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Hiking Kauai’s Famous Kalalau Trail: Everything You Need to Know

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If there’s a holy grail of all hikes in Hawaii, it’s got to be the Kalalau Trail on Kauai. This 11-mile trek takes hikers into the heart of the Napali Coast, which is typically only seen by boat or by helicopter.

But don’t freak out about that 11 miles! It’s an in and out trail (meaning as far as you hike down the coast, you have to turn around and hike back) but there are a lot of options for turning around points besides hiking the entire trail. 

I’ll also level with you…I am so not a hiker. I’m an active person, but my idea of fun is not hiking. There has to be a BIG payoff for me to hike, even in Kauai. So I am not out here just hiking every possible trail there is on Kauai for fun. But this one is SPECIAL. 

So if you’ve only got time in your schedule for one hike, or you’re not super active but willing to make one big “push” then the Kalalau Trail is the one it needs to be. It’s the best hike on Kauai, which pretty much makes it the best hike in Hawaii, which makes it arguably one of the best hikes in the world ; )

Okay, the details…

Hiking the Kalalau Trail: The Best Hike on Kauai

The trail starts at Ke’e Beach, which is as far as the road goes past Hanalei. From Hanalei, it’s still about 30 minutes west. From Poipu, it’s about an hour and 45 minute drive (with no traffic). 

The full Kalalau Trail stretches 11 miles along the Napali Coast from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach. To go all the way to Kalalau, you’ll need a permit to camp overnight in the valley since it’s impossible to do the full hike on a day trip (22 miles round trip). If you’re up for doing the full hike and camp, plan it way far in advance as permits are hard to come by. 

If you didn’t come quite so prepared for a 22-mile hike and the thought of it makes you want to reach for the nearest bag of donuts, don’t worry-you can still catch those ah-mazing views! 

The first two miles of the Kalalau Trail are open to day hikers. Don’t be scared off by harrowing tales of overnight hikers who had to cross 18” ledges with a sheer drop off into the ocean below…the first two miles of Kalalau, while strenuous, are very doable.

Most day hikers will hike to Hanakapiai Beach (2 miles in) but don’t forget you’ve got to turn around and go back the way you came so it’s really 4 miles.  

If that’s not doable, you’ll come to the first lookout down the Napali Coast about half a mile into the hike making for a challenging, but very doable one mile hike. 

Unless you have a physical limitation (knee problems, etc.), I strongly strongly strongly recommend powering through and doing the four mile round trip hike to Hanakapiai Beach and back. 

I’ve hiked this stretch a few times now and I won’t lie…time always fades the pain for me haha. After a few days I’m usually left remembering the epic views and adventure of it all and minimizing how hard it actually was. 

Well this last time I hiked it, I vowed I would remember exactly what it felt like when I was on  the hike. I’m not going to lie…it’s TOUGH. But a doable tough.

There is a lot of elevation gain coming both ways and the trail is mostly rocky and uneven. 

But you will pass ALL KINDS of people doing this hike. Locals who sprint through it barefoot, pro hikers with all the gear, parents trying to keep up with their kids, and older folks who are determined and willing to go slow to take part. I’ve personally hiked it with multiple “active seniors” who powered through just fine (although maybe they didn’t feel like it at the time ; ) 

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Right before you reach Hanakapiai Beach, there’s a pretty big stream you’ll have to cross. It always makes me nervous hopping across slippery rocks, so I like to wear shoes where I can just wade through the water. 

Plan some time to sit and take a rest at the beach, but admire the water from a distance. This is NOT a swimming beach and almost 100 people have lost their lives here. The waves are rough, the currents are strong, and a rogue wave can come out of nowhere so stay away from the water!! Even when it looks calm. 

From the beach it’s about a mile up the valley to Hanakapiai Falls (this is an offshoot of the Kalalau Trail, not a continuation). I’ve read that the trail can be tricky to stick to and is pretty strenuous. I haven’t done that bit yet, and honestly I don’t know if I ever will. But if you want to extend the hike to 6 miles to see the waterfall, more power to you!

The first ½ mile or so of the return was probably the toughest for me. It’s a pretty quick ascent back up from the beach and I was huffing and puffing! It’s hotter in the day and psychologically, it’s just less exciting when you know you’re just retracing your steps. 

Getting Reservations to Hike the Kalalau Trail 

YOU HAVE TO HAVE RESERVATIONS FOR PARKING AND HIKING. This is new. In an effort to control crowds at Haena State Park (Ke’e Beach and the Kalalau Trailhead) after the historic flooding of April 2018, parking reservations are now required. You can make them online 30 days in advance at midnight Hawaiian Standard Time. And they usually sell out in less than a minute.

 

There are three different time slots (7AM-12PM, 12PM-4PM, 4PM-7PM). You can reserve multiple time slots if you want to stay all day or you think you’ll get there later (if you’re driving from Poipu). For four adults, it cost $40 for all of us to reserve the first two slots of the day. And we ended up needing them. We got started about 10AM and wrapped up about 1:30PM. 

If parking reservations sell out, there is a shuttle option, although I’m going to level with you…it’s not ideal. During busy seasons, the shuttle still sells out in advance (as I’m writing this it’s booked out a solid two weeks with only limited times available) and it’s $35/person. It leaves from Hanalei about every 30 minutes. Here’s more info on the shuttle.

It’s better than not being able to go at all, but I highly recommend being on top of the drop times for the parking permits and snagging one of those. Also, you’ll need to register every person in your party and they do check your IDs when you arrive. 

Things to Know about the Hike

The trail starts at Ke’e Beach, which is as far as the road goes past Hanalei. From Hanalei, it’s still about 30 minutes west. 

There are facilities at Ke’e Beach where you can use the restroom and fill up on water before you start. There’s an info station at the trailhead and an attendant making sure hikers have permits. 

Take plenty of water with you! I usually drink two bottles of water on the hike and then fill up in the parking lot headed back to the car. 

This 4-mile hike takes most people 3-4 hours to complete so plan accordingly.

Parts of the trail can get pretty muddy and slippery (plus there’s the stream crossing at the end) so I like to wear Tevas or Keens that strap onto your feet but can easily be washed off. But if you’re a fast hiker, or need extra stability then wearing actual athletic/hiking shoes can be an advantage. The last time I hiked this, we went a lot faster on the final descent then I usually do and my ankles were pretty sore. 

The first viewing point of the Napali Coast you come to (half a mile in) is always pretty crowded with people. It’s a great spot, but there are many more spots where the view opens up later in the trail for photos. 

Ke’e Beach (at the bottom of the Kalalau Trailhead) is the perfect place for a swim, some snorkeling, and picnic lunch whether or not you hike the Kalalau (but you’ll still need parking reservations to come here).  I suggest grabbing a lunch to go at Hanalei Gourmet and throwing it in a cooler for after (or during) your hike. Ke’e is very protected and one of the few good swimming spots on the north shore. It’s also an excellent snorkeling spot for beginners. It’s practically a swimming pool.

Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.

Want to read more posts about Kauai? I’ve got plenty!

Things You Can ONLY Do on Kauai // Things to Do in Poipu (South Side) // 5 Day Kauai Itinerary // 4 Day Kauai Itinerary (North Shore) // 3 Day Kauai Itinerary //

Where to Stay on Kauai: Princeville vs Poipu // Grand Hyatt Kauai Review // My Favorite Restaurants in Poipu

Kauai Travel Tips (Things to Know Before You Go) // Napali Coast: Boat Tour vs Helicopter // Kauai Helicopter Tour FAQs

Maui vs Kauai

Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…

Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip

You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!

Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.

That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.

I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )

But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.

Haleakala National Park (Maui)

To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).

Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).

The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.

You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).

If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.

I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.

Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)

To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).

It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Iao Valley State Park (Maui)

To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Diamond Head (Oahu)

To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.

Hanauma Bay (Oahu)

To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.

Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.

Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).

If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.

There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.

It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).

The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.

Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.

USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)

If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.

Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.

Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???

They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.

The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.

They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.

Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)

If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:

1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.

2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.

3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.

The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.

There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.

Other Things to Book in Advance

Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):

Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and dinner reservations usually start filling up about 6 months in advance (they open up bookings 18 months in advance). Make reservations through their website and if the dates you want are already booked, you can join a waitlist. Most people have pretty good success getting in on the waitlist (even if it’s for lunch).

Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.

Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.

Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.

Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.

Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.