Hiking Kauai’s Kalalau Trail
Somehow, Hawaii had brought out the hiker in me. I think in Kauai I finally realized why my childhood in Upstate New York never inspired the hobby to take hold: there is simply nowhere in the Northeast United States that looks like the Kalalau Trail.
The full Kalalau Trail is eleven miles one way along the stunning Nā Pali Coast, frequently named as Hawaii’s most scenic spot — not an easy title to hold. The coast can be viewed by helicopter, by boat, or the most laborious (and also the most free!) way — on foot.
Landing in Kauai, I was still a bit too intimidated and unprepared to tackle the entire two-day, twenty-two mile trail. Luckily, there are plenty of options that take in just a portion of the trail, and also sidestep the hassle of obtaining a camping permit for an overnight stay. Just two miles along the coast from the trailhead is Hanakapiʻai Beach, a great turn-around point for day hikers. And just two miles inland from the beach is Hanakapiʻai Falls, perfect for a mid-day swim. Hiking to the falls and back makes for a strenuous but do-able eight mile hike.
On a drive around the North Shore, where the trail starts, I tentatively brought up the idea of the hike with my hosts Angie and Alex. Alex, a pretty easy-going guy, was kind enough to come along despite the fact that he’d be hiking the same route a week later with different guests.
So, starting very early to escape as much of the searing mid-day heat as possible, the two of us set off.
The first two miles down to the beach weren’t bad at all. It’s about a mile downhill and a mile uphill, but we had stunning views like this to revitalize us when we needed energizing:
Before we knew it, we had reached Hanakapiʻai Beach, where an entertainingly blunt sign warned us of the dangers of swimming in the inviting waters.
We needed a break, so with swimming in the ocean out, we entertained ourselves by speculating over the rock and sand sculptures and playing with the mysterious hiking kittens (how did they get there?).
Feeling revitalized, we started inland and upstream towards the waterfall. This was a nice change of scenery as our surroundings went from coastal beachfront to tropical rainforest.
This was a less well-marked trail, and we did get a bit turned around at times. Luckily, we could always get a general direction by following the stream — and if all hope was lost, we had a lot of clementines.
But despite our sub-par navigational skills, we soon reached the falls. They really were an inspiring sight, though I was surprised to find the shores were almost as busy as nearby Hanalei Bay when the surf is up. Who are all these people, willing to spend an entire day in Hawaii hiking through rugged terrain?! Well, us, I guess.
Alex showed off with daredevil somersaults while I, the more reserved Alex of this pair, could barely get past waist-level in the freezing water.
We picked up the pace on the return trip, though we didn’t get any less lost — although not quite this lost! For some reason we had a hard time following the trail, but we always picked it back up again. Still, it was a bit mentally taxing and I was glad when we hit the beach and were back on the coastal trail.
Those final two miles were the only part where I had that “HOLY WHY AM I DOING THIS” sensation that has defined so many of my pre-Hawaii hiking adventures — I guess it pays to get in shape! Though signs at the trailhead had warned us to leave much more time, we completed the full 8 miles in less than five hours, including leisurely stops.
I’m so happy that I was able to have this experience in Hawaii. And you know what? As soon as it was over I turned to Alex and said, “Next time, I’m doing the full twenty-two.” I’ll be back to get you, Kalalau Trail!
Have you hiked any part of the Kalalau Trail? Have you ever seen a hiking route as stunning as this?
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Beautiful also. But why are the stones stacked and the circles written in the sand? Love the cats, naturally. Hate that people ruined the bamboo with their graffiti.
I’m not really sure why the circles are in the sand! From what I understand the stacked stones are some sort of spiritual offering in many cultures (I’ve also seen it in Iceland) which tourists love to copy 🙂
The view from the trail is stunning. Love the lake as well, but like you I am such a chicken when it comes to cold water. You have written about so many great kiking trails in Hawaii that I am seriously considering going now…
I will always credit Hawaii for turning me into a hiker! I can’t wait to go back to do this full trail…
I want to do this just so I can hike with kitties!!!
They cracked me up… like, HOW did they get there other than to hike the trail themselves?! 🙂
What an amazing travel site you have here! Your passion for what you do really comes through.
Have you seen https://realfamilytrips.com yet? Users share itineraries with other travelers so they can help each other find the right destinations and know what places to avoid. I am sure some of your trips would make GREAT itineraries!
I’m really glad I stumbled across your site. Thanks for all your hard work!
Thanks Nancy! I appreciate your kind words and kudos. And thanks for the site suggestion for those heading to Hawaii!
My pleasure, Alex! 🙂
Aloha Alex! Super fun blog, especially this post! Kauai brought out the hiker in me as well, and I recently started a hiking tour company here. If any of your readers want to try a guided hike, we offer shorter, more gentle hikes in Kapaa that also offer epic views! I’ve lived here 10 years and they are my favorite hikes. They’re nice if you are short on time or if you want to sort of gear up for the Kalalau trail!
Mahalo for sharing!
That sounds awesome, Katie. Missing Hawaii something fierce lately and would love to head out hiking!
We hiked to Hanakapiai Falls and beach. The hike is quite rugged and adventurous but both the waterfall and beach are well worth it.
Prepare to be wet and possibly dirty by the time you finish. Relax by swimming at the base of the falls or in the ocean at the beach after the trail to rhe waterfall. The ginger was in flower and truly beautiful.
I had wished to continue but the limited entry permits were all taken months in advance of our trip. Beautiful waterfall! Great beach!
So glad you enjoyed this trail as much as I did! I too was eager for more — I’ll have to return someday for the full hike.
We are so excited to do the Kalalau Trail hike when we go at the end of September!
We’ve never been to Kaua’i before, but have done hikes on Maui & O’ahu! You have fantastic “Inside My Bag” posts- have you done one for the hike? We’re struggling to figure out how much gear and what kind we’ll actually need. Thank you!
Hey Katy, thank you so much for the kind words! It’s such a great hike, you’re going to have an awesome time! I don’t have a specific packing list for that trail, but perhaps my Inca Trail posts and that packing list might be helpful? Let me know how it goes 🙂