How to See Kauai’s N&#257 Pali Coast

If you’re coming to Kaua’i, the Nā Pali Coast is a major must-see. More than 5 million years old, these sea cliffs rise thousands of feet above the Pacific, and every shade of green is represented in the vegetation that blankets their lush peaks and folds. At their base, there are caves, secluded beaches, and waterfalls to explore. The big question is how to explore this gorgeous stretch of coastline. You can’t drive to it, through it, or around it. You can’t see Nā Pali from a scenic lookout. You can’t even take a mule ride to it. The only way to experience it is from the sky, the ocean, or the trail.

070822_marmion_Na_pali_cost_kauaiJFF.JPGFrom the Sky

If you’ve booked a helicopter tour of Nā Pali, you might start wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into on the way to the airport. Will it feel like being on a small airplane? Will there be turbulence? Will it be worth all the money you just plunked down? Your concerns will be assuaged on the helipad, once you see the faces of those who’ve just returned from their journeys. They’re totally blissed out, and now it’s your turn.

Climb on board, strap on your headphones, and the next thing you know the helicopter gently lifts up, hovers for a moment, and floats away like a spider on the wind — no roaring engines, no rumbling down a runway. If you’ve chosen a flight with music, you’ll feel as if you’re inside your very own IMAX movie. Pinch yourself if you must, because this is the real thing. Your pilot shares history, legend, and lore. If you miss something, speak up: pilots love to show off their island knowledge.

Good to Know:

1. Helicopter companies depart from the north, east, and west shores. Choose your departure location based on its proximity to where you’re staying.

2. If you want more adventure — and air — choose one of the helicopter companies that flies aircraft without doors.

3. Some companies offer flights without music. Know the experience you want ahead of time. Some even sell a DVD of your flight, so you don’t have to worry about taking pictures.

4. Winter rain grounds some flights; PLAN YOUR TRIP early in your stay in case the flight gets rescheduled.

Is This for Me?

  • Taking a helicopter trip is the most expensive way to see Nā Pali — as much as $280 for an hour-long tour.
  • Claustrophobic? Choose a boat tour or hike. It’s a tight squeeze in the helicopter, especially in one of the middle seats.
  • Short on time? Taking a helicopter tour is a great way to see the island.
  • What You Might See:

  • Nu’alolo Kai (an ancient Hawaiian fishing village) with its fringed reef
  • The 300-foot Hanakāpi’ai Falls
  • A massive sea arch formed in the rock by erosion
  • The 11-mile Kalalau Trail threading its way along the coast
  • The amazing striations of a’a and pāhoehoe lava flows that helped push Kaua’i above the sea
  • See Helicopter Tours to contact tour companies.

    070822_David%20Schellhaas_Na_pali_cost_kauaiinalF.JPGFrom the Trail

    If you want to be one with Nā Pali, hiking the Kalalau Trail is the way to do it. Most people hike only the first 2 miles of the 11-mile trail and turn around on Hanakāpi’ai Trail. This 4-mile round-trip hike takes three to four hours. It starts at sea level and doesn’t waste any time gaining elevation. (Take heart — the uphill part lasts only a mile and tops out at 400 feet; then it’s downhill all the way.) At the half-mile point, the trail curves west and the folds of Nā Pali Coast unfurl.

    Along the way you’ll share the trail with feral goats and wild pigs. After the 1-mile mark, the trail begins its drop into Hanakāpi’ai. You’ll pass a couple of streams of water trickling across the trail, and maybe some banana, ginger, the native uluhe fern, and the Hawaiian ti plant. Finally, the trail swings around the eastern ridge of Hanākapi’ai for your first glimpse of the valley and then switchbacks down the mountain. You’ll have to boulder-hop across the stream to reach the beach. If you like, you can take a 4-mile, round-trip fairly strenuous side trip from this point to the gorgeous Hanakāpi’ai Falls.

    Good to Know:

    1. Wear comfortable, amphibious shoes. Unless your feet require extra support, wear a self-bailing sort of shoe (for stream crossings) suitable for mud. Don’t wear heavy, waterproof hiking boots.

    2. In winter, the trail is often muddy, so be extra careful; sometimes it’s completely inaccessible.

    3. Don’t hike after heavy rain — flash floods are common.

    4. If you plan to hike the entire 11-mile trail, you’ll need a permit to go past Hanākapi’ai.

    Is This for Me?

  • Of all the ways to see Nā Pali (with the exception of kayaking the coast), this is the most active. You need to be in decent shape to hit the trail.
  • If you’re vacationing in winter, this hike might not be an option due to flooding, whereas you can take a helicopter or boat trip year-round.
  • What You Might See:

  • Dramatic surf right below your feet
  • Amazing vistas of the cool blue Pacific
  • The spectacular Hanakāpi’ai Falls (if you have a permit don’t miss Hanakoa Falls, less than half a mile off the trail)
  • Wildlife, including goats and pigs
  • Zany-looking ohi’a trees, with aerial roots and long, skinny serrated leaves known as hala
  • See Hiking information on specific trails and walking journeys.

    070822_Joseph%20C.%20Justice%20Jr._Na_pali_cost_kauaiFF.JPGFrom the Ocean

    There are three ways to see it: a mellow pleasure-cruise catamaran allows you to kick back and sip a mai tai; an adventurous raft (Zodiac) tour will take you inside sea caves under waterfalls, and give you the option of snorkeling; and a daylong outing in a kayak is a real workout, but then you can say you paddled 16 miles of coastline. Any way you travel, you’ll breathe ocean air, feel spray on your face, and see pods of spinner dolphins, green sea turtles, flying fish, and, if you’re lucky, a rare Hawaiian monk seal.

    Nā Pali stretches from Ke’e Beach in the north to Polihale beach on the West Side. If your departure point is Ke’e, your journey will start in the lush Hanakāpi’ai Valley. Within a few minutes, you’ll see caves and waterfalls galore. About halfway down the coast just after the Kalalau Trail ends, you’ll come to an immense arch — formed where the sea eroded the less dense basaltic rock — and a thundering 50-foot waterfall. And as the island curves near Nu’alolo State Park, you’ll begin to notice less vegetation and more rocky outcroppings.

    Good to Know:

    1. If you want to snorkel, choose a morning rather than an afternoon tour — preferably during a summer visit — when seas are calmer.

    2. If you’re on a budget, choose a non-snorkeling tour.

    3. If you want to see whales, take any tour, but be sure to plan your vacation for December through March.

    4. If you’re staying on the North Shore or East Side, embark from the North Shore. If you’re staying on the South Shore, it might not be worth your time to drive to the north, so head to the West Side.

    Is This for Me?

  • Boat tours are several hours long, so if you have only a short time on Kaua’i, a helicopter tour is a better alternative.
  • Keep in mind that even on a small boat, you won’t get the individual attention and exclusivity of a helicopter tour.
  • What You Might See:

  • Hawai’i’s state fish — the humuhumunukunukuapuaa — otherwise known as the Christmas wrasse
  • Waiahuakua Sea Cave, with a waterfall coming through its roof
  • Tons of marine life, including dolphins, green sea turtles, flying fish, and humpback whales, especially in February and March
  • Waterfalls — especially if your trip is after a heavy rain
  • See Water Sports and Tours for more information.

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