Hawaii is the land of dramatic coastlines, but as it becomes an increasingly coveted escape from the mainland, more and more of its coastal areas are marred by resorts and beachside bungalows. Yet on the island of Kauai lies one of the most beautifully untouched coasts in the world – Na Pali. Due to its rugged landscape and remote location, the Na Pali Coast remains untouched with no roads running its extreme slopes. While boat tours along the coast are how both ancient and modern Hawaiians explore the many valleys and beaches along the coast, there is no more rewarding way to explore the area than hiking the strenuous trail that winds among the cliffs. Truth be told, hiking the Na Pali Coast is an adventure that not everyone will or can do…but it’s worth the time and energy to see a piece of the US and Hawaii that remains untouched by modern development.
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The Trails of the Na Pali Coast
When it comes to hiking the Na Pali Coast, most hikers will hear about two trails – the Hanakapi’ai Trail and the Kalalau Trail. In reality, they are one in the same, the Hanakapi’ai Trail being just the first leg of the Kalalau Trail. However, many hikers split the Kalalau Trail due to overall difficulty and restricted access to the final leg.
When it comes to hiking the Na Pali Coast, the Hanakapi’ai Trail is the popular choice of day trippers and hardcore hikers alike. The trail begins at Ke’e Beach where the roads into the Na Pali area come to an end. The trail meanders through lush tropical forest-studded cliffs past, through Hanakapi’ai Beach and ultimately to a beautiful river valley that features the Hanakapi’ai Falls. Hikers shouldn’t be fooled by the completely reasonable 8-mile roundtrip trail length to the falls, the Hanakapi’ai Trail is as challenging as they come. With a trail that constantly bounces between uphill and downhill stretches all while traversing a route made up of seemingly always-moist red clay mud.
While the Hanakapi’ai Trail is part of the Kalalau Trail, only those who have hiked the full 22-mile round trip can truly say they hiked the Kalalau Trail. However, due to the remoteness of the area, in order to hike past the Hanakapi’ai Falls, a permit is required. The 11-mile one way trip will take almost a full day in itself in order to get to the terminus at Kalalau Beach. Travelling out of verdant river valleys, the challenge of the Kalalau Trail is both mental and physical. Not only is the terrain uneven, but the pencil-thin trail traces along cliffs with hikers only a step away from eroding soil and a fall of hundreds of feet. The sections near the end of the trail are certainly not for those afraid of heights, that is for sure, but there are no finer views in Hawaii.
Camping and Swimming
Due to the length of the Kalalau Trail and coveted scenery, camping is allowed at Hanakoa and Kalalau beaches on the Na Pali Coast. As these beaches are located beyond the Hanakapi’ai Falls, permits for camping are required. Day trippers should keep in mind that there is no camping at the trailhead at Ke’e beach, so leave enough energy to make the drive back to your lodging.
While the Na Pali Coast is studded with golden sand beaches, swimming is not advised at any time of the year. There are no lifeguards on duty at the beaches, and on most days, you can tell just how dangerous the water is by looking at it. The ocean water around the beaches is often rough and the waves are huge with a current strong enough to drag swimmers into the rocks in seconds. Just enjoy the view or find a boating tour that knows some safe places for a little snorkeling.
After soaking up the view of the Na Pali Coast from the water, many hikers aren’t prepared for the conditions of the trail that run along it. Due to the red clay mud, proper fitting hiking shoes with good terrain grip are a must unless hikers really fancy climbing hills on hands and knees.
While the balmy Hawaiian heat will beg hikers to dress in their lightest colored clothes, hikers should also keep in mind that the red clay mud finds a way of getting everywhere. Don’t wear anything you are really attached to, but light clothing and shorts are a must for surviving the heat. Although having something to keep the mosquitoes away will also have a valuable role.
With strong sun rays, protection for your skin is critical, but not nearly as crucial as having enough water to keep hydrated. Before hiking the Na Pali Coast, it is important to remember that there is no potable water at any point. There are composting toilets at Hanakapi’ai, Hanakoa, and Kalalau beaches, but it is strictly a bring your own water situation. If drinking rough, the water from the many streams and rivers along the coast will need to be filtered.
The quest to experience the beauty of hiking the Na Pali Coast is not without some danger. and please keep hiking safety always in mind. Don’t get so mind blown by the views and beauty that you let your guard down. For many hikers, it adds that extra level of intrigue, but the danger of the coast is real enough to have the Kalalau Trail counted as one of the most dangerous trails in the world.
During any section of the hike along the Na Pali Coast when tracing cliffs, beware of goats. The animals themselves are pretty harmless, but they have a particularly malicious habit of knocking loose rocks while climbing the cliffs over head. Falling rocks are a real hazard for not just head injury, but the resulting surprise can be disastrous on the more narrow sections of the trail.
On several sections of the coast trail, hikers will need to cross streams and the Hanakapi’ai River. Be sure to check the weather and trail conditions before heading out on a hike. Flash floods are common due to the high surrounding landscape. Even a little rain may cut your trip short or leave hikers on the wrong side of a raging torrent of water. Use good judgment when deciding on a questionable water crossing, always.
Finally, as common sense will dictate, don’t stray from the trail or try to climb the cliffs. If you get hurt or lost in the remote sections while hiking the Na Pali Coast, don’t expect help to come quickly or easily.