackle the very next morning. I woke up just after sunrise, and immediately dismantled my tent and got packed up for the journey back. At this point, I really wished I had an extra day to explore the beach and valley some more and to just rest my body. I was in pretty bad shape after underestimating the trail the day before, and I wasn't looking forward to the steep climbs, heat, and crawler's ledge section yet again.
Luckily, I met two other hikers from the previous day who were also heading back as well, and they invited me to join them, which I gladly accepted. Having some company definitely made the journey a little more fun, and took my mind off the grueling parts of the trail. Upon climbing out of Kalalau Valley, I noticed that the view from the red hill was even more spectacular in the morning. The colors of the cliffs were different from the day before, and it was stunning to see. In fact, during the hike back, I noticed that several views looked totally different simply because of the morning light.
Start of the return hike
Morning view of Kalalau Valley and Beach
Last picture before the downpour
In the midst of tackling the Crawler's Ledge again, the funniest thing happened. A Na Pali Coast tour boat pulled up right below us and started blasting the Indiana Jones theme song from a bullhorn, while the tourists on the boat yelled words of encouragement for us. In a funny way, I sort of came full circle from the last time I saw the Na Pali Coast, except this time, I was the insane hiker clinging to the edge of a sheer cliff.
The weather was absolutely beautiful early on, but soon after we completed the exposed cliff section, rain started coming down. I wasn't too happy about it, but I was also extremely thankful that we had finished the dangerous parts of the trail while it was still dry. I couldn't imagine hiking the cliffs with slippery rocks and sliding dirt.
What started out as a little drizzle soon turned into a torrential downpour. As anyone who's ever been to Kauai can attest to, tropical rains can start without warning, and when it comes, it really comes down hard. We slogged on as the trail turned into a muddy mess, but there was no way to go but forward. As terrible as the conditions were, I have to say hiking in a downpour on the Kalalau Trail has its benefits. For one, the heat became manageable as the rain actually felt somewhat refreshing and kept me alert. At certain points, it was coming down so hard it literally felt like I was standing beneath a shower head at full blast.
Despite the rain, we made good time, and I was pleasantly surprised when we had made it all the way back to Hanakapi'ai Beach and it was barely 2:00 pm. By then, my feet were swimming in my boots. When we came up on the last stream crossing, it looked a little dodgy, with the waters much higher than I remembered from the day before and moving much quicker. The protruding rocks were mostly covered with water already, so it made more sense just to wade directly into the stream with my boots on and hope for the best. The water came up past the bottom of my shorts, but luckily I was able to keep my balance and make it to the other side.
The last two miles were tough and extremely muddy, and I took a fairly nasty tumble while descending in the final mile. I think when I arrived at the trailhead, I must have looked like I had rolled around in the mud for hours, because people kept asking if I was alright. When I told them I had just hiked all the way back from Kalalau in the pouring rain, most of the concern turned into surprise as they immediately wanted to know how the journey was. "Amazing" was all I could keep saying.
I was tired and starving, but I showered off most of the dirt outside the public restroom and found my way to the car, which was still safely parked in the lot without any damage or break-ins, thankfully. The first thing I did was drive to the Hanalei Taro & Juice Company lunch wagon to get a kalua pork sandwich and a mango shake. Immediately after that, I drove to Duane's Ono Char Burger further down the road and got a Duane's special with onion rings and a Coke. I think I felt a little better afterwards.
Some final suggestions for those who intend to do the Kalalau Trail. Although I completed the hike in two days, I would highly recommend doing it in three or more. Even if you are very fit and can do the 11 miles in one day without straining yourself, spending an extra day exploring Kalalau Valley and enjoying the beach would be so much better than just leaving the very next morning. Of course, the longer you stay, the more food and cooking supplies you'll have to bring. I only carried in ready-to-eat meals, energy bars, fruit, and other snacks. Anything longer than two days, and hot meals would be essential.
As I mentioned earlier, make sure to bring a filter as well as iodine tablets so you don't have to haul in all your water. That will save a ton of weight and also prevent you from running out completely. I would also highly recommend bringing hiking sticks, but if you don't want to buy real ones, people often leave their more primitive wooden sticks behind at the trailhead for others to use. Just take one before you start the hike, and drop it off when you return.
Finally, take your time during the hike and pause every so often to soak in the views. Sometimes when I'm hiking, exhausted, and not making good time, I get tunnel vision and only focus on the trail directly ahead of me. Break out of the trance, find a spot to sit along the edge of a cliff, and breathe in the panorama in front of you. There is nothing else like it in the world.