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The Kalalau Trail – To The Beach & Back

North America


Hiking The Kalalau Trail along Kauai’s Na Pali Coast.

Hiking Kauai’s Kalalau Trail Along The Na Pali Coast

I’ve always had this feeling that I would never do much of anything if I waited until I was ready. Conventional wisdom says we are never truly ready for anything, so we might as well do it now. Stomach growling, thoughts clouded by sleep deprivation, itching the bites all over my face—I was about to put that theory to the test.

Arriving on Kauai the night before, I was the last of our six person squad to show up at the hotel. We were sharing one bedroom, and it was standing room only. I slept outside on the patio. No tent. The mosquitos noticed immediately – and apparently put flyers out for the party.

Now, at 5am, tires rolling in the dark toward the Kalalau Trailhead, my only thought was trying to find a suitable dozing position. But crammed in the trunk between six full backpacking packs, loose camping gear, and shrinking wiggle room, sleep was out of the question. I focused on the Trail.


The final stretch of the Kalalau Trail before you reach Kalalau  Beach.

The final stretch of the Kalalau Trail before you reach Kalalau Beach.

Kauai’s 11 mile Kalalau Trail leads from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach along the Na Pali Coast. It ranks as one of those “must do” hikes for those who live to hike the world. Far from the longest, highest, or even most remote, it is never the less formidable. Traversing five valleys, the Trail terminates at Kalalau Beach, providing the only land access to this rugged and relatively untouched stretch of Kauai’s coast. And it’s dangerous.

According to a quick Google search, the Kalalau Trail is “one of the most dangerous trails in the United States.” Perhaps even world. Maybe a bit hyperbole, but the Trail’s threats are many. It’s streams, which the journey requires crossing on multiple occasions, can swell to very dangerous levels with little or no warning, washing unsuspecting hikers out to sea. Rocks, crashing from cliffs, injure distracted hikers and campers below. It is exposed, narrow, and slippery. And if the Trail doesn’t kill you, the deadly riptides at Hanakapi’ai are churning in wait.

Back home I’d made an executive decision. Mom and Dad didn’t need to know the Trail’s name. No need for them to worry. Now from my increasingly uncomfortable position in the trunk I had second thoughts. I shimmied my cell phone out  just as the tires came to a stop: No service. Too late. I’ll tell them when I get back.


The famous ridges that define the Na Pali Coast in Kauai.

The famous ridges that define the Na Pali Coast in Kauai.

With just enough morning light too see without headlamps, I slipped on my hiking boots. They were brand new – and it struck me that this might not be the most prudent time for their first test. Running the laces through my fingers, I considered the countless times I’d advised people to break in their boots before attempting any sizable hike. Let alone a backpacking trip, on one of the World’s deadliest trails. Adding it to the mental “Too Late List,” along with the text I didn’t send to my parents, I finished lacing my boots.

“Did anyone bring mole skin or bandaids?” I asked to no one in particular. “Nope.” Another “Too Late List” addition. Packs on, we took the obligatory six person selfie at the trail head just as the sun crested the horizon.

There are a few ways to tackle the Kalalau Trail. You can hike 11 miles to Kalalau Beach in one push. Or you can take your time, explore the valleys, visit some waterfalls, and spend the first night at the designated “Six-Mile Campground.” We chose the latter.


Hanakapi’ai Falls is an additional two miles up Hanakapi’ai Valley.

Hanakapi’ai Falls is an additional two miles up Hanakapi’ai Valley.

Two miles in, the Trail delivers you to Hanakapi’ai beach with the option to hike an additional two miles up Hanakapi’ai Valley to Hanakapi’ai Falls. We hid our packs deep in the surrounding forest and headed up valley to the waterfall. Like many Hawaiian waterfalls, this one lives at the back of a beautiful valley, surrounded by verdant ferns, cool mist, and an emerald pool. I recalled seeing photos from when my parents were there decades ago, and it felt good that a place hadn’t changed. After pausing to take a few photos, and fuel up on dried mangos, we headed back toward the beach to rejoin the Kalalau Trail.


Expansive views along the Kalalau Trail.

Expansive views along the Kalalau Trail.


Hiking The Kalalau Trail in Kauai

Arriving at the Trail’s Six-Mile Camp mid-afternoon, I was struck by the lackluster site, especially compared to the morning’s stunning scenery. Located at valley bottom in the midst of thick vegetation, there were no views. Given our quick progress—and the stark lack of panorama—I floated the idea of continuing on to Kalalau Beach.

Waking up to the view is my backpacking soul staple. And I was feeling surprisingly fresh after 10 miles. But chaffing and blisters had taken their toll on the group. Reminded, I glanced down at my feet – they felt great. I’d completely forgotten about my brand new boots. No blisters, no hot spots, nothing.

We hit the Trail again at sunrise. The Trail’s second half is where you will find the infamous “Crawlers Ledge.” It, and a few other particularly narrow steep sections of the trail, are notoriously slippery when wet. Slippery enough to consider getting down on all fours and. . . yup, “crawling.”


Areal views of the Na Pali Coast in Kauai.

Areal views of the Na Pali Coast in Kauai.

On a boat tour cruising the same section of coast a few months earlier, our captain idled under Crawlers Ledge to point out a number of hiking polls sprinkled across the sheer cliffs. Apparently panicked hikers had abandoned them to the tumultuous water below. The captain wrapped up the stop with an animated story about the woman’s body his crew pulled out of the ocean a few years earlier—undoubtedly a fall from Crawlers Ledge. I’d taken in his story with a grain of salt. But now, as Crawlers Ledge revealed itself from a much different angle, ‘don’t look down’ became my mantra. Luckily it hadn’t rained in days, so we passed the exposed cliff without incident. Honestly, if it weren’t for all the hype, I doubt I would have remembered to worry at all.


The Kalalau Trail in Kauai.


Kalalau Beach in Kauai.

A few valleys later, we ran into a couple collecting fruit. They were stark naked and brimming with hospitality – we were close. We reached Kalalau Beach shortly after, and spent the rest of the day soaking in as much paradise as possible. We set up camp in the shade overlooking the beach, freshened up in the waterfall, roasted marshmallows, and played cards under a blanket of stars so bright it hurt to stare. We only had one day. But one day is all Kalalau needs to hook you forever. Some places feel new no matter how many times I’ve seen them. Maybe it’s because the world is always changing, and the light is always shifting. Or maybe it’s because I am. All I know, is that there are some places like Kalalau that you have to experience for yourself. And as soon as you do, you know – somehow, someday, you’ll be back.


Jess Wandering relaxing on Kalalau Beach in Kauai.


Walking along Kalalau  Beach on Kauai’s Na Pali Coast.

Walking along Kalalau Beach on Kauai’s Na Pali Coast.


Kalalau  Beach in Kauai.

We said goodbye to the beach before the sun was up and started the 11 mile trek back. The return lacked the excitement and anticipation I enjoyed on the way in, but the time and miles passed quickly. Sweat-salted and sunburned, I unlaced and removed my boots in the same place I had put them on two days earlier.  After 26 miles, multiple fumbled river crossings, and a lot of dirt, rocks, and mud, my boots no longer looked new, but I wasn’t complaining.

The car rumbled toward what I hoped was shaved ice. From the confines of the packed trunk, I located my phone and typed out a text while I waited for the service bars to emerge: “Hi mom! Sorry I didn’t text before taking off. Made it back to civilization. Talk to you soon!” I felt my phone immediately vibrate: “Please tell me you didn’t do the Kalalau Trail.”


Kalalau Beach in Kauai.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Kaua’i a hand full of times now in the last few years. For more of my favorite things to do, and ways to experience this special island, don’t miss my post with tons of Once-In-A-Lifetime Adventures To Have In Kauai!

How To Get Permits To Hike The Kalalau Trail In Kauai

Information in the following sections were updated on December 22, 2019.

The Kalalau Trail is arguably one of the most famous hiking trails in the world. The 11-mile trail winds along the dramatically scenic Nāpali Coast from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach. Here, you can set up camp and pretend you’re The Swiss Family Robinson for the night or several days (up to 5). I would recommend spending at least two nights on the trail so that you have one full day to spend at Kalalau Beach. Hiking the Kalalau Trail is a once in a lifetime experience, and to partake, you’ll need a permit from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

Anyone proceeding past Hanakāpīʻai Valley (2 miles in) must possess a valid camping permit whether or not you plan to camp. Permits are $20 per-person per-day and are issued up to 90 days in advance (this will likely turn into a year after construction in the park is completed) of your intended departure date. You can check for availability and make your reservations on the DLNR Online Reservation System. Hā’ena State Park day-use parking reservations (see below) aren’t required for permit holders.  Your Kalalau Trail hiking permit will get you into the park.

How To Get Parking Reservations For Hā’ena State Park Day-Use Visitors

For those that don’t have days to spend hiking the Kalalau Trail, there is another option! You are allowed to hike the first two miles of the trail down to Hanakāpīʻai Beach (4 miles round trip) without a permit. From there, you can extend your hike two additional miles inland to Hanakāpīʻai Falls (8 miles round trip). These day hike options still offer stunning views, and I would highly suggest adding it to your Kauai itinerary. While you won’t need a permit to hike this section of the Kalalau Trail, all day-use visitors make a parking reservation online before arriving. Reservations are limited to reduce overcrowding on the trail. You can make reservations up to 30 days in advance, and no later than the day before you plan to visit the park.

If you have the chance to hike the Kalalau Trail, don’t pass it up! I’ve backpacked all over the world, and there’s truely nowhere else quite like it.

More Once-In-A-Lifetime Adventures!

Once-In-A-Lifetime Adventures To Have In Kauai

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  1. Leslie Phillips says:

    I was on this trail at the beginning of April. Due to time constraints we could not hike the whole 22 miles. The views were breathtaking and we did make it to the falls…but it’s one of those places I feel like I MUST get back to and complete at some point in my life. Hopefully sooner than later. I love your pics and reading about the imperfect stories behind them.

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you so much Leslie! I find that sometimes our misadventures make the best stories. I hope that you have the opportunity to make it out to the beach at some point. It really is a very unique and worthwhile experience. The hike to the waterfall is wonderful though, and I’m so glad that you were able to get a taste of the trail. Happy travels!

  2. Suzanne says:

    Not sure which is better: your pics or your writing. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this.

    I’m planning to do the Kalalau Trail this November so this was really great to see/read. I’ve been terrorizing myself with visions of doom about Crawler’s Ledge. :\ I’ve done Angel’s Landing with no problem at all, but a lot of the photos I’ve seen of Crawler’s Ledge are downright horrifying, especially with a heavy pack. It sounds like I shouldn’t be too worried as long as we don’t do anything dumb. We were debating between 2 nights or 3 (all at the beach, not stopping in between). Might be worth just getting a permit for all 3 and leaving early if we don’t feel like staying. Hm…

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks so much Suzanne! Really glad you enjoyed it. If you have done Angel’s landing I don’t think the exposure on the Kalalau Trail will bother you at all. From my understanding it’s really only when the trail is supper wet and muddy that Crawler’s Ledge get’s a little dodgy. But it’s totally worth it! I actually have been out to the beach once before – in November – and it was beautiful. Your plan sounds perfect to me. Have a wonderful trip!

  3. Laura says:

    Wow! Your writing is incredible and mesmerizing. I’ll be honest, usually I’m a ‘scanner’, not a ‘reader’ but I read every word of your blog post and I was drawn in. Great job!! One of the best blog posts I have read in a long time. Keep them coming! You have a true talent.

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you Laura! Seriously means a lot. I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed the writing – and were able to stick with it. I was worried that no one would read a blog that wasn’t a list of top ten highlights. More coming soon!

  4. Jordan Howell says:

    Way to go! I hiked the trail in February it was amazing. Great write up! Hope all is well

    • Jordy
    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks Jordy! Glad you had a good time. It’s one of my favorite places – reminds me of the book/movie "The Beach" – not sure if you remember that one. Hope all is good with you as well!

  5. Mirza Ahmad says:

    Great post and amazing pictures. Now will need to convince my wife to go with our six month old daughter!

  6. Mike says:

    Love the post and pics! I was on the fence about hiking this. Should’ve been like you and gone for it. It gives me a reason to go back. Btw, what kind of camera do you shoot with?

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you Mike! It can be a hard decision when you only have a limited amount of time on the Island. There are so many beautiful places to see. These photos were taken with a Sony a7rII.

  7. Christine says:

    Great post! We are travelling to Hawaii in August and were hoping to do the trail. I love your photos – did you use a drone? Or did you go on a helicopter afterwards? I’m wondering if I should buy a drone to catch some of these spectacular shots!

    • Jess Dales says:

      It’s definitely worth going on a helicopter tour afterwards if you can. But there are also amazing views from the trail. I took a drone, but didn’t end up using it because it turns out that drones are prohibited in Hawai’i State Parks. I just got it, and I’m still trying to navigate all the rules!

  8. Dan @summitonly says:

    Headed to Kauai in a month. Saw your post. Great inspiration! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Christian Schaffer says:

    You captured this trail so perfectly. I’ve hiked Kalalau three times and on two of those treks, two different friends ended up in the emergency room. You never know what you’ll run into out there ..but that place is like gravity..always calling us back 😉

    • Jess Dales says:

      Oh my gosh! You never told me that! When we do it together we will have to make sure that no one ends up in the hospital. 😉

  10. adaebela says:

    Jess! You’re such a humorous and captivating storyteller. I was laughing to every other sentence and hooked to each word as you described the adventure. I’m currently planning my first trip to Kauai after 9 years of living on Oahu. Reading your adventure made me extra eager to explore the island. Thank you for the information and for sharing your story and visuals!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks so much Ada! I’m so excited for you. All of the islands are so special in their own right – but Kauai is absolutely magic. I’m sure you’ll love it, and I’m excited to hear about your experience!

  11. whitney says:

    Hi Jess! Just stumbled upon your blog and I’m in love! Thank you for sharing your adventures for us. I’m living on Oahu and hoping to hike Kalalau in the near future. Can you please share with me how much gear/clothing/food you carried? How heavy was your pack? Any tips for hiking Kalalau?

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Whitney! Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to check it out. You really don’t need much gear/clothing for Kalalau. I’m not sure how heavy my pack was, but most of the weight was probably camera gear. I packed a sleeping bag, pad, one pair of pants, a long sleeve shirt, rain jacket, and flip flops for hanging out around camp. Other than that I just had the clothes that I was wearing (shorts, t-shirt, and hiking boots). Food is really up to you based on how much you eat and weather you want to cook or not.

  12. Sunshine says:

    Such an intense hike, but such a wildly gorgeous place.

    • Jess Dales says:

      Could not agree more! It’s one of those places that really gets under your skin and sticks with you long after you have left.

  13. You’re a brave gal, but at least you were with a group of other hikers and not alone. Perhaps on this particular trail that would be too risky. Absolutely stunning photos. Sorry about those pesky mosquitos!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks for stopping by the blog Deborah! I think as long as the weather is dry it’s actually a pretty safe hike. I just wouldn’t want to do the exposed areas if they were too muddy. 🙂

  14. Sausan Lawal says:

    Hey I just saw this post and my husband and I are thinking about doing it April 2019. I’m wondering what you took with you. Did you take a sleeping mat and sleeping bag? I know a lot of sites say not to bring in all of the water and to just refill at the streams, is that what you did as well? Thanks in advance!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Sausan. I took a tent, light sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. I agree that it would be a waist of energy to try and cary all of your water in. There are fresh water sources along the trail, and at Kalalau beach. Although I would still definitely bring a water filter of some sort. Have a wonderful trip! It’s truly a very special experience.

    • Amber Hihn says:

      Hi Susan! How was the weather this April? Were you able to make the hike? 🙂

  15. Jasmine says:

    Beautiful post!! Going next month 🙂
    Which boots did you wear?

    • Hi Jasmine! That’s so awesome. It’s such a special place. I wore the KEEN boots that are linked in Hiking and Backpacking Gear Guide. The Kalalau Trail was actually the first time I wore them, and I loved them so much that I’ve been using them on almost every hike since then for almost 3 years now. Have a beautiful trip! 🙂

  16. Amber Hihn says:

    Wonderful post! This is exactly what I was looking for! Thank you Jess! My husband and I are headed there April 2020. Now I need to find a great pair of boots. 😉

  17. Gary says:

    Fantastic story telling!! Thanks for the read✌️

  18. Nate says:

    Such a beautiful trail, my wife and I did this one up to the waterfall years ago, the perfect path!!

  19. Alyssa Bergdoll says:

    Hi Jess! Love all your blogs curious about your packing list did you bring a sleeping bag? Thinking I may leave it behind to save weight

    • Hi Alyssa! I’ve done the Kalalau trail a few times, and I’ve always carried a lightweight sleeping bag with me. I am someone that needs to have some weight on me when I sleep though. . . even if it’s just a sheet. It rains a lot on Kauai, and can easily get down into the 50s at night, so I personally would recommend bringing one. But I’m kind of a "better safe than sorry" person when it comes to being cold. If you run pretty warm and you’re really concerned about saving weight, I’d look into at least packing a sleeping bag liner.

  20. Alyssa says:

    Hi Jess! One more question for you! Did you prefer Sunrise or sunset for shooting? Any photography tips? I cannot wait to go in April thanks for sharing you experience!

    • Hey Alyssa! Both were good. Sunset was best for shooting out toward the water, but morning time was best for shooting back toward the peaks. We never really shot right at sunrise, because it takes a while for the sun to rise over the peaks and add light to the scene.

  21. Michael Harshberger says:

    Hi Jess! My gosh. Your ability to marry such passionately stunning photos with your unique style of storytelling is truly inspirational. There is no doubt that Kaua’i is one of the most gorgeous places on earth, but somehow your words and descriptions make it even more so. I was fortunate enough to get to visit about ten years ago, with my girlfriend at the time, and even though we only had two nights on the island, it remains one of my most memorable trips ever. We spent the first night camping at Anahola Beach (on the way to the Kalalau trailhead), then woke up the next morning and headed to Ke’e Beach for our day hike to Hanakapi’ai Falls. The section of the trail from Hanakapi’ai Beach to the falls was definitely the most strenuous, but oh so worth it! I just wish I hadn’t worn my [cheap] water shoes that I thought were such a great idea (Wrong!). They had no support (or a sole, really) to speak of…they were essentially no better than walking barefoot over miles of small, pointy, jagged rocks; and when we got back to the car late that afternoon my feet were HATING me. Another 3-4 hours after that and I could barely walk. We had originally planned to spend our last night back in our tent at Anahola Beach, and as intent on that as I was, my girlfriend (who despite feeling pretty sore herself, was at least thinking clearly) made the executive decision to get a nice hotel room with a nice comfy bed and relaxing bath. Ironically, the first place we found with a room available was the Sheraton at Coconut Beach! Best decision we could’ve made. Unfortunately, we had to leave this gorgeous island the next afternoon, but reading your blog and seeing your photos has really inspired me to make it a priority to revisit this little slice of heaven and see the rest of her, including hiking the rest of the Kalalau, and seeing all of the other jewels she has to offer. I can’t thank you enough!!!

    • Hi Michael! Thank you so much for sharing your experience with me. Your poor feet! I would say you definitely should try and make it back someday to do the entire trail. There’s just no place on earth quite like it. And spending a night or two on Kalalau Beach should be on everyone’s bucket list. 🙂

  22. Mark E Might says:

    Those "discarded hiking poles" your boat guide mentioned are actually the remnants of a fence that was located at one of the more dodgy sections of the trail. The wire is long gone but the metal fence poles are still there. Also, the camp at the six-mile mark is called Hanakoa.

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Hi, I’m Jess, an outdoor enthusiast based in Seattle. I grew up exploring the Pacific Northwest, and early on was infected with the travel bug. I tried to suppress my wanderlust in pursuit of a traditional career path, but after a short stint as a lawyer, I left the confines of my office to get back in touch with my roots. Now, I wander the world taking photos, making memories, and sharing my love for travel with others!

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