Interested in backpacking the Kalalau Trail on the NaPali Coast of Kaua’i? If you are an experienced hiker with plenty of determination, this trail offers one of the world’s most beautiful and unique backpacking experiences. The jaw dropping beauty of the area also makes it an amazing place for Hawaii landscape and nature photography. Towering pali (cliffs), abundant waterfalls, and expansive coastal views are just a few of the highlights on the route. The final destination is the famous Kalalau Beach, which is appropriately referred to as the, “Garden of Eden.” This article begins with an entertaining story about our own 5 day adventure on the Kalalau Trail, followed by a collection of useful tips and resources for planning your own trip to paradise. Hopefully you learn something about Kalalau and get a good laugh out of reading our experiences on the trail…like I said, it’s a unique place!
Kalalau Trail - Key Information
- Location: Kaua’i, Hawaii. Napali Coast State Wilderness Park on the northwest coast of the island.
- Permit Information: Kalalau camping permits are available online through the DNLR reservation system
- Parking & Shuttle Information: Hāʻena State Park Reservations
- Length: 11 miles from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach. The trail provides the only land access to Kalalau Beach
- Elevation gain/loss: ~5,000 feet each way
- Kalalau Trail Claims to Fame:
- One of the Most Dangerous Trails in the World - Backpacker and Outside Magazines
- One of the Most Challenging Trails in the World - Mapquest
- One of the Most Adventurous Trails in the World - Hawaii Division of State Parks
- Hazards: narrow and unstable trail, hazardous cliffs, slippery rocks, flash floods, rockfall, high surf, leptospirosis in fresh water, sunburn, heat exhaustion, no cell service anywhere along the trail
Planning a trip to Hawaii in 2021? To learn how, see my article titled, “How to Travel to Hawaii During Covid-19 | Spoiler: It’s Complicated!”
Our Story: Backpacking the Kalalau Trail
Day 1 - Monday
Just before 5AM on Monday we awoke in our hotel room in the colorful town of Kapa'a, Kaua'i. Getting up early wasn't too difficult, since we had just arrived in Kaua'i the day before and still were on "Oregon time" (3 hours later than Hawaii). My wife, Angela and I quickly finished packing, showered and started the drive to the Kalalau Trailhead at Ke’e Beach. We drove through a few light rain showers on the way, but nothing out of the ordinary for the northeast side of Kaua’i.
We parked our rental car at the trailhead at Ke’e’ and crossed our fingers that no one would trash it while we were away. Since car break ins are common here, we left our luggage at the hotel and removed everything from the vehicle. Just before 7AM we shouldered our packs and hit the trail. The air was already warm and thick with humidity and after a few minutes of hiking we realized this was going to be a long day!
Our packs weighed in at 28 and 38 pounds. These weights were not horrible, but we probably should have done more to cut out unnecessary gear. When we were planning our trip, many different sources advised packing light. This trail is tough and going ultralight definitely makes things easier. Ounces matter!
The first section of the trail travels 2 miles from Ke'e Beach (mile 0) to Hanakapi'ai Beach (mile 2). We had read that the trail is never flat at any point along the way, and we found this description to be 100% accurate. The trail climbs to an elevation of ~500 feet after the first mile and then descends back down to sea level at Hanakapi’ai, which is a popular destination for day hikers. The trail surface in this section is incredibly slick and muddy due to high trail use combined with frequent Kaua’i rains.
At 8:30 AM we arrived at Hanakapi'ai stream and it was a relief to see the water level was quite low. We had been keeping a close eye on the weather up in the mountains, since heavy rain can cause flash flooding in the streams. Just before crossing the stream, we noticed a handmade warning sign which strongly discourages going into the water at Hanakapi'ai Beach. This sign is an important reminder of the dangers of swimming at Hanakapi’ai. The hazards include: big waves, steep shore break and strong currents. Although unconfirmed, the most recent count shows 83+ people have died there.
There is no bridge to cross the Hanakapi'ai Stream, so we had to hop across the rocks in the stream. I made it without slipping in, but Angela lost her balance just enough to end up with two very wet feet. After the stream crossing we took a break to re-hydrate and dry Angela's feet.
The next section of the trail travels 4 miles from Hanakapi'ai Beach (mile 2) to Hanakoa Stream (mile 6).
The trail surface improved significantly after Hanakapi'ai and although it was still somewhat muddy, there were not as many rocks and roots to climb over. We really started to feel the heat and humidity during the 800 foot climb out of Hanakapi'ai Valley, since the sun was now beating down on us. To help us stay cool and refreshed, we snacked on guavas which grow abundantly along the trail in this area.
When we stopped for lunch we thought we had already passed Hanakoa Stream. A quick GPS check revealed we were actually closer to mile 5, which left us more than a mile to go just to reach Hanakoa. Upon learning our true location, we quickly finished up our lunch and started hiking. After a few minutes on the trail, we both noticed a bit of fatigue setting in due to the warm and humid tropical air.
By the time we finally arrived at Hanakoa Stream, it was 2PM and we couldn't believe how slow we were traveling! The combination of the heat, the rough trail and our backpacks was crushing us. We filtered several liters of water in Hanakoa Stream and took a quick 10 minute break before setting off. We knew we would need to pick up the pace to make it to Kalalau by sunset, which was at approximately 6PM in October.
The toughest part of the trail sits between Hanakoa Stream (mile 6) and Kalalau Stream (mile 10). This section is home to a stretch of trail known as Crawler's Ledge. The trail at the ledge is very narrow and extremely exposed. One side of the trail goes almost straight down to the sea, which is 500 feet below. The other side of the trail goes straight up. To complicate things further, there are tons of wild goats in this area. When the goats move, they send rocks and pebbles raining down below them. When we arrived at Crawler’s Ledge we did a quick survey of the trail and talked over our plan for navigating this section. “Doesn’t look too bad to me,” I said. “Agreed,” Angela replied back. With adrenaline racing through our veins and slightly shaky hands, we kept our eyes straight ahead and started walking. After a few nerve racking minutes, we were through this section and were relieved to be done with it. How bad is Crawlers Ledge? This spot is definitely challenging, especially if you have a fear of heights, but we realized if you stay focused and watch your footing, it’s doable. Important note: Over the years, the trail at Crawlers Ledge has been improved to make it a bit wider. After watching some recent GoPro videos from this section, the “improvements” look pretty minimal to me!
After Crawlers Ledge we decided to take a quick break at one of stream crossings. Here we met our first “Kalalau local" of the trip. He was shoeless and only wore a sarong for clothing. He quickly welcomed us to Kalalau and after taking a closer look at our fatigued faces he said, "Slow and steady wins the race on this trail." We all laughed. We asked him how he could walk around on these trails without any foot protection. He replied, "It takes a few days for your feet to toughen up, then it's easy. You should give it a try.” Once again, we all laughed!
At 5:30PM we arrived at "Red Hill." From here it is all downhill to Kalalau Stream and Kalalau Beach.
Just before 6 PM we arrived at Kalalau Stream (mile 10) and then quickly moved on to the campsites at Kalalau Beach. We were exhausted from the hike, so we set up camp, ate dinner and were asleep by 8PM. Total hiking time was 11 hours or 1 mile per hour. This was our slowest backpacking pace ever! It is important to note that we trained extensively for this hike and it still got the best of us!
Day 2 - Tuesday
The next morning, we decided to go back to the Kalalau Stream to eat breakfast and filter some water. While enjoying our food, we noticed our shoeless friend from the trail sitting on a rock in the middle of the stream. He was singing a beautiful little song while playing a homemade bongo drum. A few seconds later we heard the sounds of the first helicopter of the day. The helicopters provide sightseeing tours and run almost nonstop from 8:30 AM to sunset. Initially we found their presence to be a bit annoying, but quickly tuned them out.
After breakfast we decided to take a look around for a campsite closer to the beach. We arrived so late the evening before that we didn’t have much time to check out all of the different campsites. We found a great one near the beach, but it wasn't going be quite big enough for our tent. At this campsite we encountered another "local." Unfortunately we never learned his name, but we affectionately referred to him as "Newman" from Seinfeld. If you are unfamiliar with Newman, see the description below
Newman's role is primarily as Jerry's nemesis and a frequent collaborator in Kramer's elaborate and bizarre schemes. Often described as Jerry's "sworn enemy", Newman is cunning and often schemes against Jerry. He speaks often in a humorously sinister tone (mainly to Jerry). Jerry refers to Newman as "pure evil" on more than one occasion. Jerry's trademark greeting for Newman is to say "Hello, Newman" in a snide and condescending tone, while Newman responds "Hello, Jerry" in a falsely jovial tone. Source: Wikipedia, July 2021
"Newman" approached us and asked if we minded if he sat down on some rocks near the sand. It seemed a little odd that out of all the rocks on this huge beach he wanted to sit on a rock 5 feet from us, but we invited him to have a seat. He quickly told us how he really liked to camp at this spot and subtly implied that this was his campsite, not ours. Then things got really interesting when he asked why, "America is full of voyeuristic perverts who only want to see themselves in satellite photos." Dumbfounded, we told him that we didn't really understand what he was trying to say. He said, "I think you do." Then promptly left. We hoped we wouldn't see him again, but we both had a feeling it wouldn't be the last time. We figured “Newman” would mess with us if we stayed at the beach campsite, so we decided stick with the site we had selected the night before.
Later in the evening while eating dinner, we heard someone approaching our campsite. Angela spotted him first and said, “Hello, Newman,” under her breath, just as he reached the edge of our camp. With a big grin on his face, “Newman” slowly extended his middle finger at us, then turned and calmly walked away. After he left, we quickly looked at each other and said, "How did he already find us?” We wondered if he would come back again later in the evening, but all was quiet at our campsite overnight.
Day 3- Wednesday
The following morning we got up early to go exploring in Kalalau Valley. The valley is a huge maze of unmarked trails, most of which lead to backcountry camps and we wondered if we would stumble across “Newman’s” camp. Important Note: In May of 2017, the DLNR conducted a crackdown of illegal camping in the Kalalau Valley, which has significantly reduced the number of “Outlaw Hippies” illegally living in the valley.
Our goal was to get to Big Pool on Kalalau Stream. We definitely didn't take the direct route to Big Pool, but our route was much more interesting. On the main trail we passed through hundreds of agricultural terraces which the ancient Hawaiians used to grow taro. We somehow ended up off the main route and the trail soon turned into a narrow footpath. At the end of the path we found a small backcountry camp with a very dazed and confused individual starring at his tent. He honestly looked like a wild animal and we wondered if he was going to start growling at us! He never acknowledged our presence and we quickly turned around to give him his privacy.
After several hours, we finally found Big Pool.
We spent a couple of hours at Big Pool and then headed back down to our camp to rest. Not more than 10 minutes after we arrived at our camp, "Newman" strolled by proudly displaying his middle finger. All we could do was laugh and wonder when he would show up again!
Late in the afternoon we decided to head down to the beach to swim and make dinner. The ocean was very calm so swimming was safe. We got to watch a couple launch their sea kayak from Kalalau into the calm seas. We were surprised to find an endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal sunning himself on the beach. I used a telephoto lens to photograph the seal, since Federal Law states you must remain more than 100 feet from them at all times. He would occasionally get in the water to eat, but mostly he just slept on the beach. What a life!
We met another “Kalalau local” on the beach who spent the whole afternoon balancing rocks at the east end of Kalalau Beach. His commitment to his job was very admirable. Here is one of his best works of art.
Later that evening we witnessed a beautiful Kalalau Beach sunset while eating our dinner on the beach. The colors were absolutely stunning!
Day 4 - Thursday
We spent the entire day on Thursday lounging on the beach. We couldn't go in the water because the waves were huge. A big north swell came in overnight which was generating 10-12 foot waves. The day was very relaxing, but we were obsessing over the hike out the following morning.
We walked down to the extreme west end of Kalalau Beach to check out the wet cave. This is a very interesting cave which is filled with a mixture of salt and fresh water. In 1997 a group of locals including Ron Saya recorded a live music album called, "Kalalau Stew" in this cave. The album is a mix of flute, guitar and drum music with ocean waves in the background. It’s a surprisingly good album!
Later in the evening back at our camp, "Newman" walked by us again, but this time he wasn't flipping us off. We wondered if he was starting to warm up to us after 4 days. Too bad we had to leave early the next morning, since we may have become good friends! If he came into our camp again, we planned to play a joke on him by telling him we were moving to the Kalalau Valley long term. The look on his face would have been priceless!
Day 5 - Friday
On Friday morning, we woke up at 4:45AM to break down camp and get an early start on the hike. We were worried about having to spend 11 hours to get back to Ke'e beach. We started hiking out at 5:50AM using our headlamps to light the trail. Getting an early start turned out to be an excellent decision.
We passed through Crawler's Ledge at 7:30AM and arrived in Hanakoa at 8:15 AM. Our pace as considerably faster than during the trip into Kalalau and we were in a good hiking rhythm. With lighter packs and cooler weather, we were making great time on the trail.
When we arrived at Hanakapi'ai Beach on the way out, we were surprised by how many day hikers were headed into Hanakapi'ai. Most of them carried no water and some even wore flip flops on this very difficult trail. It was an abrupt and somewhat tenuous reentry into society for us!
We stepped off the trail at Ke'e Beach at 12:55PM. Total time out was 7 hours 5 minutes. We felt this was as fast as we could have done it and we were happy to be finished. We were sweaty, covered in mud and very tired, but we had a great sense of accomplishment.
Backpacking the Kalalau Trail was one of the best experiences of our lives. We were constantly amazed by the beauty of the Na Pali Coast of Kaua'i. During our 5 day backpack, we realized the people you meet along the way are what make Kalalau such a special place. We feel very fortunate to have had the chance to experience Kalalau and can't wait to do it again. See you again soon, “Newman”!!!
--Aloha and Mahalo, Scott and Angela
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Questions and Answers about Backpacking the Kalalau Trail
Do I need a permit to camp on the Kalalau Trail?
- Yes, camping permits are required for anyone going past Hanakapi’ai Valley (mile 2 of the trail), regardless of whether you plan to camp. Violators may be cited and will be required to show up on their court date. Some people hike all the way to Kalalau without a permit, but I wouldn't recommend it. Having to try to hide from the Park Rangers while hiking or camping just doesn't seem like much fun!
How do I obtain a Kalalau Trail Camping Permit?
Where is camping allowed along the Kalalau Trail?
- Camping is only allowed at Hanakoa and Kalalau Beach. At Kalalau, camping is only allowed on the terraces immediately adjacent to the beach or on the sand beach above the high water line. No camping is allowed in Kalalau Valley or along the streams.
How long can I camp on the Kalalau Trail?
- The maximum length of stay along the Kalalau Trail is 5 consecutive nights. I strongly encourage going for 4 or 5 nights to give more time to explore and enjoy the Kalalau Beach/Valley area.
Where can I park my vehicle while backpacking the Kalalau Trail?
- After securing a camping permit, book a parking permit for the trailhead through Hāʻena State Park Reservations
- Limited overnight parking is also available at Ali’i Kai Resort in Princeville. Call 808-826-9988 for reservations.
- The Kaua’i North Shore Shuttle is resuming service on July 11, 2021. The shuttle runs from Waipa Park & Ride in Hanalei to Haena State Park. Only day parking is available at Waipa, so you can’t leave a vehicle there while you backpack the Kalalau Trail.
- Important Note: In March 2021 a landslide occurred which has limited the access to the Kalalau Trailhead. The trail is open and existing reservations are being honored. Check the Hawaii DOT webpage for details about the Hanalei hill landslide.
Where can I rent camping gear on Kaua’i?
- Napali Kayak in Hanalei
- Kayak Kaua’i in Kapa’a
What is the best time to hike the Kalalau Trail?
- Anytime of year is a good time to hike or backpack the Kalalau Trail. The weather in Kaua'i is mild year round and the low temps rarely go below 60 degrees F. Summer months (May to October) tend to see less rainfall and severe weather compared to the winter months (November to April). Trail closures due to weather related events (flash flooding, landslides, etc) are more likely to occur during November to April.
Is a permit required to visit Ke'e Beach or hike to Hanakapi'ai Beach / Hanakapi'ai Falls?
- Yes, all visitors without State of Hawaii ID must purchase an advance reservation online through Hāʻena State Park Reservations.
Tips for Backpacking the Kalalau Trail
- Keep your pack weight down! The weather is generally warm out there, so you really don’t need much beyond the essentials.
- Previous hiking/backpacking experience is strongly encouraged.
- Being physically fit is very important, since this trail is seriously challenging.
- Backpackers should be comfortable dealing with rapidly changing weather and trail conditions.
- Consider trekking poles to improve stability and reduce impact on knee and hip joints.
- Footwear: Trail running shoes or hiking boots are recommended. We used Solomon XA Pro 3D Trail Running Shoes with Goretex
- Water: there are plenty of stream crossings along the trail where you can filter or treat water. The water supply is fairly predictable, except in drought conditions.
- For emergencies, you must signal a passing helicopter/boat (and hope they stop!) or hike out for help.
- Boil, filter or treat stream water before drinking. Note: the volcanic silt in the streams clogs ceramic filters incredibly fast!
- Don’t build a campfire, since they are illegal.
- Recommended photography gear for enthusiasts and professional photographers:
- Go ultralight with your photo gear!
- Consider bringing a mirrorless or DSLR body and a couple of light lenses (wide angle and mid range focal lengths are recommended +/- a telephoto lens if you can handle the weight)
- If you bring a tripod, consider bringing the lightest one you have
- Drones are not allowed on the Kalalau Trail, since the trail is located inside the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park
- Recommended photography gear for general hikers and backpackers:
- Use the camera app on iPhone or Android phone
Recommended Kalalau Trail Reading and Listening
- "On the Na Pali Coast, A Guide for Hikers and Boaters" by Kathy Valier on Amazon. This book was originally published in 1998, but still contains useful information.
- "Dramas of Kalalau" by Terrance James Moeller on Amazon
- "Kalalau Stew" by Ron Saya on Amazon Music
- “Kalalau Trail” Hawaii DLNR Website
If you have any questions about backpacking the Kalalau Trail, you can leave a comment below or contact me directly though this website. I will respond to all questions! Have you recently backpacked the Kalalau trail? How did everything go? Please share your experiences in the comments below.
Disclaimer: the information contained in this article is for general reference and educational purposes only. Scott Smorra and Scott Smorra Photography, LLC give no warranty, expressed or implied as to the accuracy or reliability of this information. Outdoor recreation activities (including hiking and backpacking the Kalalau Trail) are dangerous and are associated with a high level of risk. Potential hazards can lead to personal injury or death. Proper planning, physical conditioning and gear selection are essential to safely participate in all outdoor activities. All users of this site assume full responsibility for their own actions and personal safety while hiking and/or backpacking any trail. Site users are responsible for evaluating the information and making their own decisions during the planning stages and on the trail.
Updated July 14, 2021