One of the most bucket list-worthy hikes in Kauai is the Kalalau Trail, which winds across 11 miles of the rugged and stunningly green Napali Coast. But if you aren’t lucky enough to snag a backpacking permit for this highly coveted trail or you don’t have time to go on a multi-day adventure in Kauai, the next best option is the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail, which consists of the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail with an offshoot to a jaw-dropping 300-foot waterfall.
But you’ll still need to do a bit of planning ahead to hike to this beauty—and there are some tips and tricks that will make your hike here a whole lot more enjoyable. So here’s everything you need to know about hiking the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail.
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About the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail
Distance: 7.7 miles
Elevation gain: 800 feet
Dog friendly? You’ll need to leave your furry best friend at home for this one.
Pass or permit? You don’t need a permit per say, but you do need to make reservations ahead of time (more on that below!).
Pssst… there’s no cell service in Hāʻena State Park and portions of the trail are pretty confusing, especially on the offshoot porton of the trail that leads to the falls. Be sure to download an offline trail map on AllTrails.
You’ll need the AllTrails Pro version of the app to download offline maps. Luckily, you can get a 7-day free trial, PLUS our awesome readers get a sweet 30% off discount—just use the code “Uprooted30” at check out! If you’ve been thinking about upgrading your AllTrails account to the paid version (I know it took me, like, five years to make the jump), we wrote a whole post about whether an AllTrails+ account is worth it.
So what’s the big deal with the Kalalau Trail?
One of the primary things that I wanted to do during my time in Kauai was hike on the Kalalau Trail–and I’m definitely not alone on putting this epic hike on my bucket list. But why exactly is it such a big deal?
So here’s the thing—the Napali Coastline, located on the northwestern side of Kauai, is what draws a lot of people to the island. It looks like something straight out of a Jurassic Park fever dream, with lush green cliffs that soar 4,000 feet high, untouched and wild beaches, and turquoise water. It’s truly one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful places I’ve ever been.
Because of the ruggedness of this landscape, though, it’s inaccessible via car. The only way you can reach it is via a Napali Coast boat tour, by air (have you considered a Kauai doors off helicopter tour yet? Cuz you should!), or to hike along the Kalalau trail.
The Kalalau Trail is also sorta infamous for being quite dangerous. There’s portions of the trail, approximately seven miles in, that are incredibly narrow (1-2 feet wide) and exposed along a cliffside, with little between you and a thousand-foot drop into the crushing waves of the Pacific Ocean, other than the narrow and crumbly trail.
But not to worry—if you’re just making your way to Hanakapi’ai Falls, you’ll only hike the first two (non-scary) miles of the Kalalau Trail and then follow an offshoot of the trail into the jungle to reach the falls. No death-defying portions of the trail required!
Do you need a permit to hike the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail?
If you want to do the full 22-miles of the Kalalau Trail, you’ll need a backpacking permit for the days you’ll be on the trail, even if you’re doing it as a day hike. You can pick them up here.
Assuming, though, that you’re planning on doing just the Hanakapi’ai Falls portion of the trail, you do not need a backpacking permit. You will, however, either need to snag one of the limited parking passes for Hāʻena State Park or book a spot on its shuttle from the Park n’ Ride Lot.
Both of these options will take you straight to the trailhead for the Kalalau Trail.
All reservations for the park can be made here.
Parking in Hāʻena State Park
If you’d prefer to park in Hāʻena, parking passes are sold in three time slots: morning (6:30-12:30), afternoon (12:30-5:30 pm), and evening (4:30-sunset). You’re allowed to arrive at any time during your time slot, but you must leave by the end of it. If you think you might need to leave later than one time slot (which will probably be the case!), you can purchase multiple passes. For example, you could purchase a morning and afternoon pass, which would allow you to park in Hāʻena anytime between 6:30 AM to 5:30 PM.
Each parking pass per time slot is $10, plus a $5 entry fee per person into the park. So if you purchased a morning and afternoon parking pass for a vehicle carrying three people, your total would be $35 ($20 for the parking passes and $15 for the entry fees).
All that is to say, parking passes are EXTREMELY limited and sell out almost immediately when they’re put on sale. Both parking and shuttle passes go on sale 30 days prior to the date you want to hit the trail at 12 AM Hawaii time and 100% of the parking passes will be gone by 12:01 AM. And this definitely isn’t an exaggeration- I woke up at 3 AM my time to purchase a parking pass for when we’d be visiting and by the time the page even loaded, all of them were sold out!
Taking the Hāʻena State Park Shuttle
If parking in Hāʻena doesn’t work for you, you can alternatively purchase a shuttle pass, which departs from the Waipa Park and Ride in Princeville every 20 minutes, starting at 6:20 AM and ending at 12:40 PM. The last shuttle you can catch from the trailhead back to the Park N’ Ride is 6:40 PM. If you accidentally miss it, you’re going to have to hike six miles back!
For your shuttle heading towards the park, you’ll need to purchase a specific departure time—if you happen to miss that shuttle, you can ride later ones as a standby passenger if there happens to be an open seat.
For your return trip, you can hop on the shuttle whenever. You may, however, have to wait a bit to actually ride it–there’s only about 25 seats on the bus and it kind of seems like all of the hikers finish at around the same time.
The shuttle takes about half an hour one way and makes a handful of stops along the way, like the Hanalei Colony Resort and the Hāʻena Beach Park (if you have time, GO HERE!! You can walk to Tunnels Beach, which offers some of the best Kauai scuba diving and is possibly the most stunning beach I’ve ever been to!).
The shuttle is a bit pricey for what it is, in my opinion—$35 per person, for a half hour-long shuttle ride one-way. But, given that it’s effectively the only way that most people will have to get to the trailhead, it’s still worth it!
Visiting Hāʻena State Park as a Hawaii Resident
It’s important to note that you can pretty much ignore allllll of the foregoing advice if you’re a Hawaiian resident (with a valid state ID), given your entry to the park will be free AND there’s a number of (free!) parking spaces that are reserved for you at on a first come, first serve basis. If you’re a non-resident that’s lucky enough to be visiting with a Hawaii resident, you can still enjoy your friend’s parking spot, but you will need to reserve an “Entry Only” ticket ($5 per person) ahead of time here to enter the park.
What to Expect on the Kalalau Trail to Hanakapi’ai Falls
Trailhead to Hanakapi’ai Beach
From the parking lot, you’ll walk along a wooden boardwalk through beautiful taro fields, which eventually transitions to a gravel road through moss-covered trees.
After 0.3 miles, you’ll reach the park’s old parking lot, which offers a shower, bathrooms, water fountains, and access to the stunning Ke’e Beach. I’d suggest waiting until after your hike to relax there—there’s supposed to be awesome snorkeling here when the waves allow!
Continuing on, you’ll hit the “official” start of the Kalalau Trail and start climbing uphill, along slick and uneven rocks. In addition to being rocky, the trail is also VERY muddy in certain sections—in my experience, the red mud, while beautiful, gets literally EVERYWHERE and stains. So hot tip- don’t wear clothes or shoes you care too much about on this trail!
The climb is steep (gaining almost 600 feet in a mile!), but you’ll have pockets of momentary relief as the trail rolls along the jagged coastline. About 0.8 miles into the trail, it’ll level out and provide your first jaw-dropping view of the Napali Coast, with its stunning green cliffs set against the bright turquoise water. Take a breather and soak in the incredible views!
After 1.3 miles into your climb, the trail will blessedly start to descend. This will give you an opportunity to look around at the dense greenery and ferns surrounding you—it’s so beautiful here, especially in contrast against the deep red dirt of the trail.
As you approach closer to the 2 mile mark, you’ll start getting peekaboo glimpses of the small, but dreamy Hanakapi’ai Beach ahead. The trail will finally flatten out about 2.1 miles in, but before you can reach the gorgeous beach or continue on to the waterfall, you’ll need to cross Hanakapi’ai Stream.
In the very best of weather, this stream, rushing with surprisingly chilly water, is usually ankle- to knee-deep.
And when there’s rain, there’s a good chance the area may have flash flooding. In fact, we checked All Trails before we did this hike, and the day before we went, someone had reported having to literally swim through water up to their shoulders due to a flood that came out of nowhere. Always be EXTREMELY cautious (especially if it’s raining!) and err on the side of caution—no hike is worth dying over!
On this note, you’ll notice there’s tons of cautionary signs along the Kalalau Trail, warning about everything from flash floods and falling rocks to dangerous cliffsides—take these signs seriously! Almost every year, a couple dozen hikers (sometimes more!) have to get helicoptered from the trail, due to injuries. That’s definitely not the kind of helicopter ride you want in Kauai.
Provided that it’s safe to cross the river (i.e., if the water is up to your shoulders, it’s definitely not advisable to cross!), I’d recommend bringing hiking sandals along, like our beloved Tevas (my husband, Justin, swears by this pair and I have these). They provide traction against the slippery rocks lining the bed of the stream and will allow you to not have socks and hiking boots that are absolutely soaked with freezing cold water.
I’ve never been a trekking pole kind of person, but I know lots of others find them helpful for water crossings, so you might also consider bringing a pair of those (just remember they’re not allowed in carry-on luggage!).
Hanakapi’ai Beach to Hanakapi’ai Falls
Once you safely cross the stream (woohoo, you did it!), a small, sandy cove surrounded by large boulders on one side and a lush cliff on the other, will be on your right hand side—Hanakapi’ai Beach.
This is an awesome place to take a break before the next leg of your hike, but be wary of relaxing too close to the water. Hanakapi’ai Beach is considered the most dangerous beach in Hawaii, with some sources reporting it has the highest number of drownings of any beach on the islands, due to a dangerous rip current.
Many hikers decide to turn around here, but if you’re ready to press on, look for the trail sign for Hanakapi’ai Falls to the left of where the stream crossing is. The trail will continue to gradually climb about 500 feet over the next two miles, passing towering bamboo forests and luscious jungle as you follow along the stream. This section of the trail is GORGEOUS, but prepared for it to be even muddier than the first half!
You’ll need to cross the stream about six more times on your way to the falls. When Justin and I visited, it was pretty easy to jump from rock to rock to make our way across the water, but you may need to wade through the stream on some of these crossings if the water is particularly high.
When you’re about 4 miles into the trail, you’ll suddenly catch a glimpse of the falls, careening hundreds of feet above the jungle floor. Make one last final push and you’re finally there—Hanakapi’ai Falls!
The waterfall cascades 300 feet down a nearly vertical and lush cliffside into a beautiful plunge pool below. After climbing for the last several miles, it feels soooo good to jump into the water.
But be prepared—the water is FREEZING. And be careful as you’re swimming—the area is known for falling rocks (all of the loose rocks around the plunge pool came from somewhere, right?). Being crushed by a rock would be a rather downer way to end your Hawaiian vacation.
If you’ve still got some energy left, there’s a natural mossy platform, carved into the cliffside, about 100 or so feet up a boulder field, to the left of the waterfall that provides a unique perspective of the falls.
Once you’re done taking in the breathtaking views of the falls, simply retrace your steps back to the trailhead.
What to Bring for Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail
- Waterproof boots: Did I mention this hike is almost always next level muddy? Really, if you’re planning on doing pretty much any hike in Kauai, whether it be the Ho’opi’i Falls trail, Okolehao Trail, or, yup, Hanakapi’ai Falls, I’d strongly recommend bringing waterproof boots to ensure you don’t have a miserable time, sloshing through the mud—they’ll also come in handy for shallower stream crossings. We both have Topos Trailventure WP shoes and LOVE them—this is the pair that Justin uses and here are mine.
- Hiking sandals: Before we headed out on the hike, I had read other bloggers suggest bringing hiking sandals for deeper water crossings, like the initial one across Hanakapi’ai Stream—and they were definitely right! As mentioned above, we both have Tevas (his and hers) and are obsessed.
- Bugspray: Given the fact that you’ll be hiking through a literal jungle, it’s probably no surprise that the bugs can be downright NASTY here. Bug spray is an absolute MUST.
- Sunscreen: The trail alternates between being shaded with lush greenery and completely exposed to the hot Hawaiian sun. Be sure to bring sun protection, like sunscreen (I LOVE this reef-friendly kind—it smells like Hawaii in a bottle), sunglasses and a hat.
- Water: Weather along the Napali Coast is alllll over the place, but it can get HOT in the afternoon, especially as you’re climbing hundreds of feet in elevation. Bring way more water than you think you need—we both carry these comically giant Nalgene bottles on all our hikes.
Honestly, if you’re visiting during the summertime when it’s going to be warmer, I might suggest bringing along a water filter so that you can always fill up your bottle from the stream if you need it (but don’t ever drink the water unfiltered, though, as it has giardia and other not fun stuff in it!).
- Jacket: As you hike further up the valley towards the waterfall, the temperature noticeably drops. In fact, after my heartrate had dropped from climbing up the trail to the waterfall, I was downright cold during our time admiring the waterfall (or it could have been the fact that I jumped into the freezing water there…).
Accordingly, I’d recommend bringing along some warm layers that you can throw on as the temperature and weather changes along the trail. A waterproof jacket, like this one for men and this one for women, is going to be your best bet (and a necessary addition to your Hawaii packing list!)—it’ll both keep you warm on the trail and dry if it happens to rain (which it did during our hike about six or so times!).
- Swimsuit, towel, and trash bag: You know you’re going to want to jump into that waterfall after climbing for four miles—so don’t forget your swimsuit and towel!
I’d also suggest bringing a couple of trash bags to drop your wet clothes in after you go swimming—or anything else that gets wet or nasty along the trail. Honestly, once we were back at the trailhead, we were SO happy that we brought along some baggies to drop our nasty socks in—after going through multiple stream crossings, getting caked with mud, and pouring sweat into them for eight miles, they looked and more importantly, smelled, like something quite literally died in them.
- Waterproof backpack: If you’re like us and have fancy cameras, I’d definitely recommend bringing along your gear in a backpack that has a rainfly, in case of any intense rain showers. As mentioned above, it rained on and off throughout our hike, the last portion of which was a torrential downpour. Luckily, Justin’s backpack has a handy dandy rainfly, so we didn’t have to worry about the rain messing up any of our electronics.
I have (and love!) this Osprey Sirrus 24, which comes with a built in rainfly (here’s my Osprey Sirrus 24 review if you’re in the market for a new hiking backpack!) or the Osprey Stratos 24 is the men’s equivalent.
- Snorkeling gear: If you’re taking the shuttle, remember that you’ll have to bring everything you want to use for the entire day in the state park, including any of the gear you want for Ke’e Beach. The waves were too gnarly to go snorkeling when we visited, but otherwise, I would’ve definitely packed our snorkeling sets in our backpacks as an epic way to end our day in Hāʻena.
When to Hike the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail
Kauai has two seasons: a rainy one from November to March and a dry one from April to October (although remember that Kauai is the rainiest of all the Hawaiian Islands and home to the rainiest spot on the planet year round!). While Kauai can be lovely to visit at any time of the year, if you have your heart absolutely set on hiking the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail, I’d strongly suggest planning your visit during the dry season for a couple of reasons.
First of all, the trail will hopefully be less muddy and the streams will be easier to cross. But most importantly, you’ll have the best chance of actually getting to hike the trail in the first place. In times of heavy rain, when the flash flooding risk is high, the state park oftentimes will close both the trail and Ke’e Beach—and you won’t have any special privileges in terms of rebooking your passes during your trip.
Not to be Debbie Downer, but even if you visit during the “dry” period, it’s unfortunately still possible that the trail may be closed down during your reservation, due to weather. We visited in May and were particularly unlucky with a SUPER rainy week. We were at least lucky enough to actually hike on the trail on a Tuesday (woohoo!), but by Thursday, the state park closed the trail for several days, due to flash flooding risk.
Accordingly, if you’re REALLY set on doing the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail, I’d suggest booking your reservation towards the beginning of your trip so, if the trail unexpectedly closes, you can try to rebook for a later day during your stay.
Tips for the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail
Starting earlier has a ton of benefits.
- The trail can get super hot in the afternoon, especially as you’re climbing up the valleys.
- The trail gets more and more crowded as the day wears on. While the trail is jaw-droppingly beautiful no matter what, it’s a bit easier to appreciate how stunning the Napali Coast is when you’re not trying to dodge around dozens of other people.
- If you’re not staying in Princeville and have to drive any significant period of time to get to either the park or the Park n’ Ride, you won’t have to worry about the sloooow traffic headed to the north of the island.
We left on the first shuttle of the day and booked it to the waterfall. We wound up having it to ourselves for a few minutes and it was straight up MAGICAL—and within half an hour, the place was crawling with dozens of other people.
Don’t continue on the Kalalau Trail past Hanakapi’ai Beach without a backpacking permit.
There are rangers stationed to specifically check whether or not hikers have the appropriate permits and hand out $300 fines for noncompliance. Beyond risking a hefty fine, it’s also disrespectful to Hawaii and its land—and increases the risk that beautiful places like this will be closed to the public for good. Don’t be that guy!
Plan for enough time.
Between the challenging trail conditions and the jaw-dropping views, I wouldn’t expect to hit any pacing personal records on this trail. We’re relatively fast hikers and usually budget for half an hour per mile of any hike we go on (which leaves plenty of time for photos!). Between hiking the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail and taking the shuttle back and forth, we wound up spending about seven hours on this activity!
So I wouldn’t recommend booking any expensive tours or other hard commitments the same day as you do this hike—leave yourself plenty of time to enjoy the falls, Ke’e Beach, and the trail itself. You earned it!
I hope you have the best time on the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail! Do you have any questions about the hike or tips for others that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!