a top-rated adventure through tropical paradise on Kauai’s north shore – the Napali Coast
Kalalau Trail Guide – Quick Facts
MAP: Trails Illustrated
PERMITS: Prior arrangements are required for all hikes on the Kalalau Trail, including day hikes and camping. The permit system can initially be confusing, so I’ll walk you through it in the permits section.
DESIGNATION: Ha’ena State Park and Napali Coast State Wilderness Park
BEST SEASONS: summer – winter and spring can be rainy
LENGTH: 11 miles one-way to trail’s end (Kalalau Beach)
WATER: streams are frequent but water must be treated
ELEVATION: trailhead 20ft above sea level – trail climbs to almost 800ft
ACCESS: paved roads – the trailhead address and parking is located at Ha’ena State Park
DRIVING: Day hikers with prior reservations may park at the trailhead. No overnight parking is allowed, so backpackers must ride a shuttle or make other arrangements.
ROUTE: includes treacherous cliffs and fording potentially impassable streams – heed the safety warnings.
GUIDEBOOK: Ultimate Kauai Guidebook
Table of Contents – Quick Links
There’s a lot of details in this guide, so here’s an index with quick links that jump down the page:
The Trail is Now Open – It was Closed for a Year
After flooding in April of 2018, the state of Hawaii closed the Kalalau Trail for 14 months. The flooding caused major damage to the park’s infrastructure and trailhead access.
At least 25 hikers were stranded on the trail during the event, choosing to be airlifted out by helicopter. An effort by the Army, National Guard and Kauai County evacuated over 125 total people from the north shores of Kauai.
It was a good example of one of the benefits of having a permit system, as park officials were able to reach to permit holders via email to verify their safety.
The increased impact of outdoor visitation (which is rampant around the globe) was causing trouble for park managers too, so they took the opportunity after the flood to close things down, let the land recover, and create a new management strategy.
Now there’s a new parking lot, with new parking and permit systems.
The trail re-opened on June 17, 2019.
Backpacking Itineraries, Day Hiking, and Trail Description with mileages
There’s a number of different ways to hike the Kalalau Trail, all lasting for different durations. Generally more time is better, but we’re not all so fortunate to have unlimited days to burn in Hawaii.
Different lengths require different permits, which are explained in the Permit System and Parking Access section.
Backpacking and Camping
How many days is best?
The first thing to know when planning the duration of your backpacking trip is that a round-trip to the end of the trail at Kalalau Beach is 22 miles.
Potential side hikes to Hankoa Falls (0.4 miles) and Hanakapi’ai Falls (1.6 miles) would add 4 miles total round trip, bringing you up to 26 miles. Addtional explorations up the End of Valley Trail (1.9 miles) can make your total hike as long as 30 miles.
The second thing to know when planning the duration of your backpacking trip is that camping is only allowed at two locations along the trail. These are:
Hanakoa Valley Campsites – 6 miles from the trailhead
Hanakoa has a flowing stream, two rain shelters, and a composting toilet.
The Hanakoa Falls are accessible from here via a 0.4 mile (one-way) eroded use-trail up the east fork of the canyon.
Kalalau (end of trail) Campsites – 11 miles from the trailhead
Kalalau has a flowing stream and a composting toilet. This is the main destination of the trail with a beach, waterfall, and archaeology found up the End of Valley Trail.
Camping along the Kalalau Trail is otherwise prohibited.
Backpacking Itineraries & Average Time
Overnight permits are issued for a maximum of 5 nights, so the most ideal itinerary reads as follows:
- Night 1 – Hanakoa Valley
- Night 2 – Kalalau
- Night 3 – Kalalau
- Night 4 – Kalalau
- Night 5 – Hanakao Valley
- Day 6 – Out
I recommend a minimum of 4 days and 3 nights when planning your backpacking trip. A four-day itinerary would look like this:
- Night 1 – Hanakoa Valley
- Night 2 – Kalalau
- Night 3 – Hanakoa Valley
- Day 4 – Out
In the above itinerary, you have the potential to spend the 3rd night at Kalalau – once you’re out there, your new familiarity of the trail may give you the confidence to hike out in a single day. Permits are not issued based on camping locations, so you have the freedom each night to choose at which site you’d like to stay.
As you can see, I recommend starting with 3 nights at Kalalau and reducing these as necessary, while leaving the planned camps at Hanakoa in place.
Strong backpackers can certainly knock out the 11 miles to Kalalau in a day… but regardless of your ability, the Nepali Coast is not the place to be “knocking out” miles!
Remember, you’re in Hawaii!
Day Hiking & Trail Overview – mileages
All day-hikes require a reservation or permit. See how the system works in the permit section.
You don’t need to carry a lot of gear and spend multiple nights out there to experience the Napali Coast’s beaches and waterfalls – much of the Kalalau Trail’s beauty can be experienced in single day.
Depending on your time constraints and physical ability, here’s the two simplest ways to see the trail:
First 2 Miles – Ha’ena State Park to Hanakapi’ai Beach
This 4-mile round trip offers a wonderful beach as your destination, and a way to hike the Kalalau Trail with minimal effort.
The first half-mile of the trail climbs about 500 feet above elevation. After this, it levels out (relatively) with several, rolling hundred-foot uphills and downhills. As you approach the 2-mile mark, the path will begin descending to Hanakapi’ai Stream. A composting toilet is located on the far side of the stream.
Hanakapi’ai Beach is only accessible during the summer months – primarily from May through September. This is because heavier surf in the winter tends to pull the sand out from the shore. Note that swimming in the ocean here is strongly discouraged. Most deaths along the Kalalau Trail occur as a result of drowning (rather than from falls).
First 4 Miles – continuing to Hanakapi’ai Falls
This is the longest day-hike that’s allowed with a day-use parking reservation – you’ll need a full permit to continue beyond Hanakapi’ai.
The 8-mile round-trip brings you to the spectacular Hanakapi’ai Waterfall. Its tall cascade with a picturesque, round pool is a quintessential vision seen in our imaginations when we dream of Hawaii.
There seems to be misconception that the hike to the falls stretches along the first 4 miles of the Kalalau Trail. You’ll actually hike just the first 2 miles of the trail (to Hanakapi’ai Beach) and then turn up the valley along the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail for two miles, up the spur trail to reach the waterfall. Check out the first section’s map (below) to see how this plays out.
WARNING: Many deaths on the Kalalau Trail occur as a result of hikers losing their footing and drowning when attempting to cross the streams – particularly the one here at Hanakapi’ai! Basic precautions include staying out of the water when it’s flowing high, and using a stick or trekking poles.
Also be cautious of falling rocks and other debris coming down from the high cliffs at Hanakapi’ai Falls.
Day Hiking Beyond Hanakapi’ai
Hiking beyond the first 2 miles of the Kalalau Trail requires an overnight permit, whether you actually plan to camp or not. If you’re willing and able, you’re technically allowed to hike all the way to Kalalau Beach and back in a single day if you like – just obtain a camping permit for one night and have it in your possession.
Trail runners have been known to tackle the route, as has been occuring on all popular trails nowadays. Despite the trail’s unsure footing. the current record for the out-and-back trip of 22 miles is less than 4 hours!
In one report, I read that an individual found it possible to jog the first 5 miles of the trail, but then gave up on running (likely upon reaching the Crawler’s Ledge). He still managed to hike the entire trail in a single day, finishing in about 11 hours.
The trail initially climbs 800ft when leaving Hanakapi’ai, so you’re clearly in for a more strenuous endeavor after the 2-mile mark. After 3.7 miles you’ll reach the Hanakoa Valley, where there’s a composting toilet, rain shelters, and tent sites for camping. A spur trail leads up the valley from here to Hankoa Falls.
Beyond Hanakoa lies the infamous Crawler’s Ledge. This narrow cliff section is not recommended for those with a fear of heights, and can be especially treacherous when it’s raining.
You’ll know you’re getting close to the end of the trail when you reach the gorgeous Red Hill, dropping back down to sea level from an elevation of about 700 feet.
Landing boats along the Kalalau Trail to drop-off or pick up hikers is illegal, so fuggedaboutit!
Are drones allowed?
The Kalalau Trail is managed as a state park, specifically as the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park. This official website explicitly states “NO DRONES – The use, launching, or landing of drones or other types of aircraft is prohibited.
Apparently that doesn’t stop some people from posting videos anyway.
Best Time of Year to Hike
Temperatures along the north shore of Kauai are consistently warm year-round, but the summer months (May through September) are still considered to be the best time of year to hike the trail.
This is because the sand beaches are more expansive throughout the summer, and winter tends to be a little more rainy.
The Kalalau Trail can still be wonderful in December, January, and February, and there’s less competition for permits in winter too!
In fact, all of the images on this page were shot during my visit in early February of 2014. There was, however, a lot of precipitation throughout the trip. The entire trail was closed because of heavy rains for a few days, so we had to start our hike a day late, cutting back to a four-day itinerary instead of the desired five days. It also rained during our first night at Hanakoa.
You can go here to see the current weather conditions at the trailhead. You can also see the 10-day forecast, monthly trends, sunrise and sunset times, and more.
Permit System and Parking Access Details
As of 2019, prior arrangements are required for all hikes on the Kalalau Trail. The new system may be a little confusing at first, so I’ll break it down for you here as simply as possible.
Parking reservations are required for day hikes, applicable as far as Hanakap’ai Falls. You need to make reservations for these day hikes, even if you won’t have a vehicle at the trailhead.
Backpackers must get a permit, and these same permits are required for day-hikers continuing past Hanakapi’ai.
There’s no overnight parking allowed at the trailhead, so backpackers must make other arrangements for transportation (See shuttles below).
So for the purposes of the Kalalau Trail, reservations are primarily for day-hiking, whereas permits are for camping and longer day hikes.
Reservations are available through Ha’ena State Park.
Permits are available through the Hawaii State DLNR.
Most hikers will only require a reservation or a permit, not both. It seems that the only person who would need both a permit and a reservation is a day hiker continuing beyond Hanakapi’ai that will have a vehicle at the trailhead.
The parking lot at Ha’ena State Park (Kalalau Trailhead) has specific hours of operations, daily from 6:30am until sunset.
Reservations are available for three distinct blocks of time throughout the day, as follows:
- 6:30am until 12:30pm
- 12:30pm until 5:30pm
- 4:30pm until sunset
Each block of time costs $5, plus tax. If you’d like to park for the entire day, you must rent out all three blocks of time for $15 plus tax.
Those arriving via other means (walking, cycling, etc.) must also have a reservation, but the cost is only one dollar.
Reservations fees are included as a part of the North Shore Shuttle (see Transportation, below).
Locals (residents of Hawaii) get in for free, and can ignore this reservations system.
Reservations can be made as early as 30 days in advance of your trip, and they up fast for the summer months. So if you know for certain that you’ll hiking on May 1st, it’s best to get online on April 1st and make your reservation.
Reservations can be acquired through here at Ha’ena State Park.
Camping permits are required for all hikers continuing beyond the 2-mile point on the Kalalau Trail. If you’re only day-hiking beyond this point, you still need to posess a camping permit to go beyond Hanakapi’ai.
Permits are available through the State DLNR (Department of Land and Natural Resources.
You should reserve your permit online as soon as you know the date of your hike, but note that permits are also available in-person at the local regional offices throughout Hawaii. After reserving online, you’ll need to access a printer to create a physical copy of your permit.
The cost is $20 per-person per-night. For residents of the state of Hawaii, it’s $15 per night.
Permits can be obtained as early as 90 days in advance. There’s a limit of 60 people allowed each day, and these slots tend to fill up fast. After following the prompts on the State DLNR website, it will show you a calendar with how many slots are available for each day.
A permit for Saturday the 2nd means camping Saturday night, allowing you be on the trail throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday.
As mentioned above in the Backpacking section, camping is allowed only at at Hanakoa and Kalalau. Specifically:
- At Hanakoa, camping is only allowed in the obvious sites on the terraces near the rain shelter and toilet. Staying for consecutive nights at Hanakoa is prohibited.
- At Kalalau, camping is only allowed on the terraces next to Kalalau Beach, and on dry sand at Kalau Beach.
- Camping in other locations is prohibited, including along streams, cliffs, or in caves.
Here’s how to follow the prompts on the state website to ensure you’re getting the Kalalau Trail.
- Read the page and click CONTINUE at the bottom.
- In the left column, select KAUAI under “Island.”
- Select NAPALI COAST STATE WILDERNESS PARK under “Locations.”
- Press the CONTINUE button, and create an account.
- Review the information listed in the tabs, especially under “Description, Conditions & Hazards,” etc.
- Under “Reservation,” fill out the required fields. Be sure to select KALALAU site, not Milolii. When you select the dates, availability will shown in the green bar on the bottom.
- Enter your billing information, and finalize your permit.
Remember, you cannot park overnight at the trailhead, meaning you must take a shuttle or make other arrangements (More on this in next section). Here’s some more details about the regulations:
- no fires
- composting toilets are at Kalalau, Hanakoa, and Hanakapi’ai
- you can get a refund if you make your cancelletion at least 15 days in advance
- there’s no potable water – drinking water must be collected from streams and treated. My favorite method of treating water is Aquamira.
- pack it in, pack it out!
This updated permit system was established in the summer of 2019. With the new system there’s presumably a stronger ranger presence, with stricter enforcement.
A cited violation of the above regulations includes a required court appearance, a minimum $500 fine, and comes with a criminal record with a misdemeanor charge if convicted.
The end of the trail at Kalalau has a band of resident, squatting hippies. At first glance they may seem strangely immune to the regulations that the rest of us so subserviantly follow.
I get the impression that, to an extent, this is true. I imagine that park rangers leave the hippies alone, but are unafraid of confronting tourists about adherance to the rules. It is, after all, generally easy to tell the difference between a resident hippie and a tourist.
As a paying permit-holder this may initially strike you as unfair, but what we don’t see is the periodic “shock-and-awe” style raids of the hippie camp at Kalalau by armed law enforcement.
My experience in 2014 included seeing a handful of these “residents” along the trail, and primarily at Kalalau. We only saw a ranger on the first day, within the first few miles of trail. He inquired if we had a permit (We did, of course), but he did not ask to see it.
Trail Shuttle and other Transportation
Since there’s no overnight parking allowed at the trailhead, it’s necessary for most folks using rental cars to make other arrangements.
North Shore Shuttle
The best option for most backpackers is to book a ride on the Kauai North Shore Shuttle.
They pick-up and drop-off frequently from the Waipa Park and Ride facility at least every hour (and as often as every half-hour), from 8am through 4:30pm.
The cost is $15 per person, and the fare includes your entrance reservation at Ha’ena State Park.
Uber – Lyft – Taxi
It’s also possible to use these taxi services to get to and from the trailhead at Ha’ena, but note that taxis are typically more expensive than the shuttle.
An interesting idea to save on your rental car cost is to book your hike on the Kalalau Trail immediately after your arrival on Kaui. This way, you could Uber from the airport to the trailhead, do your hike, and return to the airport via Uber or taxi before picking up your rental car.
This would save you the cost of paying for your rental while you’re out backpacking, but a number of personal variables would have to determine whether or not this is financially viable for you. You can go here to discover estimated taxi rates.
Keep in mind that there’s reportedly no cell reception at the trailhead. You would also still have to get a $1 reservation through Ha’ena State Park.
As a backpacking traveler, thumbing a ride is always a possibility. Hitchhiking has its caveats, of course, but it generally seems to be more acceptable on the islands than the mainland. Mahalo for the ride, dude!
This isn’t an especially viable option, but for your information there’s a bus line that runs as far as Hanalei on the north shore. The trouble here is that the bus doesn’t allow large backpacks or luggage, and Hanalei is still 7 miles from the trailhead at Ha’ena State Park.
Accidents, Falls, and Deaths
It’s difficult to come up with a reliable death toll for the Kalalau Trail. An unofficial sign near Hanakapi’ai Beach records almost 85 deaths, as seen in 2014. More recently, an article published by The Daily Beast website in 2019 claims “over 100” deaths along the trail.
An experienced backpacker would logically conclude that more deaths have occurred as a result of drowning than from falling from cliffs.
Here’s a list of several confirmed accidents I’ve compiled from various internet news sources (primarily the local Kauai newspaper) and classified chronologically, noting the nature of death.
This list is by no means comprehensive or reliable sample for statistics. It was simply gathered from random news releases that were readily available on the internet.
2019 – Drowning – 41 year-old man off Kalalau Beach
2019 – Drowning – 27 year-old female off Kalalau Beach
2016 – Falling – body recovered of a 43 year-old male near Kalalau Beach
2016 – Drowning – 53 year-old female drowns at Hanakapi’ai Beach
2014 – Drowning – 19 year-old male swept away crossing Hanakoa Stream
2014 – Falling – 29 year-old male falls from Red Hill area
2014 – Falling – 31 year-old male falls near Kalalau Beach
2013 – Cardiac Arrest? – 61 year-old male collapses while hiking on trail
2013 – Drowning – female is swept away crossing Hanakapi’ai Stream
2012 – Falling – 30 year-old female falls from cliff “near a campsite in Kalalau Valley”
2006 – Falling – 39 year-old female falls from trail, near the 3-mile mark called Space Rock
2001 – Unknown – body recovered of a male in his 30s or 40s at Kalalau Beach
Interestingly, I was unable to find a reported death caused as a result of a fall from the infamous “Crawler’s Ledge.”
Reading about online statistics is a much different thing than actually being there, in-person. Here’s a gripping first-hand account of an accident at Hanakapi’ai Beach. The most dangerous thing about this particular beach is that once the rip currents carry you out, it’s basically impossible to return to a safe shoreline – even for a strong swimmer (it’s all cliffs).
5 Ways to Stay Alive – Dangerous Parts, Difficulty, and Safety
It’s evident that most accidents and deaths along the Kalalau Trail occur as a result of drowning and falling. So with that in mind, here’s some tips to help keep you safe.
1) Learn how to ford a stream.
It may seem obvious, but do not go into a stream that has a strong current or appears to be flash flooding! Here’s some other guidelines for fording rivers:
- Leave your shoes on. You’ll have a hundred times more confidence in your footing. Putting your life on the line just to keep your shoes dry isn’t worth it!
- Take your time to find the best place to cross, envisioning your course across the stream before you get into it. Wider areas may take longer, but are usually more shallow and therefore more safe.
- Use at least a single trekking pole, or a stick. Two is even better.
- Take one step at a time. This includes repositioning your poles, so you’ll always have at least 2 points of contact with the streambed (3 points of contact if you have two poles).
- If you’re carrying a heavy backpack, undo the hip belt and loosen your shoulder straps. This can save your life if you lose your footing and need to swim, enabling you to break free of your pack’s life-crushing weight.
2) Stay out of the ocean, particularly in winter.
Heavy surf in the winter is a recipe for disaster. Even in summer, strong rip currents can and will end your life.
Wading in up to your knees or so is fine, but just respect the ocean’s power!
3) Be cautious on the edge of cliffs.
The crawler’s ledge isn’t the only place to be aware of the hazard of falling (It’s pretty obvious there, anyway). Countless places along the Kalalau Trail offer wonderful vantage points – they’re just a short way off the trail, at the top of the cliffs!
If you must go out to these places, it’s a good rule of thumb to keep your body height’s distance away from the edge. So if you’re 6 feet tall, stay 6 feet away from the edge. Pretty simple.
Also, stay conscious of the terrain underfoot, especially out near the edge. Hawaii’s heavy rainfall creates loose rocks and soil that can give way!
4) Do some training.
Despite its short length and tropical elevation (compared to other “serious” trails), Kalalau is not to be taken lightly! The path has more ups and downs than you might think, and the footing is often muddy, treacherous, and slow. Wet conditions can make a major difference in the quality of the terrain too.
More strength and experience equals better, more confident footing. It’s a lot easier to make mistakes when you’re exhausted, and having extra energy is simply more fun!
5) Treat your water and be aware of open wounds.
When wading into freshwater streams and or dipping your water bottle into them, be aware that contracting leptospirosis is a rare but valid concern in Kauai. Treating water through common practices (chemical and/or filtration) should eliminate the bacteria.
Finally, the state of Hawaii produced this informative video – highly recommended viewing for those hiking the trail:
The Crawler’s Ledge – Narrow Cliff Section
The scariest part of the trail is the narrow section of cliffs beyond Hanakoa, aka the “Crawler’s Ledge.” This is for good reason – if you were to slip and fall from the trail through here, you’d most certainly tumble to a nasty death.
This is most amplified for those with a fear of heights, because the sensation of exposure is the worst thing about it. The crashing surf on the rocks below you is certainly unnerving, and the view of many miles of ocean makes you feel small and insignificant, perched on a cliff and subject to the whims of nature.
For some people this can be TERRIFYING, and for others it’s no big deal. When it comes to your reaction to this sort of terrain, everyone is a little different.
As for myself in these places, I find that it helps to focus on the footpath itself, simultaneously doing my best to block out the sense of exposure – essentially pretending that the cliff is not there.
This helps me for the following reason. Though it has a few large steps, some inclination, and can be slippery, the trail itself is perfectly good. It’s extremely rare to just go slipping and falling off of a flat trail, so why should anything be different here?
For backpacking trips with significant exposure (like the Kalalau Trail), I find that wearing climber’s approach shoes increases my confidence and makes me feel more sure-footed – specifically something like the La Sportiva TX3 or Five Ten Guide Tennie. The sticky rubber soles on these shoes are specifically designed to provided maximum traction – even on wet, slippery rocks.
To help give you a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into, here’s all of my photos of the crawler’s ledge. Overall the section doesn’t last for very long, maybe a half-mile at the most.
Your first approach of this section will be the worst part, since it leads downhill and out toward the ocean. The above picture shows how it looks on the return hike, facing uphill.
Here’s some details about the waterfalls found along the Kalalau Trail.
This is the first main waterfall encountered near the trail, and probably the most spectacular. With a height of 300 feet (91 meters), it’s techncially not the tallest waterfall out there, but it likely has the most volume. I think it’s the most photogenic one, too.
Located four miles from the trailhead, going to Hanakapi’ai Falls makes for an excellent 8-mile round-trip day hike (See day hiking, above).
It was ranked as the 4th most amazing waterfall in the world, according to this Fox News article.
Hanakoa is the tallest waterfall along the Kalalau Trail. Its main drop is a little over 400 feet, and some say its total height measures at 1,400 feet!
Accessible via a 0.4 mile spur trail from the Hanakoa camping area, don’t let the short distance to the base of this one fool you. The side trail involves eroded cliff edges, overgrown jungle, and the need to cross the creek several times. Watch out for falling rocks, too.
The trail’s destination in tropical paradise wouldn’t be complete without its own waterfall! Visible and accessible from the beach at Kalalau, its namesake waterfall measures a total height over 500 feet. Its most-visible, tallest drop is about 200 feet.
Local hippie residents simply call it “the shower.”
3 main beaches are located along the trail. Remember, swimming is extremely hazardous and leads to a majority of accidents and deaths out here, especially in winter when the surf is more strong and unpredictable.
Ke’e (Haena) Beach
Ke’e is the most accessible beach and has the calmest water, protected by a reef. It’s located at the trailhead before even setting foot on the Kalalau Trail. There’s even a lifeguard station (sometimes on duty).
Accessible as a 2-mile hike from the trailhead, this beach is basically non-existent during the winter months. The summer, however, hosts a lovely strip of remote sand in tropical paradise.
Please don’t swim here – the currents are extremely dangerous. See the Deaths and Safety sections, above.
The famed beach at Kalalau is your final destination at the end of the trail. As with other beaches in area, it shrinks in the winter and expands in summer. Sea caves are accessible down the shore to the west, but eventually you’ll be blocked by cliffs.
Miloli’i Beach (Sea Kayaking)
The ultimate beach, however, lies west of Kalalau and is accessible only to kayakers. Miloli’i Beach allows camping and provides ample solitude, where your only company will often be sea turtles and monk seals.
Fresh water is available from the Miloli’i stream, and an archeological site can be discovered at the west end of the valley.
Kayaking along the NaPali Coast is done only from May through September. Landing and camping are only allowed at Kalalau Beach and Miloli’i. Camping requires a permit, obtained through the same systems that backpackers must use.
Kalalau Trail Maps
Here’s some maps that show the Kalalau Trail and some of its surrounding terrain. They include contour lines, mile markers, and more.
This is simply a series of photos that I took of the map at the trailhead in 2014. You can right-click on each map to see larger views.
Maps are listed sequentially from the trailhead – Map 1 shows the beginning of the trail, and Map 4 shows the end of the trail at Kalalau Beach.
Camping Gear – Rentals
These items improve your personal safety, providing greater stability when fording streams and navigating potentially wet, slippery conditions on the crawler’s ledge.
The provided shoes link goes specifically to the La Sportiva TX3 – a wonderful shoe for backpacking – but basically anything categorized as an “approach shoe” will serve you well. This essentially means that they’re designed not only for hiking, but primarily for rock scrambling, and even climbing. Approach shoes tend to have stickier soles with more traction, which is much appreciated on the Kalalau Trail.
As far as what to wear, you’ll likely be fine in just a basic t-shirt and shorts. My favorite hiking shirt for this sort of excursion is presently this NRS silkweight hoodie, as it’s super soft, comfortable, and provides UV protection.
Just remember to bring an extra layer for chilly mornings and evenings.
Since it rains a lot in Hawaii, your pack isn’t complete without some kind of rain jacket. The Marmot Precip is my favorite rain shell for backpacking.
The best sleeping bag for this climate is your basic “summer” bag, rated at 40 degrees Farenheit. Sleeping bags made of down feathers are best because they’re the most lightweight, but you must be careful to keep it dry – especially in a wet place like Kauai. If I were to do the Kalalau Trail this year, I’d bring my super-light Marmot Hydrogen bag, which would likely see me through colder temperatures like those found on the Big Island’s Mauna Loa.
For a basic gear checklist to make sure you’re not forgetting anything (and/or bringing too much) you can browse my simple chart.
For more extensive but straightforward details on backpacking gear, check out my ultimate gear list.
Here’s some companies that provide backpacking gear rentals in Kauai.
Here’s some companies that do guided hiking tours on the Kalalau Trail.
So maybe things didn’t work out for you – heavy rains closed the trail, or you just couldn’t get a permit in time. No worries – here’s some suggestions for other places to hike in Kauai.
The best way to discover more hikes on the island is to check out this complete guidebook.
This strenuous hike descends 2,000 feet over the course of 2.5 miles to the bottom of the famed Waimea Canyon, aka “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Further explorations are possible from the bottom, making this the best alternate for hardy adventurers.
The Sleeping Giant (Nounou Mountain) Trail
Near the towns of Wailua and Kapa’a, Nounou Mountain is 1200+ foot ridge. Its profile resembles a sleeping man. The main approach trails are via the west and east. If you were to hike these one-way, the total distance would be about 4 miles.
This is a 2-mile round trip hike, north of Kapa’a that features two waterfalls. Cliff jumping is popular here, and one of the waterfalls was seen in the movie Jurassic Park.
Alaka’i Swamp Trail
Accessible from Koke’e State Park, this 7-mile round trip leads you into a lush and remote jungle. An excellent boardwalk traverses the trail’s namesake swamp. Amazing views are to be seen at the Kilohana Lookout at trail’s end, but it’s often socked in with clouds.
Hippies and History
Kalalau has been home to an estranged band of hippies since at least the 1960s. Its tropical climate is suited perfectly for living outdoors year-round. Wild plants provide plentiful food for picking, specifically avocados, mangoes, and taro. Residents are known to hunt the feral goats and wild boar found along the coast, too.
These so-called residents are technically illegal squatters, and you could go so far as to call them outlaws. Most are men that have been disenfranchised and/or disillusioned by typical American society. Plenty of war veterans have found their way to Kalalau. Women tend not to stay as long.
Over the years there’s been a floating set guidelines that help long-time residents get along with each other, but no hard-and-fast set of enduring, communal rules. For example, if someone is always causing trouble and tends not to get along with others, they get kicked out. Some camps have grown elaborate over the years, as most residents are adept scavengers.
The state of Hawaii (and especially local citizens of Kauai), have never wanted them there. Periodic raids occur where, law enforcement comes in by helicopter to chase them out, but the residents know their backyard and where to hide. Sometimes the hippies will disperse for a while, but they always seem to come back.
Now that the state has re-opened the trail is enforcing their new permit system, we’ll see how things play out in the coming years. I suspect that squatting hippies will always be drawn here, but it seems that their golden age is coming to an end.
If this worries you about your personal safety at Kalalau, remember that these folks tend to keep to themselves, and are mostly peaceful and harmless. Just move along and don’t agitate the dirty white hippies 🙂
See this article for a professional, comprehensive take on the subject, published in 2018.
According to archaeoligsts, the beach at Ke’e (the trailhead) is the oldest known settlement on Kauai, from up to 11,000 years ago. Ancient Hawaiians lived all along the Nepali Coast since that time. Evidence of their terraced farming activity is seen at Hanakoa, Kalalau, and elsewhere.
Kalalau has contiguously held a population into the modern era. Natives were driven out under the guise of accused leprosy, and eventually outlaw settlers took up a bare-bones residence. 1960s hippies discovered Kalalau, and its attraction to transients endures.
The state of Hawaii took possession of the Napali Coast in 1974, and created the state park in 1979. They’ve been making efforts to drive-out full time occupants since then, but have yet to come up with the funding and resources to finish the job.
I first discovered the existence of the Kalalau Trail in the movie A Perfect Getaway. It’s a fun, entertaining film with wonderful scenery and a few twists, filmed on location.
Scenes from the original Jurassic Park were filmed along the Napali Coast. After a few weeks in Kauai, I had a longing to re-watch this movie when I returned to the mainland.
Scenes from the 1976 version of King Kong were also filmed here.
Kauai (and all of the Hawaiian Islands) have no snakes.
Technically pet snakes are sometimes set loose, and the government reportly brought in a few brown tree snakes to help train dogs to hunt for the rogue, reptilian pets.
Here’s some other critters to look out for – all photos were taken on the Kalalau Trail.
Hawaii is home to a few species of centipedes. Some are venomous, but their bite just hurts a lot and it won’t kill you.
Geckos are here too!
Unfortunately, this one failed to offer me a good deal on car insurance.
Feral goats roam the Napali Coast, and are notorious for kicking rocks down from high cliffs in the vicinity of unsuspecting hikers. Squatters like to kill them and eat them, so maybe that’s the goats’ means of fighting back. 🙂
This feral cat seemed to be resident at Hanakoa, and had a bad-tempered way of begging for food.
My first encounter with it was from within the tent, late on our rainy first night on the trail. I was lazy during the rainstorm and simply kept my critter-resistant Ursack food bag in the tent’s vestibule. Later I was awakened by something trying to drag the bag away!
It’s a huge, ferocious cat!
A mountain lion!
No… just this little kitty.
My Trip Report and Photos
Here’s the remaining pictures from my hike in February of 2014. We did four days and three nights – Hanakoa – Kalalau – Hanakoa. On the third day we got back to Hanakoa with ample time to hike all the way out, but opted to stay anyway, as planned.
We were sitting and having a snack when we heard this big rock come down! It made a blood-trembling noise, and missed us by mere minutes of good timing. This was by far the scariest moment/realization of the hike. Yikes.
Don’t forget to pick up the best guidebook for planning your trip to Kauai. I used it on my trip there (as well as the one for the Big Island), and found the books to be indespensable.
If you have any questions, let me know in the comments section!