Location Piece: Kauai’s Na Pali Coast
Blog by: Nicholas Spooner
The Na Pali Coast stretches out for 17 miles along the northern shore of Kauai . Roughly translating to “The Cliffs” in the native Hawaiian language, the landscape is characterized by lush green valleys and jagged volcanic ridge lines jutting out high above the Pacific Ocean like teeth. Formed by lava, these valleys were originally utilized as an oasis for the indigenous people during the hot summer months. Today, the Na Pali Coast is best known as home to some of the worlds most stunning coastal hikes. The terrain is remote, unforgiving, and unapologetically beautiful making it an easy addition to the bucket list of many backpackers. The perfect trip to the Na Pali Coast comes in many forms and requires some planning. In this article we will discuss several of our favourite ways of exploring the Na Pali Coast to make the most out of your next visit to Kauai.
There are several ways for visitors to experience the Na Pali Coastline. For those short on time, boat and aerial tours are a great way that will require minimal physical effort. These are also probably the safest option and can be enjoyed by almost anyone in your party. Boat tours can be booked through Port Allen and offer a great vantage point of caves, cliffs, remote beaches and wildlife. It’s not uncommon for a pod of dolphins to swim alongside your boat! Aerial tours begin from the Lihue airport and offer unparalleled views from above. Although both of these are great options, I’ve always found that there’s no better way to get to know a place than by having feet on the ground.
For hiking, there are two approaches you can take. Since there are no roads through the Na Pali Coast, both options can be found on either side of the island and although geographically close together, will require a few hours of driving between.
Koke’e State Park:
For day hikes, your best option would be exploring Koke’e State Park. The Park can be found on the North Western coast of Kauai and closely borders the Na Pali Coast. Spread out over 4345 acres on a plateau high above sea level, Koke’e can be accessed via Waimea Canyon drive. The drive will have you passing through the incredible Waimea Canyon “Grand Canyon of Hawaii” and the picturesque Koke’e Campground which I would highly recommend as a budget friendly option for spending the night. Continue past the campground and you’ll be led up into the hills on a winding road through thick forest. You won’t fully appreciate where you are until you make it to the top.
The Kalepa Ridge trail is a personal favourite for us. The trail is unmarked, and starts at the Kalalau viewpoint. Follow the well worn path along the fence, and before you know it, you’ll be descending a steep ridge down to the ocean. In our opinion, the Kalepa Ridge trail is the best “bang for your buck”. The hike is relatively short at just under 2 miles out and back, and the terrain although steep, is manageable and consistently stunning. Just be careful after a rainfall as the steep muddy trail can quickly become slippery and dangerous. Kalepa Ridge is particularly beautiful at sunset. The low hanging clouds that commonly obstruct the views have a tendency to burn off and reveal the stunning coastline and Kalalau valley far bellow. We enjoyed this trail so much that we actually ended up doing it twice during our last visit!
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, the Honopu Ridge trail might be more suited for you. The trailhead is located on an unmarked pull off just before the previously mentioned Kalalau lookout. The trail begins simply enough where you’ll follow a fence line before beginning a steep descent through thick jungle. We recommend wearing pants for this hike as the trail often passes through uncut bushes which have a tendency to scratch up your legs. Unlike the previous Kalepa Ridge, this trail is mostly wooded with only brief glimpses of the surrounding ridge lines until the very end. Just as you can’t take the anticipation anymore, you’ll pop out on an eroded dirt ridge line with stunning views in all directions. Honopu is a total of 5 miles out and back with some serious elevation gain so be prepared to sweat! I would not recommend this for beginner hikers as the route is somewhat overgrown and difficult to follow at times.
For both these trails, it is important to be aware of the gravity trap of descending as you will always have to climb back out afterwards. Because they start off with a descent, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of ease. It is also important to bring lots of water as there aren’t many water sources on trail.
The Kalalau Trail:
By far the most famous hike in all of Hawaii, the Kalalau trail has quickly become one of the most highly sought after backpacking trips across the globe. The trail traverses along the rugged untamed Na Pali coastline winding up and down thick forested valleys and knee weakening cliff side before arriving to the famous Kalalau beach. Easily one of the best beaches in the world, it’s truly a sight for sore eyes after a gruelling 11 mile hike. The trail is a total 22 mile
round trip with about 5000 feet of elevation gain and lost each way. The elevation gain and loss will keep you guessing as you ascend and descend multiple times throughout your journey. The trail starts and ends at sea level.
The first 2 miles to Hanakapi’ai beach is well trafficked and a popular day hike. In order to go past this point, you’ll need to secure a permit. Perhaps more difficult than the hike itself, securing a permit is known to be quite challenging. Permits become available 90 days in advance and often sell out within minutes. If you’re anything like us, planning a trip in advance isn’t always an option. In our case, we were lucky enough to secure a permit only two weeks before our trip! We did this by diligently checking the permit site daily for any last minute cancellations. (They happen more than you think!) Permits are 35$ per person per night.
Parking for the trailhead can be done several ways.
-Ha’ena State Park - Closest to the trailhead but most expensive at 30$ per night. Reservations can be made 90 day in advance. Be wary of break-ins and gas theft as they are unfortunately somewhat common. We were advised by park staff to not leave our parking permit in our window so as to prevent any unwanted attention. Reservation for parking can be made 90 days in advance, but thankfully isn’t that hard to obtain.
-Shuttle - A shuttle bus can be booked for $15 per ride from Princeville. They run from 8am to 5pm and require a reservation.
-Drop off from friend - For those travelling with someone not hiking the Kalalau trail, this is a safe and inexpensive option.
Our recommended timeframe for a trip on the Kalalau trail would be at least 3 days and 2 nights. This will allow you enough time to recover from the previous days hike and give you a full day to enjoy the stunning Kalalau beach. We would also recommend if you’re physically up for it, to push and do the 11 miles to Kalalau beach in one day. It takes about 6-8 hours depending on your ability so make sure to start early! We started the hike well before sunrise so as to beat the heat which turned out to be a great decision. If that sounds like too much, the Hanakoa campsite is a great alternative at only 6 miles in. In our opinion though, it does not really stack up when compared to the alternate option. Water is readily available all throughout the hike, so no need to carry more than a few litres at a time. This will save you precious weight. Pit toilets can be found at the campgrounds and several other stops along the way.
The terrain itself is quite variable. You’ll be hiking through everything from well worn paths, to grown-over single- track, to exposed eroding gravel. There are also several river crossings which makes it important to consider would be recent rainfall as they have been known to flood in the past. I would be particularly wary of these in the rainy season as water levels can rise quite quickly. Thankfully the trail is relatively easy to follow and well marked so route finding won’t be an issue. The overall conditions of the trail was quite good during our trip. Trail crews had recently worked on several sections that are known to be somewhat exposed. We personally had no issues with the famous Crawlers Ledge, but if you are prone to a fear of heights, be ready for a few scary moments.
What to bring
Light backpacking gear - Ultralight backpacking gear is the name is the game here. Thankfully the weather was quite warm while we were there so we only needed our sleeping bag liners, and minimal layers. On a long hike like this, saving weight is so important.
Rain Gear - the Kalalau valley is known for frequent and unexpected rain showers so bring along a bag cover and rain jacket.
Headlamp and Portable Charger - Always important to bring along, having a source of light at night and the ability to recharge gear is so crucial.
First Aid - Despite its popularity, there are many sections of the trails that are quite remote and having a first aid kit as well as knowing how to use it is essential.
Bathing suit - Although swimming is quite dangerous on the beach, there are several swimming holes throughout the trail. Our personal favourite was a short 15 minute walk back from the Kalalau beach camp to the final river crossing. Multiple pools can be found on that river and it was a great way to cool off during the heat of the day.
Hammock - Although we didn’t sleep in our hammock, we were still very thankful we brought it. Having somewhere to comfortably sit in camp and snooze in the afternoon was the whole experience so much more enjoyable!
Water filtration system. - Make sure to pack a water filtration system as well as a backup. We actually ended up breaking our Lifestraw near the end of the hike, so thankfully it wasn’t much of an issue, but lesson learned!
Light stove - For cooking and coffee of course!
Wacaco - Our choice for this trip was our trusty Nanopresso. Whether on shorter day hikes or longer backpacking trips, this has become a staple in my adventure kit. It’s easy to use, lightweight, and consistently makes a great shot of espresso keeping us both happy and energized throughout the day.