Nā Pali Coast: our guide to discover the wild coast of Kauai
The Nā Pali Coast is a little gem that you can't help but fall in love with at first sight! Whether seen from above, or from the sea, the relief of the Nā Pali Coast is simply stunning!
Located on the west side of the small island of Kauai in Hawaii, this landscape is the result of millions of years of erosion, gradually sculpting the island's ancient volcanoes. Today, huge, steep and craggy ridges covered with lush tropical vegetation remain, stretching for over 26 km.
To get the full measure of the Nā Pali Coast, you must discover it from the sky to take in all the finely jagged ridges, or by foot by taking the time to hike some of the famous hikes that will blow your mind! The Nā Pali Coast also hides impressive waterfalls and small beaches that can only be discovered after walking the 18 km of the famous Kalalau Trail, or by approaching it by boat or kayak.
So here is our guide to discovering the Nā Pali Coast from every angle!
1Admire the Nā Pali Coast ridges at Koke'e State Park
Only Koke'e State Park provides driving access to the ridges of the fabulous Nā Pali Coast. This park is located north of Waimea Canyon, in its direct extension. The advantage is that it's easy to get to and if you're not a hiker, there are two incredible views just off the road.
The Kalalau Lookout
The Kalalau Lookout is the first viewpoint that you will discover when you arrive at the end of the Kokee Road and it is also the most impressive. A parking lot allows you to easily park and walk to the lookout which offers a magnificent view of the amphitheater that was formed after thousands of years of erosion!
Here, suspended between ocean, land and sky, the Nā Pali Coast offers a unique and enchanting setting.
It is necessary to be on the spot to realize the beauty of these places, and I will never be able to retranscribe in this article the feeling of fascination and humility which invades us in front of what Mother Nature offered us to contemplate here.
The second lookout is located at the very end of Kokee Road which ends in a parking lot leading to another lookout. The Pu'u O Kila Lookout offers another view of the same amphitheater of ridges but a little further towards the center.
We find there the same view as at Kalalau Lookout but under another angle. The Pu'u O Kila Lookout is also the start of the Pihea Trail, a famous hike that we will talk about later.
We advise you to go to both viewpoints early in the morning, before 10:00 am, because the more the hour advances, the more the risk that the clouds form and come to block the view. If this is the case, you will see absolutely nothing. So in order not to spoil this great view, come early!
2Reaching the southernmost point of the Nā Pali coast from Polihale Beach
Polihale State Park
Here is finally one last way to see the Nā Pali Coast by heading to Polihale State Park. Located at the western end of the ridges, this long beach often swept by beautiful waves allows a view of the last ridge of the coast overlooked by NASA facilities. Here one will come looking more for the tranquility of the beach than the view of the Nā Pali which is quite limited.
To get there, you will have to drive for 5 km on an unpaved track that can be used by any type of vehicle. Once near the beach, there are several small paths that lead to different parts of the long strip of sand.
If you are camping, you will find a very nice camping spot at the end of the beach, on the north side. Calmness guaranteed!
If you try to swim here, be careful because the currents are strong. Nevertheless, you can easily come and dip your legs since a reef protects a good part of the beach offering a few meters with a shallow water depth.
3Discover the Nā Pali Coast by foot
Numerous hikes allow you to discover the relief of the famous coast, whether from the bottom, close to the ocean, or from the heights on the ridges. Let's start with the most famous one: the Kalalau Trail.
The Kalalau Trail
Round trip of 6,4 km - 2:00 - Easy or Round trip of 36 km - 3 days - Difficult
This mythical hiking trail of 18 km one way allows to admire a very large part of the Nā Pali Coast. Here, you will discover the coast from the bottom, very close to the ocean. It is not the most grandiose views, but you will love to walk in the heart of the jungle, on the side of the mountain and on the edge of the ocean.
You don't have to walk far to see the first sights. The Kalalau Trail is divided into two parts.
- The first one allows you to reach Hanakapi'ai beach in 2 miles or 3.2 km one way, and is accessible to everyone. This part will already allow you to enjoy the view! (Red line on the map at the bottom of the article)
- The second part goes from Hanakapi'ai beach to Kalalau beach in 9 miles or 14.8 km one way, but is only recommended for experienced walkers who are not prone to vertigo. (Red dotted line on the map at the bottom of the article). On this second portion, the scenery becomes even more fascinating, but you will need a total of 3 days of walking to cover the entire trail and return, without forgetting to bring your tent. You will also need a special permit to ask in advance to hike the trail from Hanakapi'ai beach.
To learn more about the Kalalau Trail, its access and itinerary, we invite you to read our dedicated article: Kalalau Trail: The must-see Kauai hiking trail
The Honopu Ridge Trail
Round trip of 8 km - 4:30 minutes - Medium
The Honopu Ridge Trail is an impressive hike that this time takes in the Na Pāli coast from the top of one of its most imposing ridges.
This unofficial hike of 8 km round trip, but whose trail is maintained by the volunteers of the Kokee State Park, will lead you to the end of the Honopu Ridge from where you will discover an imposing panorama on the chain of the ridges of the Na Pāli coast. The landscape that we discover from the middle of the hike is simply magic and the last meters on the ridge just spectacular! (Pink line on the map at the bottom of the article).
But be careful, this hike is not to be taken lightly because it can be very slippery, even dangerous. Nevertheless it remains among our most beautiful memories of Kauai as the landscapes we discover are so grandiose!
To discover the route and evaluate its difficulty, we invite you to read our dedicated article: Honopu Ridge Trail: hiking on the Na Pāli coast
The Pihea Trail
Round trip of 3,6 km - 1:30 minutes - Easy ( up to the top of Pihea only).
The Pihea Trail is a popular and enjoyable hike along the large amphitheater that can be seen from Pu'u O Kila Lookout, the second viewpoint at the far end of Kokee State Park.
From the parking lot, the Pihea Trail follows the ridge and offers an impressive view all along the trail thanks to several viewpoints. It is very interesting to take it to the top of Pihea, the highest point of the ridge located a few dozen meters after Vista Junction, the name of the junction where the Pihea Trail goes away from the ridge to join the Swamp Trail, another very interesting hike that we will talk about later in this article. (Orange line on the map at the bottom of the article).
If it's only the views of the Nā Pali coast you're interested in, there's no point in going down to the Swamp Trail. So to enjoy the views you can just do the 1.6 mile or 3.6 km round trip which is relatively easy as long as it's not too muddy.
Mud will be the main challenge of the Pihea Trail, which can turn this easy walk into a real nightmare if it has rained a lot the previous days.
Be prepared and equip yourself with good shoes before starting this trail which can be very slippery. Also leave early, before 9am if you want to enjoy the panorama because the clouds usually arrive at 10am and the view from the top of the ridge tends to get blocked quickly in the morning.
The Kalepa Ridge Trail
The Kalepa Ridge Trail is another spectacular hike that used to start from the Kalalau Lookout in Kokee State Park. But this one was officially closed not long ago. Too bad, because this trail offered in our opinion the most impressive views of the Nā Pali Coast from the top of the ridges.
The Nualolo Trail and the Awa'awapuhi Trail
Here are two more hikes known for their beautiful views, again along the Nā Pali Coast ridges but located a bit further south in Kokee State Park.
The Nualolo Trail is famous for being the easiest 13km round trip trail. It starts at Koke'e Lodge and goes to Lolo Vista Point. Finally, you can also try the Awa'awapuhi Trail, just as famous, whose parking is located about 1.2km before the dome in the direction of the ascent. At 20km, it is one of the longest trails in the area, but it provides a seemingly splendid view of the Nualolo and Awa'awapuhi Valleys. Be careful if you decide to take this trail which is known to be steep and slippery.
Unfortunately we can't tell you more about these two hikes as we haven't had the opportunity to test them yet (we preferred the Honopu Ridge Trail). Don't hesitate to leave us a comment if you were to do one of these hikes!
The Alakai Swamp Trail
Round trip of 12.5 km - 6:00 - Medium
We couldn't not talk about the Alakai Swamp Trail here, even though it doesn't offer any views of the Nā Pali coast. The Alakai Swamp Trail is located within Kokee State Park and can be combined with the Pihea Trail (which we recommend).
The originality of the Alakai Swamp Trail is that you will discover one of the wettest places in the world thanks to footbridges allowing you to cross the jungle and swamps worthy of the Swamp of the Dead in the famous Lord of the Rings saga!
This hike is a long round trip of 7.8 miles or 12.5 km if you take the combined version with the Pihea Trail. It remains one of our fondest memories of Hawaii today! (Blue line on the map at the bottom of the article).
To learn more about the Alakai Swamp Trail, we invite you to read our dedicated article: Alakai Swamp Trail: hiking to one of the wettest areas in the world
4Fly over Nā Pali Coast by plane or helicopter
For a great view of the Nā Pali Coast ridges, we highly recommend the airborne option. Of course, it will not be the least expensive, but it will allow you to have an exceptional memory of the island of Kauai! Some parts of the Nā Pali coast are only visible from the sky like the cathedrals, those impressive draperies!
As for the budget, you will have to pay between $125 and $270 per person for a flight, depending on whether you choose the helicopter or the plane.
This flight was a wonderful memory during our stay in Kauai and yet we were very doubtful before doing it. We waited until the third year to try it! In retrospect, we think it is a must-do activity in Kauai.
5Approach the Nā Pali Coast by kayak or boat
This last option allows you to discover the steep coast on the sea side, which can be interesting to admire it from a new angle, but to enjoy it, it is better to come in summer. In winter (from the end of September to the end of March), the ocean is often too rough to allow access by kayak or via an organized excursion on a motor catamaran.
A few companies may offer trips in winter, but expect to be tossed around, but the advantage is that you may encounter whales. Nevertheless, to really enjoy it, the calm waters of summer will be perfect and a trip along the Nā Pali Coast will often be coupled with a stop to swim with dolphins.
We wanted to test an excursion during our last visit in October 2019, but the company we had selected had stopped its sea trips for the winter period. We then selected another company which this time did not accept that we go on board with our baby Lena who was 6 months old at the time. We will not be able to give you a feedback, but it is an activity that we will try again the next time we come!
If you opt for kayaking, choose a calm day because the currents can be strong and there are still a lot of kilometers to cover to get a good overview.