West of Hanalei on the west coast of Kauai, the infamous Kalalau Trail is an extreme, hardcore hiking trek along the NaPali Coast. Also called the NaPali Coast Trail, it is a rugged, rolling 11 mile route through wild tropical Hawaii past isolated beaches and waterfall-laced valleys out to the namesake Kalalau Beach. The Kalalau Trail rolls the ridges along the volcanic bluffs above the big crashing surf below.
Do not under estimate any part of this trek. Whether the popular first two miles, the trek up to the first waterfall or the extended route beyond to Kalalau Beach, it all requires respect for the muddy, slippery conditions in usually high temperature conditions. It is a very grueling route with a lot of elevation change. It is hot, humid, rocky, narrow with steep drop-offs, crowded and impassible if rainy. Each mile feels like double that of any other regular trail.
Only attempt if the trail is dry and rain is not forecasted. Make sure to have sturdy boots, bug spray, sunscreen, trekking poles and lots of water and a water purifer that also screens viruses. The first two miles to Hanakapiai Beach are through jungle and are VERY rocky, rooty and slick, with 500 feet of vertical gain before descending to the Hanakapiai River. This is the most challenging and least scenic part of the trail. Do not swim at this beach -- more swimmers die here than at any other beach in Kauai due to the undertow.
At the Hanakapiai, many day hikers (if they are not already thoroughly exhausted as most are) make the mistake of heading east upstream to see waterfalls. It is an arduous 4 mile round trip unmaintained side trail with 1000 feet of vertical gain while climbing over rocks and fallen trees. While the falls are beautiful, it makes for a very long and difficult day hike. The area is known for its flash-floods, too. The falls are very dangerous -- there is loose rock above and rocks tumble down the falls on unsuspecting day-hikers.
The Hanakoa Falls at the 6 mile point are much more spectacular and only 0.3 miles off the main trail, again on an unmarked, unmaintained side trail. There is much less loose rock above making them much safer, too. There used to be camping in this area but it was recently closed (probably due to the infestation with mosquitos).
Most of trail is through dense jungle with occasional ocean and cove vistas. The vistas get better and better after the second mile.
From mile 2 to 3, there is another 700 feet of vertical gain. From mile 3 to 5, there is another 500 feet. Around mile 7, there is a section so narrow and sketchy that many hikers go on their hands and knees (Na Pali crawler). Around mile 8, the trail passes into a much drier climate as it emerges from the jungle. Kalalau Beach is at mile 11. From Kalalau Beach, there is a 4 mile round-trip hike up the incredibly scenic Kalalau Valley on an unmarked, unmaintained trail. Sadly, some of the most spectacular sections of the Na Pali coast is further south of Kalalau Beach and is only accessible by boat or kayak.
If you plan to backpack the Kalalau,you may not find the peace and serenity you desire (or earn). Both permit-required camping zones allow up to 30+ campers (or many, many more as has been reported in recent years). For the most part, Kauai campers are very messy and leave plenty of trash. But thats not the worst of it. The Hanakapiai Beach camp zone is over run with day hiking tourists during the day - think over 500. The other option is at Kalalau Beach which is overrun with boat tours and overflown with sightseeing helicopters all day long (one fellow hiker referred to it as a Vietnam assault). The later is at least exceptionally beautiful with its own waterfall to bath in. Oh, and keep an eye out for the Lion-Of-Judah (aka Yaweh), a machete-toting beach resident who proclaims he can direct his Chi to make people disappear. Seriously! While it is illegal for boats to land at Kalalau Beach, this doesn’t stop the regular flow of pirate boaters dropping off and picking up hikers and their gear.
If you really want to camp, you may want to consider kayaking down the Na Pali coast instead (June to August only). Start from the trailhead at Ke’e Beach and kayak south the 6 nautical miles to Kalalau Beach (camping permit and kayak landing permit required). There are several amazing sea caves to explore along the way. Stay at least two nights at Kalalau Beach. Then continue south and stay at least two more nights at a couple of the most scenic secluded beaches you will ever see in your lifetime (such as Milolii). Along the way, there are a couple deep valleys worth exploring for day hikes, but you’ll have to discover those uncharted 3000 foot deep gorges on your own. There are a few Na Pali kayak companies (Kayak Kauai Outbound) that will provide pickup further south at the end of the Na Pali coast at Polihale Beach and drive you the 2 hours all the way back around to Ke’e Beach. Note, this is for experienced sea kayakers -- make sure to get detailed surf reports prior since the area is prone to sea surges and high winds. A guide is highly recommended and make sure to read Paddling Hawaii by Audrey Sutherland first.
If you really want to hike, make sure to start at dawn (literally) if you want a parking spot and some peace on the trail. You’ll need to arrive at the trailhead parking area before 7am, otherwise the parking area will be packed out for over a mile from the trailhead. If you can’t make it there before 7am, consider using the new North Shore Shuttle van service that runs regularly from Hanalei to Ke’e Beach. There is a island public Kauai Bus from Lihue to Hanalei.
Consider arranging a boat pickup at Kalalua Beach and only hike one-way (note that no boat landings at the beach are permitted, except for kayaks, so you’ll have to swim off shore in rough surf to legal get to your boat).
If you plan to hike past Hanakapiai Beach or plan to camp, a permit is required from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources in Lihue.
To reach the trailhead from Lihue, head northwest on SR56 (Kuhio Highway) to Princeville. Continue west on SR560 to through Hanalei to Ke’e Beach (milepost 10).
Here are some notes on adventuring in Hawaii. First, unlike mainland forests, the tropical island forests can grow very dense and can mask drop-offs. Plus, the trails can be very wet and slick most of the year (December to February is the main rainy season, but expect rain all year round). Stay on the trail to avoid disorientation. Second, speaking of disorientation, be aware that most Hawaiian topographic maps use the Old Hawaiian Datum. When trying to use the latitude/longitude from those maps with a GPS unit, you will think you are 0.4 miles south/southeast of where you really are. Kind of important in a dense jungle. Third, the bacteria Leptospirosis is found in the local waters and mud. It causes flu like symptoms within 2-20 days of contact, and can be fatal if not treated with antibiotics. Fourth, when hiking about, walking sticks can be very helpful for stability in the slick conditions, for probing mud hole depths and clearing webs of the tiny crab spider.
Overall, Kalalau Trail is the 1st most popular hiking trail of all 45 hikes in Hawaii.