The Hike

Early views of the trail

The Sierra Club rates the Kalalau Trail as one of the most difficult trails. I did not know that when I applied for a permit six months before flying to Kauai. I had heard that it was the most spectacular overnight hike, with amazing views of rocky cliffs on the edge of the ocean and deep jungles with countless flowers. I found both descriptions to be true.

Getting to the start of the trail was an effort. We flew to Kauai from Maui, with a layover in Oahu. Because of car break-ins at the Kalalau trailhead, we needed to put all of our non-backpacking items in lockers at the Kauai airport. It took a lot of searching and another check through the x-ray machines before Bill was able to find the lockers. It was almost an hour after arrival in Kauai that we were able to finally leave the airport and drive several hours to the trailhead.

The first part of the hike was continuously uphill amongst a crowd of day hikers. Our hard work was immediately rewarded with the first amazing views along the edge of the trail.

You could see the rough waves crash against the cliffs along the edge of the island and the steep lush jungle against the blue sky. We had an 11-mile hike ahead of us and we could not see where the trail would end because of the curve of the island.

The trail dipped back down into the rain forest where morning glories wrapped their vines around towering tropical ferns and trees. Orange, yellow, and pink lantana bloomed brightly on bushes the whole way.  The trail continued to climb out to the sea cliffs and dip back into the rain forest. Every time we reached the cliffs, we would be amazed with the beauty of the ocean.

Within the third mile, we ran into a couple returning from the Kalalau Beach, which is the official end of the Kalalau Trail. They said that because there would be a full moon that evening, the "villagers" would be "landing" on the beach to have a big celebration with loud music and a bon fire. Great! I said that after hiking 11 miles into nowhere, I hoped we would have solitude. The woman then said "then don't come to Hawaii". She told us the trail was really hard and the switchbacks never let up. She also warned us that many of the mile markers on the trail were missing. 

After talking to this couple, I felt very depressed, and I gave up my desire to hike to the beach at the end. Bill kept telling me that we could camp on the far end of the beach where it might be quieter, but I was still wary of the situation. "What time is it?" and "How much longer?" Seemed to pour from my lips every hour or so after that.

The temperature and the humidity increased as we slowly progressed along the trail. We would gain 500 feet, loose 200 feet, gain another 400 feet, and lose another 400 feet. My pack was heavy, and I could not stop sweating. We would rest and then the minute we started hiking, we would be drenched in sweat again.

After the fourth mile, there was a waterfall about every mile, which gave us an opportunity to rest and purify more water. We learned that a water filter was not enough on the island and that a purifier was required to kill a bacteria called leptospirosis, which may be abundant in the water. Feral pigs and goats live and die near many of the streams and can be a source of bacteria. The lepto bacteria is small enough to fit through even 0.2 micron filter, so purification is important. Also, it is not just the drinking water, but an open cut in infected water would also be a bad idea.

Around the sixth mile I decided we were stopping for the night at the campsite at the 8 mile marker. I also decided I would never hike again. With that decision, it made me wonder how I would ever get home. I decided I did not really care at that point. Five more miles was too much to comprehend. We were so exhausted from hiking up and down, up and down, that Bill did not care if we ever made it to the beach at the 11th mile, either.

Bill checks the map Cori hiking back down into the rainforest A view of Kalalau Beach from Waiamea

We finally dragged ourselves to the 8th mile and sat around wondering if would ever move again. A woman hiked by and told us that the camping at 11 miles was much nicer. We would be glad that we did it. It was only a "little bit further". I remembered that we did come to this island specifically to camp on the Kalalau beach. What is 3 more miles when we already did 8? We still had 2 hours until sunset, so we decided to go for it. I tried not to think how much longer our hike out tomorrow would now be.

We continued to hike up and out to the exposed sea cliffs, where the ledges would only be a foot and a half wide to hike across. The mountain goats would gracefully hop up and down the cliffs, laughing at us the whole way. With every hike up to a sea cliff, came another decent into the rain forests. One of the last sets of switchbacks descended to a valley above the cliffs. It was the first time in my life that I got vertigo. The footpath was just about a six inch strip of red sand surrounded by grass and a grade that I would not ski down for all of the money in the world. I dreaded coming back up this part of the trail on the hike home.

We finally approached the nine mile marker. All of the markers had been there so far. Perhaps that couple would be wrong about the party on the beach. We continued our hike, and found that it would mostly be a descent to the beach at the end. We hiked on the red sand. Steep pointy cliffs disappeared in the clouds to our left, and the ocean pounded against the rocks to our right. Maybe I would recommend this trail after all.

Our hike ended on a Kalalau Beach, which extended about 1 mile. The rumors about not needing clothes at this beach were confirmed immediately. We set up our tent and watched the sun set. We cooked our long awaited supper, ate greedily, and watched the stars come out.

We were the only tent on the beach. Most people camped in the woods behind the beach. It made us wonder how far up the tide would come over night. I figured if I started to get wet, I would wake up and we could move it then.

Sunset on Kalalau beach

There was no bon fire that evening, and the campground behind us was silent. I was so grateful that the couple we met earlier was wrong. And to think that I let that effect my attitude during the whole hike! I was going to make sure that I enjoyed myself thoroughly the next day.

I woke up several times that night and gazed at the stars above and listened to the dark tide wash up on to the beach and lull me back to sleep.

When we woke up the next morning, we walked to the end of the beach and showered in the waterfall. On our way back to our tent, we met a man who hiked out there several years ago and decided never to "go back". He goes out for supplies every other month, but other than that, he remains a resident of the Kalalau Beach. He asked us to stay another day and to hike in the valley. Unfortunately, we had many plans awaiting us the next few days, and so we had to hike out that morning.

The hike back was so much easier. My pack seemed lighter, and the hills did not seem as steep. (It was not until that evening that I would realize that I forgot to pack the tent into my backpack. Luckily, Bill picked it up unknowingly.) I never saw the section that gave me vertigo, though we would have had to hike though it because there is only one trail out there.

The scenery was twice as beautiful and the sky was clearer than the day before. We hiked for nine hours to complete the hike back to the car, but only the last mile back down to sea level seemed painful for me. Maybe because I did not want to leave.

Waterfall on the Beach: Early Morning Shower

Planning your Trip

In order to spend the night on the trail or at the Kalalau Beach, you must apply for a permit. Try to do this as early as possible because the permits can sell out fast. You may have a better chance getting a permit for a weekday. We called the Division of State Parks to get our permit. The phone number is 808 587-0300. They are in a different time zone than the other 49 states, so it is best to call during the afternoon or evening.

A table lower on this page is a gear list for our trip.

Phone Numbers

Division of State Parks Call this place for an overnight permit.  State Building
3060 Eiwa St, Room 306
Lihue, HI 96766
808 587-0300
Peddle and Paddle A place to get your fuel bottle filled and buy any forgotten gear Ching Young Village
Hanalei, HI 96714
808 826-9069

Taxi Service

You can rent a taxi in advance to pick you up at the airport or hotel and drive you to the trail. Pono Taxi has a page to request this service at

Recommended Books

Hiking Kauai the Garden Isle by Robert Smith (published by Hawaiian Outdoor Adventures Publications, 102-16 Kaui Place, Kula, Maui, Hawaii).

Packing List

We found that we did not need the warm clothes, but we used everything else. This is a heavy load and we would probably recommend a lighter load for most travelers. You could survive without a crazy creek chair and bed pillows and some of the toys like an altimeter as well as a patch kit for the tent. We could have gone with much less fuel.

We did OK with the food quantities and the number of socks, shirts and shorts. The zip lock baggies were for packing out rubbish and used toilet paper. The tent was a good idea because it rains a lot at Kalalau beach, and the 30 degree bags were more than enough on the warm beach.

We were used to a more extreme climate for backpacking, but in Hawaii, it does not even get very cold in the evening. I slept on top of my sleeping bag.

Download pdf version of our packing list

Cori's backpack Bill's Backpack
1 headlamp 1 headlamp
1 therm-a-rest 1 therm-a-rest
1 30 deg sleeping bag 1 30 deg sleeping bag
1 little bed pillows 1 little bed pillows
1 crazy creek 1 crazy creek
1 little tent 1 water purifier
1 MSR fix kit 2 water bottles
1 first aid kit 2 forks
1 tent fix kit 2 knives
1 nylon patch kit 2 spoons
1 petzl battery 2 bowls
12 wetnaps 1 sponge
6 zip lock baggies 1 castile soap bottle
2 plastic bags for rubbish 1 titanium cook pot
1 camera 1 lid for pot
1 binoculars 1 stove
2 rolls of film 1 fuel bottle
1 toothbrush 1 book of matches
1 deodorant 1 altimeter
1 toothpaste 1 compass
1 bandana 1 bandana
1 book 1 book
1 spf 30 sunscreen 1 pocket knife
1 roll of TP 2 rolls of film
2 water bottles 1 camera
1 pair sunglasses 1 pair sunglasses
1 whistle 1 deodorant
2 spare wool socks 1 toothbrush
2 spare sock liners 2 spare wool socks
2 extra shirt 2 spare sock liners
1 extra shorts 1 extra shirt
1 rain jacket 1 extra shorts
1 pair of rain pants 1 rain jacket
1 extra underwear 1 pair of rain pants
1 layer of warmer clothes 1 extra underwear
1 hiking permit 1 layer of warmer clothes
1 trail map 1 geographical map
1 watch 1 hand towel
2 lunches 2 lunches
1 breakfast 1 breakfast
4 snacks 4 snacks
1 back country gourmet meal