The Kalalau Trail is one of the most sought after hikes in all of Hawaii and even across the globe. As you trek for 22 miles along a muddy forest trail, wade through streams, scale cliffs, and get up close and personal with the local bugs and goats, you’ll be rewarded by some of the most incredible views you have ever seen. It is by no means an easy hike, but it is worth every single step! Keep reading for everything you need to know about hiking the Kalalau Trail.
The Kalalau Trail is a 35.4 kilometer (22 mile) long out and back trail located along the North Shore of Kauai. This stunning area is otherwise known as the Na Pali Coast, famous for being one of the most beautiful shorelines in the entire world. Picture this: clear blue waves rolling into white sand beaches surrounded by dramatic cliffs. Lush, green ridges up to 4,000 feet high sprinkled with powerful waterfalls and scenic rivers. All in a protected area with no infrastructure, no roads, and barely any people. This place is paradise!
The Hawaiian Government along with the local community have worked very hard to protect this 17 mile stretch along Kauai’s North Shore. The ecosystem is fragile and it’s important to respect the land as well as the wildlife living in the area. Fun fact: Dozens of movies have been shot along this coast including Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean!
In total, the elevation gain is 1,883 meters(seriously!) but it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds when spread out over 3-4 days. The trail is broken down into 3 distinct sections:
The first section of the trail runs between Ha’ena State Park and Hanakapi’ai Beach. This section of the trail is 2.1 miles(3.4 kilometers) long, has an elevation gain of 345 meters, and is VERY well-traveled. Many people hike this section daily as it is the ONLY section that doesn’t require a permit and also ends at a beautiful little beach. Just before the beach, you will have to cross Hanakap’ai Stream which may require removing your boots depending on how high the water level is.
As you begin the next section of the trail from Hanakapi’ai Beach to Hanakoa Campground (Halfway Campground) you’ll notice that the trail thins out and becomes much more overgrown. This section of the trail is 3.9 miles(6.3 kilometers) long and offers incredible views of the coast as you crest each ridge along the way.
The third section of the hike is the final 5 mile(8 kilometres) stretch from Hanakoa Campground to Kalalau Beach Campground. Shortly after leaving Hanakoa Campground, you will reach the infamous Crawler’s Ledge. This portion of the hike is only about 100 meters in total but is known for being the hardest and most dangerous part of the Kalalau Trail.
After passing Crawler’s Ledge and before reaching the Red Dirt Hill, there is a section of muddy trail that shows evidence of landslides in the past. Mesh netting has been laid out to help reestablish the plant life as well as hold the bank. We found this slippery section to be just as dangerous as Crawlers Ledge and during a hard rainstorm would become VERY scary and unsafe. After Red Dirt Hill you’ll pass through some thick bushes before popping out onto Kalalau Beach.
Crawlers Ledge is the most dangerous section along the Kalalau Trail, located just past the 11 kilometre(7 mile) mark. The ledge narrows to only 1-2 feet in some places with a vertical rock wall to your left and a steep drop down the raging ocean to your right. This section is what scares many hikers off, but we found that it wasn’t as bad as it’s worked up to be.
If you’ve completed other hikes in Hawaii, like the Haiku Stairs (Stairway to Heaven), Kuliouiou Ridge, or the Pali Notches, then you’ve already experienced how steep the terrain can become. Compared to these hikes, Crawler’s ledge is nothing to be scared of.
With that being said, of course you need to be careful! Purposefully take your steps, plant your poles with care, and do not attempt it in the dark or it is raining. If you are an experienced hiker and you take your time and all the necessary precautions, you shouldn`t have an issue.
The best time to hike the Kalalau Trail is during the summer months from June to September. Trail closures are common during the Winter due to rainstorms that cause flash flooding. You’ll want to start planning your trip months in advance as permits sell out quickly!
How many days do you need to hike the Kalalau Trail?
If you’re planning to do this trail in a single day… I admire you! We couldn’t have done it. But that’s not to say it can’t be done. Start early, because it’s going to be a long day! Trail runners and advanced hikers are typically able to complete this trail in around 10-14 hours. I wouldn’t recommend this method as weather hits quickly, views are very distracting, and Kauai has many safer trail running opportunities.
Two days is also relatively quick but if you don’t enjoy camping, are a strong hiker, and have a tightly packed itinerary then this can be an option. Be prepared for a hard couple of days and remember to pack plenty of water! It’s important to note that if you are planning this hike for the off-season, it’s a good idea to give yourself an extra day or two just in case the trail is closed for a portion of your scheduled dates. Because this trail sells out months in advance, you cannot adjust your booking by a few days here or there.
Three days is a more practical amount of time but will still leave you with one long day of hiking depending on where you camp. If you’re a strong hiker I would plan on hiking all the way into Kalalau Beach the first day so you can spend the middle day relaxing and enjoying the beach before hiking out the last day.
If you are an average-paced hiker and really enjoy the outdoors then 4 days would be our most recommended duration! This way you can limit your daily hiking distance to 5.5 miles (9 kilometers) by staying at the halfway campsite on the 1st and 3rd night. You’ll also have plenty of time to soak up the waterfalls, beaches, and incredible views along the way.
5 or 6 days is perfect for anyone planning to take their time and spend several nights relaxing at Kalalau Beach! Booking this many days may be a smart idea during the winter months to guarantee yourself at least a few days on the trail. 5 nights is the maximum amount of consecutive time you are allowed to spend on the Kalalau Trail.
Hundreds of people have been airlifted out of this trail. Although many of these rescues were due to flash flooding, some people have suffered serious injures or even death on the Kalalau Trail. The surf and riptides are incredibly dangerous and swimming is NOT recommended!
The streams along the Kalalau Trail contain water that you can use for drinking once purified. There are several methods for purifying the water including filtering, steripen, or iodine/chlorine tablets. We would highly recommend using some form of iodine as it kills leptospirosis which is known to be present in some areas along the Na Pali Coast.
The most common form of wildlife you’ll see along the Na Pali Coast is wild goats. They travel in small groups of 5-15 and don’t tend to be phased by the frequent stream of hikers. Wild hogs are also in the area and while seeing one can be common, they are shy and tend to scurry away quickly. Dogs are allowed on the trail, however, be aware that traps are set out for the pigs so keep a close eye on your pup!
Waterfalls & Side Hikes
Hanakap’ai Falls Trail is a popular day hike that will take you up to a beautiful, lush waterfall. This 8 mile(12.9 kilometer) out and back trail has an elevation gain of 699 meters and is rated difficult. Once you reach Hanakapi’ai Beach, there are signed leading you up the valley to the falls. If you’re planning to stop in on your way to Kalalau Beach it will add an additional 3.4 miles(5.4 kilometers) to your hike. You do NOT need a permit to reach these falls. Permits are only required after passing the Hanakapi’ai Valley.
Hanakoa Falls are located near the Hanakoa Campground and make for a short but beautiful evening hike. If you’re spending a night here I would highly recommend the detour! The falls are only 0.5 miles (0.9 kilometers) from the campground and approximately 150 meters of elevation. The waterfall is massive and can only be completely seen by helicopter.
Before reaching Kalalau Beach you’ll pass the turnoff to the End of Valley Trail which follows the Kalalau Stream up the valley for about 1.7 miles(2.8 kilometers). The trail isn’t frequently traveled but if you’re staying at Kalalau Beach for a few extra nights then this would make for a great afternoon hike. Chances are you’ll have some beautiful views of the many waterfalls pouring down into the valley!
All hikers that are planning to camp along the Kalalau Trail require a permit. Permits are around $20 USD per day for non-residents and can be purchased online through the government’s website. Make sure to print it off and put it in a waterproof bag so you can carry it with you on the trail. Officers regularly check permits along the trail so you don’t want to be caught without one. Once you pass Hanakapi’ai Beach you MUST have a permit.
There are three options for parking. The first is parking at Ha’ena Park. This can be difficult due to the popularity of the park and the spots fill up quickly. The second is parking at Waipa Park and Go. The third is parking at either the Princeville Golf Course or Hanalei Colony Resort for a fee. Just ask guest services if parking is available and they will be able to provide assistance. Reservations can be made online at the Ha’ena State Park Wesbite.
The Kauai North Shore Shuttle is another good option if you would don’t have a vehicle or have somewhere else on the island you can leave your vehicle. There are two shuttles that operate daily from 7 am – 5 pm. One shuttle starts its route at the Princeville Golf Course and the other starts at Waipa near Hanalei. Reservations must be made online if you plan on taking this shuttle.
Taking an Uber, Lift, or Taxi will definitely be your most expensive option. They are more common in Lihue and it’s actually challenging to find one up around North Shore.
Hitchhiking is an option if you’re looking to save a few bucks and it’s more common than you’d think! Since Ha’ena Park is at the end of the road and Hanalei is the nearest town(about 15 min away), people know exactly where you’re going and why. If you feel comfortable throwing your thumb up then by all means, give it a shot!
There are two campgrounds that you’re allowed to camp at along the Kalalau Trail. The first is Hanakoa Campground, otherwise known as Halfway Campground or 6 Mile Campground. This Campground is along the Hanakoa Stream, at the base of a valley. Unlike the Kalalau Campground, it doesn’t have much of a view, but the forest is luscious and provides protection from the strong North winds.
The other campground is right at Kalalau Beach which is much nicer! Campsites are spread out along the beach but are still sheltered by trees. The beach is stunning and there’s even a small waterfall at the far end where you can shower off.
Food & Water
Since fires are not permitted on the Kalalau Trail, a backpacking stove such as a Jetboil is the most preferred cooking method. Freeze-dried meals, protein bars, oatmeal, bagged salad, and dried fruit are our recommendations for curbing your appetite in the backcountry. Our freeze-dried food was purchased at Uloha in Honolulu and our fuel canister at Ace Hardware in Lihue. We couldn’t find a store that sold freezer dried meals in Kauai but if you know of one, let us know in the comment below! Hydration tablets or electrolytes are an excellent idea and as always, make sure to pack out everything you pack in.
Bathrooms & Shelters
Both the Hanakoa Campground and the Kalalau Beach Campground have composting toilets and shelters. The shelters are very useful during rainstorms which happen often along the trail. Bathrooms are simple and although they do have toilet paper, it’s a good idea to bring your own just in case.