Do you have a “bucket list” hike? How about one of the most dangerous hikes in the Country. Well, it’s in Hawaii and it’s called the Kalalau Trail and here is how I hiked it.
The Kalalau Trail is an 11-mile trail that traverses through five valleys before dropping down into a protected secluded and utterly remote white sands beach on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. Nestled within the most remote portion of the Island and backed by impassable jagged jungle cliffs, there is only one way on foot to access this remoteness. The trail is rarely level as elevation is continuously rolling through lush valleys full of edible fruits plucked directly from the trees, swelled streams and narrow cliff edges. Incomparable natural beauty is around every bend, before finally dropping you off on a this coveted slice of remoteness. Where waterfalls empty into the incoming crashing waves, mountain goats precariously graze hundreds of feet above your camp and the views of this narrow stretch of land are indescribable.
The reward of all this though comes at a price of risk. It’s on the list of the “10 Most Dangerous Hikes in America“, and here’s why. From the moment you start the hike, you are rewarded in awe at the beauty of what lies ahead, standing along the edge of the coastline at Pali Lookout. The trail ahead immediately begins skirting the edge a bit closer each time and continues to hold the surprise of a handful of dangerous and harrowing sections the further in you go. It weaves in and out from skirting precariously along exposed narrow cliff side ledges along the Napali Coast overlooking the aggressive ocean break hundreds of feet below. That is if you make it past the notoriously swift stream crossing just two miles in at Hanakapı‘ai. The trail is rarely level as elevation is continuously rolling through lush valleys full of edible fruits, across swelled streams and curving around yet another bend in the trail to reward you with more epic coastline views teetering high above the safety zone. Easy enough you’d think…though there are other factors dished out by Mother Nature herself to consider. More about that in a moment.
So why risk your life for a hike?! Well, the breathtaking unfathomable beauty is unapparelled to anything quite like it. Though I think it’s important to note here that if you are properly prepared for the risks, have some intelligence in risk vs reward and just take it slow there is very little real risk involved. Let’s get you up to speed on the basics of what you need to know to properly plan and maintain safety in route.
The route to get to Kalalau Valley and it’s notorious secluded beach requires an 11-mile one way route along the Na Pali Coastline on the North Shore of the island Kauai. This route can be broken into two days, however experienced backpackers can achieve the full 11-miles in one day. Consider camping at the mid-may point at Hanakoa if you are not an experienced backpacker in this type of terrain, fatigue easily or have a general fear of heights or exposure. Do no underestimate your abilities on this hike. The trail is considered strenuous. With very little flat terrain, you will be crossing several potentially strong current streams, traversing steep rooted inclines, and needing to manage hiking along exposed narrow cliff side. The most challenging and narrow sections of this trail are after the mid-may point and require careful attention, therefore be honest with yourself and consider camping overnight at Hanakoa if you have any doubt. An immense benefit to hiking the trail over the course of two-days versus just the one, is it will allow you sufficient time for side exploration to two epic falls in route. Allowing you to truly participate in the grand scope of this terrain’s breathtaking but challenging inner valleys.
Here is an overview of each distinct section to assist in planning your route..’cause we already know you’re going!
Ke‘e to Hanakapı‘ai – (2 miles) – the start of the trail to the boarder of the backcountry route
This two mile section to Hanakapi’ai Beach is bustling with day-hikers, though thins out as a permit is required past this section into the remote wilderness. While the water and natural rest at this beach are utterly enticing, DO NOT swim here as the riptides and currents are strongest and have taken the most lives of anywhere in route. If you are planning to camp at the half-way point in route, I would suggest you lengthen your journey this day and take the 1.8mile trail located here into the valley to explore a spectacular 300-ft waterfall. You can swim in this pool in good weather conditions. Do not attempt this side hike into the valley after heavy rains, as the trail leading up requires several creek crossings that can be torrent after heavy rains and too dangerous to successfully cross.
Hanakapı‘ai to Hanakoa (4 miles) – start to the remote backcountry wilderness permit required to camp at mid-way point
The trail here becomes a bit more strenuous as it climbs 800ft out from Hanakapi’ai to the highest point on the entire route. Here you cross over from hiking within the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, heading into the more remote Hono O within the Na Pali Natural Area Reserve. As you begin hiking into thicker vegetation, the trail begins going inward into the valley rather than hugging the coast for a large portion of this section. At mile 6 you have reached the half-way point at Hanakoa, where you will camp if breaking your trip into two-days. If opting to camp here, there is a worthy side trail just past the stream to a 500-ft Hanakoa Falls. Do not underestimate any of the side trails leading to falls along the Kalalau Trail, as they can be treacherous and muddy making for slow or challenging hiking.
All permits are issued for the campsites end of the trail at Kalalau only although your permit includes either campsite per your choice, therefore the decision to camp at Hanakoa can be made in the moment if needing to reassess your abilities at this point.
Hanakoa to Kalalau (5 miles) – from the halfway point to the end of the trail at Kalalau Beach
The best is saved for last, as this 5mile section is by far the most visually impactful! Though this is also where the trail begins it’s notorious route along steep drop-offs on the seaward side and of course Crawler’s Ledge. While you are done with stream crossings until nearing the beach, the terrain from here requires additional caution with footing and your full attention. This may be the most challenging section for those with concern for exposure and heights, although these sections are brief. Hiking poles assist in helping you feel more stable and having good traction on your feet will support you feeling a bit more grounded in these sections as you move through them. As you pass cautiously along these sections, you’re hiking once more in the State Wilderness Park boundaries before being rewarded with the stunning views of the jagged jungle-esque cliffs that indicate you are nearing the end. This is your welcome back down to sea level and the remote beach access of Kalalau. Camping is permitted above the beach’s ledge, signs will point you in the right direction.
Are you hooked yet?! Well, of course you are! Though there are a few specific details in planning that you need to be made aware of before you book that next flight out!
WHEN TO GO
Hiking along the Napali Coast is an amazing experience any time of year though consistent weather and temperatures are more ideal in the summer months May through October, with June through August being the most populated with competitive permit requests. Kauai, Hawaii’s oldest island, is amongst the wettest place on earth. Receiving the majority of their moisture November through March, therefore hiking the Kalalau Trail during these winter months typically brings significantly more rainfall, and therefore potentially more hazardous conditions that may make the trail impassable due to treacherous stream crossings and slick muddy terrain along the coast. Make note that if going in the winter months, there may be potential closures to the trail. Be respectful of these closures and DO NOT GO – there is a reason this trail is named in the top 10 most dangerous hikes in America and not worth your life. The trail closures are typically due swelled stream crossings or flash floods, landslides or too slick of conditions on the cliff-side ledges. Head the warning, and wait it out.
Planned or last-minute closures of the Kalalau Trail are posted here
http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/hiking/kauai/kalalau-trail/ often updated around 7:30a day of if due to weather. Always watch the weather and resource the locals and local outfitters if needing assurance of if you should delay your trip.
HOW TO SNAG A POPULAR PERMIT
If you are planning to hike the entire length of the trail you will be required to get a permit in order to pass the boundary past Hanakāpīʻai Valley, approximately 2 miles in. A permit is required whether or not you plan to camp or just day hike beyond this point. Permits are now $35 per day, per person for non-residence and can be accessed here https://camping.ehawaii.gov/camping/all,details,1692.html
Your permit will allow access to camp at either Kalalau or at Hanakoa with a maximum length of 5 consecutive nights along the Kalalau Trail.
Important to note. In 2019, changes were made to the park’s permit system to include blocked time reservations needed to day hike the trail. Reservations are specific to day hikers only, heading in and out from Hanakapi’ai. Do not confuse this, as Reservations and Permits are different. Permits are for backpackers and those day hikers going beyond this point (needed to access the rest of the 11-mile trail to beach access).
The recent pandemic has caused changes to the permit system. This is expected to change at any time, opening it up for earlier dates to snag a permit. Please check current details on how far in advance they are issuing permits.
GETTING TO THE TRAILHEAD + PARKING
Existing Covid-19 restrictions as well as road hazard changes to their permit system are currently in effect, as of April 2021. Please resource the State Park’s website here https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/hiking/kauai/kalalau-trail/ for the most current information and existing road hazards. This can directly impact your access to the trail head, as there is only one way in to the edge of Kauai.
The Kalalau trailhead is located in Hā‘ena State Park, at the dead-end of Hwy 56 – the Kūhiō Highway.
As of 2019, entrance into Hāʻena State Park is now required through a reservation system. Your printed backpacking permit along the Kalalau Trail will serve as your entry into the park.
Limited overnight parking in the park’s boundaries is now available for those with overnight permits for the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park. Parking is extremely limited however due to the overall popularity of this hike, therefore we advise you reserve this immediately following being issued your permits, if you are planning to park here overnight. Otherwise you can opt to book with a local shuttle service or taxi, both which are more costly. Public transportation is unreliable and therefore not ideal to be used.
The local Camp Naue YMCA (a few miles up the road) may offer parking, though with regulation becoming stricter in years past I understand that it is not a reliable source anymore. It is still worth a try in my opinion, if cost is of concern. If allowed to park here, you will need to walk an additional 2miles along the main road towards the park entrance.
Always plan to arrive as early as possible, as this trail can become crowded and slower with day hikers. If planning to do the full 11miles to Kalalau, you will NEED to leave early in the morning to make it before nightfall. DO NOT attempt to hike this trail in the dark.
Clearly you’re flying into the Island…unless you’re a local of course. But then it’s not likely you are reading this post to learn about a local trail.
Since you’re flying, you’ll need fuel for your stove if you plan to cook. Kayak Kauai in Kapa’a or Pedal N’ Paddle in Hanalei offer Isobutane fuel. Island Ace Hardware in Princeville is another option. Kayak Kauai also offer lockers to store other belongings and are an incredible local resource to rely on for all things Kalalau.
BE WEATHER AWARE + UNDERSTAND THE RISKS BEFORE YOU GO!
We’ve already said it twice…third times a charm? It is good reason this hike is listed as the 10 Most Dangerous Hikes in America. This trail has taken many lives of the unprepared, though is not to be feared if you understand the inherent risks and how to properly manage common sense in route.
Hanakapı‘ai Beach is particularly risky to wade or swim in as the zip tides and current here is the strongest in route and likely to carry you off to with no return to safe terrain. There is limited safe beach surrounded by miles here, in either direction of jagged cliffside. The stream crossing here is the most feared and treacherous in the rainy season, as flash floods are common here and carry you directly into this beach and out to even stronger currents of open water. Therefore, DO NOT attempt this seemingly non-threatening first river crossing if unsure of the conditions. While all streams and beaches along this route offer inherit risks during and after periods of rain. Know how to forge a stream and signs of when not to cross.
Crawler’s Ledge is a notorious and extremely photo worthy spot along the route, known for it’s risky section of rocky terrain along a brief but exposed cliff’s edge aggressively plummeting into the aggressive crashing of the surf below. Perhaps it gives you caution or a sense of feeling unnerved just looking at the photos on social media and the grand scale of the trail passing along this narrow ledge I personally did not find it to be unnerving, though everyone reacts differently to this portion of the trail when getting to it. This section is after Hanokoa, therefore consider if you have enough steam and mental fortitude to keep going past the first campsite. These next few miles require focus and stamina and not to be taken lightly.
In most cases, if the trail closes on the day you have a permit to leave it will likely reopen before your permit expires (up to 5day overnight use limit). Please do not attempt this trail if a closure has been posted. There is a reason this trail is named in the top 5 dangerous hikes in America and not worth your life.
If unable to hike the Kalalau due to less than favorable weather, consider taking the time to hike the Alaka’i Swamp Trail instead. This trail offers incredible and breathtaking views of the Na Pali Valley and Coastline. The scenery along this trail varies drastically within just 2miles in, from open valleys to rainforests and boardwalks. Alaka’i Swamp is the world’s highest rainstorm and swampland, getting it’s abundant precipitation from the nearby Wai’ale’ale’s slopes. It can get quite muddy, be prepared. Though it’s a safe adventure compared to the Kalalau Trail, where you get similar views and rewards of the Valley below.