The Kalepa Ridge Trail Comprehensive Guide

The Kalepa Ridge Trail hike provides the best views of the Na Pali Coast in all of Kauai.
The Kalepa Ridge Trail hike provides the best views of the Na Pali Coast in all of Kauai.

The Kalepa Ridge Trail is one of few semi-secret, hidden gems of Kauai. This short but steep hike reveals unbeatable views of the Kalalau Valley and the jagged, dramatic cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the Napali Coast Lookout. In our opinion, the views from this trail are the best available for seeing and photographing the Na Pali cliffs by land.

As there was not much information available, we have created this guide to the Kalepa Ridge Trail to answer the most common and important questions about finding the trailhead and hiking it.

Low fog creates a moody atmosphere in this pano from the Kalepa Ridge Trail.
Low fog creates a moody atmosphere in this pano from the Kalepa Ridge Trail.

Though the Kalepa Ridge trail location begins from the Kalalau Lookout, do NOT confuse it for the Kalalau Trail. The Kalepa Ridge Trail is a short, unofficial hike that you access from the south of Kauai after passing through the Waimea Canyon. The Kalalau trail, meanwhile, is a state-recognized trail that begins in the north and requires a permit. You can read all about the Kalalau Trail here.

Kalepa Ridge Trail is definitely one of the must-see Kauai points of interest. Be sure you include an afternoon visit on your itinerary and on that topic, you may want to queue up our travel guide detailing the best 7 day itinerary for Kauai to help plan the rest of your trip.

When it comes to photographing the world-renown Na Pali Coast by land, you will be hard-pressed to find better opportunities than those from Kalepa Ridge.

Sophie looks out from one of the viewpoints on our Kalepa Ridge Trail hike.
Sophie looks out from one of the viewpoints on our Kalepa Ridge Trail hike.

If you like the photos you see here and would like more inspiration for your own visit, be sure to open a new tab and browse our guide to Kauai’s best photography locations after you are done here. You’re sure to discover some of the other incredible scenery, vistas, and landscape that the Garden Isle has to offer!

Is the Kalepa Ridge Trail legal?

The Kalepa Ridge Trail is technically not legal, though it also is not illegal. It is listed as an open trail. However, when you arrive you will discover signage indicating the trail is closed… so which is it?

To be honest, finding a straight answer on this is hard. What is important is that fines and punishment are rarely, if ever, issued. The state of Hawaii has been forced to close many Kauai hikes and trails due to liability and legal issues, as well as the cost of maintenance, but most of these are not policed. Like the Kalepa Ridge Trail closure, many hikes around Hawaii have “trail closed” signs for the protection of the state, yet they are still advertised locally. Meaning, they are not policed but merely signed appropriately to ensure Kauai and the state of Hawaii aren’t liable if you are injured or worse on your hike.

The Kalepa Ridge Trail is not technically legal, nor does it seem to be illegal.

The question then is should you hike the Kalepa Ridge Trail? We must first mention, as always, that our goal is not to condemn or condone, but to educate.

Everyone’s ethical compass is different, and we recognize that many people follow the intent of the law more than the letter. With that in mind, you must know that if you decide to attempt the hike, that you do so at your own risk. It is not maintained nor permitted officially. While you will undoubtedly see plenty of people, including locals, hiking this trail, fines can technically be imposed.

If you are unwilling to boldly defy the signage or concerned with the legality of the trail, we have added a section on alternative hiking trails for exploring the Na Pali coast. While the Kalepa Ridge Trail is considered the best (and shortest!), it is better to explore alternative options than miss out or challenge your moral code.

Is the Kalepa Ridge Trail dangerous?

The Na Pali cliffs as seen from the Kalepa Ridge Trail, which is not dangerous if you are smart
The Na Pali cliffs as seen from the Kalepa Ridge Trail.

We know it is not technically legal to hike, but the most important question for some might be is the Kalepa Ridge Trail dangerous? The answer is “not really”, but that answer comes with some caveats.

First, you should expect a muddy trail due to the amount of rainfall Kauai gets. This mud is likely to cause some slips and falls, which could result in an injury. However, there is nearly no risk of anything severe as long as you stick to the trail.

With that said, we do not recommend anyone with joint issues attempt this hike. The likelihood of slipping at least once is quite high. This will simply result in some laughing companions and a muddy butt for most. However, it could become much worse for someone with compromised knees or ankles.

The Kalepa Ridge Trail is safe from the path, just don't attempt straying toward the cliffs edge!
The Kalepa Ridge Trail is safe from the path, just don’t attempt straying toward the slopes!

The most dangerous thing we saw on any of our visits was someone attempting to cross a narrow ridge where the trail ends. The rocks gave way and the person began sliding down the side of the ridge without being able to slow their momentum, with nearly tragic results! A human chain had to be formed to rescue them.

I mention this story because people will put themselves in danger regardless of signs, laws, or warnings. If you’re smart and stick to the trail, the Kalepa Ridge hike is not dangerous. This does not, however, mean that you cannot find danger by ignoring logic and chasing a photo. To that end, it is also obviously not recommended to attempt this hike in adverse weather conditions. Again, this should go without saying, but we’re saying it anyway.

What is the Kalepa Ridge Trail?

Taking a break and drinking in the incredible vistas from the Kalepa Ridge Trail.
Taking a break and drinking in the incredible vistas from the Kalepa Ridge Trail.

Spanning the gap between the Kalalau Valley and Honopu Ridge, the Kalepa Ridge Trail is widely renown for providing the best land-accessible views of the impressive Na Pali Coast. The hike requires you to hop (or duck) a metal railing before descending about 500 feet through muddy terrain.

While being an unofficial trail, this is still one of the most popular destinations for hiking in Hawaii. It is also often listed as a Kauai point of interest in official guides despite its unofficial nature.

Where is the Kalepa Ridge Trail?

Gazing out over the Kalalau Valley on an atmospheric evening on the Kalepa Ridge Trail in Kauai.
Gazing out over the Kalalau Valley on an atmospheric evening.

You will not find the trail by searching for Kalepa Ridge Trail parking. Instead, set your GPS for the Kalalau Lookout in Koke’e State Park. You will first drive through the incredible Waimea Canyon State Park, following the Koke’e road to the end.

There is a large parking lot available at the Kalalau Lookout, as well as bathrooms and water fountains. Once you have arrived, you will have to pay $5 for parking. From the lot, follow the main path to the Kalalau Valley overlook and find the metal railing that acts as a barrier with signs reading “trail closed”. The trailhead of the Kalepa Ridge Trail begins here by going over or under the metal railing.

While there is no signage indicating the trailhead, it is very easy to find and an easy-to-follow track. The views are absolutely stunning throughout, offering endless opportunities for Kauai photos along the way. Even if you do not have the time or ability to walk the entire length of it, you will be rewarded with some epic vistas after only a short walk. Be prepared for a slippery, muddy path and wear appropriate footwear!

Another viewpoint on the Kalepa Ridge Trail Kauai.

How long is the Kalepa Ridge Trail?

The Kalepa Ridge Trail is officially listed at 1.6 miles out and back. However, we estimated it closer to 2 miles. Due to the mud and terrain, it took us about 45 minutes from beginning to end. Although we were stopping for photos along the way as well.

The end point of the 1.6 mile Kalepa Ridge Trail hike.
The end-point of the 1.6-mile Kalepa Ridge Trail hike.

What to expect on the Kalepa Ridge Trail

Obviously, you have chosen to hike the Kalepa Ridge Trail for the outstanding views it offers. Land access to the Na Pali Coast is incredibly limited, which is what makes the Kalepa Ridge such a popular destination. The only other way to photograph this stretch of dramatic coastline by land is via the Kalalau Trail to the north, which is legal but requires permits. It had also been closed due to flooding in recent years, but appears to be open once more!

The first thing to expect on the Kalepa Ridge Trail is unbeatable Kauai scenery.
The first thing to expect on the Kalepa Ridge Trail is unbeatable Kauai scenery.

In addition to the unbeatable vistas, you should know by now to expect a very steep, muddy trail. Slips and falls are very common, but usually, just result in a dirty bottom. There is nothing worse to fear as long as you take it slow and easy, and wear appropriate footwear. To that end, do NOT attempt this hike in flip flops! If you have no better shoes, you would honestly be better off barefoot.

One thing you may not think to expect on this part of Kauai is a high probability of mountain goat sightings! While cute, they are actually an invasive species and incredibly harmful to the ecosystem here. Still, they are here for now whether welcome or not, and definitely can add some nice subjects to your photos.

The last thing you should expect is rapidly changing cloud systems. Even within an hour span of walking the trail, do not be surprised to find the visibility changing drastically by the minute as low and high clouds swirl about. This constant change will reveal some amazing pockets of light, but also may completely stifle the views for spells as well. This ever-changing weather is something to be expected seemingly anywhere on Kauai.

Be prepared for rapidly changing clouds in the Kalalau Valley.
Be prepared for rapidly changing clouds in the Kalalau Valley.

When to hike the Kalepa Ridge Trail

One of the most important factors you should consider in your visit is the season and current Na Pali mountain weather system, as well as what time of day to hike the Kalepa Ridge Trail. Kauai gets more rain than any other Hawaiian Island, and I can assure you that most of the hiking trails are not fun when the clay-like earth turns to a slimy, muddy ooze.

Late afternoon during dry season is the best time to hike the Kalepa Ridge Trail.
Late afternoon during dry season is the best time to hike the Kalepa Ridge Trail.

Accordingly, you will want to try and arrange your visit to Kauai for the dry season, if possible, which corresponds with the typical summer months. Though there is still no certainty you will elude the rain, you have a better chance of a dry trail during this time. Regardless, the more important thing to track is the daily weather pattern during your visit.

If hiking the Kalepa Ridge Trail is a priority for your visit, try to schedule your visit in the middle of a dry spell. Visiting too soon after a rain will not give the track time to dry. Visit toward the end of a dry spell, however, and you may find that storm scheduled for tomorrow was brought in a day early by the tradewinds!

As for the time of day, we strongly recommend hiking the Kalepa Ridge Trail in the late afternoon. During the morning hours, most of the Kalalau Valley and Na Pali coast will be in shadow. This creates difficult opportunities to photograph or even observe the textures of this real-world Jurassic Park. In the afternoon, however, the sun will light up the scenery spectacularly. In addition, you have the best chance of capturing one of those iconic Hawaiian rainbows over this jaw-dropping scene in the late afternoon.

Sunset can be beautiful if you get great color. However, once the sun goes toward the horizon you will once again find most of your scene hidden in shadow.

Crazy golden hour glow lights up the atmospheric haze of the forest along the Kalepa Ridge Trail.
Crazy golden hour glow lights up the atmospheric haze of the forest along the Kalepa Ridge.

Alternatives to the Kalepa Ridge Trail

No one visiting Kauai should miss the opportunity to see the Na Pali coast; it is truly one of the most remarkable landscapes anywhere. If, however, you are concerned with the Kalepa Ridge Trail, you do have some alternatives to consider. They are all considerably more difficult, and arguably less impressive, but they are all legal options.

The land accessible best views of Na Pali are from the Kalepa Ridge Trail, but there are other options!
The land accessible best views of Na Pali are from the Kalepa Ridge Trail, but there are other options!

Honopu Ridge Trail

At 5 miles roundtrip, the Honopu Ridge trail is considerably longer than the Kalepa Ridge Trail, but it does offer similarly majestic views of the Na Pali coast.

However, this is considered one of the roughest trails in all of Kauai. Finding the trailhead can be difficult, the terrain can be challenging, and various hunting trails also make navigating the Honopu Ridge Trail more difficult.

Awapuhi Trail

Also known as the Awaawapuhi Trail, this 6.5 mile roundtrip hike requires you to descend from 4,120 feet at the top down to 2,500 feet at the trail’s end. This also means that you will then have to ascend that 1600+ foot elevation change… not an easy task!

Accordingly, the Awapuhi Trail is not the most popular or recommended, except for locals and visitors with experience. The hike is listed as moderate, but if hiking 1600 feet up over a 3.2 mile stretch is moderate, then you’re in much better shape than us!

Nu’ alolo Trail

If you thought those other trails sounded fun, then you’ll love this 7.5 mile option through shin-deep mud! The Nu’ alolo Trail is a challenging one, though you get the added benefit of seeing a waterfall in addition to the Na Pali coast. For that privilege, you will have to overcome the mud, distance, and a meager 2,500 foot elevation gain! This one is not for the weary.

Alaka’i Swamp Trail

The Alaka’i Swamp Trail is a 7-mile roundtrip hike with a more moderate 1,300 foot elevation gain. If you are graced with good weather, you are sure to get some great views throughout the ridge hike.

The footing can be quite slippery, of course, and you should expect some mud; especially in the Alakai Swamp section.

Final thoughts

Sophie enjoying views of the Na Pali Coast
Sophie enjoying views of the Na Pali Coast on a grey day.

Whether you decide to partake in the hike or not, we truly hope you have found this guide to the Kalepa Ridge Trail informative and helpful. Those who do endure the climb will discover some of the most magnificent views available in all of Hawaii. Just remember that you are a visitor and it is important to minimize your impact; be courteous, be respectful, and be SAFE.

If you enjoyed this travel guide, you will also enjoy our photography guides to the other Hawaiian islands! These include:

Enjoyed our Kalepa Ridge Trail Comprehensive Guide?  PIN IT! ?

4 Comments

  1. June 27, 2020 / 11:04 pm

    Beautiful trail! We’d love to check it out next time we’re visiting Kauai. Great photos and thanks for sharing!

    • June 28, 2020 / 12:50 pm

      It’s a really beautiful hike! We did it so many times as we just loved it 🙂

  2. June 29, 2020 / 12:12 am

    Woow that is such an epic hike! I adore those views and the mountains are out-of-this-world!! I cant wait to visit Hawaii for all the epic hikes!

    • June 29, 2020 / 3:53 pm

      Hawaii sure has its fair share of incredible hikes. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

**All photos contained in this photography-based travel blog are copyright of Adam Marland & Sophie Clapton. 
They are not to be used for any purpose without the expressed, written consent of their owners.**