Let me begin by telling you that hiking to the beach at the end of the Kalalau trail was one of the most rewarding things I have done. This is without a doubt one of the best hikes in North America. Not only is it absolutely spectacular but you have to work (HARD) for it!! It makes arriving all the sweeter! Note that the trail to the end is frequently cited as one of the most dangerous trails in America. If you are going to do this please be prepared for a very LONG day of hiking!! 11 miles might not sound very far (it didn’t to us) if you consider walking on flat or even terrain for 11 miles but it is up and down, into and out of valleys all day!! How long will it take you to hike the Kalalau trail? Well the first time we went it took us 10 grueling hours … (we clearly overpacked though) … the 2nd time (yes we went again the following year – that’s how amazing it is!) it took us 8 hours but we packed very light. (I will add our packing list to the end of this post.) Get a Kalalau camping permit early on (at least 6 months out during the summer months) not only does this help fund the park but it will ensure you don’t get in trouble with the rangers.
Get ready to get going.
First of all you want to start early … we started at 7am both times and were able to get a parking spot in the lot next to the trailhead. If you arrive much later you will have to park further away and walk. This part of the island (the end of the road) gets extremely busy (traffic, people, etc) from early until late so keep that in mind. There are restrooms, outdoor showers at the trailhead as well as a great little snorkeling beach. We parked at the trailhead for 5 nights when we went in (per local recommendation) we emptied our car of everything and left it unlocked. This can deter potential thieves as they can just open the door, look around and see that there is nothing to take. This can also avoid broken windows and stolen items… no guarantee of course but we haven’t had problems either time we went in for a multi-day trip.
And off we went … I highly recommend walking poles (as these seriously saved our knees). The views are stunning along the way so be prepared to stop and enjoy – remember it’s the journey not the destination! The first 2 miles will get you to Hanakapi’ai beach (these 2 miles are not easy though) – it is pretty much one mile up and one mile down so take it slow … enjoy the view as there are still 9 miles to go once you get to the beach. This beach is beautiful but also one of the most deadly on the Hawaiian islands so beware. The currents are strong here so swimming is never recommended.
Once you get down to the beach you will have to cross a river. Sometimes there will be a board laid down to cross over, other times there will be nothing. Please be aware that if there has been a lot of rain (and all the waterfalls are going off) it is not safe to cross. It can wash you right out to sea (and yes! it happens). So be careful – you can always take off your hiking boots and wade across as an option or balance across the rocks if you are so inclined as long as the river isn’t raging. Once you arrive at the beach it is a great place to sit down for a morning snack.
In the winter the waves are so big at this beach that most of the sand gets washed away and there are only rocks. It’s pretty amazing to watch the waves crash onto shore! From here you have the choice .. you either continue on the Kalalau trail (9 more miles) or you head up to the Hanakapi’ai falls – another 2 miles (but much easier than the first 2!). I highly recommend going to whole way to the falls if you are just doing a day hike. It is beautiful and if you already made it to the beach the worst part of the hike is over (except when you have to go home.)
Your separation from the day hikers begins here.
If you are heading to Kalalau get ready! the next hill from 2 miles to 3.5 miles is the biggest elevation gain of the trail so go slow, one step at a time, the view from the top is amazing! Once you get to the top you will step over a chain link fence and you will see a huge rock to the right. If you aren’t afraid of heights go to the outer ledge of the rock and have a break – not only will you have a once-in-a-lifetime view but you will also be cooled down by the ocean breezes!
Once you leave Hanakapi’ai beach you will notice that the foot traffic will decrease dramatically. Now you have the trail (pretty much to yourself) so take your time and enjoy! It can be slippery and very muddy if it has rained so be sure to wear clothes that you don’t mind being stained with the red dirt of Kauai.
The trail will continue up and down and in and out of the valleys from here. There will be some streams where you can fill up your water bottles along the way (all the way to the end.) Just be sure to purify your water before you drink it – it is not safe to drink it directly from the streams!
My advice is slow and steady along the trail. Take rest breaks as needed and bring rain gear as it might rain in the first portion (up to mile 7) of the trail. After that you enter a drier part of the island. That being said the last part of the trail is usually really hot so make sure you have plenty of water for miles 7-11!
This is your one and only chance to break the trip up into 2 days.
At around mile 7 you will arrive at Hanakoa campsite – from here there is a 1.6 mile round trip path to the waterfalls – they are supposed to be really beautiful. I have to admit that we have hiked out to Kalalau twice but haven’t stopped to look at them either time. We have powered through to the end and quite frankly the thought of adding on another 1.6 miles was a daunting idea. If you are feeling tired or have lots of time, this campsite is your half-way point to relax and finish off the rest of the hike the next day. This is a good option especially if you are already exhausted by the time you arrive here – the last 4 miles seem really long (just sayin’). If you do camp here bring mosquito spray as you are right in the jungle and next to the stream. If it is raining a lot take a camping spot either in the protected hut or on higher ground in case of flooding!
After the Hanakoa valley – your next obstacle will be ‘crawlers ledge’. This is probably the most famous portion of the trail and you will hear many harrowing tales of people hanging on for their lives while crossing this area. It can wash out and it is a very narrow ledge so for those who are afraid of heights this can be a big challenge.
I find that the big hill to get to crawlers ridge and the area directly following it are scarier than the ledge itself. The hill before is steep with lots of loose rocks and the area directly after it has a lot of erosion happening and the path is quite unstable.
Good news is that after you make it through this section and get down the other side (there is a little stream) to get water and freshen up. You have one more big hill (from around mile 8 -9) and then you are into the final stretch. This hill seems to be never ending and it knocks me down every time … it is in the shade which is a blessing but your knees will probably be trembling by the top (at least mine were). This section tends to be pretty hot and by now your legs and knees are probably aching but don’t give up – it is SO worth it!
Suddenly you will get your first glimpses of the beach and this sign will pop up. I almost cried tears of joy when I saw this (well maybe I did.) You could probably hear me hooting and hollering all the way to the beginning of the trail head.
Now for the bad news … you think you made it to the beach … well there is one more mile to go and it’s a doozy. It is 1 mile down the ‘red hill of death’ (that’s what we call it anyways.) By now your knees and thighs are burning … you might be fitter than we are but we had to crab walk down the rest of the way (don’t know what crab walking is? well it’s a sideways shuffle most often used by very old people). It wasn’t pretty but we made it!
Once you make it down the red hill of death you come to the glorious river. I recommend taking off your boots and jumping in – it feels like heaven!!
Once you are cooled off and kitted up it is a short jaunt to the camp grounds (I promise!)
You made it to paradise. Now it’s time to set up camp.
The campgrounds are mainly situated in a grove of trees so all spots are shady (which is amazing!) There have never been mosquitos there when I was there (which is even more amazing!). You will find a waterfall at the very end of the campgrounds where people shower and get fresh water (treat it though!) or you can get water from the river that you passed coming into the campgrounds.
This was our first camping spot. None of the spots are numbered or reserved – you can just plop your tent down wherever (keep in mind camping etiquette though and don’t invade someone else’s space.) The good thing about camping out here is that no one wants to carry additional weight out so people ‘gift’ each other leftover equipment, food, etc – we even had our neighbors leave us the remnants of their wine-in-a-box (thank you neighbors!)
On our 2nd night we moved down the campgrounds (actually officially out the other side) closer to the waterfalls. These spots are harder to get but if you can – camp here. You are moments from the waterfall (aka your water supply and your shower) and you are right on the beach!
This is where we stayed pretty much immobile for our first 2 days (our legs were so sore after our first hike in that we could barely move.) Seriously, I am not kidding …. good thing we were there for 5 nights, right?! That’s why for our 2nd journey into Kalalau we lightened our loads considerably.
You can usually hear goats bleating and scampering around (they live in the mountains). When we were there – there was one ornery goat who would wait at the top of the waterfall and when people were showering or getting water he would chuck rocks down at them … I am pretty sure I heard him and his goat friends giggling as they did this … so beware of falling rocks.
Explore the area – it’s full of surprises.
Now that you have arrived, you can relax and explore. We brought hammocks (tent hammocks the 2nd time we went) which were amazing! You can sit for hours and just watch the world go by. There are some cool caves down the beach where if it has been raining you will find cool (and fresh) water. We went there multiple times a day to cool off and ‘shower.’
There are also other caves (before this one) where you can camp in the summer. A lot of kayakers camp there – there are hooks in the rock to hang hammocks and it’s another neat place (and cool) to hang out.
Another place to visit is the heiau on the green hill at the end of the beach. Heiau’s were built by early Hawaiians as a place to pay tribute and communicate with the gods. This entire area oozes mana, or spiritual power, even if you aren’t religious in anyway, you can feel the magic of this place. These places are of historical and spirtual significance to Hawaiians so don’t move any of the rocks (or take any with you.) Once you get to the top of the hill there is a beautiful view down the Kalalau valley (sorry my husband’s not using his photo face in this one…).
And you can of course explore the Kalalau valley. If you head back to the river there is a path up the right side of it that will bring you to the Big Pool (about 4.5 miles round trip) – What is the big pool? Well it’s exactly what it sounds like – a beautiful swimming hole up river. You can also just wander around as you will see many off shoots of trails (pig trails or hippie trails) that will lead you to old abandoned campsites, community gardens or just to a muddy dead end. It’s a beautiful area to explore and wander (just remember to take a lot of water, bring mosquito spray and don’t wear flip flops – water shoes are great!). You will probably meet up with some hippies along the way – there is a community who lives out here year round though the population goes down in the winter. Don’t be afraid .. they are friendly 🙂
Last but not least just enjoy your time here. The hike out will be easier than the hike in – partly due to less weight in the pack on the way out. Remember to pack out all your trash and leave only memories behind. For those of you who don’t think you will make it out – it’s usually possible to negotiate a jet ski or boat trip back out but it’s going to cost you! Last time we were there the going rate was $100 per person … and just think how proud you will be of your accomplishment when you get back to the trailhead on your own 2 feet. Plus I have to tell you that the first beer you have when you are back in town is going to be the BEST BEER EVER!
The promised packing list.
- Backpack (of course) – we always put a trash bag inside of it to protect everything from getting wet in case of rain. You can also use a back pack protector but you have to buy that…
- Walking sticks – this is a big one!! These saved our lives (ok I exaggerate) but they make the hike much better as they support you and help you up and down the rocks!!
- 10 essentials (that you should also bring with you on hikes!) : rain gear, compass, waterproof matchsticks/lighter, sunglasses/sunscreen, extra set of clothes, water and water filter (we use the steripen), pocket knife, extra food, headlamp and first aid! ( I would add bug spray to this list).
- Tent – we used these hammock tents the 2nd time we went which were amazing as they double as a hammock during the day and have mosquito netting.
- Hiking boots with an extra pair of socks to walk out as yours will be stinky! and camp shoes (preferably TEVA like shoes so you can hike the Kalalau river valley and not lose your flip flops in the mud – I speak from experience.)
- Freeze-dried (dehydrated) meals – these are easy to prepare and very light .. and taste pretty good too! (Some of my favorites are the Beef Stroganoff and Chicken Teriyaki ) Bring these with you as since Sports Authority went out of business I am not sure you can buy these on Kauai anymore. You can buy them at Amazon (see link) or REI, Campmor, even some Walmarts will have them!
- Spork and cup for coffee (I always bring instant coffee and powdered milk for my morning ritual).
- Camping stove – we used our JetBoil (which we LOVE) and you can buy the camping gas at Walmart or at Ace Hardware near the airport.
- Sleeping liner (I get cold and this worked out perfectly with an evening layer of clothes). You will need a sleeping pad if you are in a tent.
- Bathing suit!
- Clothes – keep in mind that most of the day you will hang out in your bathing suit. A sarong works really well as a cover up/towel.
Remember the less stuff you bring, the lighter your pack will be … you will be grateful for each pound that you leave at home.
This post is not meant to be an official trail guide or map. It is a starting point for your explorations. Please always check local weather forecasts and trail conditions before starting. Know your limits and be safe!