Kalalau Trail: The must-see Kauai hiking trail
The Kalalau trail is THE mythical hike of the island of Kauai in Hawaii, and for good reason, because it is probably one of the most beautiful hikes of the island. I say "one of the most beautiful" because of course we haven't tested them all, but this is the most beautiful one we've ever done on the island (and we haven't gone all the way to the end).
Imagine a path crossing the tropical vegetation on the mountainside, overlooking the sea and revealing a magical scenery of green cliffs falling steeply into the ocean! You're not dreaming, you're on the Kalalau Trail.
1The Kalalau trail: 18 km along the Nā Pali coast
The Kalalau trail is a long 11 mile hiking trail, about 18 km, linking the beaches of Ke'e beach and Kalalau beach, located along the Nā Pali coast. Walking or boating is the only way to reach the small beach of Kalalau Beach.
Here you are in one of the wildest parts of the island, but also one of the most difficult to access.
If you decide to try the adventure to the end, you will have to take with you your camping gear, your camping permit and plan between 2 to 3 days of walking. Indeed, it will not be possible to reach a road from the Kalalau beach, the only solution will be to turn back, thus travel a total of 36 km from Ke'e beach.
If Kalalau beach marks the end of the long hiking trail, you can discover the Nā Pali coast and the first kilometers of the Kalalau trail by going to Hanakapi' ai beach which marks the first stage of the trail. It is the most popular part of the trail. We'll talk about it later.
2How to reach the Kalalau Trail
Reservation of the parking or shuttle bus
The Kalalau trail starts at the far north of Kauai Island, at the end of Route 560, in Hāʻena State Park. Since its reopening in June 2019, after more than a year of closure, Hāʻena State Park is now restricted to a limited number of tourists each day. This means that you will have to anticipate your arrival to be sure that you will be able to access Hāʻena State Park and therefore the Kalalau Trail when you come.
A parking lot with about a hundred spaces has been built at the entrance to the park. Only persons with a parking permit will be allowed to park their vehicles. It is also possible to come by shuttle from Hanalei or to try a walk. Cycling can also be a good alternative.
As access is limited and places are highly coveted, we recommend that you make your reservation as soon as the places are open for sale, i.e. 1 month before. To do this, go to: https://www.gohaena.com/ and select "Park reservations". Then select the date you want and the type of access (parking + entrance or pedestrian entrance only).
- If you come with your vehicle you will have to choose among the time slots available. You will then have to pay the $5 per time slot, which also includes the entrance of all occupants of the vehicle.
- If you only want to take a pedestrian pass, be aware that access will only be allowed if you come by walking, cycling, taxi or carpooling with a Hawaiian resident. The pedestrian pass is valid for the full day and costs only $1 per person.
If there is no longer "parking" pass and you want to come with your vehicle, you will have to use the shuttle. Shuttles are regular (every 30 minutes) and serve several stops between the Waipa Park parking lot (located just after Hanalei) and Hāʻena State Park. Reservations can be made at this link: https://kauainsshuttle.com/. Ticket price is $15 per person and includes admission to Hāʻena State Park.
Go to the departure of the Kalalau trail
It's D-Day and you have either your parking or pedestrian access, or your shuttle ticket in your pocket. If you come to Hāʻena State Park by your car, you will need to show your pass at the ticket office at the entrance of the car park. If you come by shuttle, it will drop you off at the parking lot.
From the car park, simply follow the composite footbridges and then the wide path that will lead you to Ke'e beach. Pass the restrooms and you will see in front of you the departure of the Kalalau trail.
3Hiking on the first part of the Kalalau trail, from Ke'e beach to Hanakapi'ai beach
This is the first part of the trail, the easiest but also the most frequented part. The beach is located 2 miles from the car park, 3.2 km away. So count 6.5 km for the round trip.
The first few metres of the trail are rather stony and rise continuously for about 500 metres. This is the least pleasant part because the view is only slightly higher, exactly at the 1/4 mile marker mile, 400 meters from the beginning of the trail.
Here you will discover a superb panorama of Ke'e beach and its coral reef. From this point, the trail will almost unceasingly run along the sea and offer superb views.
Now, the path widens a little and becomes more pleasant. The second panorama is located at the half mile marker mile, after 800 meters. From here, we will begin to see the green cliffs of the sublime Nā Pali coast.
This section is the busiest, as many tourists come to this place just to admire the view. Do not hope to be alone on the trail, its popularity is up to its beauty.
The trail continues along the ocean. It follows the side of the cliffs which are bordered by a vegetation sometimes dense and luxuriant especially as soon as you sink into folds. We will cross a few small streams before returning to the sea.
The path goes up and down successively. You will therefore have to expect a near-permanent change in altitude, which can be difficult if you are not accustomed to walking. However, the slope is not steep, which makes this walk accessible to everyone.
The first and only difficulty on this section is just before reaching the beach. You will have to cross a fairly wide river by jumping from rock to rock. Be careful not to slip. If it has rained recently, the water level may be high enough and will force you to cross the river ford.
Be vigilant and do not attempt the crossing if it is too complicated.
A panel will also warn you of the risk of flooding (sudden floods), which can be caused by heavy rainfall upstream. When this happens, the water level rises dangerously and suddenly, potentially taking you with it if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. So pay attention to the weather forecast.
Once the river crosses, you can reach the ocean edge on the right. The top of the beach is covered with big pebbles that tourists have had fun stacking. The sand is only visible at low tide. Unfortunately, we didn't take a picture of the page but you can discover it in the video at the end of the article.
Even if it's tempting, don't bathe here! Choose Ke' e beach to do it, because the currents are very strong in Hanakapi' ai. The signs will be there to remind you. It would be useless to add a line on the wooden panel indicating the number of deaths carried away by the currents at this point...
We walked the 2 miles (3.2 km) to the beach in 1h30, stopping regularly to take pictures. The return was slightly faster, but not much, because the difference in altitude is the same in the opposite direction.
Generally, avoid going on the trail if the weather is rainy or if it rained a lot the day before. The trail will be muddy and slippery, which won't leave you with a good memory.
Choose the right time slot to come here:
- Come early in the morning to avoid the crowds and mist that rises during the day. However, the trail may be in the shade.
- Around 10am-11am the sun will be at the rendezvous, but if the humidity is present, expect to have a less clear atmosphere, you will probably also meet more people!
- By mid-afternoon, clouds will begin to accumulate and the first showers may arrive. However, the attendance will be lower.
From Hanakapi'ai beach you can decide to turn around or go deeper into the jungle and continue to the Hanakapi'ai waterfall located 2 miles, or 3.2 km from the beach.
4Hiking from Hanakapi'ai beach to the Hanakapi'ai falls
From the beach, the trail leads inland. The path changes in appearance. We leave the wide ochre path and we go deep into the vegetation on a rather brown path. Here, the dampness is more noticeable because of the small stream and the wind of the coast less present, on the other hand the trees bring shade, and it is so much better because after all these efforts, you will only dream of a good bathing in fresh water.
You will probably be alone on the trail again, with most of the hikers stopping at Hanakapi'ai Beach.
To the end we will follow the small river going up to the waterfall. You'll have to go through it several times. Be careful because if the water flow is high (in case of rain in the previous days), each crossing can be tricky. Sometimes the rocks are a little spaced out and require a bit of energy.
The signs will always be there to remind you of the risk of floods. Always be vigilant and don't hesitate to turn back if the weather deteriorates.
Overall, the trail climbs much less than on the first section. It is less physical, but more tiring because the further you go, the more you have to cross small obstacles (tilting trees, rocks to climb, rivers to cross). The progress in the forest is less pretty than at the seaside, the only interest of this trail is the waterfall to be discovered at the end.
It is only after about 50 minutes of walking that you will begin to see the waterfall in the distance. It will take another 20 to 30 minutes to reach it.
Finally, we arrive at the foot of Hanakapi'ai falls! The large waterfall falls over 91 metres into an emerald basin at the bottom of a small natural theatre. That's charming! The place is perfect for a well-deserved lunch break after having covered the 4 miles (6.5 km) from the car park.
The most courageous will be able to swim in the pool (be careful, it will be in the shade in the morning, until early afternoon). This one is rather fresh and invigorating! I didn't even dare to go there, because it was pretty cool with the spray. As for Flo, he just preferred to wet his T-shirt to cool down;) Maybe you'll be more daring than us!
After enjoying the place and your picnic, you will have to go back and walk back to the car park. The return to Hanakapi' ai beach is all downhill and much faster than in the first leg.
We covered the 2 miles (3.2 km) between the beach and the waterfall in 1h15. It took us 45 minutes to get back, not counting the lunch break.
- Avoid going to the waterfall if the weather is threatening.
- Remember to use the dry toilets that are installed just after the beach fork, there will be no more after.
- Do not forget your swimsuit and a small towel for swimming.
5Hiking from Hanakapi'ai beach to Kalalau beach
The Kalalau trail continues along the Nā Pali coast for another 9 miles (14.5 km) before reaching Kalalau beach.
Please note that you will have to apply for a permit to borrow this part of the Kalalau trail.
Not having done this trail, we can't tell you more about its condition, but some mention portions sometimes very abrupt and narrow with risks of falls... dizzying. The trail is therefore dangerous and should not be taken lightly.