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Nāpali Coast trailhead for the Kalalau Trail

What to Know Before Hitting the Kalalau Trail

I turned 40 in 2022.  To celebrate, I wanted to take a nice vacation and experience something new.  After debating whether or not to go to Munich for Oktoberfest or hit up the East Coast and fish for tuna, I settled on heading to Hawaii to try spearfishing.

Talking things over with friends to see who could come, the plans evolved and changed.  Eventually, it became a trip to spearfish and also to hike the Kalalau Trail on the north shore of Kauai, fish for the Ulua, and overall experience island life.

Before leaving, I read up as much as I could about hiking this trail, and while there are some amazing blogs and guides out there, I felt somewhat shocked upon arrival.  It was considerably different than what I expected.  So, let me add my guide to the other guides on how to experience the Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park.


About the Nāpali Coast: Where and What it’s Like

The garden island Kauai is only 25 miles long and 33 miles wide.  However, the north and northwest parts of the island have mountains that rise 5,000 feet above sea level.  These steep mountains drop from their highest peaks nearly straight down into the ocean.

In this part of the Pacific, the winds come from the northwest, and as storms roll in, they dump their rain on that side of the island.  Driving around to the south, it’s drier and more open, while the island’s northern part is green and jungle-like.

The exquisite trail we hiked is on the north coast, where the terrain is intense, the jungle is thick, and the trailhead is at sea level.  The hike takes you up and down as you cross ridges along the mountains.  It’s an incredible place with an 11-mile hike that turned out to be much more intense than expected.

Prepping for your Hike – Booking the Camp Site and Parking

One of the biggest “shocks” was getting to the trail.  From the Lihue Airport to Hā’ena State Park, where you start your adventure, is only 37 miles.  But it takes over an hour to get there.  The road is narrow and winding – and gets narrower after you pass Princeville on the island’s Northern end.  Along the way, there are a few bridges that are single-lane only.  When you arrive, you yield to vehicles coming your way; sometimes, it’s a line of 5 to 10 cars.  When there’s a break, you (and the line behind you) get to cruise on through.  It’s a way of keeping the island from over-developing and maintaining as much jungle and natural state as possible.

There are a number of unique regulations when you’re going to hike the trail.

First, you have to pay to park.  You’ll need a parking permit even if you’re doing a day trip.  If you are doing an overnight trip, you need 2 days’ worth of parking permits.  You can only get parking permits once you have a camping permit.  Fortunately, the Go Hā’ena website has some good information on how to do this.  Until you have the camping permit, you can’t even check if permits are available, but as of this writing, the costs were $10/day plus $5 per person.


Because space is limited and parking spots sell out quickly, it is often best to just book a shuttle.  Roundtrip, those things will run you $40 a pop.

Camping on the Nāpali Coast costs $35 per person.  I recommend booking at least two nights as you’ll soon see that the trek to get there is strenuous, and a second night of relaxation is best.  If possible, a few more nights would be even better.

You can only reserve your spot 90 days in advance, and many of the hot times sell out quickly.  When I booked for late September, I logged on in the morning 90 days in advance and got the very last spot.  But, when talking to people on the trail, they said they booked after me and got a spot.  Apparently, some spots can be forfeited, so you might luck out if you’re going during peak season.

You have to create an account so you can check availability.  It’s very similar to the Recreation dot Gov site and relatively easy to navigate.  Swing over to the site and check it out.

Download your registration forms, keep them on your phone, and keep them handy.  Someone is monitoring the parking lot on your way in who will check to make sure you’re properly permitted.  Park rangers hike the area and may ask to check your permits while you’re out and about.


About the Hike on the Kalalau Trail

Once your confusing AF paperwork is done, it’s time to prep for the hike.  There are a ton of sites out there with great videos, great guides, and better pictures than I could ever take.  So I’ll let you peruse those at your leisure – head to YouTube and search for “Hiking the Napali coast trail” for some great videos.

These videos, however, won’t do it justice with a few parts of the trail.  I’ll try to lay them out as best as I can here so you can mentally prepare.

The trail is steep.  Not that you walk straight up the mountain, but as you can see in the pictures, you’re heading up and over these ridges.  Being at sea level is not a big problem; the air isn’t thin like hiking in the Montana mountains, but you’re going up and down for 11 miles.  The rigor of the trail wasn’t what gets to you, though (read on to the final section of what I wish I had known to get the full scoop).

Crawler’s Ledge is touted as the scary and dangerous part of the hike.  And yes, it can be a little nerve-wracking if you’re not used to heights.  But most of the videos are wide-angle lenses and make it look much worse than it really is.  If it hasn’t rained recently, the ledge really isn’t that bad.  There are parts of the hike before and after the ledge, however, that are dirt.  I found these to be scarier than crawlers ledge.


The first 9ish miles of the hike will largely be in the shade.  You’re in and out of the jungle, but you mostly have cover.  However, you get out in the open the last couple of miles.  By then, it’s the hot part of the day, and the sun is likely scorching your noggin.  Be prepared that the hottest and suckiest bit is at the end.

There are tons of scenic vistas, lots of fruit trees, and plenty of room on most of the trail.  There are creek crossings for water refills, and rest areas.  Don’t worry about going too fast or too slow.  Don’t worry about overloading with water because you can fill up along the way.

The hike will wind you along the coast, past incredible jungle plants, near cliffs, and through some awesome terrain.  Don’t be surprised if you encounter goats; we saw a bunch of them.  There are warnings of wild pigs.  We didn’t see any of them.


Goats of Napali Coast

About the Campsites Along the Trail and at Kalalau Beach

Camping on the coast is a great experience.  But there are limited places to camp if you haven’t prepared properly.  The mountains basically come right into the sea, and there are few flat spots if you need to find somewhere to pitch a tent.  I took a hammock, and I highly recommend that over a tent.

The first three miles are open to day hikers.  The trail was relatively quiet, but more people were on that stretch.  It ends at Hanakāpī’Ai Beach, where there are composting toilets (I’ll get to those down below).  Here, people stop, picnic, and enjoy lounging in the river, and there are a few signs that explain the rock walls and early settlement on the island.  It’s an excellent place to take a break, but you still have 8 miles to go if you’re heading to the end.

There is another 1.5 miles up the canyon to a waterfall area.  If you’re only doing the day hike, you can proceed on that trail to check out the falls.  We didn’t have time to head that direction.


If the trail becomes too much for you, there’s an “abandon ship” campsite at Hanakoa – just over 6 miles in.  There are only a couple of sites here, and it is recommended that you don’t stop here unless it’s an emergency.  A half mile up the canyon are the Hanakoa Falls – we didn’t visit those either.  It was, however, a nice place to stop and have lunch, refill water, eat some guava, and try not to get our toes pinched by the crawdads in the creek.

At the end of the trail, you’ll get to Kalalau Beach.  It’s about a quarter mile long with a grove of trees off the beach before the mountains jut into the air.  The trail takes you through the trees, just off the beach, and there are dozens of areas where you can camp.  These campsites aren’t really designated; there are no fire rings or anything of the sort, just flat areas where if you see a good spot, you choose to camp there.

When we went through, we hiked to the far end of the camping area, where a little creek comes down as a waterfall.  It’s the perfect spot to wash yourself off and refill water.  The water is on the chilly side, so don’t expect bathwater temperature showers.  There will be other campers, so don’t hog the facilities.


Fishing the north shore of Kauai

What to Bring and What to Leave at Home

Let’s talk about how to hike, experience, and camp on the Nāpali Coast.  There are some things I wish I had brought with me, and some stuff that I could have done without.

As far as food goes, we were pretty well set.  I didn’t know about all the guava growing along the trail.  There are also papaya, bananas, and oranges that grow here and there.  I didn’t see any papaya (I later realized one of the trees I was looking at was a papaya tree without fruit).  Some hippies that set up semi-permanent camps in the area gave us bananas.  We were able to catch a couple of fish from the ocean, but we didn’t have time to clean them up and eat them.  Our main meals were dehydrated backpacking food, which I had brought from the mainland.  I didn’t bother with a stove as those things can be eaten with any water temperature.

I brought a liter water bottle and a squeeze water filter.  Along the way, there was only one section where I drank most of my water.  I never fully ran out.  I didn’t need more water, but you might want to bring a second water bottle if you drink a lot more.  Since it’s hot and humid, you will sweat a lot more than usual, and you can dehydrate yourself a bit.


Some people camp in tents and some use hammocks.  I found the hammock to be ideal for two reasons.  First, it was lightweight.  No need to haul a big heavy tent and cram two or three guys into a small space.  Second, there weren’t many bugs (very few flies and mosquitos anywhere on the island), but there were tons of ants.  These tiny little ants were literally everywhere.  The good news was they wouldn’t crawl on your feet if you stopped in the trail where they were zipping across, but another camper said they got in their tent, which was annoying.

My hammock came with a rainfly.  Fortunately, we didn’t get more than a tiny sprinkle while we were heading out.  The next day, when we were back in town, it downpoured like crazy.  We would have been soaked with the little rainfly.  Next time, I would bring a large tarp that can go above one or two hammocks to really keep things dry.

Sleeping in the hammock was great.  I took a sleeping pad, thinking it would help to keep the hammock more rigid.  It ended up slipping to the side and wasn’t at all necessary.  A simple pillow and a light blanket that I pulled over me around 2 in the morning were more than enough.  If you’re hammocking, leave the sleeping pad and don’t bring a sleeping bag, as you’ll end up way too hot.

Hiking poles are helpful, especially around Crawler’s Ledge and the other steep sections.  I strapped them to my pack and didn’t use them outside of those areas.  If you’re feeling generous and want to make friends, bring extra food to share with the other campers.


What I Wish I had Known about the Hike and Camp

I watched a lot of videos, read a lot of trip reports, and looked up a lot of how-to guides for this trip.  I still felt like I was a bit unprepared.  It was, however, my first time in Hawaii, so I didn’t fully know what to expect from the area.

While everything went fine, I learned some lessons that will help out immensely on the next trip – lessons you can incorporate if you’re heading that way.

Because it’s hot and humid, we sweated like crazy.  We drank a bunch of water to replenish, but we didn’t realize how many electrolytes we would lose.  One in our group brought a bag of Cheez-Its, and those things were the best.  We craved them badly and wanted to eat the entire box in one setting.  Make sure you pack plenty of electrolyte replenishers – Gatorade is good for this, but there are also pills and goo that can do the same thing.


The fruit options were a pleasant surprise.  The guava was delicious.  Don’t get the ones off the ground, even if they look fresh.  I cut one open and discovered it had a bunch of little wormy things inside it.  They probably wouldn’t hurt you, but it was kind of gross.

We only booked one night because there were literally no more nights available.  Nobody ever checked our pass, so we probably COULD have fudged it a bit and stayed a second night without any repercussions, but this is a protected natural area.  Space is limited, so it doesn’t get wrecked.  It’s better to book multiple nights because hiking in 11 miles, then turning around and hiking out 11 miles the next day, wasn’t ideal.

On our way out, we passed a hippie camp.  We called it that, anyway.  It was a group of 4 guys that looked like they had a pretty long-term camp set up.  They knew the area and knew where the fruit trees grew.  They had a bundle of bananas and offered some to us.  These guys were cool – I recommend bringing extra food or booze so you can give it to them and trade it for some of their fruit.

Rain is frequent on the island.  It’s considered the rainiest place on earth because somewhere on the island, it rains literally every single day.  It might just be a sprinkle on top of the mountain, but it rains all the time.  Enough to keep large streams flowing 24/7 without a reservoir where they pour out of.  That rain can cause issues.  As I mentioned earlier, it would have soaked us with our small rain flies, but it would have also made exiting the trail impossible.  The streams swell up, the ledges get slick, and things get muddy.  Be prepared.


Waterfalls off the mountains
Waterfalls after the rain pouring the immense amount of water from the mountains.

Those streams, when it hasn’t rained heavily, are delightful.  We stopped at several of them and cooled ourselves down.  The water temperature wasn’t that cold, but with our overheated bodies, they felt really cold.  I recommend at least soaking feet and legs to help stave off any heat stroke that might be sneaking up on you.

Finally, the toilets.  There are composting toilets at the three-mile mark, the six-mile mark, and the destination.  I looked inside each one, and they were gross.  Dirty, uncleaned, and while I didn’t see spiders, it looked like they would be packed with spiders.  In a pinch, you could use them to pinch one off, but I didn’t.  I don’t know if there was toilet paper in them either – something you’ll probably want to bring with you.


Hanakapiai Beach


If You head to the Nāpali Coast

This adventure is awesome.  I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys hiking, camping, and backpacking.  I didn’t consider the hike to be terribly difficult, but some circumstances made it more challenging than I expected.

If you do decide to head to the Nāpali Coast on the North Shore of Kauai, plan a bunch so you know just what to expect.  If you need pointers, tips, tricks, and guidance you didn’t see here, feel free to find me on Instagram, Facebook, or email me and ask whatever questions you may be pondering.  You can always leave a comment too – sometimes I don’t notice those as easily as I would on other platforms though.

Happy Hiking.

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