Distance: 22 miles | Type: Out-and-Back | Time: 6 – 11 hours One-Way | Level: Hard
Whether you live in Hawaiʻi like us or are planning a trip to the islands, make sure to add backpacking the Kalalau Trail to your Kauaʻi bucket list.
The Kalalau trail traverses 11 miles one way across Kauaʻi’s rugged Nā Pali coastline, from Kēʻē Beach to Kalalau Valley. The Kalalau Trail, often referred to as the Nā Pali Coast Trail, is famed for being one of the most beautiful and most dangerous trails in the United States.
The famous trail incorporates all the adventurous aspects of a good hike. While backpacking the Kalalau you will encounter 360-degree ocean views, stream crossings, ledge scrambles, curious wildlife, dramatic waterfalls, vibrant wildflowers, sandy white beaches, jagged mountains, and breathtaking views of the milky way.
I could go on.
In this guide, I will cover everything you need to know before your trip. I highlight what to expect when backpacking the Kalalau Trail, how to obtain a camping permit, where to camp, what to pack, and more.
Everything You Need to Know Before Backpacking the Kalalau Trail on Kauaʻi’s Nā Pali Coast
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The History of Kalalau Valley
Before the Kalalau Trail became a bucket list destination for hikers around the world, it was a path used to access Kalalau Valley. A valley estimated to have been the home to nearly 5,000 Native Hawaiians.
When you walk through Kalalau Valley you can still see dry-stack rock terraces that were used for cultural and agricultural practices. In 1983, the State finally took over ownership of the land due to an increased number of visitors to Kalalau. Today, no one is permitted to live in the valley.
When visiting Kalalau Valley today, please do so with respect. It is an undeserved privilege that we get to experience the beauty of the valley and it is all of our responsibility to help maintain its beauty and history.
Things to Know Before Backpacking the Kalalau Trail
Kalalau Camping Permits are Required
Permits are required to backpack the Kalalau Trail. Without a permit, however, hikers can still access Kēʻē Beach and hike to Hanakapiʻai Falls. If you do not secure an overnight permit, please do not continue hiking past the Hanakapiʻai Falls trail.
Again, even if you do not plan to camp, you need a camping permit to continue hiking past the falls trail. Access is capped on trail permits for a reason, please respect this rule.
I go into detail on how to secure a camping permit below.
Hā‘ena State Park Entry and Parking Reservations are Required
Advanced enter-only reservations must also be made to enter Hāʻena State Park (i.e. visitors not camping). The only people exempt from having to make a reservation to enter the park are Hawaiʻi residents and camping permit holders.
*Note: Hikers are required to make additional overnight parking reservations after securing their camping permit if planning to leave a vehicle in the parking lot.
For your day-use reservation you will have the option to choose between three reservation types:
- Shuttle + Entry
- Parking + Entry
- Entry only
I recommend thoroughly reading over the FAQ before making a reservation choice.
No Cell Service in the Park
There is no cell service in Hā‘ena State Park. Make sure you have downloaded your permit(s) and any offline trail maps you want to use before entering the park.
How to Obtain a Permit for Backpacking the Kalalau Trail
Obtaining a permit to backpack the Kalalau Trail can be tricky. Permits go live exactly 30 days in advance from the desired hiking date. Permits become available at midnight, Hawaii Standard Time, and will be sold out by midnight. As I said, securing one can be tricky and extremely frustrating.
Follow these instructions to (hopefully) secure a permit:
- Create an account on eHawaii. Make sure you allow your web browser to save your login information.
- Visit Hawaiʻi’s Department of Land and Natural Resources Page
- Choose Kaua’i
- Select Nā Pali State Wilderness Park
- Click Make Reservation
- Enter in your reservation details and choose Kalalau for site ID
- Hit continue
At this point in the reservation process, you will know whether or not you snagged a camping permit for your dates.
Unfortunately, most people don’t get one their first go around. Be patient, keep trying, and be flexible with your dates and duration of stay if possible.
Best Way to Get to the Kalalau Trail
There are several available options for arriving at the trail. Hikers can choose to either rent a car, book a seat on the shuttle, or hire a driver.
Renting a car is definitely the easiest way to get to and from the park but not the most cost-effective.
We always look on Turo for car rentals. Not only is Turo more affordable but it allows you to rent a local’s car. Having a local car when visiting the Islands is always a good idea. Car break-ins are not uncommon in Hawaiʻi.
Don’t forget to reserve your overnight parking permit if choosing to rent a car.
The shuttle is also a great option if you don’t mind a little extra planning. Shuttle ticket reservations are required ahead of time, and booked on a round-trip basis.
The shuttles depart from Waipā to the State Park daily, in 30-minute increments from 6:30 am – 11:30 am. To get from the airport to Waipā, hikers will have to ride the Kauaʻi Bus.
Likewise, the shuttle leaves the State Park to return to Waipā from 7:00 am – 12:00 pm, and then again from 2:00 pm – 5:30 pm. Shuttle seating is first come first served and will fill up.
You can find more details regarding the shuttle here.
We opted to get a ride to and from the park. You don’t have to worry about securing an overnight parking permit or paying for a rental car to sit while you’re camping. We found our driver on the Kalalau Trail Facebook group page.
What to Expect Backpacking Kauaʻi’s Nā Pali Coast on the Kalalau Trail
Where to even begin? We spent an incredible four days and three nights on the Nā Pali Coast.
Backpacking the Kalalau Trail will undoubtedly be an experience you’ll remember forever. There’s just something extraordinary about the rugged cliffs that make up the Nā Pali Coast. The towering, green mountains almost seem too grand for this world.
The trail wastes no time in making you work. For the first mile, the trail gains about 500 feet of elevation. Quickly gaining elevation while carrying a pack is a sure way to get your heart pumping.
Just as soon as you’ve gained the 500 feet, you will begin your descent down into Hanakapiʻai. Get used to the up-and-down nature of the trail, it remains this way for the entire 11 miles.
The trail starts off rocky and slippery, especially if it’s recently rained (which isn’t uncommon on the northwest shore of Kauaʻi). The first two miles of the trail are the most crowded because it includes day-hikers headed to Hanakapiʻai Beach and Hanakapiʻai Falls.
Just before you arrive at Hanakapiʻai Beach, the trail presents the first of many stream crossings. Most people opt to take their shoes off here and go straight in.
Always use caution when crossing streams, take your time and be cognizant of flash floods.
Hikers reach Hanakapiʻai Beach two miles into the trail. Hanakapiʻai Beach is a remote and stunning stretch of white sand.
As tempting as it may appear, I do not recommend swimming at this beach. Many people have lost their lives here due to strong rip currents. That aside, it’s a great place to admire the turquoise waters of the Nā Pali Coast and catch your breath.
There is also a drop toilet here. Make sure to have your own toilet paper on hand.
If you’re up for it, I highly recommend tacking on the extra four miles (round trip) to witness Hanakapiʻai Falls. The waterfall is absolutely stunning and, hands down, one of the best waterfalls in Hawaiʻi. The falls cascade from over 300 feet with a large swimming hole at the bottom.
We stashed our packs in the bushes and went for it. We knew adding on the detour might mean we wouldn’t make it all the way to Kalalau Beach on the first night, but we couldn’t pass it up.
The trail has a slight incline the entire way with several muddy sections and slippery stream crossings. Regardless, the moment the waterfall peaks into view you’ll know you made the right choice (even if your legs are telling you differently).
Once we laid eyes on the waterfall we were immediately compelled to jump in. The water is take-your-breathe-away freezing, but absolutely exhilarating. We swam out to the falls as fast as we could, laughing the entire way. In the middle of the swimming hole, we floated on our backs and gazed up at the powerful water flowing over the cliff.
It’s a moment we will remember forever.
If you’re still on the fence about whether the extra miles to the falls are worth it, check out my detailed guide Hiking to Hanakāpīʻai Falls Trail and see why it’s one of my favorite waterfalls of all time.
Once you get back on the main Kalalau trail from the Hanakapiʻai Falls detour trail, you still have about four miles to Hanakoa. Hanakoa marks the halfway point of the Kalalau Trail.
The ascent initially following the falls is muddy and slippery. Our legs were definitely feeling the extra four miles.
After putting in just over 10 miles on the first day, we decided to sleep at the Hanakoa campsite our first night. We were initially disheartened that we weren’t going to make it all the way to Kalalau Beach. Several friends had advised us to skip Hanakoa, claiming it wasn’t worth the overnight.
I would have to disagree.
The Hanakoa camping area is deep in the valley, surrounded by lush green forest, and situated around Hanakoa Stream. There is a series of pools along the stream perfect for cooling off. We were eager to unlace our shoes and submerge our feet in the ice-cold water.
When you first come across the Hanakoa camping area you will see a drop-toilet bathroom and shelter area with a picnic table. You can choose to camp on this side of the stream or on the other side. We set up camp on the other side of the stream, despite its distance from the bathroom.
The only downfall we could find to the Hanakoa camping area was the mosquitos. Bring lots of bug spray and cover up.
Adventuring to Hanakoa Falls is another reason to overnight at Hanakoa. We weren’t even aware there was a waterfall at this point in the trail until we saw a sign, but boy were we happy we went looking for it.
Hanakoa Falls is a multi-tiered waterfall. From the base, you can see over 400 feet of the stunning falls. The flow was not as powerful here as it was Hanakapiʻai but it was remarkable, nonetheless. We were speechless once we stumbled up to it, as we were most of the trip.
We had the waterfall all to ourselves.
There are signs at the falls warning hikers not to swim due to falling rocks. But, man, was it tempting. Even more reason to take the plunge at Hanakapiʻai.
Once you leave Hanakoa and continue on the trail towards Kalalau Beach the trail drastically changes. The second half of the trail is undoubtedly the trail’s claim to fame.
Around mile seven, you will come across the famous Crawler’s Ledge section of the hike.
Crawler’s ledge is iconic for its narrow path and steep drop-off into the Pacific. To be honest, we had anticipated this section to be way more terrifying than it was and spent a good mile past the ledge wondering if we had even come to it.
If you are familiar with ridge hikes in Hawaiʻi this section is no different. However, if you’re new to the nature of Hawai’i trails or have a fear of heights, this section might cause some pause.
Take your time and lean into the wall. It will be over before you know it. And, if it’s worth anything, I think this is one of the most beautiful sections of the entire trail.
Once you pass Crawler’s Ledge you’ve got about four miles left before reaching Kalalau Beach. The next four miles of the trail are nothing short of magical.
This section of the trail is dryer and less maintained. The path is narrowed by plants and brush but the views of the Nā Pali Coast are absolutely endless.
I believe we smiled the whole rest of the way, despite how tired we were. The trail winds along the coast, providing stunning views of the ocean, mountains, and sheer cliffs.
We gawked at the color of the water, constantly, and stared in disbelief at the jagged mountains. Along this portion of the trail, we spotted two large pods of dolphins, dozens of goats, francolins, and even a pueo (native Hawaiian short-eared owl).
Once you reach mile 10 you’re in the final stretch and begin your descent into the valley.
Kalalau Beach is even more beautiful than one would imagine. As far as you can see there are long stretches of white sand and clear blue water, surrounded by towering green cliffs and a picturesque waterfall.
Kalalau Beach Camping
There are several places you can camp once you reach Kalalau Valley. Some sites are more wooded, secluded, and further from the beach, while others provide beachfront access. The campsites in the wooded area are nearest to the drop toilets, but we decided to walk further in and camp along the beach, closer to the falls and ocean.
We were surprised by how busy the beach seemed. I think a part of us hoped we’d feel marooned on a deserted island during our trip, but that’s not the reality. Kalalau Beach is a sought-after backpacking destination, as it should be, with the number of permits constantly capped out.
You will be in the company of other campers, but it doesn’t take away from the experience. We spent our afternoons reading, playing cards, sunbathing, journaling, swimming, exploring, etc. If you have the time and energy I also recommend venturing down the End of Valley Trail or over to Honopu Beach.
Of course, you can also just do nothing and revel in the ability to do so. The best part about backpacking the Kalalau is how much time you have to just be present.
What Gear to Pack
It is crucial that you take some time to plan your gear for the trip. You don’t want to be five hours into the trail and realize you forgot something imperative.
Below is a list of items I recommend taking with you while backpacking the Kalalau Trail. Keep in mind, this list is based off of a 4-day, 3-night backpacking itinerary.
For more details on what to pack, check out my Backpacking Essentials gear guide.
- Backpack (I used a 65L)
- Backpack water bladder
- Tent (+ rainfly)
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Luci lamp
- Head lamp
- Pot set
- Stove + gas
- Reusable water bottle
- Water filter
- Extra water storage bag
- Quick dry towel
- Solar phone charger
- Trash bag(s)
Accessories / Misc
- Daily toiletries
- Environmentally safe sunscreen
- Toilet paper
- Emergency kit
- 2-3 pairs hiking shorts
- 2-3 hiking tops
- Warm outer layer top
- Warm outer layer bottom
- Bathing suit
- 3 pairs hiking socks
- Hiking boots/trail runners
- Variety of snacks
- Peanut butter
- Dehydrated dinners
- Hydration tablets
- Energy supplements
- Journal + pen
Mālama Āina Reminders
As I mentioned earlier, the Kalalau holds cultural and historical significance to the Hawaiian people. When hiking, please pay respect to the land and don’t disturb any historic structures (terraced rock-walls).
When camping, always camp in designated areas and utilize bathroom facilities when available. Plan accordingly so that you are prepared to pack out everything that you pack in.
Lastly, please abide by the permit system. If you do not have a permit do not hike past Hanakapiʻai Falls Trail and do not camp. Following these rules helps reduce excessive foot traffic, impacts on wildlife, and trail conditions.
Let’s do our part in keeping the Kalalau beautiful.
If you have any further questions about backpacking the Kalalau Trail, drop me a message in the comment section below.