The Kalalau Trail - The Work is Worth the Reward
Leave your slippas back at the fort for this excursion. While we’ve faired quite well scaling various peaks and volcanic edgings of the Hawaiian islands (Mokolii, Mokulua, etc...) in nothing but a pair of plastic toe thongs, this journey will require not only some serious foot wear (that will be trashed by the time you return), but both mental and physical tenacity. There may be blood. There will be sweat. There may even be a few tears. But for some, the water welling in your eyes will flow from the sheer emotional impact that the view of the valley offers upon arrival on its shores of Kalalau Beach. Below are step by step instructions to making the challenging once in a lifetime 11 mile trek as safe, pleasurable, and `olu`olu as possible. One thing we can guarantee, the reward defies comparison. We’re basically giving you the guidebook to the Garden of Eden here.
Approximate time: While in theory the Kalalau Trail hike can take 6 or 7 hours, you will want to "stop and smell the hibiscus" along the way, more often than not. Leave at the break of dawn and give yourself the complete day to make the trip, leaving enough daylight to enjoy Kalalau Beach before setting up camp for the night.
Kalalau Trail Permit
You require a Kalalau Trail permit to venture past the 6 mile mark at Hanakoa Valley, which is actually an improvement to the 2 mile marker at Hanakapi'ai that served as the border up until Dec 31, 2011. Anything beyond the Hanakoa Valley requires a camping permit, due to the fact that the region is a “point of no return” within the same day. While some people ignore the requirement, it is best to respect the wishes of the Hawaiian State Parks. They put these rules in place to conserve the land in addition to protecting your person. If visitors do not return within the time constraints of the permit, Parks personnel will take note and may send out an island chopper to survey the valley. If you neglect to document your presence, and find yourself in dire straits along the trail when conditions are treacherous (heavy rains), you may be out of luck. Keep in mind that $20 for a permit to camp in paradise is nothing.
Reservations to enter the Kalalau Trail can be made up to one year in advance.
Directions to Kalalau trail from Lihu'e Airport
Kalalau Trail begins at Hāʻena State Park, located on the north shore of Kauaʻi. It is found at the official end of Kuhio Highway, after a 41 mile (over an hour) drive from Lihu’e Airport and 5 miles west of popular destination Hanalei. Most visitors arrive by rental car but hitchhiking is not all that uncommon on the islands and is honestly the safest place to do so that we know of.
Photo: Historic Hanalei Bridge on Route 56 (Kuhio Hwy) towards Hāʻena State Park.
Supplies for the Kalalau Trail
11 miles of inconsistent trail levels. Blazing hot sun. Sporadic downpours. Not an ABC store in sight. It goes without saying, yet someone always neglects to bring sufficient supplies.
Food & Water - While there are streams and waterfalls at Hanakapi'ai, Hanakoa, and Kalalau Valley, the water will have to be boiled or well filtered to ensure it is bacteria free. You don’t want a case of tummy grumbling “uh oh’s” while on a hike like this, so bring LOTS of water. While it can weigh you down in the backpack, it’s better to have too much (won’t happen) than not enough. Also bring food that won’t spoil in the heat, including an assortment of energy and protein bars (nothing chocolate or yogurt coated as it will melt fast).
Kalalau Trail Map – A downloadable PDF brochure w/map is available here.
Miscellaneous – In addition to standard camping gear, bring toilet paper (there is a composting toilet at each main destination), a hoodie, a thin layered rain pull-over, fresh socks, medical supplies, beach towels, and of course a camera with an SD card holding enough room for a lifetime of photos.
Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi'ai - 2 miles
This is the “day hike” portion of the Kalalau Trail journey and the only zone you may find children (the active sort) accompanying adults and those less physically inclined to take on the entire 11 miles. The trail begins on the north shore of Kauai where the main highway ends at Keʻe Beach. Reaching Hanakapi’ai is a brief reward before continuing on, where you can dip your toes into the streams of the waterfall and at the beach. Be mindful of pounding shorebreak waves and rip current. Even if it looks flat the swell can creep up on you, so unless you are a more than capable swimmer, enjoy the view from the golden sand. The views of the coastline along the first two miles are amazing and you’ll be whipping out your camera constantly along the way.
Photo: Ke'e Beach as seen from the trail to Hanapaki'ai
Hanakapi’ai to Hanakoa Valley – 4 miles
Hanakoa Valley is a steep hanging valley with no beach access and less of a view of the coastline. The stream you come across doesn’t flow into the ocean. It catapults itself off of the cliffs, a fate you wish to avoid so keep your eyes on the unmaintained trail. The Hanakoa stream crossing is considered a half-way point and is often the site where those holding permits will set up camp before completing the 11 miles (one way). There is a composting toilet and an old roofed shelter. While you can technically bypass a night at the relatively uneventful Hanakoa, only the fittest of physical specimens can make the complete trek to Kalalau Beach in one day. Know your limits and make the decision accordingly.
Photo: The Kalalau trail through Hanakoa with a hint of the Hanakoa waterfall in the far background.
Hanakoa Valley to Kalalau Valley (Destination) – 5 miles
The trail gets drier, the view opens up, and the dividends roll in one by one as you make the 5 mile approach to the drift wood plank reading Kalalau. Whatever trepidation you may have developed along the way will wash away as each step takes you closer to the unfolding expanse of lush green bevelled cliffs, pristine shores, and rock protrusions into the ocean that appear to have been faked by CG pros in Hollywood, for your benefit. While beauty is in full bloom, do not ignore the beast of the trail that still rears its head along the way. You’ll find a few severely narrow sections along this portion of the trail that not only demand single file positioning, but at times have you with you moving like a side walking wind-up toy (hopefully with more dexterity), eyes wide open and prepared for the slightest slip.
Once you reach the mile long Kalalau Valley, terrain flattens and excitement peaks at the gap in the valley that introduces you a small waterfall, a stream, campgrounds, and ultimately to your promised reward, Kalalau Beach – the Garden of Eden – a place that beckons you to admonish your sins and beg the Hawaiian gods for the privilege to spend your remaining days in their sanctuary. Unfortunately the permit only allows 5, so soak it up.
Photo: The pali (cliffs) descend onto the most beautiful stretch of sand on the Pacific - Kalalau Beach