Hawaii Outdoors Travel

Hike Kauai’s Incredible Napali Coast – Backpacking the Kalalau Trail

January 6, 2022

My favorite outdoor adventure last year, was backpacking the Kalalau Trail on Kauai’s Napali Coast. What a way to celebrate turning 40 with my best friend! This trip had been an idea bouncing around the back of my head for a few years. Until we hit the trail that morning, I was still holding my breath that it would work out. It’s not an easy trail, the hiking permit system is tricky, wild weather can close the trail for time periods, travel in the time of a continuing pandemic, and all the other variables involved in planning a trip and traveling. But the stars aligned in June and we were off on the hike of a lifetime to hike the Napali Coast!

Double rainbow at Kalalau Beach on the Napali Coast
Double rainbow at Kalalau Beach on the Napali Coast after backpacking the Kalalau Trail

The Kalalau Trail is 22 miles round trip – not counting our many miles of hitching to the trailhead. But with COVID restrictions impacting taxis, shuttles and rental cars on Kauai, including a mud slide that closed the road to Hanalei several times a day. It was an adventure just making it to the trailhead to begin our hike on the day our permit was for! Here’s a look at our adventure and more info on how to hike the Kalalau Trail. Jump ahead:

Hiking the Napali Coast

Day 1 on the Kalalau Trail: The hardest day!

After a late night of sorting and repacking gear at our hotel in Princeville, we hitched to the trailhead. A couple miles [walked] and trucks later we finally started the real Kalalau Trail! We hiked pretty solid to make it to Kalalau beach in one day. We reached Hanakapiai beach and the first stream crossing pretty quickly.

While we were planning our trip, we agreed on skipping the Hanakapiai Falls trail on the way there. It would just be an extra 3-5 miles and our goal was to make it to Kalalau beach in one day. In hindsight I’m really thankful we did this or we would have been extra tired and hitting Crawlers Ledge and some sketchier trail section at the worst time of day and on even more tired legs (especially after already walking a few miles to hitch to the trailhead!).

Hanakapiai Beach on the Napali Coast
View of Hanakapiai Beach

Reaching the mileage halfway point where you are allowed to camp – but would not want to! – was motivation enough to pick up the pace to get out of the jungle and into the desert portion and Crawlers Ledge by afternoon. We took a million pictures, ate all the snacks, and crossed more streams than seems possible. We only got lost one time on a little goat track, and thankfully it didn’t take too much time to backtrack.

Crawlers Ledge on the Kalalau Trail
Rounding the corner of Crawler’s Ledge over the [beautiful] abyss on a windy sunny day in Kauai!

After reaching the final stream crossing at which we thought the camping area was just over the hill (spoiler alert from the entire trip: of course it wasn’t!) We swam in the stream and filtered a bunch more water. And then hiked another mile into camp. We were a bit deliriously tired, set up camp and enjoyed our dinner on the beach and well-earned hammock time.

Soaking in the Kalalau Stream
Soaking in the Kalalau Stream. Are we there yet?!

Kalalau Trail Day 2: Kalalau Beach Camping & Hammock Day aka Rest day

It feels great to wake up in paradise! We were thankful to not be the hikers passing our campsite heading back on the trail. Instead we got to drink coffee in our hammock and look at the amazing view. We spent most of the day in the hammock, expanded our camp territory closer to the beach after some others campers left and had the most perfect hammock spot in the biggest fiddle leaf fig tree I’ve ever seen. We took a few hammock breaks to walk the beach, explore the shower waterfall and of course eat all the snacks and continue laughing about all the things. While I recommend packing super light for the Kalalau Trail a hammock is well worth it! The ENO double hammock (one of my favorite outdoorsy gift items) was perfect for beach camping!

Kalalau beach camping and waterfall
Kalalau Beach – we made it!
camping at kalalau beach
Camping and hammocking at Kalalau Beach

Kalalau Trail Day 3 – The surprisingly fast hike!

As we slowly got ready and had breakfast a handful of groups marched past to get on the trail early. We tried to ignore the urge to rush, enjoyed some last minute hammock time and were finally on the trail by 7:30am.

Red hill on the Napali coast hike looking toward Kalalau beach
Looking toward Kalalau Beach

We took our time at the first stream crossing to filter water for the first half of our day and encountered what ended up being Mark Zuckerberg’s pretend bow hunting group?! One of the most bizarre outdoor encounters I’ve ever had.

From there the miles flew by and we were surprised to pass all but one group who left super early in the morning. Tip to future self: you have time, stay in the hammock. The way back was much easier even on tired legs because you’re hitting the deserty and more technical part in the first half of the day when it’s not as hot and on fresher legs then the jungly part later in the day. Even Crawler’s Ledge on the way back felt much less intimidating. We made it back to the trailhead in record time.

After some slow hitchhiking adventures back to town, we made it Hanalei where all the restaurants were, of course, closed. So we stopped at the grocery store for celebratory chips, queso, guac, and drinks! We did it!! And sat in town like the dirty backpackers we were. And finally hitched a ride back to our Princeville hotel, where we had splurged on a night at The Westin. Worth it!

Kalalau Trail Hiking Info

Kalalau Trail Permit

You need a permit to hike the full Kalalau Trail. The first two miles to the Hanakapiai Valley is a popular day trip. However anything beyond Hanakapiai Falls and beach requires a permit – whether you plan to camp or not. Permits are bookable 30 days in advance.

The Kalalau Trail permit reservation system can be a difficult process. Mainly because this is a popular hike that only offers 60 reservations per day, and can only be booked 30 days out. My tip for actually getting a trail permit is to try booking before your actual dates. Test out what time to book and add it all to your cart (but don’t actually finish your reservation). This will help you see if your strategy will work or not. And get your account all set up so you can swoop in with confidence on the actual trip permit dates you want later.

Kalalau Trail permit reservation system is a little tricky

Plan for at least two nights at Kalalau beach, three nights is ideal. If you only get a permit for one night, seriously consider waiting. There are so many variables involved in this hike that you don’t want just one shot at getting there. Backpacking the Napali coast is plenty of Type 1 and Type 2 fun involved. Are you delirious? Are you having a great time? All of the above!

Kalalau Trail Packing List

I wrote a whole other post on my Kalalau Trail Packing List! It includes what to pack, what to skip, and what to wearing hiking in Kauai. And a bit about Kauai rainy vs dry season.

Kalalau Trail Map

kalalau trail map and elevation

Kalalau Trail Elevation

What’s tricky about the Kalalau Trail elevation, is that it’s almost a constant up and down. If you look at pictures of the gorgeous mountain range with all the ridges jutting out to the sea, you will be going up and over or around, each one. And each time you go down into a valley, you’re usually crossing a small stream, finding the trail again and then going back up. And repeat!

  • Kalalau Trail First 2 Miles – Haena State Park to Hanakapiai Beach: Open to all hikers. 2 miles, 660 ft elevation gain (max grade: 23.5%). Permit REQUIRED beyond this point.
  • Mile 2-5.5 – Hanakapiai Valley, Hoolulu Valley, Waiahuakua Valley to Hanakoa Valley. 3.5 miles, 1100 ft elevation gain (max grade 24%). This is the jungle portion. It’s not super technical, but each valley has a potential “stream” crossing. You can camp in Hanakoa Valley, but it’s not ideal. If you are running out of daylight or energy, stop here.
  • Mile 5.5-7.5 – Hanakoa Valley to Crawler’s Ledge and Kaaalahina Ridge. 2 miles, 375 ft elevation gain (max grade: 11%). This section is the most technical with eroded switchbacks followed by the infamous Crawler’s Ledge.
  • Mile 7.5-10 – Kaaalahina Ridge, Red Hill to Kalalau Stream. 2.5 miles, 570 ft elevation gain (max grade: 23%). This section is less technical than Crawler’s Ledge, but seems to stretch on forever because you’ll be tired at this point! The Red Hill area can be challenging with erosion especially in rain.
  • Mile 10-11 Kalalau Stream to Kalalau Beach. 1 mile, flat-ish. You’re almost there!

Please note: the true elevation and mileage will never be truly accurate and your running or hiking trackers will not work as expected. So this is an estimated guess.

Crawlers Ledge – Is it as scary as everyone says?

crawlers ledge view from switchbacks
Crawler’s Ledge

Well you have to take my advice with a grain of salt, as I’m not afraid of heights and we had excellent weather. It was only windy on that section. It could be pretty scary in rainy conditions. Crawler’s Ledge felt fine to me on the way out but the section just before it with super loose sandy trail on switchbacks above the sea felt a bit sketchier. The wind really blows you around. And some of the scariness of Crawlers ledge is just that it’s unknown, parts of the trail are obvious, some less so, and you are literally on the edge of a cliff holding the side and then at the very end of that section, you climb up over the rocks like ummmm I guess this is the way to go?! I would recommend one hiking pole through this section.

If you’re afraid of heights, you really have to decide before you go, what your plan is and be ok with turning around. We met a few people on the trail who had turned around, or half of their group had continued. As I told one of them “There’s no shame in the turn-around game” better safe than sorry.

That said, on the return trip we barely noticed either parts near Crawler’s Ledge that had felt scary – as hiking it at mile 3 or 4 instead of 8/9, on fresh legs and not heat of day, and you’ve done it before just in reverse. If I did it again, or was afraid of heights I would boat in and get dropped off (note: I don’t think this is legal, but it was def happening while we were there), camp 2-3 days and hike out!

Tips for Crawlers Ledge & Kalalau Trail:

1. Get there as quick as possible. Start early. Skip Hanakapiai Falls and Hanakapiai Beach. You can visit these on our way back!

2. Hydrate and fuel properly through out the day. You will likely be hot, tired and lower energy (especially if you are coming from a non-humid climate like Kauai). Use electrolyte tabs in your water and plan to have a little bit of carbs/protein/fat at least once on the hour.

3. Pack light. No seriously, even lighter! I know it’s tempting to bring all the things, but really pair down. And this is the kind of trip where it can make sense to upgrade a few key camping gear to lightweight or rent or borrow from friends. We met quite a few people on the trail with huge packs considering they were doing only a couple nights on trail and you can filter all the water you need right there from streams.

Safety & Deaths on the Kalalau Trail

If you want to hike the Napali Coast, you need to be aware of the dangers. Just like any outdoor pursuits, there is always an element of risk involved. Many factors come together to make the Kalalau Trail a “dangerous” hike. Extreme weather, eroding trails, inexperienced Hawaii hikers, and popularity of a trail is bound to have deaths. There are heli-pads all through the hike. That’s because people have to be rescued. OFTEN! And when it’s rainy season, and the “stream” crossings are more like raging rivers it’s much more dangerous. So yes, this trail is not just a moderate hike and camping at the end. It might be on some days, for some people, but even the most experienced backpacker can hit the trail in the wrong conditions or make a mistake.

Hitchhiking Safety in Hawaii

I wanted to add a final note about hitchhiking in Hawaii. So hitchhiking is a bit of a different thing in Hawaii. I don’t hitch at home in the Pacific Northwest. It’s something we are taught not to do, right? But Hawaii is a bit different, but you still need to use your common sense and gut. First, hitching is illegal in Hawaii, but it’s very common place for people to ride in the back of trucks in Hawaii. And if you’re hitching in Kauai, there are so many trucks that you probably wont need to ride in the cab – who wants stinky backpackers riding in their car anyway! ;)

Our hike of the Napali Coast was both the hardest hike I’ve done and the best trip celebrating 40. One of my favorite adventures! Sorry Kauai, you can probably still hear us laughing somewhere!

Hiking the Napali Coast Kauai

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