After a few Kauai visits, this year I finally managed to pack the entire Kalalau Trail. Though I’ve often heard that getting permits for Kalalau can be difficult, I booked my January trip the previous August without much difficulty at all, I purchased my permits for $20/person per day without knowing if I would have anyone join me and filled out the second person as “TBD Companion.” Many people say to plan a year out, but I found that six months was plenty. As the date neared, I was able to change the name on my permit to a friend who decided to join the trek.
My trekking pose. Photo credit: Lila
After reading a lot of online advice (and since my hiking buddy was not an avid backpacker), we decided to break up the hike (both in and out) into two days, staying halfway at the Hanakoa Valley campsite. We flew in on day one and made a mad-dash to the hotel to drop off our bags before heading to the trail head and starting our hike at 2:45 p.m. We definitely cut it close this first day and ended up hiking in the dark for over an hour – I do not recommend this for inexperienced hikers, but we made it work with our headlamps and rolled into camp just after 7:00. There is a lovely stream here you can cool off in and get some fresh water to filter.
Sunset heading into Hanakoa Valley. Photo credit: Lisette
After we set up camp, another couple rolled in (using only small flashlights!). This woefully unprepared couple had set out on the hike with no permit, headlamps, trekking poles, fuel or water filter. We helped them out by filtering and boiling some water for them, but later heard that the man had twisted and ankle and they were struggling to make it back. Please don’t be this couple! Unprepared hikers place a burden on everyone else on this trail.
Crawler’s Ledge. Photo credit: Lisette
The next day we headed off to Kalalau Beach and enjoyed gorgeous views. Crawler’s Ledge (about a mile from Hanakoa Valley) wasn’t nearly as bad as I had been warned about. While narrow, it wasn’t quite as steep or narrow as I’d imagined and was only a short portion of the trail. Once you pass Crawler’s Ledge you go along the cliffs for a lovely hike (easier than day one) and descend into Kalalau Valley.
Descending into Kalalau Valley. Photo credit: Lila Milford
The river when you get into the valley is actually the worst crossing, it’s quite wide and very tricky to get across with packs, I fell in while crossing on the way in and lost a water bottle, but was able to get out more easily the next day. Kalalau itself is stunning. This isolated beach has a lovely little waterfall to wash off in and gather water. The community is amazing, we instantly bonded with the camps around us and made friends on the beach. Sunset here is spectacular.
Finding new friends at sunset. Photo credit: Lisette
We had a wonderful little campsite down the beach close to the falls, someone had taken large rocks and formed a little bench around a fire pit, so we had plenty of space to relax and cook. We joined a group of men at the next site over for a feast of Spam tacos, rice and shots of rum/vodka, enjoying the camaraderie of those who had completed the trail.
Our little campsite with an ocean view. Photo credit: Lisette
Sadly, we were only able to spend one day/night at Kalalau, rain was forecasted and we wanted to be able to take our time and hike out in two days (I’m not sure we could physically have handled the full 11 miles in one day). Side note – while we “only” hiked five or six miles each day, we were clocked at doing 10.5 miles with a FitBit. These are the longest miles you will ever hike; you will climb and scramble and struggle for much of this trail, but it will be worth it. On the way back at Hanakoa, I took a side hike to see the falls, and it was well worth it. These isolated falls were so tall I couldn’t get a proper photo, and I took the opportunity to enjoy my solitude and get in a little skinny dipping before the helicopters arrived.
Hanakoa Falls. Photo credit: Lisette
Our last day was a bit somber, we had just started to really unwind in the beauty of the trail, and were sad to leave so early (but relieved to be out ahead of the rain). This hike is truly remarkable and is a must-see for wanderlusting backpackers.
Me after four days on the trail. Photo credit: Lila
- If you’re staying at Hanakoa Valley, the open campsites by the toilets get really damp. There is a GREAT spot hidden behind the shelter near the toilets, just up a small trail – this spot is much drier and much more private. There are also sites on the far side of the river, but water access is much more difficult from this side.
- At Kalalau Beach, just passed the “designated” campsites there are many great spots closer to the beach. While I don’t think camping here is technically allowed, many people do. The views and breeze are far superior here.
- Book far out in advance and make sure to get a permit. There were plenty of people hiking without permits, but I still wouldn’t recommend it.
- Food – no one talks about food storage, I was worried about critters here, but we kept our food in our packs next to the tent and had no problems. (You don’t need to hang your food.) The cats will totally eat any food you leave unattended outside though, so keep a close eye on any meat or cheese you bring in!
- Gear Notes-
- Use trekking poles. We saw a lot of people going without and they were not doing well (unless they had ultralight packs and were strikingly fit).
- You need a TON of water. You sweat a lot out there, we refilled halfway through each day at streams with our filter. Highly recommend the Sawyer Squeeze filter, this was super easy to use, lightweight and the bags double as water storage for longer stretches.
- Don’t bring a sleeping bag. I used a lightweight blanket and this was plenty, plus it saved a bunch of room and weight in my pack.
- Do bring a hammock. I purchased and Eno Double Nest hammock and loved having it by the beach for relaxing. We slept in a Big Agnes Fly Creek Tent for two and were quite comfortable, this super light tent was amazing for me to carry and I got it just for this trip to replace my heavier (and 15 years older) backpacking tent.
- Purchase fuel on the island (you can’t bring it on the plane). Ace Hardware is a great spot to pick up your fuel and has locations around the island. Also get bug spray, we were eaten alive by mosquitoes on the hike in.