The hike to Hanakapi’ai beach is by far one of the most beautiful trails in all of Hawaii. The first two miles of the Napali Coast trail is breathtaking, and as soon as you reach the first ½ mile vista, you will be rewarded with sweeping views of the Napali coastline and an aerial view of Ke’e beach.
The Details of Hiking the Hanakapi’ai Trail
Get an early start to avoid overexertion in the midday sun. Plan to arrive at the trailhead by around 830 – any later and parking starts to back up.
The starting point of the Napali Coast and Kalalau Trail is at the very end of HWY 560 on the North Shore. To get there, you will drive all the way along HWY 560 and park at the Ke’e Beach parking lot. Park your car, grab all your things, and head down a little ways further. In less than a minute or two, you’ll see the trail head for the Kalalau Trail – warning signs and all. Take a deep breath, and get ready to begin what is considered one of the most gorgeous hikes on Kauai.
*Note* You do not need a permit if you’re only doing the day hike to the Hanakapi’ai beach and falls. If you plan on doing the full Kalalau Trail, you will need one.
Hiking to Hanakapi’ai Beach
This section is an incredibly popular day hike on Kauai – walking the first half mile will reward you with excellent views of the coast. The Hanakapi’ai Trail will climb steadily for the first mile to an elevation of about 400 feet. Don’t let this discourage you, you’ll be treated with gorgeous views as soon as you reach the small vista 1/2 mile in. The total elevation gain between Ke`e Beach and Hanakapi’ai Beach is about 1060 feet (both directions), with the hike taking approximately an hour and a half at a moderate pace, or a little over 2 at a slower pace.
*Note* The hike to the beach is fairly easy when dry, but can be slippery when wet.
Just before you reach the beach, there will be a small river crossing – you can take off your shoes and wade across or try to skip along the rocks. We opted to wade across – the rock skipping seemed a bit sketchy here, but whatever you choose – be sure to get a good footing. Just after this river crossing you’ll reach the Hanakapi’ai Beach.
If you go in the winter it’s not much of a beach (just rocks, no sand). In the winter the waves wash away all the sand, but in the summer the waves bring all that sand back and you have a nice beach. Either way – don’t swim.
*Note* Swimming or wading at the beach can be incredibly dangerous – don’t do it. Many drownings have happened here. If you really want to take a dip – do it at the little river you crossed to reach the beach.
From the Beach to the Hanakapi’ai Falls
If you have it in you, go the extra 2 miles – the waterfall is a real treat. To get to the trail head, when you reach the beach there’s a trail that leads up to the Kalalau trail, head up there (there’s a restroom too) There will be a sign that points out the trails. You want to take the trail that heads away from the ocean deeper into the island. The other trail continues to hug the coast line and is the official Kalalau Trail (Hanakapi’ai Falls is actually a side trail not part of the Kalalau Trail). Total elevation gain to the falls from Hanakapi’ai beach is 760 feet. This is a fairly strenuous hike, more so at the very end before you reach the falls.
The first 1.5 miles is pretty simple – at least when it’s dry. You’ll hike along a small path that, for the most part, follows the river. You’ll cross back and forth over the river a few times. Some river crossings have a rope to help you, other’s don’t. You can either take off your shoes and wade through, or hop along the large boulders (but don’t slip).
*Note*As you’re hiking along, if you suddenly aren’t sure where to go, look around for colored ribbons tied to the trees (they were pink when we went). These markers let you know which way to go.
It’s not until the the last half mile where the tricky stuff comes in. There’s a good amount of rock scrambling and even some larger river crossings. You’ll find yourself scrambling up and down some wet and slippery rocks. It was slippery for us on a relatively dry hike, so I’m sure it can get much worse. This section isn’t particularly difficult, it’s just a bit sketchy. Be careful, and you’ll be fine.
As you reach the end of the rock scrambling, the path will open up to a gorgeous flowing waterfall – you’ve made it! Take this opportunity to jump into the water now while you’re still hot and tired. The water is quite cold and you’ll be less up for jumping in as you start to cool down.
Enjoy some time here at the falls, before retracing your steps back to your car.
Tips For Hiking the Hanakapiai Trail
Go early. Be at the parking lot before 830. We got there at 820 and got the last parking spot. An added bonus to starting early is you get more time to enjoy yourself. Most importantly, starting early gets you through a good chunk of the hike before it gets hot.
Be Careful – It Can Be Slippery
During our hike we were fortunate enough to have almost perfect weather. It hadn’t rained for a few days so the hike was not slippery at all. But we quickly realized that if there had been any recent rain, there are a lot of areas where it will get very slippery very fast. The slippery trails are not too concerning, until you reach some of the river crossings and rock scrambling.
Don’t Swim at the Hanakapi’ai Beach
Don’t swim at the beach (there are signs everywhere advising against it). It’s incredibly dangerous – the surf and rip currents are variable and often extremely treacherous, but worst in winter when high surf conditions persist. Many people have drowned here.
But Do Swim at the Falls
When you reach the falls, go into the water immediately. It’s quite cold, and you’re likely pretty hot at this point. If you linger, you’re not going to want to go in. Head in for a swim and make your way to the waterfall – it’s worth it. The view is extra gorgeous from in the pool and there’s also a small ledge behind the falls that you can swim to and sit on (it does get chilly there).
Parking Your Car & Valuables
Be sure to lock up your car and don’t leave any valuables (or anything for that matter) in plain sight. Also avoid trying to hide anything in your trunk while in plain view (if someone sees you doing it, they’ll know something is there to take). Best bet is to only bring what you need for the trail and leave everything else back in your room. There are signs and warnings about this everywhere around the island.
This is a fun hike and the views are beautiful. Take lots of photos, and have a good time. The majority of the hike isn’t difficult – just make sure you’re in decent shape and you’ll be fine.