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Hiking to Hanakapi’ai Falls in Kauai

Hiking the Kalalau trail in Kauai

If you’re in Kauai, the Na Pali Coast is probably at the top of your list. Hiking to the Hanakapi’ai Falls should also be included somewhere on said list. If there is one hike to do in Kauai, this is it.

The Na Pali Coast is famous for steep emerald covered cliffs jutting out into the turquoise ocean.  The rugged landscape makes it impossible for roads to be built, leaving the area only to be explored by foot. It is a goldmine for anyone who loves to hike.

The famous Kalalau Trail winds for 11 miles through the jungle, past secluded rock beaches, and around sheer cliffs.  It is, by far, the most famous hike in Hawaii and one of the top in the world.  

After seeing videos and pictures online, there is no way I was doing this hike, regardless of the views.  All it took was one clip of someone hugging the side of a cliff thousands of feet off the ground for me to start sweating and nervously refusing to go anywhere near it.

The full hike requires an overnight camp for most people, along with a permit from the park service.  Luckily for me, the first two miles of the hike can be enjoyed with much less adrenaline-inducing danger and doesn’t require a permit.  

You can then add on two more miles by branching off onto the Hanakapi’ai Trail for a view of the falls that most visitors will never see. 

David and I were in Kauai for a babymoon.  I was nearing the end of my second trimester, in the sweet spot between the nauseating first months and exhausting final trimester.  

The trip was meant to be all about relaxing before baby number two arrived.  However, before we even booked our tickets we were already looking for exciting things to do on the island.  

Neither of us are great at sitting on a beach all day.  I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve done this together (partly because beach trips with kids. Right?).  So we immediately began planning for the active pursuits we wanted to include.  

While this trail, especially the second half, to the falls isn’t an easy walk in the park, most people that are relatively fit can make the trek.  Trust me, I saw multiple people of various fitness levels attempting it.  

Don’t forget that while I was blissfully living it up in the energetic world of the sixth month of pregnancy, I was still suffering from the serious breathlessness associated with carrying an extra twenty pounds.  If I could do it while pregnant, then you most likely can as well.  

Make sure you check out our full guide on visiting Kauai! If you’re looking for ideas for other parents getaways, check out this post about an amazing little town in Costa Rica. Or perhaps you want some European culture. If so, you might want to check out Portugal. We’ve got an awesome 10 day road trip through Portugal.

The Trail

The Kalalau Trail starts from the end of the road at Ke’e Beach.  The two mile hike begins with an immediate uphill climb, and opens up to reveal beautiful vistas of the cerulean ocean below.  The trail is often muddy, especially in the shady areas and on the rocky downhill climbs.  Anyone with hiking experience would agree that going downhill is so much worse than up.  The slippery rocks do nothing to add to the pain of the steep descent.  This section is also tough going back up when leaving, especially for the many people we saw wearing flip flops or not in good physical shape.  

Hanakapi'ai Trail
Hanakapi’ai Stream

After the descent, you’ll come to a stream crossing.  The water was low enough when we went that we were able to boulder hop, but it can vary with recent rainfall levels so you may end up wet.  After a bit more hiking you’ll reach Hanakapi’ai Beach.  This is the halfway point to the falls so the large boulders are the perfect place to perch for a few minutes before continuing on to the falls.  The monstrous, crashing waves against the lava stone cliffs provide a dreamy backdrop for a water break.  

From here, you can head inland on the Hanakapi’ai Trail toward the falls.  It is roughly two miles uphill from the beach to the stunning Hanakapi’ai Falls.  The 750 foot elevation gain takes you through bamboo forests and includes several crossings of the stream, some more technical than others. There are several false trails that can easily deceive you into going the wrong way.  Make sure to stay within a reasonable distance from the stream.  We took a few wrong turns ourselves, but quickly realized our mistake. 

bamboo Hanakapi'ai Trail
bamboo forest

The 300 foot waterfall cascades down into a large, icy pool, perfect for a refreshing dip after the two hour hike.  Surrounded by steep cliffs covered in lush greenery, you almost get the feeling of being in a large tropical open cave.  Spend some time relaxing and swimming in the cold water.  Now is a great time to eat some lunch or a snack before heading back out.

Things to Know

  • The first section to Hanakapi’ai Beach takes about 1.5- 2 hours for most people.
  • The second section to the falls takes another 2 hours for most people.  It is in no way an easy hike for beginners.  The often strenuous hike includes several technical climbs and descents.  
  • Remember, these times are to reach the desired locations.  You will then have to come back out the same way, so double your expected hiking times.  
  • The trail is often extremely muddy and slippery in spots.  Make sure to wear shoes with good tread.  Unless you plan to do some other super technical hikes, you’ll be fine with sneakers.  Just don’t be like the handful of other people I saw with flip flops or Chacos.  When I saw them, all I could think was how miserable they must be.  Also, don’t take your favorite pair of tennis shoes; they will end up covered in mud.  You can wash them off in the small stream at the end of the hike. 
  • Parking is limited, and the trail is extremely popular.  Arrive early to secure a spot and get ahead of the crowds (and the heat).
  • Check the weather forecasts and plan ahead.  The weather can change quickly, but if the previous day was rainy the trails may be more muddy or even closed.  The morning we went started off overcast and sprinkling, but about a mile in the sun came out and gave us beautiful views of the coast.  
  • Check for trail conditions before going.  Depending on water levels and weather, the trail may be closed.  Be sure to check http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/hiking/kauai/kalalau-trail/ for info on closings and trail conditions.
  • As of December 2018, the trails are closed due to serious flooding affecting the park and the bridges and roads used to access the area.
  • Make sure to pack water and snacks.  If going all the way to the falls, your adventure could take anywhere between 6-8 hours, depending on how long you stay to enjoy the scenery or how many pictures you take along the way. 
  • Take a change of shoes and clothes.  Your shoes will be wet and muddy.  There are showers at Ke’e Beach, so I was glad to have flip flops and some fresh clothes to wear.  We also packed our bathing suits to take full advantage of the North Shore Beaches while in the area.  
  • This probably isn’t a hike I would do with my kids, unless they are more into the teen years. There are a few unsafe areas for little ones.
Napali coast Kalalau Trail
celebrating at the finish

Have you hiked the Hanakapi’ai or Kalalau Trails? What was your favorite part?

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