Backpacking and Camping on the Kalalau Trail – Kauai – Hawaii

Getting There

There are not many options to get to Kauai (LIH) as it is fairly isolated compared to other destinations. You are limited to flight transportation options. From the mainland, there are quite a few direct flights from the west coast (Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle).

Since we were on the neighboring Island of Oahu already, we took Hawaiian Airlines directly to Kauai. The cost can range anywhere between $50 – $150 each way depending on the departure date and time. Since I was planning this trip for a while, I picked up the Barclays Hawaiian Airlines Mastercard, which gave me 50,000 points for this trip. If you are travelling between neighboring islands, the redemption on HA for a one way ticket is 7,500 points, which can turn out to be a great value depending on the price of the flights at the time. The in- flight duration from Oahu to Kauai is, on average, only about 23 minutes. Gate to gate is an average of 41 minutes – quite possibly one of the shortest flights I have taken.

Our Flight Itinerary:

HAWAIIAN AIRLINES Flight Number HA 103  Tuesday, 12 December
Departure: HNL HONOLULU, HI
5:21AM
INTER-ISLAND TERMINAL
 
Arrival: LIH LIHUE KAUAI, HI
6:00AM

 

HAWAIIAN AIRLINES Flight Number HA 324  Thursday, 14 December
Departure: LIH LIHUE KAUAI, HI
11:07PM
 
Arrival: HNL HONOLULU, HI
11:40PM
INTER-ISLAND TERMINAL

Note: Hawaiian Airlines can be strict about bringing camp stoves. If you state that you have a camp stove or have any indication that you have one they will make you dispose of the camp stove. We had two separate member of our party unlucky enough to have their backpacks searched and ordered to dispose of their camp stoves. Luckily most of us had camp stoves and didn’t have any worries about cooking on the trail.

Transportation on the Island

The transportation options on Kauai are straight forward as any other vacation location.

  1. Taxi – Uber and Lyft are both available
  2. Rental Car – All of the major American (Hertz, National, Avis, etc.) rental car companies are here.
  3. Shuttle Bus – There is a bus from Lihue to Hanalei. It is a cheaper option, but it’s not used much by Kalalau hikers because bags or backpacks larger than 10″x17″x30″ are not permitted. Also, if you are on a time schedule, the bus doesn’t always cooperate.  It will take you as far as Hanalei.  You will have to find a ride the rest of the way to the trailhead.

We opted to get a rental car due to the logistics of getting a taxi. The rental cars here are extremely expensive given that we only needed a rental car to get to the trailhead and back to the airport. The cost of a minivan to fit all seven of us came out to approximately $600 for 3 days including a collision damage waiver (CDW).

The CDW came highly recommended on many other sites as well as the car rental company themselves. It is common for thieves to break into cars that they know will be unattended for a long time. So do not leave any valuables in your car when you leave for your hike. In addition to this, some people choose to leave their entire car unlocked so thieves will not damage any windows or doors. We left our cars locked.

Kalalau Trail Information and Campsite Booking

The Kalalau Trail provides the only land access to this part of the rugged coast. The trail traverses 5 valleys before ending at Kalalau Beach where it is blocked by sheer, fluted pali. The 11-mile trail is graded but almost never level as it crosses above towering sea cliffs and through lush valleys. The trail drops to sea level at the beaches of Hanakapi’ai and Kalalau.

Please watch the safety video from Hawaii DLNR here. They go over some useful information for first timers as well as veteran hikers who have not hiked in Hawaii before.

Day hiking is allowed without a permit up to Hanakapi’ai valley (2 miles in from trailhead). Anyone proceeding beyond Hanakapi’ai valley must possess a valid overnight camping permit.

Camping permits for Nāpali coast are extremely popular, and often sell out well in advance, particularly during the summer.  You can reserve your campsites utilizing this link.

Note: We booked our campsites about a year in advance for our trip so we didn’t have any issues finding a campsite for our time there. We got permits for two nights and camped one night at Kalalau and one night at Hanakoa.

The Trip

Getting to the trailhead

An empty airport leaving HNL early in the morning

We landed at 6AM and took the rental car shuttle over to Hertz where we were able to pick up the rental car.

The first thing we had to do was go to Walmart and get any supplies we needed (fuel, bread, tortillas, deli meat, etc). The Walmart is very close to the airport and there is also a McDonald’s inside. Please note that the Walmart only carries white gas and propane cooking gas. They do not carry the standard isobutane and propane mixes that are commonly used by Jetboils, Pocket Rocekts, etc. We also picked up a McDonald’s breakfast before heading out on the road to the trail head.

3-3300 Kuhio Hwy, Lihue, HI 96766

The drive to trail head is very scenic and also a quick one. Google maps has the drive at about an hour and fourteen minutes. If you are not in a rush definitely take some time to stop at the viewpoints on the way to soak it in.

Drive to the trailhead
Hanalei Valley Lookout – A must stop!

The First Day of Hiking – Trail Head > Kalalau Beach

We’ve found that the weather here can change quite quickly. It is important to keep an eye on the weather reports and make sure that you are well prepared for whatever is coming. As soon as we arrived at the trail head there was a torrential down pour.

Nathan had the heaviest pack of us all a whopping 44.19 lbs
Prepped and ready for the impending rain
The Trail Head
Muddy and Slippery Trail
The trail got the best of me
Hanakapi’ai Beach

Since we knew we had about 11 miles to go to the end of the trail we did not wait for the rain to stop. The first 2 miles of the trail were very easy compared to the last 9 miles. It got significantly harder after we passed Hanakapi’ai.

Great Views of the Fog and Rain

The rain cleared up after about 3 hours into our hike and we were in high spirits again!

The rain has cleared up!
The views of the valley are amazing

You’ll notice on the way to Hanakoa from Hanakāpīʻai you will pass through a number of switchbacks as well as a stream crossing. The streams were low during winter so we didn’t have any issues fording any rivers or hopping some stones during our hike.

Fording the river
Giant plants! It’s like we’re in Jurassic Park

Around mile 7 you’ll come across “Crawler’s Ledge”. It is mentioned on other sites that crossing this particular section is very treacherous and should be taken with extreme caution. When we came across this section we did not find it very difficult. There are many hand holds and the rocky trail is not as narrow as depicted on other sites. The trail leading up to Crawler’s Ledge looks like it may have been recently regraded hence our non-trepidation with this particular section.

Walking down to Crawler’s Ledge
Hiking close to the edge
On the crawler’s edge
Can you tell? We are tired – no more hiking please

After mile 8 we realized we were racing the sunset. We were getting tired and hungry but still had about 3 miles left to go. Our legs were tired and we weren’t moving as well with heavy packs. At some point the sun set and we were hiking in the dark.

Route finding is much more difficult at night

We finally got to the campsite at Kalalau Beach around 7:30PM. Much later than we had expected but we were happy to be there. We managed to find an empty campsite, set up, eat a quick dinner, change our clothes, and then head to bed.

First Day Elevation Gain + GPS Map

You can find our first day’s Strava here. Jade’s watch recorded the hike much better than my own, which stopped working 1/2 way through our hike.

The Second Day of Hiking – Kalalau Beach > Hanakoa

We spent most of our morning relaxing and exploring Kalalau Beach before heading out to our second campsite at Hanakoa. Due to the tides and the surf we were not able to make it past the end of the beach and around to the caves. It was unfortunate that we weren’t able to make it to the caves so we’ll definitely have to come back and do this trip again.

Dirty after a full day of hiking the day before

Just outside our campsite

Rocky Beach at Sunrise
Goat sighting
Collecting Water at the Kalalau Beach Waterfall
Jade performing manual therapy on Nathan’s ankle at camp

What was very interesting is that there were park rangers who were checking permits. They had a whole list of names and what the entry and exit dates were. They looked very serious with bulletproof vests and handguns. It was pretty cool that they came in by helicopter!

Park Ranger Helicopter

The hike back for us was much more relaxing than coming in and we got plenty of time to explore and take pictures that we did not get to on the way coming in.

Still muddy heading out
Hopping some stones across the river
A nice clearing and picture spot!

We made it to Hanakoa Campsite quite early in the afternoon. I believe it was around 3 PM and we got plenty of time to set up camp and relax as well. We decided to take the short half mile hike to the waterfall. This hike is fairly easy and we did this in flip-flops and sandals. Be aware if there was recent rain as it can still be muddy and slippery. This waterfall tops over 1000ft so we were lucky to get a glimpse at the last 300 – 400 ft or so. We also managed to get into the water and enjoy the refreshing cold from the waterfall.

Hanakoa Falls
Getting into the icy water of Hanakoa Falls
Second Day Elevation Gain + GPS Map

The second day’s Strava map is here.

The Third Day of Hiking – Hanakoa > Trailhead

Over the course of the night it was very windy and we were constantly bombarded by berries in the middle of the night. We believed these were Java Plums and they leave quite a stain on your tents. You can wipe it off easily with water and a paper towel. However, I decided to leave these on my tent to remember our hike. Our hike back to the trailhead from Hanakoa was also very enjoyable and felt like a breeze compared to our first day of hiking. The weather was great and the sun was shining during the duration of our hike.

Stained tents
The berries attack humans as well!
A nice view looking back on the valleys
Up towards the end of the trail
Very windy on the way back
Third Day Elevation Gain + GPS Map

The third day on Strava is located here.

We made it back to the beginning!

After the hike was completed we had a real strong hankering for some good food. Luckily there was a BBQ spot close by in Hanaeli. Huge shout out to Chicken in a Barrel BBQ for their awesome food. The chicken and the meat were both full of flavor and very moist. They are located in Hanalei in the Ching Young Center 5-5190 Kuhio Hwy Hanalei Hi 96714.

Chicken in a Barrel Sampler Plate – highly recommended!

Video Compilation of our Trip

 

Trip Budget

The budget for was fairly low since the prices of the tickets are not factored in the total cost (Hawaiian Airlines mileage redemption). All in all – this was a very rewarding trip at a low budget because we camped and did not spend any nights at a hotel.

Description Cost
Flights (Hawaiian Airlines) $11.20 9/11 security fee + 15,000 HA Miles
Cooking Gas + Food from Walmart $30
Backpacker Dehydrated Meals $30
Rental Car + Gas – Total $610
Food after Hike $25
Total Approximate Cost Per Person $197.86



 

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