Bucket List Ideas: Backpacking the Napali Coast/Kalalau Trail

This piece was contributed by Josh Allen, owner of the adventure travel instagram account @rawtrails


When you think of adventure planning, a quick Hawaii getaway is at the top of our list.  It’s simple/easy (not having to deal w/customs or international travel), and it’s filled with endless opportunities of beach days and waterfall/forested day trips.  The crown jewel of Hawaii adventures is on the island of Kauai (the garden isle), and getting a permit to go see the Napali Coast. Whether you’re familiar or not, this place is a must see and some planning and prep for the strenuous route can make or break your trip.


Once you land at the Lihue airport, you’ll need to rent a car (I personally like to save as much $$ as possible, especially if you’re parking a car to backpack for a few days).  Look into TURO for a cheaper rental option. TURO is like AirBNB for cars. The drive to the Napali Coast is 39 miles (1:15) to the Kalalau Trail, but if you’re planning to begin your hike in the am, stop and camp at Ha’ena Beach Park (1.1 miles from the trailhead).


Getting a camp spot at Hā’ena is easy and wide open. You must apply 30 days in advance with a Money Order (hello 1950’s).  So be sure to check the website below on how to do that and plan ahead. For the Kalalau Trail permits are tough to come by during peak season. If you’re hoping to backpack into paradise, be diligent in checking this site daily (perhaps multiple times a day) to get the permits you desire. We traveled to Kauai in December and slacked off in snagging permits when they were more readily available. THEY GO FAST and luckily we found one permit for Dec 15th, snagged it, and a week later found a 2nd permit for the same night.  So yeah, be on top of that refresh button. :)

> Ha’ena: ($3/p/n)

> Kalalau: ($22/p/night)


For those of you who didn’t get a permit for Kalalau but still want to experience a bit of the coast, you can do a beautiful day hike out to Hanakapi’ai Beach (4mi RT), and another 4mi RT up to the waterfalls. Further access up the coast is restricted to those with overnight permits.  The 11-mile hike to Kalalau Beach is a long/strenuous hike. If you catch it after recent rainfall like us, the path is full of slips, slides, and is very slow moving. Since we only had a permit for one night, we had to buzz the entire distance in a day, try to enjoy all we could, and then hike out day two and catch an evening flight to Oahu (yeah it was kind of insane).  A camping option exists at Hanakoa (mile marker 6 on the trail) with access to bathrooms and an additional side trip up to another waterfall (1mi RT). We trekked onward in our chacos, muddied up and exhausted, but so stoked for the opportunity to reach our destination.



At mile marker 9-10 Kalalau came into sight as we descended Red HIll and it was more breathtaking than I ever imagined.  We stopped countless times, taking pictures, and inched our way closer with each one. Kalalau Stream came in from our left, and the mysterious Kalalau Valley and one of it’s “locals” graced us with his presence.  An older, weathered man sat perched on a rock as we crossed the stream (probably hoping for some humor as we slipped around on the slick rocks). We shared a few words and as we parted for the campground/beach, we watched him walk back towards the valley, almost like a mysterious Gandolf-like figure.  I was intrigued and curious about life in the valley, and I knew I wanted to explore that a bit more later in our day.



We soon arrived at the campground and laid claim to our spot, dropped our gear, and headed to the end of the trail at the beach.  We had a few more hours left of daylight, so we hustled down to the water to dip our toes and snag some quick photos of the cliffs behind us.  At the end of the beach is a waterfall, perfect for refilling/filtering water, and if the spot isn’t already taken, there are 1-2 camp spots overlooking the beach on the cliff up above.  At this point we didn’t care where we camped, we just wanted our heavy packs off of us and we wanted to explore. We returned to camp and set up our tent/fly (because of predicted rain in the forecast), refueled with a quick meal, and then we took the remaining 90 minutes of daylight to trek back into Kalalau Valley.  This was no normal trek though, we thought it would be fun to go barefooted, much like the residents who live back there. That proved to be a dumb idea. Our feet were more tender and not accustomed to walking barefoot on rocks/sticks. We kept going with a turnaround time in mind to avoid hiking in the dark (even though we had our headlamps in case we needed them).



We were in search of this secret garden and swimming hole/rope swing, however we knew our time was limited. We managed to find the most delicious oranges of our lives (and we had to climb the tree to shake it out), but they were incredible. On our way out of the valley we ran into a younger resident who we chatted up a bit and expressed our interest to see the garden.  Having earned his trust and friendship he offered to lead us to what he called the “show garden”. He dug up roots and other vegetables for us to try, showed us the mango and avocado trees, and told us where coffee is grown in the valley. I insisted on trying one of the Hawaiian chili peppers, which immediately gave me the hiccups for a good 10 minutes. It really was incredible back there.  We learned more details about the 12 current residents in the valley, how they irrigated their garden, and how brilliant and eclectic each member of that community is. They have a pizza oven, charge devices with solar, build tables for playing cards, and have many of the luxuries we enjoy… while living in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Sure they have to run from authorities from time to time and have to rebuild their homes after having them destroyed, but it was a kind of life that appealed to me to some degree.



After rounding up a bundle of bananas and more passion fruit, we said goodbye to our Kalalau friends and hustled back to camp.  Last light over the ocean was gorgeous, as waves crashed on the rocky shore, stirring up a mist that burned away in the haze. This place really was heaven on earth.  The next morning we broke down camp and began our hustle out. We not only had to hike the 11-miles out, but also wanted time to relax and clean up before our 8pm flight to Honolulu.  When backpacking we typically average 2.5-3.0mph, but this terrain was quite unforgiving. We were only able to maintain a 2.0mph pace for the duration. When planning your trip estimate 6-8 hours to hike the 11 miles, because it’s likely quite different than anything else you’ve ever done.  The river crossings can be extremely dangerous during high water/flash floods, and after any recent rainfall the trail is muddy and very slow moving (and if you didn’t know the Napali Coast is one of the wettest spots in the world). Be prepared for anything and everything, and be sure to take your time once you’re there.  This was a trip to remember.


Important note: Since this trip there have been mudslides which heavily damaged the Kalalau trail. Repairs are underway but will take a few months. The Miloli‘i section of Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park re-opened on May 15th. Keep updated here.

Back to blog

Now gear up and get out there!