Being a fan of Jurassic Park, I was chomping at the bit to get myself to Kauai, the ‘Garden Isle’ in the Hawaiian Island chain, where many of the scenes of the movie are filmed. To me, nothing screams more of ‘dinosaur!’ than the stunningly rugged, notoriously inaccessible and uniquely beautiful Na Pali Coast. If dinosaurs did exist anywhere in the world, Na Pali is totally it. So there was no doubt in my mind that the Kalalau Trail, which hugs the Na Pali (which translates as ‘the cliffs’) Coast for 11 miles of daunting switchbacks over narrow, steep and rugged terrain, was a hike worth exploring.
One of the most dangerous hikes in the World…
The Kalalau Trail is known as one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. For the first 7 miles, this is not evident. Yes, it is steep, yes, it is rocky. Yes, there are sections where you have to clamber over boulders and there are river crossings which are prone to flash flooding, and beaches which have a subtle habit of luring unsuspecting swimmers in and taking them out to sea, never to be seen again (alive, at least).
But none of this can prepare you for what happens between miles 7-8. At this point, you exit a rather delightful patch of rainforest, complete with refreshing river and waterfall, and march on a downward slope through patchy greens and plants dancing in glorious technicolour. And then, you see the sign.
Warning signs are not uncommon on the Kalalau Trail. In fact, they positively abound; you can barely walk a mile without some metallic obstacle cautioning you to be aware of flash floods, high surf, rip tides, et al. This particular sign just beyond the 7 mile marker, however, is one of a kind. This is a ‘Hazardous Cliff’ sign, with an artistic depiction of someone coming a cropper as a result of ignoring the warning, and continues to illustrate the point with the words ‘The ground may break off without warning and you could be severely injured or killed’. The curiousness of having a warning sign warning you that something may happen without warning was enough to make me peer beyond the sign, and happily retract away from it. I may enjoy a good adventure, but I do prefer to remain on terra firma rather than having it slip unceremoniously out from underneath me.
Nonetheless I did not listen to my better senses and continued on, so am able to report the rest that this trail has in store for the hiker.
As you make your way down this part of the Kalalau Trail, you will notice that considerate thorny growths seem to have got the hang of clinging on to obscene angles and made their home on this perilous path, and for the unassuming hiker provide something to hang on to should your feet decide to go in a direction you had not anticipated. Be warned, however, not by a sign, but by me, that these plants will unforgivingly cut you, and are not as deeply rooted as you might presume and may, at any given moment, decide to join the forlorn display of displaced foliage in the deep nothingness below.
Once you have picked/scrambled/bottom shuffled your way down this nightmarish bit of rock, you will come, gratefully, to a relatively flat surface. A few meters further on, adrenaline junkies will reach with joy and exhilaration ‘Crawlers Ledge’. If you’re like me, you will approach this patch of path which has all but disintegrated with dismay and disbelief. Consisting of not much more than a foothold between sheer rock to the left and an 850 foot drop in to crashing Pacific surf on the right, this section involves nerves of steel, a lack of vertiginous tendencies and sheer determination.
Mercifully, the trail only goes on like this for a short while, but it’s called Crawlers Ledge for a reason. You will need good grips on your shoes, dry your sweaty palms, and be confident in your abilities to walk like a resident mountain goat. I do not have any photos of Crawlers Ledge, purely because I was trying my best not to fall off it (incidentally, a few months ago a girl was taking a selfie on this trail section and fell off. This is not to be recommended).
Beyond Crawlers Ledge, the trail improves significantly, insomuch as you are no longer clinging on for dear life. There are a few patches of scariness, where parts of crumbly path take great joy in making you slip towards a precipice, or thick roots try to give you a tumble from which there is no return. Keep your eyes peeled and your wits about you.
End of the Trail – Kalalau Beach
I would love to say that when you reach Kalalau Beach, the dangers of the Kalalau Trail are worth it. But in my opinon, it’s not. There are plenty of other beautiful beaches in the world to go and relax on which are far easier and safer to access. The waters of Kalalau Beach are not safe to swim in, and if you do get swept out, there’s no lifeguard to save you. We saw tiger sharks very close to shore when we were there, which, apart from the strong currents, are another reason not to get your feet wet.
This is wild and remote Hawaii. But it is not so remote that you have it to yourself; there are plenty of other hikers who make camp there for a day or several, so rather than having an idyllic private setting, you share it with many others, which isn’t an issue, but if you’re looking for a private camp, this isn’t it.
The campsite itself is excellent, and has plenty of spots, compost toilets and a ‘free’ table, full of things which ambitious hikers have carried in and are not foolish enough to carry out again. In this way I became the proud owner of a tarpaulin and a Bill Bryson novel. Come 5 o’clock, several people were buzzing around the free table waiting to see if anyone was going to deposit food there. They didn’t, but bizarrely there was a large stash of laundry detergent donated.
Showers are available in the form of a delightful waterfall at the far end of Kalalau Beach, and drinking water can also be obtained from here. We drank the water straight from the waterfalls and rivers but apparently this is not to be recommended. We haven’t got sick (yet), but everyone else was sporting a snazzy UV filter or Lifestraw.
I know there are plenty of people who have hiked this trail and love every section of it, and to you, I salute you. If you are an avid rock climber or keen on adrenaline induced activities, then by all means hike the trail – but I have given you fair warning that this is not for the faint hearted!
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For a full list of recommended hiking gear, check out my Ultimate Hiking Kit Lists.
On the Kalalau Trail, keeping kit lightweight is essential. The weighs just over 1kg and is freestanding, though you can peg it down if you want to. It’s surprisingly roomy inside, and has well thought-out features such as what Marmot call a lampshade pocket (as what discerning traveller doesn’t hike with a lampshade?!) which is actually a useful nook for your headlight. While the interior is small, it doesn’t feel claustrophobic and there’s plenty of headroom to sit upright. The vestibule has ample space for gear storage.
It gets chilly at night on the Kalalau Trail. As mentioned above, keeping kit lightweight is paramount, but you also want it to be effective. For warmth in the evenings with a tiny weight, you can’t beat a . Weighing in at just under 5oz, it’s incredible the extra heat you get from this slip of fabric. Not only does this add a few extra degrees of warmth, but it also keeps your sleeping bag clean. Bonus!
This nifty little piece of kit is a hydration pack with a difference. The is a pressurised hydration system which means that not only can you drink on the go, but you can use it for many other things – like turning it in to a solar shower or cleaning hose. With a mighty 3 litre capacity, you’ll not be stuck for water. Combine it with the to get filtered water straight through the hose, removing the need for a separate filtration system. A lighter option is the , but this is not pressurised so cannot be used as a solar shower, etc.
After a hard day’s hike you’ll need a good feed, and the delivers this magnificently. This stove can be fueled by traditional or, with the addition of a , can burn white gas, petrol and even kerosense. While it’s highly unlikely you’ll be cooking over airplane fuel on Kalalau Beach, I love this little stove as it gives you multiple fuel options so you’re never stuck if you can only find one source. I also like that it has excellent temperature control – one of the only stoves on the market where you can simmer and actually cook, rather than just ‘on’ or ‘off’.
You Can Do It!
- The Kalalau Trail is Hawaii’s most popular hike, with limited camping spots. To hike beyond the 2 mile marker at Hanakapi’ai beach, you will need to apply for a permit. These can be obtained from Hawaii DLNR here. These sell out fast especially in high season, so book far in advance. If you really want to hike Kalalau Trail, plan your holiday around the successful purchase of your permit!
- The Kalalau Trail is a one-way-in, one-way-out path, so although it is 11 miles in, it’s also 11 miles on the return journey. There are no other options to get out so make sure you bring adequate equipment, food and commitment.
- 11 miles might not seem like a long distance, but on the Kalalau Trail it is. The switchbacks, terrain and ascents/descents make it hard going. Plan on spending a full day hiking and start early so you can take a break in the midday sun. Consider spending the night at the Hanakoa Campsite, 6 miles in.
- Pay attention to weather. Don’t attempt the Kalalau Trail during or after bad weather, or if rain is forecast. Rain and mud can make the already treacherous trail downright dangerous.
- Abide by all warning signs along the trail.
- Flash floods are not uncommon and have claimed many lives. Mount Waialeale, one of the rainiest places on earth, sits above Kalalau Valley and receives 450 inches of rain a year. Do not attempt to cross swollen rivers.
- There is NO cell phone coverage along the trail.
- You need to be physically fit to do this hike. Assess your abilities before setting out.
- You will require good hiking shoes, camping gear, a water filtration system and enough food and water for both the duration of your hike and your campsite. Having said that, pack as light as you can due to the demands and nature of the trail.
- There are no amenities/facilities on the trail, except for compost toilets at the campsites.
- I downloaded the Hawaii maps on the app maps.me and cannot recommend it highly enough. Although the Kalalau Trail is a singular path there are other tracks and trails that dart off in various directions on occasion and having that app saved us many diversions.
- If you get to an area which makes you feel uncomfortable in your abilities, question whether it is worth it – You Only Live Once vs The Risk Factor.
Despite my negativity on the Kalalau Trail, the Na Pali Coast itself is absolutely beautiful and should not be missed. There are plenty of other ways to enjoy and experience the coastline in relatively safe (albeit expensive) ways, such as taking a helicopter tour or a boat cruise. In the summer, it is possible to kayak along the Na Pali Coast with local guides. It is worth hiking to the 2 mile marker to get a taste of the trail, but beyond that, unless you are experienced, proceed with caution or not at all. I have hiked this trail so that you don’t have to!
Another way to view the coast is from the lookouts along Waimea Canyon. From the farthermost viewpoint, there is a glorious vista of the Na Pali Coast and Kalalau Trail and Beach. Drive or cycle up Kokee Road in Waimea Canyon State Park (where the Jurassic Park waterfall is!) and continue to the end of the road. En route stop off at the other lookouts – they are absolutely fantastic. If cycling, this is a long steep slog uphill. Coming back down is far more fun!
Stock up on supplies at Pedal N Paddle in Hanalei. There are plenty of places to eat in Hanalei town too, from pizza to Mexican.
Due to the nature of the terrain, it is only possible to camp in authorised areas. These are:
Hanakoa Campsite, 6 miles in
Kalalau Beach, 11 miles in (end of the trail)
You need to book your camping permit prior to hiking. See Resources below for information on permits.
Want a head start in your packing? Check out my Ultimate Hiking Kit List Checklist.
You need a permit to hike and camp on the Kalalau Trail. These need to be booked way in advance. To do this, visit the official permit website here.
Kalalau Trail Gallery