Hiking the Na Pali Coast Trail to Kalalau Beach in Kauai, Hawaii

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

We are traveling to Hawaii in September, 2019 during one of my Seventh Week Sabbaticals. I work six weeks and take off every seventh week as a sabbatical. Sabbaticals have completely revolutionized my life.

I don’t always travel when I’m on a sabbatical. Usually, I stay home and rest or pursue side projects. This is a rare occasion where we’re taking a full blown vacation over a sabbatical week—our first vacation since 2016!

I chose the island of Kauai for our vacation because it is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. It’s known as the garden island. Parts of Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park were filmed on Kauai.

I love beaches, and I love mountains, and Kauai is everything in one package.

Kauai is able to maintain its “garden island” reputation in large part because it receives more rainfall per year than any other place on earth, raining 330 out of 365 days.

Helicopters circle the island, taking you on an unforgettable tour that feels like you’re being whisked through a 60-minute screensaver.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

While the northeastern part of the island boasts world-record rainfall, the southwestern part of the island is much drier. In fact, it’s home to the Waimea Canyon (known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”).

Photo: Aaronbernstein | CC BY-SA 3.0 (used with permission).

The Waimea Canyon is over a mile wide and stretches 14 miles in length, but perhaps most impressive are its stunning depths of more than 3,600 feet. If the size wasn’t dramatic enough, the canyon features a gorgeous rainbow of colors accented by waterfalls. Reddish orange terrain contrasts with lush green grass and, when there isn’t a spectacular blue sky, the canyon takes on a purplish hue in overcast weather.

While there are some incredible hikes near Waimea Canyon, there is also an easy-to-access lookout point which requires only a 2-minute walk from the parking lot.

What’s not so easy to reach is the marvelous Kalalau Beach.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

Photo: Keven Siegert (used with permission).

Photo: Keven Siegert (used with permission).

Kalalau Beach

Possibly the most exclusive beach in the world—complete with your own private waterfall—Kalalau Beach is accessible only by an 11-mile hike along the Na Pali Coast Trail. While the trail is open to the public, most visitors only ever hike the first two miles to Hanakapi’ai Beach. Continuing beyond this point requires a permit which you must purchase in advance, and permits can be difficult to obtain.

Photo: Keven Siegert (used with permission).

Beyond the initial two miles of the Na Pali Coast trail, on the road less traveled, hikers are rewarded with jaw-dropping views unlike any available elsewhere on the planet. Rugged cliffs rise straight out of the ocean to dramatic heights of over 4,000 feet. The cliffs feature lush foliage from top to bottom with folds as though the landscape were draped in green satin.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

In making the 22-mile round trip to Kalalau Beach and back, hikers must cross a dozen streams. These streams are also your only water source—and you’ll need to drink a lot more water than you can carry. This means you’ll need to filter water as you go, and while many streams cross your path along the way, there are some stretches of many miles where there is no water source. You’ll want to top off whenever you can so you’re not left parched in the stretches of trail that have no cover and leave you exposed to the baking sun.

The total elevation gain is well over 5,000 feet each way. The climb from sea level to high altitude and back earns the trail its 9-out-of-10 difficulty rating.

But besides being difficult, the Na Pali Coast Trail is also considered one of the most dangerous trails.

Photo: Keven Siegert (used with permission).

Photo: Keven Siegert (used with permission).

Crawlers Ledge

While the cliffs provide incredible views, they’re also what make the hike so perilous. On Crawlers Ledge, a rocky path hugs the outer edge of a cliff that provides no more than 18 inches of standing area and as little as 6 inches in a few narrow places. This is enough room for one foot. There is no other way through. The trail, and Crawlers Ledge, is the only way to get to Kalalau Beach. There are no roads, and not even boats are allowed to land on national park shores.

It takes 8 hours to complete the 11-mile hike one way to the destination beach, assuming the weather is good. If it’s not, you might as well turn around. Besides being miserably muddy, it’s far too risky to attempt something as precarious as Crawlers Ledge with anything less than optimal weather. You want to complete this stretch in as dry, and wind-free, conditions as possible. One misstep, or muddy slip, will send you cascading hundreds of feet to a sure death on the rocks and waves below.

There are no security guards. There are no lifeguards. There is no cell service. There are no lights. You cannot call for help if you twist an ankle. Even if you could, it would be a long time before anyone could get to you.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

People have died on this trail, but it’s typically not from falling off one of the cliffs. The real danger is flash floods. It rains more on Kauai than anywhere else in the world, and rainfall high up in the mountains has to come down. This is what creates the signature waterfalls Kauai is known for, but it’s also what causes streams to swell.

Day hikers are surprised to find the stream they just crossed 30 minutes ago swelled to much larger than it was before.

DO NOT cross flooded streams. This is how people lose their lives on Kalalau Trail. The surging water can wash you away in seconds.

Wait it out. The water will recede as fast as it flooded. You can rebook a missed flight, but you only have one life. It’s not worth it! Be smart and don’t cross streams when they are flooded, and you’ll be just fine.

You can make it to Kalalau Beach in a day by hiking for around 8 hours. This is a moderate pace that accounts for occasional photo breaks. Keep in mind, you’ll likely have a backpack weighing something like 30lbs with all of your camping gear, which will keep you at a moderate pace.

You want to pack as light as possible, because it’s a long trek, and you’ll soon wish you left unnecessary items behind. Not to mention, the last thing you want on Crawlers Ledge is an overly large pack on your back.

Some people break the hike to Kalalau Beach into two days, opting to stay overnight in Hanakoa Campground at mile 6. The mosquitoes are pretty bad here though, whereas at the beach they’re mostly nonexistent. For me, that’s enough encouragement to keep moving and complete the 11 miles in one day.

I initially planned for us to hike to the beach in one day, camp overnight, and return the following day. But after reading enough trip reports from other hikers urging others to “not make the same mistake we did,” and to “stay at least two nights,” I thought better of it and decided we will stay two nights and make the hike back on day 3.

We’re fortunate to even be able to go because torrential rains in 2018 caused devastating floods which rendered parks in Kauai inaccessible for over a year.

2018 Flood

In April of 2018, Hanalei, Kauai received a record of 50 inches of rain in just 24 hours. Residents of more than 50 years said this was the worst flood they’d ever seen, which makes sense as it may have just been the rainiest day in U.S. history.

Amazingly, no injuries resulted from the flooding, but landslides damaged roads and caused highway closures which cut off access to the northern part of the island entirely. Bridges are still undergoing nightly reconstruction work as of August, 2019.

State parks Haena, Na Pali Coast, and Polihale were all closed indefinitely to allow for the clearing of landslides and repairing of trails.

Haena State Park, which saw over a million people per year, had its visitors reduced to zero.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

The Park Reopens

It took over a year for the parks to finally re-open in June of 2019.

State park officials are experimenting with a new daily limit on park. The park previously saw 3,000 visitors per day, but daily access upon reopening was limited to just 900.

The Na Pali Coast Trail in Haena State Park is one of the most beautiful, difficult, and dangerous hikes in the world. You’d think the risks would deter most people, but they seem only to enhance the allure.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

After being closed for over a year, adventure seekers were more eager than ever to hit the trails. But with the new cap on daily visitors, the limited number of permits required to venture beyond the first few miles of the trail (to experience Kalalau Beach), disappeared almost as instantly as they were made available.

Getting a Camping Permit

While my planned trip wasn’t until September of 2019, I decided to look at the system for acquiring a camping permit back in July.

The first step is to create an account on the Hawaii government website. Once you have an account, you can access the online reservation system.

The earliest you could acquire a permit at the time was 14 days in advance. Curious, I tried to see if I could select a date in the next 14 days.

All of the spots were taken. Zero were available for every one of the next 14 days.

“Wow,” I thought. Must be a busy time of year. I’ll check back tomorrow.

The next day, I checked and, once again, all of the spots were taken. Zero available.

“Huh. I guess I better try earlier in the day!”

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

A week later, I checked the reservation system again—this time, in the morning.

Every single one of the spots for the next 14 days was taken. Zero available.

“This is crazy…”

Is there a way people are booking further in advance somewhere else? Are those who make reservations in person given a longer time frame? What does one have to do to get a permit?

I started to worry, because I already have a place booked to stay in Kauai. Our flights are booked as well, and we’re traveling there no matter what, but I couldn’t obtain a permit until 14 days prior to my arrival at the earliest.

I checked the timezones and found that Hawaii time is 5 hours earlier than my local time. I figured their online system would probably let me book 14 days out starting at midnight Kauai time.

So I woke up at 5:15 AM Central Time and checked the system.

Zero available for the next 14 days.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Something must be broken.”

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

I had to try one more time. The next morning, I set my alarm for 4:56 AM. I logged into the website. I selected my desired location, filled out all of the fields on the form, and instead of using the date picker, I manually typed the future date I wanted in the input box.

I waited.

As soon as the second hand on my Apple Watch struck 5:00:00 AM, I clicked “Continue”.

Instead of the red error message this time, it let me through!

I didn’t complete the purchase, since my trip wasn’t until September, but I went back to the reservation form and refreshed.

36 spots available.

Refresh.

25 spots available.

Refresh.

12 spots available.

Refresh.

Zero available.

In under a minute—about 30 to 40 seconds—all of the permits were gone.

I’d figured out what was happening: the permits were so limited, and in such high demand after the parks were closed for a year, that they were simply all taken within seconds of becoming available.

I started to worry I might not be able to secure a permit, and that these months of dreaming, researching, and preparing had all been for naught.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

The Journey of a Lifetime

September is an ideal time to visit the Na Pali Coast Trail. It’s considered the off season, but it’s great for reliably good weather. October is when Kauai starts to get an increase in rainfall and trails get really muddy.

Over the months, I’d spent untold hours researching this “bucket list” hike, desperately hoping everything would work out for us to go. From all accounts I’d read, this was truly a journey of a lifetime. Unforgettable. Those who’d completed the trail, and made it to Kalalau Beach, say it was a highlight of their life and something they recall often.

All that remained was getting the elusive permits.

A Lucky Break

I had planned to publish this post back in July, but something happened right before I hit publish.

In preparing to publish, I figured I should include a link to obtain a Napali Coast Park camping permit as a convenience for those who may come across this post via search.

I went back to the park reservations page to copy the link (something I wouldn’t have done if I wasn’t writing this post).

This ended up being extremely fortunate, because I saw a red announcement on the page:

Napali Coast camping permits are currently available 2 weeks in advance. As of August 1, 2019, permits will be available 90 days in advance.

They were increasing the reservation window from 14 days to 90 days!

Since our trip is in September, I hadn’t planned to check back in to the reservation system until the end of August. That would have been at the previous maximum of 14 days prior to our planned trip. Had I done that, I would have been sorely disappointed to find the dates I wanted already booked.

I’m so glad I saw the message in time!

On August 1st, when the reservation window extended to 90 days, I was able to secure camping permits for our trip in September.

I’ve been beaming ever since.

Another lucky break was discovering the Kalalau Trail Facebook Group. This is where I learned the exact time at which the reservation window was to be extended on August 1st, 2019 and how I was able to snag a permit the moment they became available. The people in the group are incredibly helpful, and the search feature will reveal a wealth of information about the trail and how to prepare.

Speaking of Facebook…

The group is moderately sized, and posts in there typically garner something like a few dozen likes.

At first glance, I couldn’t figure out what it was about this one particular photo that caused it to receive 1.2k likes.

…and then I saw the name.

To think I was only a few weeks out from running into Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg invested north of $100 million in a 700-acre plot of land with his own private beach on the north shore of Kauai, so his visiting the Na Pali Coast Trail is not terribly strange.

For me though, Kalalau will be a very rare treat.

Kauai has consumed my dreams for months. I’ve spent more hours, days, and weeks that I can count reading, watching, researching, and acquiring backpacks, camping gear, water filters, camera mounts, dehydrated food… and I’ve had a BLAST doing it all.

I think I’ve had just as much fun anticipating as I will experiencing.

Now, the trip is mere days away.

I saw this post on Reddit the other day, and I’m afraid this might be me when I come back.