Backpacking Kalalau Trail at Nā Pali Coast in Kauaʻi


Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park lies in the northwest of Kauai Island, Hawaii. It’s known for its towering pali, or sea cliffs, punctuated by narrow valleys, streams and cascading waterfalls. The Kalalau Trail is a steep footpath running through the park, between nearby Ke’e Beach and sandy Kalalau Beach. It cuts through 5 valleys, including the Hanakoa Valley, with its native plants and old agricultural terraces.

The Kalalau Trail is a trail along Nā Pali Coast that runs approximately 11 miles (18 km) along the island’s north shore from Keʻe Beach to the Kalalau Valley. The trail has been named one of the most beautiful, and dangerous, hikes of the United States. Expert hikers or trail runners can complete the roundtrip 22 miles (35 km) trek in a day, but the average hiker requires a two-day minimum and will camp along the trail. Camping is only permitted at a forested streamside campsite Hanakoa Valley (6 mile mark) and Kalalau Beach.

The first section of the trail is a two-mile (3 km) stretch from Keʻe Beach to Hanakapiai stream and beach. This section is moderately strenuous and doesn’t require a camping permit. The next section connects Hanakapiai stream to Hanakoa Valley, six miles from the trailhead. To continue past Hankapiai Beach to Hanakoa Valley you need to obtain a camping permit from the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources. No day-use permits are issued, and only hikers with valid camping permits may legally proceed beyond the sign. Violation of this rule is a petty misdemeanor under Hawaii law, and a conviction will result in a criminal record in addition to penalties. Hanakoa Valley contains Hanakoa Falls and stream but the valley is a hanging valley with no access to the beach. The trail to Hanakoa Falls is not well maintained and sometimes difficult to follow. The trail begins after the Hanakoa stream crossing, just before the covered shelter. 

The trail continues on to Kalalau Valley, a large, flat-bottomed valley almost a mile across. After hiking down Red Hill, it is about a half mile to Kalalau Beach requiring crossing Kalalau stream. Camping permits are only issued for Kalalau Beach and are limited to 5 consecutive nights. Hikers are allowed to camp at Hanakoa Valley one night with a valid Kalalau permit. The most strenuous part of the hike occurs after Hanakapiai Beach where the trail climbs from sea level to 800 feet over 1 1/4 miles.

Kalalou beach  is approximately 1 mile long, with trails snaking through the rest of the valley where people in hiding are rumored to live. There is a camp site on the beach, with a waterfall providing fresh water and composting toilets available.  The beach has high surf, due to the lack of off shore reefs to break the waves. There are strong rip currents making swimming near impossible. In years past, companies offered a landing service, boating hikers in and out of the beach so that they could hike the trail easily. It is still possible to kayak into and out of the beach. For some people who come to Kalalau Beach, the long and difficult trail is not adventurous enough. Equipped with fins, they enter the water at Kalalau and swim over to the even more isolated Honopu Beach, which can only be accessed this way.

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