Visit Kauai’s Na Pali Coast
The Na Pali Coast on the northwest shore of Kauai is a lot like my home of Lake Tahoe. No matter how many times I see it, it’s like I’m looking upon its beauty for the first time. It never gets old. The Na Pali Coast is listed in almost every “top destinations” and “things to do before you die” lists & books.
It’s one of those natural wonders of the world, up there with the Grand Canyon, but slightly more obscure due to its location out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And while we’re bringing up the Grand Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” as Mark Twain called it, Waimea Canyon, is also on the island of Kaua’i and inland of the Na Pali Coast.
You can’t go to Kaua’i without seeing the Na Pali Coast. But don’t worry, there’s a wide variety of ways to see this wonder for all tastes and abilities.
History of the Na Pali Coast
Let’s first understand a bit of history about this coastline first. Kaua’i, like the other Hawaiian islands, is volcanic in nature. A combination of unique seawater, freshwater, vegetative, and wind erosion has shaped the cliffs that you see today. Na Pali literally means “many cliffs”. They’re being reshaped every day, eroding at an annual rate measured in inches and not millimeters.
Early Hawaiian communities flourished in each of the little valleys, and sometimes wouldn’t get along with each other very well. Your tour operators will retell many local legends about the many curious things that occurred throughout the ages. The last inhabitants moved out in the early 20th century as more non-natives settled the island.
It wasn’t long before the hippy crowd moved in, settling in Hanalei and wandering into the Na Pali Coast’s many secluded valleys. This created a few problems that led to the local government requiring permits to explore the area.
Hollywood also has a love affair with the Na Pali coast. Soul Surfer, Jurassic Park, King Kong, The Descendants, and Pirates of the Caribbean, among others, all used the beauty of the coastline to sell movie tickets.
Kauai Hiking Adventures – Above & Below
The adventurous outdoorsy types come to Kauai to hike the Kalalau Trail, just like those lovers in the thriller A Perfect Getaway.
- Trail: Kalalau Trail starts at Ke’e Beach near Hanalei.
- Distance: 22 miles out-and-back.
- Usage: Permits required for camping and if hiking further than the 2-mile point. $20/person/day.
- Best Time: Summer seasons are more dry, and thus the trail is open & safe.
The Kalalau Trail is often closed in the rainy season but that doesn’t mean that you can’t go hiking the Na Pali Coast at all. You can hike above it as well!
While the high trails can and do close as well during the rainy season, they’re much safer (which still isn’t saying much) and more accessible after heavy rains. The nice thing about these trails is that they’re at the end of Waimea Canyon, so you’ll have a chance to kill two birds with one stone.
Photography tip: go hiking above the Na Pali Coast first thing in the morning while the sun is at your back, then stop along the Waimea Canyon in the afternoon after your hike when the sun again is at your back looking into the canyon.
- Trail: Koke’e State Park mile marker 17.
- Distance: 6.5 miles out-and-back.
- Usage: Hiking only.
- Best Time: Summers are more dry, early morning is the best time.
I’ve also been hiking on the Waipo’o Falls Canyon Trail. This trail has spectacular views into the canyon, but I’m partial to the coast. It’s still a good option, check it out here.
Don’t forget to drive to the end of Waimea Canyon Road and see the incredible vistas of the coast from the many lookouts.
Na Pali Coast Boat Tours
Want to see the Na Pali Coast from the ocean? There are numerous tour operators to choose from, all offering something a little bit different.
The smaller boats can take you into the lava tubes but only when the conditions are right; snorkeling & dive boats will give you an opportunity to swim with the playful spinner dolphins and sea turtles against the backdrop of this impressive coastline; whale watching tours will get you close and personal with humpbacks in the winter; and the sunset tours will serve dinner and keep you entertained as you gaze upon the beauty around you.
I tend to gravitate to the smaller, less flashy tour operators – you know, the kind you look at and say, “how do they stay in business?” I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I imagine myself working for an outfit like that if I ever ran away from home. Now I’m not saying that you’ll find Na Pali Coast boat tour operators and wonder how they stay in business. I’m just saying bigger isn’t always better. Here are my picks for Na Pali Coast boat tours:
- Snorkeling & Diving: Na Pali Experience – seasonal, but great tours. The founder, Nate, was one of my tour guides at Uluwehi Falls years ago and is a great guy. During the off-season check out Na Pali Coast Hanalei.
- Sunset Tour: Blue Dolphin Charters – our captain & crew were hilarious and great bartenders :).
- Whale Watching: Capt Andy’s is the most notable whale-watching experience on Kauai.
- Kayaking: Na Pali Kayak will take you on an intense full-day adventure along the coast.
The Na Pali Coast from the Air
Perhaps the most memorable way to see the Na Pali Coast is from the air. Those helicopter pilots get you right down in those waterfalls. I did one tour with the doors off and felt the spray from the falls!
Na Pali Coast helicopter tours are really the only way you can get into some of the unbelievable terrain in the Na Pali Coast. There are more waterfalls than you can count, impressive canyons, every shade of green, sheer drops – yeah, you can’t hike in to all of that.
There isn’t a short supply of Na Pali Coast helicopter tour operators either, but due to the popularity it’s recommended to make reservations in advance. I honestly don’t remember the name of the operator I was on last, years ago. You can check out all the listings on TripAdvisor and decide for yourself.
Or Just Lounge on the Beach
If all of this sounds like too much work for you, there’s always the beach. And they allow camping!
Polihale Beach at Polihale State Park is somewhat hidden at the end of a very remote road. You feel like you’re driving to the end of the island through agricultural fields, with the cliffs looming above. The turnoff from the main road to the beach is rutted and rough; four-wheel drive is recommended and low-clearance rental vehicles may be prohibited from going there.
The beach has picnic tables, showers, campsites, and is accessible for the handicapped. Being 15 miles long (yes, fifteen miles), seclusion is guaranteed. The Hawaii State Parks website has a plethora of information on the park, including videos.
And There’s So Much More to Kauai
Kaua’i has much more to offer than the Na Pali Coast. For more information on any of these activities, and for some great ideas for things to do on the rest of the island, check out some guide books. The most popular book, and the one that I use, is The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook: Kauai Revealed. It’s been revised for 2017.