If you see one thing on Kauai, it must be the fabled Na Pali Coast. Majestic 3000 foot emerald cliffs studded along a 17 mile coastline with waterfalls cascading into azure water below. It’s … awesome, in the traditional sense of the word; awe-inspiring, jaw dropping, wowwwwwwwww!
Remember Jurassic Park? Where they are flying into the “park” by helicopter and they look down at those chiselled peaks and valleys? That’s Kauai’s Na Pali Coast : majestic, celebrated and magnificent. It truly is.
3 Ways to Experience the Na Pali Coast
There are 3 ways to “see” the Na Pali Coast: by Helicopter, by boat and by foot. By Helicopter you do see the coast for a short time as you fly by on your way to Waialeale, the wettest spot on Earth. But it’s a quick glimpse. By boat, especially if you sail, now that’s the way to see it for the maximum wow factor: you’re out on the blue ocean looking at those cliffs and waterfalls.. for a few hours. You have the chance to take in the majesty of those emerald cliffs. Depending upon your choice of craft, you may have the ability to go really close in to those waterfalls or even to go inside the caves along the way. Many of the tours of the Na Pali are by catamarran fuelled by motor. If you can, choose one that actually sails; there’s nothing like being in silence out on the coast and really being able to commune with the coast as it should be : just the sound of the ocean, the wind and the seabirds calling. It’s spectacular. It’s one of those bucket list items, you know?
Hiking The Na Pali Coast
So what about walking? Well the Na Pali trail is 11 miles long. From the start at Ke’e beach, the northern most beach on Kauai to the Kalalau River is 11 miles, as the markers kindly inform. I’ve hiked the Na Pali a few times, more than a few. If you love nature, if you like to hike, it’s not to be missed. Is it the best view of the Na Pali? No, because you’re on it. There are points (like Space Rock) where you have fantastic views down the Na Pali coastline…. but it’s from the hiker’s point of view, so you don’t get the panoramic view that you do from a boat.
So should you hike the Na Pali? Only if you are in pretty good shape! Seriously folks, this is classified as one of the most challenging hikes on the planet. It’s 11 miles. “oh that’s nothing” I hear you say. Not normally. But this is 11 miles of 1000 feet up and 1000 feet down, switchbacks all the way. And the terrain is magnificent but possibly deadly; there are places where it’s a thousand feet drop into the ocean below (going past sheer black lava rock on the way down) and sheer lava rock on the other side, thousands of feet up. I’ve seen experienced hikers give way and declare they want to try and get a boat ride back after that hike. It takes most people 6 – 8 hours. One time about 8 years ago, I met a group of young men in the valley who did it in 4 – 5. They had just completed a hike of the Appalacian Trail though. Whilst I was in there camping a couple of years ago, there was a French guy who arrived at the beach around 1pm and asked me if there was fresh water. Sure! I declared, down the end of the beach, there’s the Kalalau Beach waterfall which doubles as a shower. He had a tiny backpack with a water flask and not much more. I asked “didn’t you bring anything to sleep with” . ?” No, he said, simply. I sit for a while on the beach, take my water and I go back”. Hah. But that guy was FIT. He had stamina. He left Kee before 7, arrived at 1. left at 2 and probably got back by 8 or 9. Not recommended in the dark.
There are some who arrive to Kauai determined to hike the fabled Na Pali, the Majestic, Celebrated and Magnificent trail on the North West Coast of the island. They’ve read about it in hiking magazines or heard about it from friends and relatives. They just have to do it. No matter whether they are on Kauai for 5 days or 3 or 7 or 14, they are drawn to the hike. But it’s not just about the hike and that’s the magic of Kauai and the Na Pali .
Kalalau Valley ~ Paradise Valley of the Ancient Hawaiian People .
The Na Pali Coast on Kauai leads to the sacred Kalalau Valley, ancient valley of the Hawaiian people who have lived here thousands upon thousands of years. Kalalau is accessible only by hiking the 11 mile Na Pali coastline or, during Summer months only, by boat. Yes, there are the tour boats offering tours of the Na Pali Coast and most of them come by the beach, but they are not allowed to land or come close in. They can’t anyway.. There is a Heaiau (Hawaiian Sacred Site used for Ceremony and Spiritual practices) at the entrance to the valley which has 3 levels. More about that on another post. The Hawaiians who lived here built terraces and grew Taro (Sacred plant to the Hawiaian people from whence Poi comes and which is also mentioned in the Creation story) . They also fished and practiced all the tasks and every day activities which made up Hawaiian life : fishing, stone carving, growing Taro and Ceremony.
Unfortunately back in the late 1930s, the last Hawaiian families living in Kalalau were moved out of the valley and relocated to Hanamaulu on the South West Shore. I have a Hawaiian Uncle who is 86 who remembers one of the last families there. He says the shortest son was 6.5 tall. the others were taller. True pure blood Hawaiians were all very tall. The land was given over to big farmers who grazed cattle, some of whom knocked over some of the Hawaiian Heaiau. It wasn’t good for the land. They moved out in the late 60s early 70s and since then, Kalalau Valley and the Na Pali Coast has been declared part of the Hawaiian State Parks.
Now Kalalau is open for people to go and camp for up to 5 days at a time (theoretically, many stay longer, some much longer) . I’ll be doing another post on Kalalau.
Hike to Hanakapiai
Back to the Na Pali Coast. If you don’t think you are up for the entire 11 mile hike and camping at the end of it, you can hike the first two and a half miles into beautiful Hanakapiai beach.. and then another almost hour back to the waterfall and gorgeous pool where you truly are in the middle of the jungle in a beautiful pool of water with a cascading waterfall above you. Allow the day so that you are not rushed. It’s about 40 minutes to the beach, an hour to the waterfall and the same back. You want to allow time to muck about in the water having fun don’t you?
Kayak the Na Pali
Now you can kayak the Na Pali too – only in the late Spring and Summer and through to about end September depending on the weather and day. In the Winter the water level along the Na Pali rises by about 30 feet and you cannot kayak… or you can try, but that would not be a good idea. No locals do it.. and if locals don’t do it, don’t try it either.
There is a company that does guided tours of the Na Pali so I would recommend going with them over trying it yourself. There are private guides too but make sure you are fit and ready for adventure.
Take a Boat Tour of the Na Pali
There are more than a few companies doing boat tours of the Na Pali Coast. Most depart from the West side… harbor. A couple depart from Kekaha and Waimea and 3 depart from Hanalei.. the lucky ones who have permits to go out of Hanalei. Why lucky? Because the stretch of coastline between Hanalei and Kalalau is the some of the most stunning part of the Na Pali Coast. You’ll see the best of the Na Pali and still end up at the beach. The tours that go from the South and West side have to go past Barking Sands and the Pacific Missile range and it’s awhile before you get to the Na Pali whereas on the North Shore, the Na Pali starts at Ke’e beach. That’s why trips from the North Shore tend to be more expensive… but if you can’t get a North Shore trip, do still take one from the West Side as you will still see most of the magnificent Na Pali Coast.
Most boat tours encompass snorkeling and lunch and if you go in the morning, you are more likely to see the Spinner dolphins darting along in front of the boat, especially if you are low down on a Catamarran. During the Winter months, when the Whales come to birth their babies in the warmer Hawaiian waters, you may even see the largest Mammals in the water…. Whales. They are a sight to behold.
Helicopter Tours of the Na Pali
Every helicopter tour takes you down the Na Pali Coast. Naturally the most expansive view of the fabled coastline. It’s a thrill! But over in what seems like a flash even though you’ve been in the air for an hour. You’re over the Na Pali and within 5 minutes flying close into the Waialeale crater in the center of the island. It’s just enthralling and majestic and…. it’s Kauai.
I have done the ride and the boat trip and hiked. Which is my favorite? Can’t say! Love all 3. Different perspectives and all give you something that you will remember always. The Na Pali Coast is truly one of the most magical places on Earth : Majestic, Celebrated and Magnificent!