The 10 Most Dangerous Hikes in America: Kalalau Trail, HI

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The Hike

Pictures of the dramatic and lush Na Pali Coast stir hikers’ wanderlust, but the Kalalau Trail hugging this dramatic coastline also triggers something far less romantic: terror. “People have a hard time with some of the dropoffs,” says Kathy Valier, a Kauai resident who’s written guidebooks on hiking the island. “The trail bed is narrow and crumbly, and I’ve talked with many people who have either fallen off the trail or seen it happen.” The footing is twice as treacherous after the island’s abundant rainfall turns the track into a greasy slip ‘n slide–not amusing when you’re edging along a 300-foot cliff that spills straight into a rocky surf. But despite such dangers, locals and visitors continue to make the 11-mile (one way) pilgrimage to Kalalau, one of the world’s most paradisical beaches.

Exhibit A

There have been at least two fatalities on the Kalalau Trail, and countless close calls: Hiking the trail with his daughter in 2006, a man slipped on an exposed section of trail and tumbled head-first down the slope, gaining speed as he neared the 300-foot cliff that would’ve dumped him into the surf. Lucky for him, his head smashed into a rock and arrested his fall. “The impact separated his nostrils from his face, but he survived,” says Carpenter. Falling rock is also a risk at the various waterfalls along the trail: At Hanakapi’ai Falls, Hanakoa Falls, and near the campground at Kalalau, tumbling water erodes the volcanic rock and occasionally loosens boulders from the chasm’s steep walls. On Oahu, the state closed Sacred Falls State Park after falling rocks near the cascades killed eight hikers, and Kauai, the oldest, most weathered of Hawaii’s islands, generally experiences even more erosion. Flash floods can turn the many small streams you cross into raging torrents. And the beaches you pass offer no relief from your trials: Nearly 100 swimmers have perished in the dangerous currents at Hanakapi’ai.


Survival Plan

Stay steady on the trail by using trekking poles, wearing deep-lugged shoes, and loading heavy items at the bottom of your pack to lower your center of gravity. Stay out of streams when it’s raining, since debris jams can burst and release a sudden wall of water on hikers downstream. Floods on Kauai drop as fast as they rise, so wait out sudden whitewater rather than fording it–even if that means missing your flight.

How Many Hikers Die Each Year?

How Many Hikers Die Each Year? | Hikers University

While hiking can be a fun and rewarding experience, it can also be dangerous. Many hikers die each year in the U.S.while out on the trails.

Every year, hikers all over the world head out into the wilderness in search of adventure and breathtaking views. However, not all of them make it back home safely.

According to the National Park Service (NPS), 120 to 150 people die each year in the United States. Slips and falls are the most common cause of death, accounting for nearly 50% of all fatalities. Element exposure is another leading cause of death, especially among those who hike in remote areas.

Every year, hikers all over the United States set out to explore the great outdoors. Unfortunately, many of them do not make it back home safe and sound. In this article, we will take a look at how many hikers die in the United States each year and some of the most common causes of death while hiking.

Our hiking experts have scoured the web for the most recent data on hiking fatalities in the United States. We also searched several hiking forums and spoke to several experienced hikers to get their insights on the matter.

Table of contents

How Many Hikers Die Each Year in the U.S.

According to the National Park Service, an average of 120 to 150 people die while hiking in the United States each year. However, this number does not include deaths from suicides or accidents that occur off of designated trails. The number of hikers who die each year has been slowly increasing over time, likely due to the fact that more and more people are taking up hiking as a hobby. The vast majority of hikers who die are male (approximately 70 percent), and most deaths occur among adults aged between 20 and 50.

Now, these numbers might sound a lot, especially when you consider that there are millions of hikers in the United States. However, it is important to remember that most hikes do not end in tragedy. In fact, your chances of dying while hiking are actually quite low. For example, your chance of being struck by lightning is about one in a million, whereas your chance of dying while hiking is only about one in two million. So, don’t let the numbers scare you away from enjoying the great outdoors!

Most Deaths Occur in The Big Western Parks

When looking at where hikers die each year, it is no surprise that the majority of deaths occur in the large western parks such as Yosemite, Glacier, and Yellowstone. These parks see millions of visitors each year, and with that comes a higher number of accidents and fatalities. That being said, you are not necessarily more likely to die while hiking in a western park than you are in any other park in the country. In fact, some of the smaller parks actually have a higher rate of death per visitor than the large western parks. For example, Denali National Park in Alaska has an average of one death for every 100,000 visitors, whereas Great Smoky Mountains National Park only has about 0.25 deaths per 100,000 visitors.

The U.S. National Park system contains some of the most stunning scenery in the world, which is why millions of people visit them every year. However, these same features can also pose dangers to unwary hikers and campers. In 2014, the Grand Canyon was the deadliest National Park , with 13 deaths reported. This was followed by Lake Mead (12 deaths), Mount Rainier (8 deaths), and Rocky Mountain (6 deaths).

The majority of these deaths were due to accidental falls, but there were also several drownings and one case of heatstroke. Although the number of deaths in U.S. National Parks is relatively low compared to other tourist destinations, it is still important to be aware of the risks before you set out on your hike.

Common Causes of Death While Hiking

So, what are some of the most common causes of death among hikers? The two most common causes of death are slips and falls and exposure to the elements (such as heat stroke or hypothermia). Slips and falls make up about 50% of all hiking fatalities . This is followed by drownings (15 percent), heat-related injuries (10 percent), lightning strikes (6 percent), and avalanches (3 percent). Other causes of death include drowning, avalanches, lightning strikes, animal attacks, and getting lost. Most of these deaths are preventable with some simple safety precautions.


Falling is the most common cause of death while hiking, accounting for approximately 50 percent of all fatalities. This is usually due to hikers losing their footing on uneven or slippery terrain.

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Slippery rocks, steep drop-offs, and loose gravel are all hazards that can lead to a fall.In order to reduce the risk of falling, hikers should take precautions such as wearing sturdy shoes, watching their steps, and avoiding slippery surfaces. Hikers should also be aware of their surroundings and plan their routes carefully in advance.

A few years ago, we went on a hiking trip to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The park is notorious for its steep and slippery trails, and 12-16 people die each year from falls. The Mist Trail is the main culprit for most of these deaths because exhausted hikers take shortcuts and ignore the warning signs. We were very careful while hiking and made sure to take our time on the more treacherous parts of the trail. However, we still witnessed a few people falling and getting injured. One man even fell off a cliff, critically injuring himself. Luckily, a ranger nearby was able to help him, and he eventually recovered in the hospital.

Therefore, it is essential that hikers take precautions while hiking in order to avoid falls. Wearing proper footwear, being aware of your surroundings, and taking your time are all important safety measures.

Too Much Water

Drowning is a serious hazard for hikers, especially when traveling through areas with strong currents or potential for flash floods. Approximately 20 percent of all hiking fatalities are due to drowning, making it the second most common cause of death on the trail. Many hikers underestimate the strength of currents and fail to take necessary precautions when crossing rivers or hiking in canyons. Even a small stream can become dangerous when swollen by rain runoff, so it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and take extra care when hiking in areas with potential flooding.

Most drownings occur in rivers or lakes, but hikers should also be careful around swimming pools, hot tubs, and bathtubs. It is important to know your own limitations when it comes to swimming and never take unnecessary risks. If you are not a strong swimmer, always hike with a partner who can help in case of an emergency. In addition, hikers should always check the weather forecast before embarking on their hike. They should also avoid crossing bodies of water if they can’t see the bottom or if the current is too strong. If you must cross a body of water, use a stick or rope to help you keep your balance.

Not Enough Water

While too much water can be dangerous, not enough water can also lead to serious health problems. Dehydration is a common issue among hikers, especially in hot weather. When hiking in warm or humid conditions, it is important to drink plenty of fluids and take frequent breaks in order to stay cool and prevent heat-related illness. Symptoms of dehydration include thirst, headache, dizziness, and dark urine. If you experience any of these symptoms while on the trail, it is important to find shade and drink plenty of fluids as soon as possible.

In addition to carrying enough water for yourself, it is also important to hike with a partner who can help if you become dehydrated. It is also a good idea to bring along electrolyte tablets or powder to help you stay hydrated. Electrolyte-rich foods such as oranges, bananas, and coconut water can also be helpful.


While lightning strikes are relatively rare, they can be extremely dangerous. According to National Geographic , the odds of being struck by lightning in the United States are about one in 700,000. Even though the odds are low, hikers should be aware of the dangers of lightning and take precautions when hiking in thunderstorm conditions. You are close enough to be struck by lightning if you can hear thunder.

When thunderstorms are forecasted, it is best to avoid hiking at all. However, if you must hike in thunderstorm conditions, try to stay off exposed ridges and away from lone trees. It is also important to stay away from bodies of water as they are often conductors of electricity. If possible, seek shelter in a cave or under a large tree.

If you are caught in an open area, crouch down low to the ground and make yourself as small as possible. Lightning can strike up to ten miles away from a thunderstorm, so it is important to be aware of your surroundings and take cover as soon as possible. Additionally, hikers should avoid using metal objects such as trekking poles or umbrellas. Metal is an excellent conductor of electricity and can increase your risk of being struck by lightning. If you are caught in a thunderstorm, it is best to find shelter and wait it out until the storm has passed.

Temperature Extremes

Every year, thousands of people take to the trails to enjoy the great outdoors. However, hikers need to be aware of the dangers posed by extreme temperatures. In the summer months, heatstroke is a common concern. Hikers are often exposed to high temperatures for extended periods, and this can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Symptoms of heatstroke include headache, nausea, dizziness, and confusion. If not treated promptly, heatstroke can be fatal.

In the winter, hypothermia is a more prevalent danger. Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Hikers can become lost in frigid conditions, and their body temperature can drop to dangerously low levels. Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, muscle weakness, and confusion. If not treated, hypothermia can lead to coma and death.

Hikers need to be aware of the dangers posed by extreme temperatures and take precautions accordingly. When hiking in hot weather, it is important to drink plenty of fluids and take frequent breaks. It is important to dress in layers in cold weather and pay attention to the wind chill factor. Additionally, it is a good idea to hike with a partner in case of an emergency.


Animals are the least likely danger hikers face, but they can still pose a threat. Bears and mountain lions are the most dangerous animals in North America, and attacks are very rare. However, if you do encounter a bear or mountain lion, it is important to stay calm and avoid eye contact. Try to make yourself as small as possible and back away slowly. If the animal does attack, fight back with everything you have.

Bees and snakes are also potential hazards on the trail. Bee stings can be painful, but they are usually not life-threatening. If you are allergic to bee stings, it is important to carry an EpiPen with you at all times. Snake bites can be more serious, but they are also very rare. If a snake bites you, it is important to remain calm and seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Each animal requires its own risk mitigation strategy, but the best way to avoid an animal attack is to be aware of your surroundings and make noise as you hike. This will give animals time to move away before you get too close.


Peter Brooks

I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.

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Who We Are

I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.

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Peter Brooks

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Hippies, Crocs, and a Terrifying Cliff—Hiking One of the World’s Deadliest Trails in Hawaii

Hawaii’s Kalalau Trail has cost a number of determined hikers their lives over the years, but the breathtaking vistas and pristine nature make it irresistible.

Winston Ross

Winston Ross

I arrived at the start of Hawai’i’s Kalalau Trail to a packed parking lot at Ke’e Beach on the north end of the island. Without a permit, you can only hike the first 2 miles, plus an extra spur up to Hanakāpīʻai Falls. It overflowed with hikers, joggers, and others who clearly didn’t do much homework about a trek Outside Magazine declared one of the world’s most dangerous, traversing its muddy cliffs in flip-flops and Crocs. And by “muddy,” I mean, thick, soupy, slippery, peanut butter mud. The kind that forms a casing around your boots, mummifying traction lines at the sole, impossible to kick off. And with every 10 new hikers treading the same ground, the soup gets a little deeper. Those first 2 miles are a crowded, humid shit show.

This is the kind of scene to which I’d normally never imagine returning. From the Vatican to Venice, Acropolis to Angkor Wat, I decided years ago that if it’s in the top five Tripadvisor offerings, I’m content to stay home and look at the pictures, thanks. Traveling thousands of miles only to wind up shoulder-to-shoulder with babbling American slow-walkers blocking the view as they jam cellphones in front of us all for the perfect Instagram just isn’t worth the irritation. I’ve crossed the Seven Wonders of the World off of my bucket list.

But something about that first 2 miles of the Kalalau Trail warranted an exception to that cantankerous rule. Hawai’i is a mystical place, but I can’t say it was anything otherworldly that called me back here years after I slopped my way to and from the permit-free stretch.

It was the scenery: a stunning series of tropical portraits backdropped by sheer lava cliffs plummeting into a turquoise, empty ocean. You reach one viewpoint, ducking out of the stream of hikers for a photograph, and think “this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” And then you round another bend, a completely different vista looms into view, and suddenly the last vista has a competitor. This feeling happens over and over again, and it supersedes any other frustrating moment. Neither mud nor a human traffic jam nor the Alabama-level humidity nor the steep slopes can take it away. Around every corner, even on that first 2 miles, lies a new dose of unadulterated joy. As soon as I finished the hike, I knew I had to see what the rest of the Na Pali Coast past the 2-mile mark looked like. I had to return to the Kalalau Trail.

Winston Ross

Three years later, my partner and I found a week in our schedules to get back to Kaua’i, and with enough advance notice that we could register on the state of Hawaii’s arcane website for a camping permit, which hikers risk arrest if they fail to acquire, I learned. That seemed harsh, but a little research revealed the reason: The Na Pali Coast has become overrun in recent years, not just with to-and-fro hikers but with a legion of wayward hippies who have turned it into a kind of commune. They have flouted laws designed to keep this pristine place from being loved to death, building beds, furniture, a clay pizza oven, and gardens in the 6,000-acre Kalalau Valley, diverting water from natural streams with neither consultation nor approval from the government for their own use. Though they are routinely snatched up and jailed by rangers who make surprise visits to the coast via helicopter, they always return: defiant, entitled.

So yeah, you need a permit, which not only funds the manpower necessary to keep people from overstaying their welcome but also gives the state a way to limit the number of visitors who venture past the 2-mile mark. I found three nights together, and snatched them up, for $132.

There’s some ambiguity about whether permitted nights cover only the camping that takes place at the end of the trail or at the halfway point, Hanakoa, about 6 miles in, where a rustic collection of campsites and a couple of rain shelters offer a respite for backpackers who don’t want to attempt the entire 11 miles in a day. So we planned for five nights out, three at the end and one each at the halfway point on the way there and back. And we packed for glamping: a tent, two hammocks, a couple books, a bluetooth speaker, and a bag of coconut milk. The pack would be stupidly heavy, but we’d have three days of music, good food, and reading material in paradise. What could possibly go wrong?

Winston Ross

The pack being stupidly heavy, is what. Even those first couple of tourist-ridden miles were brutal with a 50-pound pack aboard, no matter the pride we felt at being able to answer “yes!” to passing hikers who enviously asked if we were headed past Hanakāpīʻai and into the lesser trod permit-zone, the whole way to Kalalau Beach. We were indeed. We just had no idea how difficult and dangerous the journey would be.

Each year, hundreds of hikers charge all the way from the trailhead to the beach. The reason this trail is named one of the U.S.’ top 10 dangerous hikes, and one of the world’s top 20 dangerous hikes is because it’s deceptively treacherous.

You’re in Hawaii, in America. It’s gorgeous. It’s a well-traveled, well-known trail. But the Kalalau Trail has claimed dozens of lives.

There are flash floods along the creeks. At least 100 people have died swimming in the powerful surf. In 2012, a drug-addled lunatic who’d spent a few too many illicit weeks in the valley threw a Japanese hiker off a cliff two days after Christmas, prompting international headlines, a four-month manhunt, and a clean sweep of the vagabonds. Two years later, rescuers had to pluck 120 people by helicopter from the trail after a flash flood made a stream crossing impossible.

Winston Ross

There is no cellphone coverage in the valley, but there are signs at regular intervals along the trail warning of its danger. They’re foreboding, but they’re also so dramatic it’s hard to take them seriously. These are for weekend warriors, I wrongly assumed. (I hadn’t yet read the Backpacker or Outside designations.)

The first day’s hike was a brutal slog. The Kalalau’s beauty belies its rugged reality: The trail runs either along the edge of a cliff or winds back into a series of valleys. When those inland passages are wide, there’s enough room to flatten them out for hikers. But sometimes they’re a pinch between two bluffs, and sometimes the only way to reach the turning point is a jagged set of switchbacks down, and another one back up. During the first mile of permit-only hiking, the trail rises 800 feet. The downhill, especially with a menacingly large pack, results in a steady pounding of the hips and knees. But hey, the pack would get lighter with each meal, and each pull from the water bladder. Nowhere to go but up, really.

We finished the first 2 miles in a couple of hours, then stopped at Hanakoa close to dark, just as a thick rain began to fall. There were loud teenagers occupying every site in sight, so we clambered up a creek and found an unestablished spot close enough to the water to drown out the noise but far enough away (we hoped) to be clear of a flash flood. Amelia, my partner, slipped crossing that creek, twisting her ankle. We ate the fastest food we could prepare and plunged into sleep.

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Winston Ross

The next morning, we awoke and readied our packs, lighter by at least a pound or two thanks to last night’s dinner and to stashing our heaviest meal-in-a-bag behind a rock for the return journey. A few feet down the trail we discovered what we’d been too exhausted to scout the night before: a second set of campsites on the other side of the creek, none of them occupied. We pushed on.

We had five miles to go. The second day of backpacking is always better because your lungs have expanded to meet new demands placed on them, and always worse because your body is still reeling from being abused the day before. I have backpacked up and down (reasonably sized) mountains, through deserts hugging the U.S.-Mexico border, portaging a canoe through a series of Alaskan lakes hounded by hummingbird-sized mosquitoes, and through the Olympic mountains with a tiny broken bone in my foot. This day of hiking was as hard as anything I’ve ever faced. It was so trying we scarcely noticed (and continued to underestimate) the increasing urgent signs approaching a cliffside we would come to know as “Crawler’s Ledge.”

It’s called that, we were about to discover, because one must crawl along a path carved into the rock at what certainly feels like a 45 degree angle. On the left side of that path is rock, with nary a chain nor rope to hold. On the right side is more rock, leading some 20 stories down to the ocean, where massive waves bash anything in their paths against the cliff.

Somehow, on the way out, the prospect of tumbling down that cliff frightened neither of us, and I know this because despite our still impossibly heavy packs, I swung my camera around to snap a few photos of Amelia crawling her way around the ledge. I got no such photos on the way back through.

We made it across without thinking too much about it, which is of course the ideal way to surmount fear: by not experiencing it in the first place. The only real heart-stopping moment came about halfway across the ledge, when a gust of wind ripped the rain cover right off of my pack and into a canyon, so quickly I couldn’t even think to reach for it. When we’d both arrived at the sign warning of the same danger in the opposite direction, we realized that was probably the most precarious few steps we’d ever taken. As American writer Laurell K. Hamilton once put it: “I’m not afraid of heights, but the idea of falling from them, well, that I’m afraid of.”

The rest of the trek remained excruciating, but wood-carved mile markers urged us onward. As did magical little discoveries: wild lime and mango trees with ready-to-eat fruit dangling from their branches. We gathered up enough of the bounty to make our packs heavier but our freeze-dried meals more interesting, and pushed ahead.

Winston Ross

Finally, a couple of miles from Kalalau Beach came the most welcoming sign of all: the gateway to the Kalalau Valley, proof that we were only a relatively flat jaunt from home for three days. We bounded through the woods and out onto a wide bluff with a view of a crescent sand beach nearing ever closer. A half hour later, we’d finally arrived.

Thanks to the most recent roundups of would-be permanent residents of the Kalalau, we found after stumbling past a dozen friendly neighbors a campsite that looked right out onto the ocean, the only evidence of its past inhabitants a frying pan dangling from a branch. We gladly used it. The site was conveniently only a five-minute walk to the freshwater source: a tumbling waterfall just off the beach. As we’d come to expect by then, even collecting water is a dangerous activity in this particular paradise: goats clambering across the cliffs above are known to kick substantial rocks onto unsuspecting tourists below. It’s a real threat, and it’s why no one collects water alone on Kalalau Beach.

Our nearby neighbors were a cheerful couple of teachers from Oahu, and they were eager to share a flask of bourbon, and to show us the Eden that the valley’s squatters had built a couple miles from our camp.

It’s a remarkable feat, albeit an illicit one, this garden. There are a dozen irrigated ponds, and trees of banana, jackfruit, soursop, and chestnut. To get there, we had only to look for a conspicuously placed stick in an otherwise nondescript deer trail leading from the main path. We munched on fresh mangoes, gathered up handfuls of mint, squash blossoms, a papaya, and an avocado and headed back to camp.

I’ve mentioned “paradise” a couple of times now, and without question, the Kalalau Valley qualifies as paradise. But it’s also hot, humid, filled with mosquitos and wily felines with a knack for stealing food, a beach that’s too windy to lie out on, surf with an undertow far too strong to safely swim in and rock-kicking goats. Our three days on the beach were in all the ways you’d expect idyllic, but also trying enough that we were ready to leave by the third day, despite our dread for the return to Crawler’s Ledge.

Winston Ross

Our new friends took the “easy” (and illegal) way out. They arranged for a dude on a Jet Ski to roll out on the morning of their departure and pick them up. (Picking up or dropping people off on this beach is banned except in emergency cases.) We considered this option too, figuring we’d still be able to say “I hiked the Kalalau Trail” with pride, but as we watched the dicey dance of throwing backpacks wrapped in trash bags out into the breaking surf to be collected on a Jet Ski and then the feat involved in swimming out between the waves to climb aboard, we decided to hike out.

Knowing what lay in store upped our anxiety levels tenfold. Even with packs nearly empty and without the wind-whipped rain that we’d encountered on the way out, the building anticipation crawled into my head each mile closer we got to the ledge. I feigned a carefree demeanor as we approached, hoping to distract Amelia, but at the warning sign, I fell silent, concentrating on keeping my balance shifted slightly away from the ocean. If I fell, I wanted to fall to the right. We paused at the dreaded warning sign marking the stretch that had disrupted our sleep the night before: “Hazardous Cliffs Ahead.” A few terrifying moments later, we were on the other side.

Overcoming that obstacle left us with new energy, and we charged back to the halfway mark well ahead of schedule. At the shelter we’d overlooked the first night, we heard a voice call out from above: “Hey, do you like wild boar?” It was one of a group of Kalalau squatters, on their way back from a supply run. They’d killed not one but two wild boar (I didn’t ask how) and had stopped to make a giant pot of stew, to lighten the load. How they carried the pigs or the pot for 11 miles was hard to fathom. We took a respite from the now falling rain, sharing potato chips with the group as they piled hot wild boar stew onto plates and handed them over. We ate, grateful, as a young man strummed a guitar from the hammock he haphazardly strung inside the shelter. The stew was delicious.

On the last few miles, we beamed with pride as we knew we were about to blast through this entire hike in a single day, and we dreamed of what warm food we’d plow into once back in civilization. But before we got there, we caught up with a couple also on their way back from camp. The woman mentioned, almost in passing, that she’d just fallen off a cliff.




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