The Nāpali Coast is a Hiker's Paradise
Kauai’s Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park is a hiker’s haven, with cliffs plunging to the Pacific and waterfalls hidden in narrow valleys. The 11-mile Kalalau Trail, the area’s only thoroughfare, is by reservation only. Here’s how to do it best.
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Alan Carpenter has worked for Hawaii State Parks for 30 years, doing archeological surveying, mapping, and historical research along the coast. Between work and play, he says he’s spent “probably a year’s worth” of nights on the Nāpali Coast, mostly hiking the Kalalau Trail and its offshoots up the valleys. Like many locals, Carpenter views the area as more ancestral landscape than recreational playground. “Underneath that mantle of green is a magnificent cultural land that is extremely important to Native Hawaiians,” he says. His hope is that visitors will treat it with respect for both its natural and social significance.
A veil of water plunges 300 feet from a lip of volcanic rock before foaming into an emerald pool; Hanakapi’ai Falls, considered by many one of the most remarkable waterfalls in the world, is well worth the 8-mile round trip. It’s a popular branch along the Kalalau Trail, which provides the only land access to Nāpali. The trail starts beside the ocean at Ke’e Beach; look for the Kalalau Trail sign at the far end.
Start immediately into rooty, slick terrain, with ferns and other tropical foliage crowding in from all sides. Gaps in the trees let you see back to Ke’e Beach, where white-capped waves roll in. And at mile .5, framed by native hala (screwpine) trees, you’ll get your first glimpse of the Nāpali Coast in its entirety: 10 miles of coastal cliffs, forested hillsides, and deep valleys that once held ancient Hawaiian villages. Descend a mile to Hanakapi’ai Beach, where you’ll cross a stream, then take a left up-valley on the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail. The 2-mile hike to the falls crosses the stream four times. Carpenter recommends getting your feet wet rather than risk hopping over the slick stones. The tumbling cascade is a perfect lunch spot, but watch out for falling rocks near the cliffs.
By the Breakers
For a shorter trip, hike the first two miles along the Kalalau Trail as you would for the waterfall hike, and make Hanakapi’ai Beach your lunch spot. You’ll climb from sea level at Ke’e Beach to a 500-foot high point at mile 1 before descending to a thin strip of sand between the turquoise waves and the deep green of the forest.
After lounging in the sand for a bit, reverse your steps for a 4-mile out-and-back that serves up 1,060-feet of total elevation gain. This is a good option if you get a late start, or are just looking for a less committing hike than Hanakapi’ai Falls.
Securing a permit for overnighting on the Kalalau Trail is a golden ticket to hiking utopia. The coastal path, volcanic cliffs, and forested valleys harken back to an unspoiled Hawaii. Before they abandoned the region in the 1920s, Native Hawaiians lived in small enclaves up each valley, using the trail for commerce. The landscape has changed little since then, and current visitors might wonder why anyone would ever want to leave.
“I would never spend less than two nights on Kalalau,” Carpenter says. He recommends getting an early start on day 1 and high-tailing it the whole 11 miles to the trail’s end at remote Kalalau Beach, a white sand cove framed by cliffs that alternate between red dirt and vibrant green.
After passing Hanakapi’ai Beach at mile 2, the cliffside exposure starts. “Now you’re getting into sections that aren’t for the faint of heart,” Carpenter says. Parallel the ocean on the edge of an 800-foot drop before cutting briefly back inland. The next serious exposure comes at mile 7, at a section dubbed “Crawler’s Ledge.” But, Carpenter says, “it’s solid basalt and the footing is absolutely secure. It’s only psychologically daunting.” The trail is narrow, though not unreasonable, but the few-hundred foot drop to the ocean makes it feel smaller.
Continue through invasive—though lovely—sisal (a type of agave), with a magnificent view of your destination ahead. Dark cliffs loom above the scooped crescents of white sand coves, with the vast Pacific beyond. At the base of the descent, head through java plum forest to a final stream crossing and the pale sand of Kalalau Beach, your campsite. Hiker numbers are limited by the permit system, so you don’t need to worry about crowds.
On day 2, Carpenter suggests backtracking .5 mile and heading inland on the 2-mile Kalalau Valley Trail to a former settlement, where terraces mark abandoned taro fields. “It’s one of the most magnificent archeological complexes in Hawaii,” he says. The coast’s first human visitors may have arrived as early as 1200 CE, establishing a commerce center in the valleys. The smaller surf of the summer season brought visitors by outrigger canoe, or wa’a, while the abundant fish and fertile soil of Nāpali kept the inhabitants supplied through the winter. The valley also holds fresh-water bathing pools with natural waterslides, shaded by citrus and giant mango trees. Stumbling upon one of the low rock walls, already half-lost to the forest, feels like walking into an adventure novel.
Rise early on day 3 to hit the trail before dawn. “You don’t want the sun hitting you on the climb out of Kalalau,” Carpenter says. If there’s time on the way back, take a detour down the .5-mile trail behind Hanakoa Campground to the 500-foot Hanakoa waterfall, past coffee plants that hint at past attempted cultivation and the surrounding native forest.
The ocean may be calling your name, but rip tides and currents can be hazardous. “Hanakapi’ai Beach is among the most dangerous beaches in the state,” says Carpenter, adding that the currents at Kalalau Beach are also hazardous.
It’s imperative to stay aware of water levels in Hanakapi’ai Stream, too; in a rainstorm you might end up stuck until the water retreats.
Season Year-round (fall has the least crowds, spring can be rainy) Permit Day use, parking, and shuttle reservations necessary (shuttle fee includes day use reservation); overnight permit available 3-months ahead of time (at time of publication), but check current travel restrictions before planning a trip.