An enchanting hike famed for its astonishing natural beauty, the Kalalau Trail takes adventurers along the scenic Nā Pali Coast of Hawaii's Kauai Island. Spanning approximately 11 miles one way along the north shore of the island from Keʻe Beach to the Kalalau Valley, the trail showcases the magnificence of Mother Nature and what she crafts up when given the terrain and many millennia with which to get creative. Having been named one of the most beautiful yet simultaneously one of the most challenging, dangerous hikes in the USA, it's not for the faint of heart or the easily fatigued. In spite of its difficulty level, those ready to rival this spectacular stretch of natural splendor get to relish a surreal experience exploring the otherworldly landscapes of this breathtaking, pint-sized portion of the planet.
Renowned for its hanging valleys and rust-red and emerald green coastal cliffs rising towering 4,000 feet above the sea, it's easy to see how the Nā Pali coast received its name; the native Hawaiian word 'pali' translates to 'cliff' - a befitting and evidently sentimental name it deserves given its truly extraordinary landscape of rugged rocky skyscrapers blanketed by luscious greenery. What's more, the coastline serves up even more natural grandeur to soak up; it features rocky sea caves and concave tunnels crafted by storms and battering waves, adding to the mesmeric sights to be savored across this spectacle of nature.
However, nature's handiwork isn't the only draw; history has also been hard at work, with evidence of early Polynesian settlers dating back to 1300 AD seen along a number of the park's trails. Interestingly, these fascinating historic islanders spent much time in the dense verdant jungle valleys growing crops thanks to the regular rains that drenched the area - a place now officialized and existing today as the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park.
Of course, as a park abounding with sublime trails, stunning vistas, and postcard-worthy photo ops at every turn, it's no wonder it's become a hub of activity for the most adventurous lovers of the great outdoors. Whether they opt to camp, fly, hop on a boat, or explore the lands on foot, visitors to Kauai Island simply cannot miss out on discovering the incredible beauty of the Nā Pali coast. Indeed, one of the most popular and special ways to get to know these terrains is by donning comfortable hiking boots, preparing a backpack full of supplies, and venturing off to discover their mesmerizing trails - and here's a guide chock-full of insider knowledge to help those interested ready themselves in advance.
The Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park doesn't have 'wilderness' in its label for nothing; it's remote and wild and can only be accessed on foot via hiking trails - most of which aren't suited to beginners and those without stamina. Plus, facilities within the park's confines are extremely limited, except for a very few basic composting toilets here and there. As such, travelers with young children, handicapped people, and anyone not versed in the strenuous art of expert hiking trails might better enjoy Nā Pali by helicopter or boat tour, instead viewing its wondrous coastline, mighty cliffs, and cascading inland waterfalls from the sea or sky - with possible sightings of spinner dolphins and even humpback whales during their respective migration seasons. Also, those exploring by boat - such as a zodiac or catamaran - can relish the exclusive chance to check out the picturesque sandy Miloli’i Beach, a sheltered, colorful reef and chill-out spot for the Hawaiian green sea turtle and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. However, it's only accessible during the calmer seas of summertime.
How To Hike Nā Pali And The Kalalau Trail
Originally established in the 1800s, the Kalalau Trail is the only access point to the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park due to its vast, unforgiving terrain that's infamously difficult (but exceptionally rewarding to tackle). By all means, challengers can hike the 11-mile one-way route all the way to the iconic Kalalau Beach, but looks can be deceiving; they should not underestimate its difficulty level, despite how breathtakingly gorgeous the entire trail portrays itself - particularly after Hanakoa Valley, where it becomes noticeably rougher and much more hazardous. Fortunately, most other parts of the hike are far more doable and even offer interesting samples of past cultures along the way.
Whether an athlete or a newbie to exercise, in general, hiking Nā Pali's Kalalau Trail will take up the majority of the day - likely around 12 hours even for the fittest of folks. The time needed to complete the nefarious yet sensationally rewarding trek may therefore mean explorers need to prepare to camp within the park - which requires a permit granted in advance to do so - or hire a boat to collect them once they're done and dusted for the day. In any case, familiarizing themselves with the individual sections of the trail will undoubtedly prove helpful when hikers arrive and get going on this ethereal journey displaying some of Planet Earth's undisputed best natural scenery.
Ke’e Beach to Hanakāpī’ai Valley
Starting at Ke’e Beach in Hāʻena State Park and finishing off at Hanakāpī’ai Valley and beach, the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail are incredibly scenic and a favorite day hike for seasoned trekkers. Sweeping panoramas of the coast wait for walkers along the first half a mile, followed by a relatively unkempt two-mile spur trail that opens up once they arrive at the valley, ultimately bringing them to a majestic 300-foot-high waterfall. Although tempting at this point, swimming at the beach here is notoriously dangerous, with a number of drownings have occurred in the past. Also, the upper portion of the waterfall is too unsafe to explore during wet weather - only when it's dry is it more viable.
Hanakāpī’ai Valley to Hanakoa Valley
For the second section of the Kalalau Trail, hikers will need to go beyond Hanakāpī’ai Valley, for which they must hold a valid overnight camping permit (yes, even those not planning on camping). Anyone attempting this four-mile stretch of the route will likely find it much more strenuous than the latter part; it sends hikers back around 800 feet out of the valley and then takes them to traverse the Hono o Nā Pali Natural Area Reserve before going down into the Hanakoa Valley. Luckily, explorers can find a rest area on this part of the trail, where two shelters with roofs for shade and a composting toilet bless tired travelers with a little luxury - an exaggeration, but they'll definitely be grateful for the comfort break after the taxing trek to this point.
Also, those who prefer to call it a day after completing this second section can do so. In fact, experienced hikers with seasoned stamina can traverse this part of the route and head back in around eight hours, making its length a fairly doable day hike. However, folks with itchy feet and enough energy raring to go will enjoy the extra half-mile trail heading up the east side of the creek found in Hanakoa Valley, which opens up stunning views of a second waterfall - but challengers shouldn't get too excited; this additional bonus feature is only suitable for people confident on their feet since its treacherous conditions and hazardous terrain pose potential safety problems.
Hanakoa Valley to Kalalau Beach
The final five miles of the Kalalau Trail offer unreal, uninterrupted scenes all along a nerve-wracking narrow trail with stupendously steep drop-offs into the ocean below. Therefore, hikers must exert extreme care when traversing this last length of the route, especially during wet weather as they make their way across the stream and descend to Kalalau Beach, which is the endmost camping area for trail-goers. Again, swimming at this wonderful location is just as enticing as any of the others, but people should always stay alert and be aware of the local sea conditions and tides if they intend to get in the water. Plus, going under the waterfall here isn't advised; possible falling rocks may cause injury - or worse.
Where To Camp In Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park
Camping in the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park is permitted but solely limited to the Kalalau and Hanakoa Valleys. In addition, visitors can only camp if they hold a valid permit, which means pitching a tent at the trailhead is a no-no. To boot, camping in these wild parts is primitive; there are no proper campsites with facilities at all in the park - the only luxury available is very basic composting toilets in the Hanakāpī’ai and Hanakoa Valleys, as well as those at Kalalau Beach. However, all the park's designated camping areas are strategically situated on shaded terraces close to streams, providing some level of comfort and refreshment out of the sun with the much-needed offering of a cooling dip.
Visitors also need to pay for camping - it's $25 a person per night for residents of Hawaii, while non-residents are charged $35 per person for each night, with five consecutive nights being the maximum number allowed for which to stay. To buy a camping permit, Nā Pali-bound tourists can visit the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources - and they must note that these have to be purchased in advance. Also, permits are assigned to each person by name, and they're not interchangeable (so visitors should avoid buying any secondhand passes from other trail-goers - it won't end well).
How To Get To The Kalalau Trail In Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park
Despite providing access to the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, the Kalalau trailhead actually begins first in the Hāʻena State Park right at the end of Kuhio Highway Route 56 on the north coast of Kauai Island. The park is roughly located around 41 miles from Lihue Airport, taking about an hour and a half by vehicle to reach. In most cases, the easiest and most cost-effective way to get to the Kalalau Trail is to rent a car and drive there, which is also great for exploring other places and enjoying the scenery on the way. However, it is indeed possible to journey to the trail using public transport; a bus runs from the airport to Hanalei, and from there, travelers can simply hop in a taxi to the trailhead.
What To Know Before Visiting Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park And Hiking The Kalalau Trail
- As mentioned, visitors have to make park entry reservations in advance and go through Hāʻena State Park - but this does not apply to those with valid camping permits or anyone visiting the park by boat.
- Reservations are limited daily in order to control visitor numbers, meaning park-goers have to book their entry pass and camping permits well ahead of their visit.
- Generally, summer is the best time to visit the park. Winter sees frequent rains, sometimes resulting in unsafe hiking terrain and even flash floods.
- Hawaii's intense sun has a stronger ultraviolet index than most states; thus, high SPF sunscreen, sunglasses, wide-brim hats, and protective clothing are a must - even under overcast skies.
- Bringing an ample supply of water is essential because drinking water isn't available at any of the backcountry camping areas.
- There are no trash cans inside the park, so visitors should only pack what they can carry with them until they can properly dispose of it.
- Packing all the hiking essentials needed to ensure a safe, comfortable trip is part of the preparation!
- Checking the weather forecast beforehand is important; rainfall can appear out of nowhere and cause the trail to become slippery and unstable.
- Ke’e Beach located at the trailhead is amazing for snorkeling and among the best (and safest) spots on the island to do so, which is made even better by the shallow waters and protected reefs, along with on-duty lifeguards.
- Useful for those traveling by sea, most of the Nā Pali boat charters leave from Hanalei Bay, as it's the nearest major town to the park.
The wonderful and whimsical Nā Pali coastline's magnetic pull never ceases to beckon experienced hikers and adventurous trekkers in search of some of nature's most heart-stopping scenery and demanding terrains. Not a hike for beginners, the Kalalau Trail traversing illustrious sections of the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park is the topmost, experience-rich way to get intimate and up close with the heart, history, culture, and beauty of the awe-inspiring Hawaiian island of Kauai.
So, get fit, get practice, get boots, and get a bag packed before challenging this course that nature itself conjured up for the bravest, surest-footed trekkers of the world. Lastly, revisiting this handy, in-depth guide again closer to the time of that dream Nā Pali hiking trip wouldn't be a bad idea either.