A Wedding and the Kalalau Trail
Several months ago, a friend of mine got engaged and chose Kauai as the destination for their wedding. Her and her fiance had visited several times and, as lovers of all things outdoors, they enjoyed hiking the Kalalau Trail together. It was the perfect place that was quintessentially ‘them’. As I planned my own visit for their nuptials, she suggested I do the hike while I was there. Of course, it didn’t take much convincing – the images of the Na Pali Coast pretty much sell themselves.
This isn’t the type of hike you do with just anyone! I was prepared for a strong “No” from my friend Sarah when I asked if she’d want to join. To my surprise, she agreed! After much planning and creative packing, we were on our way to Kauai.
Getting To The Trailhead
There’s really only one road that wraps around the North Shore of the island of Kauai. At mile 10 of this road near the Northwest corner of the island, you reach Ke’e Beach, which is both the end of the road and the trailhead for the hike. The beach is known for great snorkeling when the water is calm. Depending on the time and day that you arrive, there is plenty of parking (and toilets) at the trailhead and overflow parking about a mile up the road (see below on cautions about parking). If you intend to do the entire Kalalau Trail, I recommend starting early before it gets too hot and to ensure you get to Kalalau Beach for sunset (we left at ~630-7am).
The First 2 Miles to Hanakapi’ai Beach
The trail itself is 11 miles if you go the entire way to Kalalau Beach. It winds around the outer rim of the Na Pali Coast with a series of inclines, declines and switchbacks as you cross each ridge.There are several stream crossings to navigate which are normally manageable but can become quite dangerous if the water level is high from recent rains (read this article for more). At about Mile 2, you reach Hanakapi’ai Beach. It’s said that the water here has a very strong current so despite how tempting it is, it’s advised to stay out of the water. This is as far as you can go without a permit (State of Hawaii Dept of Land & Natural Resources). But, you can hike into the Hanakapi’ai Valley an additional 2 miles to reach Hanakapi’ai Falls, which I hear is absolutely beautiful!
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Hanakapi’ai to Kalalau Beach
For permit holders, the Kalalau Trail continues for another 9 miles. There’s a great place to stop for lunch around Mile 6 near Hanakoa Campsite. There’s a stream that you can cool off in, refill your water, and lots of boulders to rest on while you eat. Take some time here to recharge! I took off my boots and put my feet in the cool water, which felt amazing. This is also a great time to tend to any blisters or hot spots!
Shortly after Hanakoa, around Mile 7, you reach the first ledge which is referred to as Crawler’s Ledge. I did a ton of research on this section since this is what I was most uncomfortable with. Many seasoned hikers told me it wasn’t as bad as it looks on the videos online. In my honest opinion, it’s exactly like it looks in videos online. I say that not to scare anyone but you really need to know what you’re getting into. You’ll have a pack on (ours were each 20-25 lbs) and trekking poles while navigating a ~12-18″ path with rock on one side and a steep drop-off into the water below on the other. It’s maybe 50 feet long and at the end there’s a section of rock you sort of have to climb up and over.
What I didn’t appreciate is that after Crawler’s Ledge there are a few more ledges to cross. Some are similar in that they are narrow with a steep rocky dropoff. Others involve the trail crossing a gravelly slope down into the water. You just need to watch your step on these to make sure you’ve got solid footing. Following the ledges, the last 1-2 miles of the trail are a steep and steady decline in red clay-like dirt. As you descend, you have an amazing view of Kalalau Beach from above. Take some time to enjoy the view!
The Campsite at Kalalau Beach
As you arrive at the beach, you will start to see campsites to the left towards the rock formations. I recommend walking past those to the far end of the beach where you can find beachfront campsites. These have both an amazing view of the sunset but are also away from falling rocks. Also, at this far end of the beach, there is a waterfall (more like a shower) that you can rinse off in!
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Tips For Enjoying the Trail (And Not Dying)
My friend, Sarah, and I did loads of research prior to the hike. It may be because we are both highly organized engineers, but we like to be as prepared as possible. On the way back from the hike, we talked through what came in most handy and what we wish we would’ve done differently. Here’s our list:
- Permits: They are required past Mile 2 and sell out months in advance so plan ahead! There can be last minute cancellations, so you can contact this website to check availability.
- Parking: When parking at the trailhead you should be aware that there are cases of car theft for even minor items being left visible (phone chargers, etc). We left our bags at our previous hotel and put small items in the trunk without an issue.
- Trekking Poles: These came in very handy and I would highly recommend bringing some. We used them to navigate boulders and stream crossings as well as to take the stress off of our knees! I used these poles from Hiker Hunger because they were collapsible (to fit in a small suitcase), lightweight, with corked handles. NOTE: Trekking poles are NOT allowed in carry-on luggage according to TSA.
- Stay Hydrated: The first 6 miles are decently shaded, but the second half has a lot of sun exposure. Drink water more often than you think is needed and plan to fill up water at every stream. We used a Steripen and Prefilter for purifying the water and would suggest bringing a hydration pack (CamelBak) for easy access. Some people drink the water without treating it, but there is a risk of leptospirosis. Electrolyte powders like Gatorade or Propel came in handy as well. The challenge is that water is heavy, so you don’t want to carry more than you need, but also want to stay hydrated on the stretches without streams.
- Plan for Bad Weather: Remember, you are on the Western coast of the island for most of the hike so the weather changes rapidly and is difficult to predict. Also, Kauai gets more rain than any other Hawaiian island so it’s likely you’ll get wet at least once. Remember all those ledges, streams and declines in clay, well you have to traverse those on the way back. So, like what happened for us, if it rains overnight the trail conditions can change dramatically. Bring extra food in case you need to stay an extra day and just use good judgement.
- First Aid Supplies: Ideally, you have magic hiking shoes that give you no blisters at all, but for most of us who hike 11+ miles, you’re going to get at least a hot spot. I recommend bringing blister pads, first aid tape, and extra pairs of dry socks (you know, in case you dunk your feet at the stream like me). Other nice to haves were Advil and Icy Hot Patches (they felt amazing on our backs/ shoulders over night).
- Minimize Pack Weight: Seriously, ounces and grams matter. Every little thing adds up and you’ve got a long way to go. If needed, remove extra clothing (except socks and rain jacket) and water as you can refill along the trail. When packing, I put my stuff into two piles: Essential (e.g. tent, trekking poles) and Maybe (toiletries, change of clothes). 95% of my Maybe got left behind. For 2 days, we targeted 20-25lbs each, including water, and I would try to carry less if I did it again.
- Camera Access: The views are spectacular, so take time to really enjoy them! Inevitably, you’re going to want to snap some pictures. I recommend planning ahead on how you’re going to secure your camera for easy access. The trail is very narrow in some spots (brush on either side) so keep your camera safe and dry!
- Food Plan: There are so many options, the key is to plan out your food ahead of time. My friend has a nut allergy so we brought nut-free granola bars, dried fruit, tuna salad pouches, crackers, summer sausage, fresh fruit, goo, and some chocolate covered coffee beans (among other items). My friend won the day with her discovery of vodka pouches!
- Be Friendly: There is a small percentage of people in the world who will ever complete this hike, so you’re in good company to start with. Swap stories while you rest on the trail or on the beach at the campsite. Plus, you never know when you may need help or advice. There are groups of people who live out along the Na Pali coast who know the land better than anyone else and in the event that you are injured, they likely know how to get you the quickest help.
- Don’t Let Your Pride Influence Your Judgement: As mentioned, weather changes quickly and so do the trail conditions. The ledges may be more challenging than you expected. Remember that if you are nervous on the way to Kalalau Beach, you have to go back the same way. Unless you are critically injured, helicopters and boats will not help you out so don’t rely on this. If your gut is telling you to turn around, just do it. For all it’s beauty, the trail is no joke!
Mahalo, my friends.
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