If you are looking for an adventure hike or backpack in Kauai, Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park is sure to come up. This northern most coast of Kauai is not accessible by road, so if you really want to experience it you need to hike, kayak, boat or helicopter by it.
While you can experience the coast with an extremely difficult 22-mile backpack trip, you can also get a feel for its majesty on this 8.2-mile day hike that will take you along the coast to the Hanakapi’ai Beach and then up a valley to the amazing Hanakapi’ai Falls beneath which you can go for a swim if time, weather and inclination are in your favor.
Note: This isn’t a trail for everyone. The terrain is exceptionally tough, especially in the rain when the red clay mud is as slick as ice in spots. Backpacker Magazine rated the full backpack trip as one of America’s most dangerous hikes, and this day hike is on some of that very same trail. So be smart, allow a lot of time and bring your hiking poles.
|Distance||8.2 miles|||||Time||6-8 hours|
|Elev. Gain||1945 ft.|||||Elev. Loss||1917 ft.|
|Difficulty||Very strenuous [?]|||||Parking||Easy [?]|
|Trail Signage||Good to beach
Poor to falls
||||Bathrooms||Flushies at start
Rustic at beach
Kalalau Trail » Hanakapi’ai Beach » Hanakapi’ai Valley Trail
- GPS Track: Download the GPX file.
- Easy to read trail map: Map from Guide of Hawaii
- Detailed trail map: From Wikipedia
The Route In Detail:
1. Park at the trailhead at Ke’e Beach and stop at the restrooms before hitting the trail. If the lot is full there is overflow parking just to the east of the main lot as well as potential spots along the road (watch out for any no parking signs though).
2. Follow the signs for the Kalalau Trail at the southwest corner of the parking area
3. You can’t get lost on the trail as it hugs the coast without turnoffs for the first 2 miles. You will first climb uphill on rough stones. Be sure to stop periodically and look back at Ke’e Beach. After about a mile or so you will start the decent toward Hanakapi’ai Beach with majestic views of the coast in front of you. If it’s been raining or moist be careful as the dirt here can be exceptionally slick when wet.
4. You will need to cross Hanakapi’ai Stream to get to Hanakapi’ai Beach. You may be able to do it and keep your feet dry if you are lucky, but better to bring a pair of water shoes and cross in those (unless you want sopping wet hiking boots for the next 6+ plus of hiking).
5. The beach is a good spot to take a break and each a snack. Best not to swim; the currents are strong and fatal.
6. Turn inland from the beach toward the rustic bathroom and you’ll see the signs for Hanakapi’ai Falls.
7. Follow the Hanakapi’ai Valley Trail as it picks its way along the stream. You will cross the stream in numerous spots, always fairly risky of falling in and getting good and wet. The number of crossings seems to vary with every trail description we read, most likely depending on the stream’s flow at any given time and the current best path picked out by hikers, but we counted 5 the day we went: 2 crossings of stream flows to go from the western side of the stream to the eastern, 2 more crossings to get back to the western side and a final single crossing to get to the eastern side. You will approach the waterfalls on the eastern side of the stream. Note: There are no trail signs after the beach so just be aware that the trail more or less follows the stream the whole way so you will never veer too far away from it.
8. As you get closer to the falls the trail gets more treacherous and hard to find. Expect rock scrambles, areas where you cling to roots and branches to climb up or down a boulder or loose rocks/mud and other potential trail pitfalls. I gave up and sat on my butt a few times to slide down boulders rather than risk a twisted ankle myself.
9. At the base of Hanakapi’ai Falls, take a break and go for a swim (just avoid getting right under the falls as loose rocks may come over the falls with the water). You’ve made it.
10. The return trip is along the same route in reverse.
Trail Notes & Tips
How can a mere 8 miles take 6-8 hours you may ask? It has everything to do with the trail conditions. Even the best, most fit hiker will move slowly because of all the rock scrambles, slippery slopes and the time it takes to pick your footing carefully to avoid sliding off a cliff, slipping into a stream, falling on your bum or twisting an ankle. This is especially true on the Hanakapi’ai Valley Trail.
The day we did the hike it was drizzling and raining off and on, a very common occurrence on this part of the island. The red dirt Kauai is so famous for becomes slick as ice when wet. If there were a hike rating similar to windchill for weather, I would say this 8-mile hike feels like a 13-mile hike. If it had been dry, it would have been less difficult, but not by much.
Trail tip: Be prepared with extra gear
You’ll be glad you have a few extra items on this tougher than normal day hike. Suggestions:
- Lots of water and food: If you are out there for 8 hours, you’ll want more than that little store bought bottle of water and a granola bar. I had 100 fluid ounces and while there was still some left at the end, there wasn’t that much left.
- Hiking Poles: Even the most intrepid hiker will benefit from poles should it get a little wet and slippery along the Kalalau Trail or to help with balance as you pick your way over some tough terrain.
- First aid: Ace bandage, etc.: It would be easy for you, or someone else on the trail, to twist an ankle or torque a knee on this hike. The day we went, we saw a helicopter rescue and someone being helped out by friends who had clearly hurt her ankle. Be prepared just in case. Having other first aid items (bandages, pain relievers, etc.) wouldn’t hurt either.
- Rain gear: It might be sunny when you start and pouring 4 hours later. Good to have a poncho or other rain jacket. If you worry about your pack getting wet, bring a pack cover too. A ziplock for your cellphone or small camera may come in handy.
- Hiking boots with ankle support: See the comments on difficulty above.
- Lightweight water shoes: You’ll be making several stream crossings, the first of which before Hanakapi’ai Beach generally involves wading through mid-calf high water. If you don’t want to spend your day hiking in soaking wet boots and socks, bring water shoes for the crossing. You’ll thank me later.
Here is the Google Map of the trailhead start.
Driving directions are easy: Head to the north shore of Kauai and follow the main road, Kuhio Highway, until it comes to a dead-end.
The lot at the trailhead is the same lot as Ke’e Beach. If it’s full, there is an overflow lot along Kuhio Highway slightly to the east or there is parking along the main road. Be careful though not to park where there are no parking signs on the road.