The Kalalau Trail is one of the world’s most incredible hikes. This 11-mile trail takes you from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach along the Napali Coast. Along the way hikers will traverse jaw-dropping sea cliffs and wind their way through lush valleys, until the point where the trail drops to sea level at Hanakapiai and Kalalau beaches. It truly is a breathtaking experience!
In this blog post, I will be sharing my experiences on the Kalalau Trail and providing you with some key advice for your hike. This will give you an idea of what to expect on the trail, how to best prepare (including organizing permits), and some insight into what the scenery looks like along the way. Before I get started though, let me tell you a little bit about myself.
My name is Sharon and I have always had this passion for adventure. I was born in China and my parents came to the US when I was five. I grew up in Denver, Colorado in a predominantly white neighborhood. When I was young, I hated that I was different. Being different felt like a curse. It wasn’t until I moved to California after landing a job as a consultant for a financial technology firm that I started seeing being different as a good thing.
Being different can be a strength and a blessing. I loved meeting people from all over the world who were so different, and yet we shared a common love of experiencing new things. As a FinTech Consultant, I had the chance to travel all over the west coast and to Canada as well – meeting co-workers from Amsterdam, Sydney and London.
My passion for travel stems from my desire to learn and experience unfamiliar territories, and to open my eyes to different perspectives. I love trying new food from a local street vendor, smelling the new unique smells of each city I visit, and seeing the living history that built the culture.
Another aspect I love about travel is experiencing nature. Even though I have left Colorado, being outside and breathing in the fresh air reminds me of being home. Even when I’m halfway around the world, if I’m out hiking surrounded by hills and trees, there is a familiar feeling about it that reminds me that despite all our differences, there are similarities. We can find something in common with anyone if we look hard enough.
7 Days in Kauai – The Garden Island
Kauai is known as the Garden Island, and it’s the most lush and wild out of its neighboring islands. Typically, when people think of Hawaii, they think of relaxing on the beach, snorkeling with sea turtles and lounging all day in resorts. Kauai has all of that, but it also has so much more on offer!
I want to do my adventures while I’m still mentally and physically able to – like trekking to Machu Picchu and summiting Kilimanjaro. I have told myself that I can save my laying on the beach vacations for when I’m older. And so hiking the Kalalau Trail was something I had wanted to do for a long time as I had heard about its beauty and challenge. I love pushing myself to my limits and the Kalalau Trail was what drew me to Kauai.
We stayed in Kauai for seven days. We rented a Jeep for our entire stay, and spent the first two days exploring the east and south shores of the island. To begin with, we hiked a few smaller hikes in Waimea Canyon and enjoyed eating local food in Poipu. The entire island is small enough that we could cover a lot of ground and fit a lot into a short amount of time.
We snorkeled in secluded beaches on the south shore and then we were off to hike the Kalalau Trail! Our adventure on this trail lasted for three days and two nights. We concluded our trip with an unforgettable helicopter tour of the island. It was the perfect way to cap off a wonderful trip to Kauai!
Securing Permits for the Kalalau Trail
I found out about the Kalalau Trail after I hiked Half Dome in Yosemite, and I was blown away by the beauty of the Yosemite Valley. After hiking Half Dome, I sought out more beautiful hikes. The Kalalau Trail consistently came up as one of the most beautiful, yet challenging hikes in the world.
While it was on my bucket list for a while, the logistics around it were difficult. A lot of luck and effort is needed to secure a permit to hike the Kalalau Trail, and the permits are gone almost a year in advance. However, during the pandemic, I had a friend who was from Hawaii tell me that Hawaii was starting to not require a mandatory quarantine anymore.
When I heard the news, I looked to see if permits were available for the Kalalau Trail because I knew they had stopped giving out permits for a while during the pandemic. Luckily there were plenty of permits available. I booked my permits before I even booked my flights to Hawaii!
The first two miles of the Kalalau Trail don’t require permits, so everyone can hike to the first beach and experience a bit of the trail! But to hike the entire trail and camp on Kalalau Beach, you will need overnight permits. Make sure you secure the permits before booking your flights to Hawaii – you can secure your permit for the Kalalau Trail by clicking this link.
My Experience on the Kalalau Trail
We started the Kalalau Trail at the trailhead and we were able to get a parking permit for the trailhead parking lot. There is a campsite about six miles into the trail, but we opted to push all the way to the end of the trail at Kalalau Beach on the first day. We started our hike at around 6am in the morning, and because it was in December of 2020, the trail wasn’t too busy.
Another big factor about the Kalalau Trail is the weather. When it rains heavily, the trail closes as it becomes dangerous. The locals told us that the trail was closed for a few days the week prior, and it was sporadically raining the days leading up to our hike. Thankfully the weather was perfect for the duration of our hike, but it had rained heavily the day before.
The rain turned the trail into a mud pit. The river crossings were trickier as the water levels were higher and the rushing water was unforgiving. One of my favorite parts about this trail is that you hug the coastline almost the entire time. It’s stunning to hike next to the ocean. This hike wasn’t for the faint of heart as we passed some narrow and steep ridges. But I love type 2 fun. I thought this hike had some of the most breathtaking views.
The second highlight was near the seventh mile – you hit the famous Crawler’s Ledge and this was thrilling to hike through. The next highlight is around the ninth mile where you can see where your end game is. You come over these incredible red hills and it literally feels like you are in Jurassic Park. And finally getting to the waterfall at the beach after 11 miles and eight hours of hiking was the most extraordinary feeling ever!
Scenery and Terrain of the Kalalau Trail
The terrain alternated from jungle and rivers to rocks and cliff edges to dirt hills. This trail has some of the most diverse terrain – starting in a lush forest and quickly taking you to a beach after the first two miles. To continue onto the trail, we had to cross a river that flowed onto the beach. The water was high after rain, so it was more difficult to cross than it was on our way back.
It then continues to gain and lose elevation winding through the mountains, and you cross multiple creeks in the forest. The ground had a blanket of palm tree leaves and mud. Then suddenly you are completely exposed with no trees anywhere. Around the seventh mile, all you see for miles is rocks and you are on the edge of a cliff that drops into the ocean.
The thunder from the waves pounding on the rocks is the anthem that you hike to and your skin welcomes the warmth from the sun. Before you get to Kalalau Beach, you reach a steep downhill section on a dirt hill that is stained red. It feels like you are hiking on Mars until you look up and see the bright green mountains that Kalalau is famous for. What a transition this is!
The final destination is one of the most secluded beaches where hiking is the only way to get there. Boats aren’t allowed and helicopters are only allowed to land in specific areas off the beach for emergencies. The beach is pristine and the waterfall at the end is a welcome gift.
How Challenging is the Kalalau Trail?
Make no mistake about it: the Kalalau Trail is challenging. This is more suited for experienced hikers and those with high levels of fitness because you have to carry all of your gear (tents, water, food) in and back out. We hiked the entire trail in one day, but most people break it up to camp one night at the six mile mark and then continue to Kalalau Beach the next day.
We decided to hike all the way to the beach on our first day and spend two nights at the beach – exploring the areas around the beach for an entire day on the second day and then hiking out on the third day. Depending on the condition of the trail too, it can make the hike more or less challenging.
If it’s raining or after a heavy rain, the mud makes the trail difficult to hike. The downhills are more slippery and the uphills are grueling. If you are lucky to have dry conditions, you may find the trail easier to get through, but it’s ultimately a 22 mile round trip hike that is not a walk in the park.
There is a lot of elevation gain, and it’s one of those hikes that goes up and down constantly. It can be disheartening to hike down after hiking up 1,000 feet but this is what type 2 fun is all about. It’s miserable while it’s happening, but fun in retrospect. Despite the challenges, I rate the Kalalau Trail a 9/10. It was one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever done, but there were moments where I struggled with mud and river crossings.
I highly recommend that people do this hike when visiting Kauai, even if it’s just the first couple of miles that gets you to the first beach. If you have the chance to get permits for this hike, it’s worthy of your bucket list! There is no other hike like this in the world and the challenge is part of the fun.
Best Memory from the Hike
My favorite memory from this hike was watching the sunset on Kalalau Beach on the first day we arrived. We had just pushed our bodies so hard for eight hours, crossing so many different types of terrain! Getting to our final destination was such an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment.
There were still clouds floating in the sky from the rain the day before, and these clouds were saturated with pinks, purples and gold from the sun slipping beneath the ocean. Dusk is my favorite time of day and this sunset felt like I was part of it. The waves were crashing onto the shores of the beach, once again filling the air with their thunder. This time, the thunder from the waves would be our lullaby as we drifted off to sleep in our tent.
Eco-Tips for Hiking the Kalalau Trail
This hike is a Leave-No-Trace which means there are no trash cans and you have to respect the wilderness and carry your trash back out. We brought a water filter so we didn’t need to carry as much water. We could refill our reusable water bottles with water from the streams and creeks.
We kept a separate bag for trash that we carried with us and we didn’t disturb nature (we left the flora and fauna as they were and respected nature). We believe in preserving nature and we encourage the use of reusable water bottles and carrying out all of the trash you accumulate.
Need to Know Before you Go
The number one thing to hike the Kalalau Trail is to be prepared. Make sure you acquire a permit if you plan on doing the entire trail and want to camp overnight at Kalalau Beach. This includes a parking permit for the trailhead! Be prepared for unexpected changes in the weather and go into the hike with an open mind. There will be very challenging and tough moments but believe that you are tougher and that you can overcome the challenge.
You should know that there will be many water crossings and bugs on the trail as well. We used almost an entire bottle of bug spray in three days. But even with these challenges, this hike was one of the most incredible experiences I have had. I would 100% recommend this hike to everyone!