Curious as to what the hype is all about? You've come to the right place. Here are the key things you need to know:
The Kalalau Trail is a famous 11-mile trail along one of the world's most famous natural wonders, the Na Pali coast in Kauai. It has been named the most incredible hike in America, but also one of the most dangerous ones. The Sierra Club rates it a 9 out of 10 in degrees of difficulty. If you complete this hike, you will never forget it!
The trail starts at Ke'e Beach (located in Hā’ena State Park at the northwest end of Kūhiō Highway, Route 56) and ends at Kalalau Beach, which can legally only be accessed on foot or with kayaks with a valid permit.
(Due to a landslide in March 2021, the road into Hanalei used to be open only during certain times while repairs were in progress. These restrictions are not in effect any more, but do check Hawaii DoT info to be on the safe side.)
There is also a shuttle that recently resumed operations.
While overnight parking is available close to the trailhead (you must have a valid camping permit in order to purchase the overnight parking reservation), many prefer not to leave their cars unattended for several days and have someone drop them off instead. For more info, check out these transportation options.
Upon entry to the lot at the end of the road, attendants typically check for valid permits or day passes regardless if you enter for parking or just a drop-off.
80 permits per day are available 90 days in advance with a maximum of 5 nights. (In my experience, you'll want 2-3 nights minimum, so you have time to recover and enjoy the beauty of Kalalau. Once you're there, you won't want to leave!)
Permits carry the hikers' names and are not transferrable. The reservation window opens every day at midnight Hawaiian time and permits get snagged up in the first few minutes each night.
The first 2 miles to Hanakapi'ai Beach can be accessed without a permit but require day passes. This is a great introduction to the Kalalau Trail and is a popular activity for the more casual visitor. Beyond Hanakapi'ai Beach, a camping permit is required unless you extend your hike by going up to Hanakapi'ai Falls (bring water shoes!).
It typically takes anywhere from 7 to 10 hours to finish the entire trail depending on weather, trail conditions, and level of physical fitness. Take your time: The trail is amazing and there's no rush; enjoy every minute of it and take it all in! However, you don't want to hike and arrive in the dark, so make sure you get an early enough start time.
While the trail starts and finishes at sea level, there are lots of ups and downs adding up to a cumulative elevation gain of over 3,000 feet.
For those in need of a break or in less than ideal physical condition, there is the option to stay overnight at mile 7 in Hanakoa camp. Since this site is in a forested valley, be prepared for colder temperatures, mosquitos, and a higher chance of rain.
While the trail is reasonably wide all the way to Hanakapi'ai Beach, it gets narrower and sometimes overgrown afterward. More than half of the trail is through green valleys with frequent tree cover while the second half is more exposed and scenic but also warmer.
To reach Kalalau Beach, you'll have to cross three major streams (Hanakapi'ai, Hanakoa, and Kalalau right before camp). These streams are subject to sudden flash floods, which can make passage impossible anywhere from half an hour to several days. Bring water shoes or sandals (preferably with toe protection) unless you're okay with your shoes and socks getting soaked.
Especially during wetter months, the trail may be closed in case of flooding or otherwise dangerous conditions. Make sure you check for weather conditions and closures before heading to the trailhead.
The camp is spread out at the far end of the trail leading up to and along Kalalau Beach. Look for signs for designated areas. There are several composting toilets, but no tables and other facilities. That said, a gorgeous waterfall at the very end of the trail makes for a great shower and water source. There are no trash cans, so be prepared to pack out what you pack in. No littering!
There are plenty of trees and you have the choice of using a tent or hammock (make sure you have a rain tarp as well). Be aware that the wind is consistent and often strong during the day (from NNE), so secure your tent or hammock appropriately. Obey the signs and stay away from the cliffs as stones and large rocks can fall down at any time and getting crushed would be an unfortunate end to an otherwise amazing adventure.
Temperatures seldom drop below 60F but can climb to over 90F in exposed sections during the afternoon in summer. Summer weather (May to October) normally brings steady tradewinds and occasional showers, while winter weather (October to May) is less predictable.
Usually, probably due to the steady wind, mosquitos aren't a problem, but make sure you have insect repellant (and a mosquito net when using a hammock).
The beach is gorgeous; however, waves and strong currents make it dangerous to swim here. If you do decide to go in, be extremely careful.
So how dangerous is the Kalalau Trail, really? Despite its reputation as one of the most dangerous trails, deaths and serious injuries are rare and often preventable.
Stream crossings in combination with flash floods are one source of concern. Don't cross if the water is too high, i.e., above mid-thigh level.
Then there's swimming at Hanakapi'ai or Kalalau Beach, which is risky.
And I'm sure you're wondering about the notorious Crawler's Ledge. It's not all that crazy. Some of the videos make it look worse than it is. Yes, there'll be adrenaline, starting when you make your way down to reach the ledge. The ledge itself is wider than it looks and the ground is reasonably firm and grippy apart from the occasional gravel. Most don't have any problems if they, slowly and methodically, make their way through this section and don't spend too much time staring down.
Of course, if you have a fear of heights, this section is probably not for you and you shouldn't attempt it. (You likely also don't want to power through and then get stuck on the other side and be too freaked out to make it back.)
While it's called Crawler's Ledge (singular), it's actually a series of ledges and exposed, narrow sections with drop-offs. Under normal conditions, it's all quite doable if you take it slow and watch your step carefully. Hiking poles will come in handy.
Coming back is actually a little easier since you'll be going slightly uphill. All that said, heavy rain and wind, especially during the winter months, can make this section more precarious.
Also, please note that there is no cell service on the trail and you will be cut off from the outside world. For peace of mind, I love carrying my InReach Mini, which is a satellite communicator and emergency device and allows me to send & receive messages, get weather forecasts, and summon professional help (SOS) if necessary. The battery life is incredible and it works very well in combination with my phone.
So, TL/DR is this: Yes, there are some sketchy areas and things to watch out for, but don't get too freaked out about the trail's dangers.
References & Resources
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