Hike: Kalalau Trail in a day

22 miles // 10,000 feet gain/loss

South Pacific Ocean > Hawai’i > Kaua’i > Napali Coast State Park

Kauai is the ultimate embodiment of a place that’s wonderful to spend a week or ten days of your life while being totally unsuitable for long-term habitation. At least for me, though the thousands of denizens and untold millions more longing to move there contradict my sentiment. Our time on the island was great – the perfect mix of active and passive – and the highlight of my activity was the Kalalau trail.

I can’t quite remember how I even became aware of the Kalalau. I’d probably searched for Kauai trail runs or some such nonsense, only to come across this  masochistic gem of a dayhike.

The trail is 22 miles along the Na’Pali coast, round trip, from Ke’e beach (the road’s end on the north side of the island), to Kalalau beach, gaining and losing about ten thousand feet of vert (!) for good measure.

While the intervening years have made any sort of running commentary a bit of a stretch for my memory, I can share the following with  anyone sizing this excursion up:

-I did this in June. Temperatures were hot but far from unmanageable, but I do wish that I had carried electrolyte tablets or gel.

-I missed the near-clockwork afternoon rains, but am confident that they would have turned the tone of the trip much darker (see below).

-Consider getting a pre-dawn start and using a headlamp. The trail is easy to follow, provided you have a map. I did not.

-If you, like me, decide to strike out on this walk without a map, DO NOT GO HIGH on the grass path immediately out of the parking lot at Ke’e! Although the trail is basic and fairly idiot-proof, the first 1/2 mile is the only bit that threw me. Instead of going high, stay along the shore on the very well-trodden dirt path with views of the small Ke’e bay. Taking the high trail leads  to some exceedingly interesting (and also spoooky, given my early start and solitude) indigenous ruins and waterfalls (dry in May), but this ain’t where you want to be. Visit this another day, or perhaps on your way back.

-Cache Water: I carried 3 liters of water, plus a tallboy can of Arizona Green Tea. This, in retrospect, was definitely a sub-optimal amount given the heat and length of exertion. I could have made the whole endeavor easier, however, by stashing part of my water for the return trip along the trail, perhaps halfway in (i.e. at a quarter of the total distance).

-Carry enough water: Roughly 3.5 liters of water was not enough for summer conditions. I was hallucinating and losing coordination in the final 2 hours of the hike, and I this was at a time when I regularly ran 3+ hour trail runs at an 8:30 pace in the Marin Headlands (similar topography). When you do the hike on the way in, you’re likely to note clearly that there are MANY portions of the trail where a complete loss of footing could be disastrous and potentially fatal. Carrying electrolytes could have mitigated some of my symptoms,  but more water is the other half of the solution.

-Don’t believe that you’re going to run. Some will – yes – but go in to it without that expectation. I expected to run/jog about half of the miles and ended up powerhiking (fresh) and dragging myself along (tired). Thoughts of running were dashed quickly by the roots and rocks endemic to the trail. Also, while I’m comfortable with exposure, there are a good many “no fall” stretches on this trail simply unsuitable for anything beyond a brisk walk.

The Kalalau trail in a day stands as my most gratifying single outdoor experience. I’m not sure how, given that I’ve spent most of my time in the mountains and have slowly amassed a proud amateur’s list of backcountry exploits in the Sierra Nevada.  This one day, though, tested my resolve – and rewarded it – in a singular way.

PS – feel free to have a car drop in the AM and hitchhike back to your accommodation. I held my thumb out for about 2 minutes before a couple (with child! not the kind you often think of as amicable to picking up a hitchhiker!) took pity on me.

Permit: I rolled the dice as a day-tripper. I got a away with it. Though I’m not able to find any information on the fine amount online, I imagine it’d be steep.


State Park Map


Backpacker Magazine Article on the Kalalau (10 most dangerous hikes feature)


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