We recently hiked the Kalalau Trail on Kauai, and were surprised to learn that several of our friends had done it only a few months before us. Since returning, many more acquaintances have asked questions because they too are planning a trip. Since there’s a lot of information out there, and we found some of it misleading, here’s a fact-heavy, quite-boring how-to guide (remember, it’s for posterity!).
The first two miles of the trail are quite crowded. It’s a popular day hike out to the beach at Hanakapi’ai. There is a river to ford at this location (and there are several others further on) so we would recommend bringing Tevas. The trail is nice and wide for these first miles, but there were still several areas where the mud made the trail extremely slippery. It was slow going, and I remember feeling tired already once we reached the beach. Note: the beach at Hanakapi’ai has a really dangerous shore break, and no one should attempt to swim here…
Thankfully, the trail gets much less crowded after leaving Hanakapi’ai, but conditions generally become more difficult. Vegetation crowds the trail, leaving your pants soaked (if it’s just rained) and making it hard to see your footing. The mud levels also increased dramatically. We recommend bringing gaitors to save your boots and long pants from becoming filthy.
The trail follows a pattern of rounding headlands (with spectacular valley views) and then meandering down into the valley to cross a stream. You get a break from mud at the headlands, and a nice cool breeze, but then you plunge back into the mud, humidity and bugs of the valley. This pattern continues between Hanakapi’ai Beach and the campsite at Hanakoa (mile 6). These are some tough miles in here, and amazingly, we only progressed at about 1 mile/hour for this section.
We had originally planned to stay the night at Hanakoa (to break up the hike into two even days), but once we reached the campsite we quickly changed our minds. It looked like a giant mud pit, full of mosquitoes and no views to speak of. After negotiating a slippery river crossing, we reluctantly continued.
If you do some online research, you might hear about the “sketchy” trail section between miles 7 and 8. I read a lot about this, and was a little bit worried, but I’m here to say that if you have any backpacking experience you might wonder “what sketchy section?” There are some areas where you’re quite exposed (i.e. “crawler’s ledge”) and if you have a crippling fear of heights, this will cause you some stress, but the trail is always substantially wide and easy enough to negotiate. As a positive, the trail gets much less muddy after mile 7. The headlands start to block the weather coming out of the northeast, and everything is closer to dry than wet. This makes the “sketchy” section that much easier. What people should be planning for (and worried about) are those damn muddy miles between 2 and 6…
Mile 8 has a great campsite. Yes, it’s supposed to be a ranger-only site. Yes, there’s a giant “no camping” sign. But as you will probably learn, there is a lot of rule-breaking that goes on out on the trail, and you will certainly come across a fellow backpacker who has pitched his/her tent at this location. The helicopter pad offers a spectacular sunset location and we would recommend utilizing this spot to break up the hike in/out.
The trail continues to become much easier, and is almost entirely downhill between mile 9 and the Kalalau Beach (roughly mile 11, though there is some debate about this). The views here are amazing. If you can be on this section between 2 and 4 pm, you’ll be in photographers’ heaven. Kalalau Beach is equally stunning, sitting below the imposing shark fin cliffs of the Na Pali headland. There’s a great waterfall at the far end of the beach, perfect for your after-swim rinse.
There are plenty of campsites along the beach and back in the trees. You will find some semi-permanent dwellings out here, and probably have an interesting conversation or two with the “residents.” They range from ex-military types to young hippies. But don’t let this worry you too much, the beach is large enough to have privacy. We did hear some stories about food/gear being stolen, but didn’t experience anything first-hand. Even so, it might be a good policy to keep things packed away when you’re not at your campsite.
While we didn’t know about this option at the time, it seems to be common knowledge that you can take a zodiac-type boat out from the Kalalau Beach. You need to be ready to go by 7 am, and have approximately $120 each, but that might strike some people as a good deal considering how much work it was to hike into the place. Many of our neighbors packed up their sites and were gone before we woke, leading us to believe that the zodiac was a popular option.
As previously mentioned, there are quite a few shenanigans that go on out on the beach. Like other “must-see” hikes around the world (i.e. Torres del Paine National Park), there are plenty of ways to see things without any effort. Helicopters constantly buzz the camp area, circling above the cliffs. People deliver food and visitors via zodiac and seadoo during the day. An air-bnb listing was found for the Kalalau Beach… I firmly believe these things do not ruin the experience, but I also feel that if you go into the hike expecting them, they won’t bother you as much. So, happy trails and fair warning!
Permits and Gear
Technically, you need a permit to stay overnight on the Kalalau Trail. You can reserve these online with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. Unlike the beach park camping permits, there was no system of checking the Kalalau Trail permits. No check points or rangers asked to see ours during any point of the hike, and we didn’t bother to hang it from out tent. There was a general sense that the trail was mostly neglected by authorities, with only maintenance crews coming out to the Kalalau Beach to clean up trash. I don’t want to recommend not getting a permit… but it’s something to consider.
None of the big box stores (i.e. Walmart) carry backpacking stove fuel canisters. There are a few places to buy them en route to the trailhead. We stopped at Kauai Kayak outside of Kapa’a, and bought the medium size for about $10.