UPDATE: In April 2018, Kauai experienced record setting flooding especially on its north shore. As a result, the road west of Hanalei town is currently closed cutting off access to the popular Kalalau Trail, Ke’e beach, and snorkeling at Tunnels. I encourage you to check local news coverage before your trip to obtain the most current conditions, and I will also update this as things reopen.
If there’s a holy grail of all hikes in Hawaii, it’s got to be the Kalalau Trail on Kauai. This 11-mile trek takes hikers into the heart of the Napali Coast, which is only seen by boat, by air, or on this hike. The trail starts at Ke’e Beach and ends at Kalalau Beach where there’s a campground. You have to have a permit for the campground, and since this hike requires two days (22 miles round trip), you essentially need a permit to do the full hike. This hike is super popular (a bucket list item for many) so you have to plan pretty far in advance to make this happen.
If you didn’t come quite so prepared for a 22-mile hike and the thought of it makes you want to reach for the nearest bag of donuts, don’t worry-you can still catch those ah-mazing views! The first two miles of the Kalalau Trail are open to day hikers (no permits required). If you’re only going to do one hike on Kauai, make this it! Don’t be scared off by harrowing tales of overnight hikers who had to cross 18” ledges with a sheer drop off into the ocean below, the first two miles of Kalalau, while strenuous, are very doable.
The first leg of the hike will take you to Hanakapiai Beach (2 miles in) but don’t forget you’ve got to turn around and go back the way you came so it’s really 4 miles. I really recommend getting an early start on this hike, as it’s pretty popular. Parking can be an issue (there isn’t much of it!). The trail head starts at Ke’e Beach where there are only a few spots. Once those fill up, people start parking on the mauka (mountain) side of the road. There’s a bigger lot before you get to Ke’e that might be open if you get there early enough, otherwise you’ll have to park alongside the road. We arrived about 10 AM and had to park about ½ mile away. Watch the signs because they DO give tickets. Even if you have to park and walk, it’s an easy shaded walk and you’ll pass some neat caves.
There are facilities at Ke’e Beach where you can use the restroom and fill up on water before you start. There’s an info station at the trail head and an attendant making sure day hikers know they can’t go past Hakakapiai Beach.
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The first part of the trail is pretty steep ascent through the trees before you get to the first major view, Ke’e Beach. The snorkeling is great at this beach and getting to see the coral formations from above is pretty neat.
It’s not long before you’ll see the view you came for…the Napali Coast! It’s less than ½ mile until you get to the first lookout point so if you’re really not up for the full 2-mile hike to the Hanakapiai Beach, you can still see the beautiful views.
Right before you reach Hanakapiai Beach, there’s a pretty big stream you’ll have to cross.
Take a rest at the beach, but admire the water from a distance. This is NOT a swimming beach and almost 100 people have lost their lives here. The waves are rough, the currents are strong, and a rogue wave can come out of nowhere so stay away from the water!!
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From the beach it’s about a mile up the valley to Hanakapiai Falls (this is an offshoot of the Kalalau Trail, not a continuation). I’ve read that the trail can be tricky to stick to and is pretty strenuous. I didn’t complete it this trip, but I hope to next time!
The first ½ mile or so of the return was probably the toughest for me. It’s a pretty quick ascent back up from the beach and I was huffing and puffing!
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I can’t imagine what it would be like to hike the entire Kalalau Trail (22 miles round trip!) but it’s definitely on my bucket list to try some day. If you’ve hiked it before, I’d love to hear from you!
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Things to Know Before You Hike Kalalau
- Go early in the morning as parking is limited around the trail head and it’s a popular hike so it can get pretty crowded.
- Take plenty of water with you! My mom and I shared a 36 oz Yeti (affiliate link) and I could have drunk a lot more!
- This 4-mile hike takes most people 3-4 hours to complete so plan accordingly.
- Parts of the trail can get pretty muddy and slippery. I suggest wearing something like these Keens (affiliate link) that will be okay getting wet and muddy.
- The first viewing point of the Napali Coast we came to was insanely windy! Literally, hold onto your hat!! If your pictures don’t turn out well there, don’t worry, there will be plenty more opportunities to catch the view further on in the hike.
- The north shore of Kauai is often rainy (that’s why it’s so lush and beautiful!) so check the weather forecast during your trip and try to pick the best day. I prefer hiking in the morning.
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