The indomitable Na Pali Coast towers on the northwest side of the island of Kauai. It’s the quintessential Hawaiian landscape featuring towering cathedral cliffs that reach into the ocean like the ancient talons of an island-sized dragon. Between each cliff sits a verdant valley, and at each valley’s foot lay a sugary white sand beach.
It’s perhaps the most beautiful land in the United States, and it’s a wonder why the Na Pali Coast is not a designated national park. It’s so beautiful that intrepid hikers descend on the Kauai from all over the world to challenge this wild landscape along the Kalalau Trail.
The Kalalau Trail begins at Ke’e Beach at the end of the road on the northwest side of Kauai. It takes you up and over each of the coast’s cathedral cliffs, dips you down into each valley and the trail spans for more than 13 miles one way. And daring hikers must brave “Crawler’s Ledge” in order to get to the end of the trail at the pristine Kalalau Valley.
The trail is so challenging that you have to register with authorities beforehand, and you must camp at the end of the trail before returning the next day. Going out-and-back within a 24-hour period is simply too dangerous.
There are no other ways down to the Na Pali Coast save for a bumpy and dangerous Gorilla boat landing on one of the coast’s remote beaches. The coast’s makeshift helipads are reserved for law enforcement and rescue teams. But just because Kauai’s wild coast seems impenetrable doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy its beauty.
The Awa’awapuhi Trail takes you high above the Na Pali Coast to give you towering views of the end of the Kalalau Trail, and it all starts Kokee State Park on the western side of the Waimea Canyon. The drive up to the trailhead may be just as beautiful as the hike itself.
Kauai has one highway -- the Kuhio Highway -- and you’ll take this highway west out of Lihue to the west coast town of Waimea. And you’ll marvel at the landscape morphing from verdant and green to dry and hot. The trees will eventually clear away, and you’ll descend upon the town of Waimea driving alongside a large field of Kona coffee.
The speed limit slows down as you approach the town of Waimea. The town’s square features a statue of James Cook to commemorate the first Europeans setting foot on the islands of Hawaii back in 1778. You’ll also find the Ishihara Market which houses a deli with some of the best poke in the state, and a curious little lilikoi shop that sells all things passionfruit -- soap, pie, jams, etc.
Turn right onto Waimea Canyon Drive just past the grocery store. You’ll feel like you’re driving into a neighborhood, but you’ll soon be switchbacking up the side of Waimea Canyon with spectacular views of the town below. And you’ll notice that the ocean sparkles with an electric blue on this side of the island.
The road will continue to ascend, you’ll pass a beautiful waterfall cascading down a bright red dirt hill, and then you’ll turn right to continue your ascent at the stop sign. Eventually, Waimea Canyon will open up on your right.
There are two official lookouts for Waimea Canyon, and they are both worth a pit stop. There are also a variety of unofficial lookouts along the road. In fact, in certain spots, the road hugs the edge of the canyon, and you’ll be gobsmacked by glimpses of its beauty. Just make sure to use your blinker and to pull completely off the road for any unofficial glimpses of the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”
The colors of the canyon don’t even seem real. There’s bright red dirt that seems to shimmer with orange and purple. The greens of the shrubs and trees make the white of the canyon’s waterfalls even more brilliant. And it’s all crowned by the stunning blue of a dry desert sky.
Continue ascending through the fields of fragrant yellow ginger to Kokee State Park. Officials keep the park grounds nicely mowed with open fields and a collection of cabins (which are available for a minimum two-night stay). You’ll also find plenty of parking, a small shop, and a restaurant. But you’ll be shocked at the temperature. At over 4,000 feet, Kokee State Park may be downright chilly.
You can find the start of the Awa’awapuhi Trail at mile marker 17 inside Kokee State Park. And if you fall in love with the different flora and fauna at elevation here in the park, then you can camp overnight in Kokee.
Kokee State Park is 4,400 acres of highland wilderness that’s been carved by a myriad of hiking trails. The Awa’awapuhi Trail is clearly marked and easy to follow, but there are trails and roads that branch off. Do not follow these alternate paths. You may end up on private property or at a sheer cliffside leading down to the Na Pali Coast.
You hike will start inside of an elevated rainforest which looks completely different than the tropical landscapes you’ve experienced at sea level. In fact, it looks a bit like New Zealand’s cold weather rainforests with thick vegetation, mossy branches, and lichen-covered rocks. But Kauai’s infamous and slick red dirt will still be underfoot, so make sure to wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots.
You’ll eventually break out of the thick forest as you near the Na Pali Coast. This is where you really need to watch your step. The trail may be lined with stout-looking ferns, but these ferns can be dangerous. They’ve been known to grow yards-tall up the sides of cliffs.
So, you might step off to the side of a trail thinking you’re on solid ground when you’re really walking off a steep drop-off. Make sure to step on exposed dirt as you near the coast.
The trail actually descends 2,000 feet from Kokee State Park to the tops of the Na Pali Coast’s cathedral cliffs, and the trail narrows as it descends. You’ll eventually find yourself balancing on the very top of a cathedral cliff overlooking the Awa’awapuhi Valley of the Na Pali Coast after bursting through the bottom of the cloud line.
It’s more than a thousand-foot drop on each side of the cliff, the trail narrows to less than 10-feet-wide, and you can hike all the way to the knife’s edge of the cliff’s cathedral top. From here, you’ll be able to gaze at the splendor of the Na Pali Coast’s incredible valleys and beaches.
You’ll feel like the ruler of the world as you sit down for a picnic perched high above the most beautiful landscape in the country, and you’ll laugh with your friends as you see mountain goats standing impossibly on the cliff’s walls.
Just remember -- you’ll have to ascend more than 2,000 feet on your hike back to Kokee State Park, and breathing can become difficult at nearly a mile of elevation at the trailhead. Just make sure to set out on this 6.4-mile roundtrip hike with plenty of daylight for the climb back out. You don’t want to get lost amongst the Na Pali Coast’s cliffs after the sun goes down.
After the hike, if you have enough daylight and there are no clouds, then you should continue driving past Kokee State Park to the very end of Highway 550. Make sure to continue past the first sign for the Kalalau Valley Lookout to the very spot where the road ends. This is the “real” Kalalau Valley Lookout.
Park your car, walk up the hill and ignore the observation deck. You’ll want to walk right up to the Kalalau Valley’s edge to peer down thousands of feet into the Na Pali Coast’s most beautiful valley. It’s like looking into the Grand Canyon for the first time.
The valley is so large and so wide that it doesn’t seem real. And you can see the entirety of the valley, from cathedral cliff to cathedral cliff, right on the valley’s edge. Clouds can even fall from the sky into the valley only to climb back out, and it’s shimmering tropical colors are a sight to behold. And it’s the perfect place for a sunset.
If you’re enamored with this part of the island, then you should make mental notes for more hikes in the area. The end of the road at the second Kalalau Valley Lookout is the trailhead for the Alakai Swamp Hike, and you can even hike down into Waimea Canyon using trailheads inside Kokee State Park.