Difficulty: INTERMEDIATE ADVANCED
Time: 2-4 DAYS
Distance: 22+ MILES
Elevation Gain: 5000 FEET
Foot Traffic: HIGH
Challenges: Stream Crossings, Narrow Ridges w/Steep Dropoffs, Possible Heavy Rains/Flash Floods, Uneven and slippery footing
What to Bring: Full Backpacking Gear
Sights: Napali Coast, Hanakoa Falls, Kalalau Beach
The Kalalau Trail truly is a bucket list hike. Lush green rainforest, colorful and prominent mountain ridges, and the sound of ocean surf will accompany as you make this 11 mile coastal journey through this magnificent landscape. The trek itself is not easy-- you will be required to cross rivers, contend with muddy conditions, and traverse narrow trails all while carrying a heavy pack on your back. But the destination is worth the risk. After all those miles, you will end at the beautiful and remote Kalalau Beach, a gorgeous beach with soft sand, a private waterfall and a majestic mountain backdrop. Now there's nothing left to do, but to enjoy sit back, look out into the vast Pacific, and watch the sun dip below the horizon.
The day had finally come! Having had the plan in the works for months, my friends Carly, Chris, and I were about to hop on a plane to head to the island of Kauai and embark on the world-famous Kalalau Trail. I had been wanting to hike the Napali Coast for some time, but had never had quite enough foresight to plan a trip and get a permit, which are often reserved several months in advance. Luckily, my friends Carly and Chris, who would be moving off the island in June, had this adventure on their Hawaii bucket list. They picked a random weekend in March to make the trek and extended an invite. I decided it was worth taking a Friday off work to be the third wheel for this adventure, so I happily accepted. Little did I know this journey would be one of my last big adventures for some time, because the world most of us had gotten used to, was about to completely change.
Day 1: Ke'e Beach to Kalalau Beach 11 MILES
Like many backpacking trips, the hardest initial challenge for the Kalalau Trail is logistics. How do you get to the trailhead? Rental car? Taxi? Hitchhike? The trail, which was closed for more than a year due to devastating damage from a rainstorm, now has new permit and parking policies to help manage trail traffic.
For day hikers, you now have to make reservations to visit the park, since Haena State Park limits the number to 900 per day. These reservations can be made at GoHaena.com, and you can make reservations up to 30 days in advance. Day hikers have the option to walk or bike to the park, pay for a shuttle from one of the nearby towns (Hanalei or Princeville), or drive a car in. Note for drive ins, there are a limited number of stalls.
For backpackers, you must obtain a permit for every day you will be on the trail. For transportation, you can utilize the same resources as day hikers--take one of the North Shore shuttles, obtain an overnight parking permit (limited spots), or "walk in" (AKA get someone to drop you off).
Our crew decided to do the millennial thing and take a Lyft. We had arrived the night before our hike and stayed the night in the town of Kapaa near the airport. We figured it didn't make much sense to get a rental car we wouldn't really use and with the shuttle service departing from either Hanalei and Princeville, our only options were to take some sort of taxi or ride share. After finding out a taxi would cost $120 to get to the trailhead compared to a ~$60 Lyft, we figured Lyft made the most sense. We used Lyft's prebook feature to set up a ride for 7am the next morning. It took awhile, but finally the ride was accepted. We could now rest easy, knowing we had a way to get to the trailhead.
Or so we thought. When we woke up in the morning to catch our ride, it appeared as though we no longer had one. And with zero Lyft drivers out that early and the few available Uber drivers congregating at the airport, we were worried we might be out of luck. After a wave of anxiety came over us (well mainly me and Carly) our ride reappeared on the app and soon our jovial driver, Kevin, driving his cream colored Jeep, arrived to take us up to the trailhead. Alright now we can put our worries behind us... for now.
The trek to the trailhead is about an hour from Kapaa, and 30ish minutes from the North Shore towns of Hanalei and Princeville. As we approached the trailhead, something caught my eye--the road was absolutely SOAKED. The area had clearly seen a recent heavy rain. The forecast for our 3 days on the trail showed a potential for rain, but nothing heavy. But anytime you are hiking in this part of the island, you just never know. As our car pulled up to the trailhead, I was silently praying to the rain gods to just hold off for a few days.
After waving goodbye to Kevin, we made our way to the trailhead. From the parking lot you follow a boardwalk and then a short trail before arriving at some bathrooms and an access to Ke'e Beach. To the left is the official start.
After a quick pit stop at the bathroom and few adjustments to the pack, it was hiking time!
The hike gets going right away. It begins on what feels like a"cobblestone road." Of course, this road is not actually a road, but a bunch of uneven rocks lining the trail. And, given how wet this area is, these rocks are almost always slick. But I suppose the perks of all that rain are this insane foliage. Just don't slip while you are taking it all in.
It doesn't take too long before you start seeing some of those beautiful coastal views that make this hike famous. Our destination, Kalalau Beach, is somewhere beyond those cliffs.
But we had quite a few obstacles to conquer before we could drop our packs and lounge on that beautiful beach. The most frequent of these obstacles are the stream crossings. Many of them are small, like this one.
But other crossings are a bit more challenging, the hardest of which is the Hanakapi'ai Stream, located 2 miles into the trail right before Hanakapi'ai Beach. Even during the driest times, you will be dealing with a near knee deep crossing. If it's raining heavily... then watch out. This is an area where flash flooding is a very real probability. If you are stuck on one side and the water turns brown and starts flowing more rapidly , DO NOT CROSS. Wait it out.
After surviving the crossing, you will arrive at Hanakapi'ai Beach. A small, partial rock, partial sand beach, with a few beach coves to explore. It is not a good spot to swim due to the harsh surf, but it is a perfect spot for a little snack.
This beach also marks the split between the backpackers and the day hikers. Most day hikers will either turn around at this beach, or hike an additional 2 miles inland to the beautiful Hanakapi'ai Falls. We ended up not making the trek to Hanakapi'ai Falls during our adventure, but I did write about it 3 years ago.
The only people that can continue past this point are those with a permit and yes, they do check. There was a ranger waiting on the opposite side of the river, checking permits for anyone who looked like they had backpacking gear. He even checked permits for a few hikers on their return trip. So if you were thinking about trying to sneak in without a permit, think again!
After the beach, the trail regains elevation as you travel up some switchbacks. After about an hour, we arrived at this fence, officially marking the entrance to the Na Pali Nature Reserve...
And it did feel like we had entered a new world of natural wonder. The views became more dramatic, with clearer views of those sharp ridges.
And those coastal views became more pronounced as well. From here, the trail begins to weave in and out of the valley, from higher coastal sections.
Back to lower forested sections. The zig zagging in and out of the valleys reminded me a lot of Waimanu Valley on the Big Island (an equally epic backpacking trip).
An hour or so after entering the reserve, we got a nice view of one of the hike's major landmarks, Hanakoa Falls. You could just make out the flow as it cascaded its way down to the valley floor. This sight was nice to see, because it felt like we were making progress. Near the base of the falls is the Hanakoa Campgrounds which is roughly the half way point of the hike.
Sadly that first sighting of Hanakoa was a bit deceptive as we still had some distance to go before reaching those campgrounds (about an hour). As we hiked, we began to hear what sounded like a crying baby coming from just above us on the ridge. As we looked up, we saw a goat giving us the stare down from the trees. I see shockingly little wildlife on Oahu, so I got excited by the goat sighting. We would eventually find out that goats are very prevalent along the trail, especially near Kalalau Beach.
And if wildlife isn't your thing, there's sure to be some plant life to catch your eye. I couldn't quite determine what these massive stalks were, but they were pretty mesmerizing. There really aren't many dull moments on this trail.
We reached the Hanakoa campsite around 1230 after about 4 total hours of hiking. With roughly half the hike to go, it looked like we wouldn't have a problem reaching Kalalau Beach before sunset. This campsite, Hanakoa, is the other official campground on the trail. It's basically two separate camping areas with lean-tos and pit toilets, separated by a river. Some groups will split up either the outbound or return trip (or both) and spend a night here. If I were to come back, I probably would opt for that option. It would allow for a slightly more leisurely experience.
But we were already committed to putting in the miles. The stream crossing at Hanakoa isn't terrible, but it is a bit larger than some of the baby ones we'd encountered. Some good footwork, like Carly is exhibiting, can help you from getting your boots to wet.
After the crossing, you will come across another sign. In addition to showing the distances to Kalalau, Hanakapi'ai, and Ke'e, the sign also points out the 0.5 mile side trail that will get you to the base of Hanakoa Falls. While I desperately wanted to take the side trip, we decided it was best to ensure we got to the beach before sunset. Maybe a solo expedition on the return trip?
Another 30 minutes after Hanakoa, we arrived at this beautiful cutout in the cliffside, with a clean view looking down towards the ocean. It also gave us a great preview of our next big obstacle.
Crawler's Ledge! This infamous section of trail gets its name because it might make you want to do just that-- crawl along it. It is a narrow and uneven pathway with a shear drop off to the ocean. The reality is if you happened to fall here, it is very unlikely you would survive since you would fall directly down to a powerful ocean surf crashing up against the rocks.
Case and point. After making our way down to the start of the ledge, we cautiously began our trek across.
My opinion? Your fear on this section will mainly depend on your tolerance for heights and your experience hiking terrain like this. This section pictured was one of the more narrow sections, but there was still a few feet of clearance. I'm sure if this trail is wet, it would increase the difficulty considerably. But compared to some of those ungraded Oahu ridges, this was quite tolerable.
But like I said, it really depends on your tolerance and experience. Even after Crawler's Ledge, there's still narrow sections of trail. You should continue to maintain your focus and care on all these sections.
As we continued to make progress, the views of that epic coastline started getting clearer and clearer. I was getting the sense we were getting close to our destination.
Hello good Sir, how far to the beach?
Around hour 7, we came across this nice little hill that jutted out into the ocean. While we were getting tired and wanted to get to the campsite, we decided maybe we will just take a quick peek to see what it looks like up there.
And we were rewarded with some epic views of the Kalalau Valley. These sharp spire-like ridges resemble those of a church, which is why this part of the coast is often called the Kalalau Cathedral. Simply stunning.
The views looking the other direction weren't too shabby either.
Feeling rejuvenated, it was time for the final push to the beach.
The final push was just that, a push, especially down this section, know as Red Hill, a steep dirt section of trail that brings you back down to sea level. After nearly 10 miles of hiking, this descent was pretty brutal on the knees.
After Red Hill, we had one final river crossing.
And then one final shoreline walk.
Aloha Kalalau Beach! That first glimpse at the beach was invigorating (and not just because I had finally taken my pack off). We took a quick peak at the beach before figuring out where to set up camp for the night. The vast majority of campers will post up right behind the beach.
We decided to pick a spot a few minutes before the beach. It gave us a bit more privacy and was closer to the first set of pit toilets (always a bonus). After setting up camp and eating dinner, we decided to wander back to the beach for sunset.
The sunset was beautiful. The sound of the ocean waves crashing against the sand as the soft light illuminated that picturesque beach really felt like a moment out of National Geographic. It made all the chaos and uncertainty that was slowly beginning to creep into every day life fade into the back of your mind.
We lingered for a bit after the sun dipped below the horizon. But our tired bodies told us we should get some rest and we made our way back to our tents. The sound of the surf quickly lulled us to sleep.
Day 2: The Valley Trail and Droning
I woke up around sunrise to take a short stroll on the beach before breakfast. I was curious how the beach would look in that morning light.
The sun was rising behind the mountains, so much of the beach backdrop was not lit up yet. It gave me the opportunity to just admire the shadowed landscape. Those jagged and colorful ridges really looked like a work of art. This picture was taken near the end of the beach, to include the Kalalau waterfall. Seriously, there is a private waterfall on this beach. That's how unreal this place is.
After a lazy breakfast and some coffee, we wandered around the beach a bit more. If you follow the beach to its end, you will come across this cool little cove. I made a mental note to come back here to do a little reading after today's adventure.
Speaking of today's adventure, our plan was to hike to the end of the Valley Trail where there was supposed to be a waterfall and swimming hole. I actually got the vibe from my pre-hike research, that not many people do this side trail. There was so little information, I wasn't even totally positive where it led. Guess we will find out soon enough...
The trail begins with a short uphill to an opening in the trees.
Before it descends back down into the forest. Being this deep in a valley, the trail was surprisingly well marked and as far as I could see, it was pretty easy to follow. Unreal Hawaii mentioned losing the official Valley Trail (you are supposed to take a right shortly after the first stream crossing), but ended up finding a different waterfall and swimming hole. So it sounds like there are alternate adventures in the valley. I guess the moral of the story is, just make sure you know how to get back!
Something that really stood out during this hike were the moss covered, deliberately stacked rocks lining the path. It was evident we were hiking through a piece of Hawaiian History. This valley used to be home to thousands of natives who subsisted off the valley's natural food sources, including tarot root (used in making poi). These rocks were likely a structure used in agriculture.
The trail, while relatively straightforward, wasn't a total breeze. There were still a few river crossings to contend with. Extra care was necessary to avoid getting our boots wet. We still had that 11 mile hike back tomorrow...
After about an hour we arrived at what felt like the end of the Valley Trail. The end was marked by a pleasant little multi-tiered waterfall and swimming hole. My follow up research revealed that this area is known as Big Pools.
What may have been even more impressive about this spot, was the view. Looking towards the ocean, those sharp mountain ridges created a perfect backdrop for this natural pool.
We took full advantage of our time here, sunbathing on the rocks.
And of course going for a swim in the frigid water. This is Chris's attempt to use the flimsy rope to make a swinging entry. I would say I've seen better, but my attempt was even worse, so I have no room to talk.
After the sun dried us off, we made the trek back to the campgrounds. We decided to lounge on the beach for the rest of the afternoon. As the sun started to get lower in the sky, we began getting ready for dinner, deciding a sunset meal would be a great way to close out the day. But before I was ready for that, I had one more thing I wanted to do.
A little drone flight! During our valley hike, Carly and Chris had discovered a small ridge that shot off the valley trail with an excellent vantage point of the valley. I figured it would be a perfect launch point for the old drone.
And boy was it! I flew around trying to capture the valley from different angles. Those colorful peaks and ridges were very vibrant in that late afternoon light.
An eagle eye view of the beach itself.
And the money shot of Kalalau Beach. Seriously unreal. This little slice of of land is a magical paradise.
After landing my drone, I made my way back to campsite, cooked some dinner, and joined Carly and Chris on the beach to watch another sunset.
I thought the second sunset couldn't be any better than the first night, but I was surprised yet again. Another perfect ending to a perfect day on the Napali Coast.
Day 3: The Return Trip and Hanakoa Falls
On the final day, we woke up before 7 to get an early start on our return trip. The night before, we had heard from a few fellow hikers that rangers were warning backpackers about a possible rain storm heading to the valley. We didn't want to get caught being unable to cross the Hanakapi'ai Stream and get stuck on the trail. While Carly and Chris were sticking around Kaua'i for a few days after the hike and could afford the delay, I had a flight back to Oahu that evening. I was supposed to go to work the next day. Imagine not showing up to work and having no way of letting my boss no where I was...
And so the 11 mile return journey begins.
While we no doubt had more pep in our step on the way back (it took us around 6.5 hours on the return trip vice the 8 hour outbound trek), we still made the time to take in some of those coastal views one more time.
Another successful trek along Crawler's Ledge.
Soon, we left those last glimpses of Kalalau Valley behind us.
About 2 and a half hours in, we had already reached the Hanakoa Valley Campground. It was a quarter after 10 and the weather was still looking pretty good. Do we take the side trip?
While Carly and Chris opted out, I decided to make the solo expedition and meet back up with them at Hanakapi'ai Beach. Not knowing if I would ever return to this valley, I didn't want to miss out on the opportunity to experience these falls. Besides, a new brewery had just opened on Oahu called Hanakoa, so I had to see what all the hype was about! I dropped my pack and ventured deeper into the valley. The trail was very easy to follow, littered with orange ribbons. The trail wasn't a total breeze, however. It was muddy, had uneven footing, and even some narrow sections with dropoffs.
But luckily, 0.5 miles isn't too far to go. I caught my first glimpse of the falls through the trees and knew I had made the right decision.
A beautiful 400+ foot fall spilling into an emerald colored pool. Just the sight of it made me feel refreshed.
I wandered around the falls, grabbing a few shots from different angles.
After the group of women left, I had the falls completely to myself. I just sat there and looked up at its majestic flow, trying to make that moment of solitude in natural last for as long as I could. This moment was my mental bookend to this journey.
Because as soon as I got back to civilization, everything would change. The next day, the United States would begin locking down the entire country to minimize the spread of COVID-19, which was now a global pandemic . A totally different lifestyle would emerge, with a new type of solitude required by everyone. Lives would be lost, jobs would disappear, and new conflicts would arise as the virus ravaged the entire planet. And like everyone else around the globe, I would be struggling to make sense of the uncertainty of what our future may look like.
So as I write this now, still in a state of uncertainty, I look back to this adventure for a bit of solace. It was as if the stars somehow perfectly aligned for those three days, allowing Chris, Carly, and I to enjoy one of the most magical places on Earth, before life as we knew it was totally upended. And I hope, as the world starts to rebuild and (hopefully) grow from this crisis, I will be able to journey to natural wonders like this yet again.
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Also Check Out:
- This post about the Kalalau Trail
- Go Haena which has info about shuttle and permit reservations