Once you experience the majestic views and unique landscape of Na Pali Coast State Park, it’s easy to understand how it got its name. The word pali literally translates to "cliff" in the Hawaiian language. From the land side, sweeping cliffs tower thousands of feet high and are topped with lush jungle valleys thanks to frequent rainfall. From the ocean, rocky sea caves and sunken tunnels have been carved out by nature. As an important area for early island settlers, traces of culture from thousands of years back can still be seen today along the many trails and sites of the park. Whether you choose to hike, camp, boat or fly, a trip to Kauai is not complete without discovering the beauty of the Na Pali Coast for yourself.
It’s hard to imagine how it must have felt for the first humans to lay their eyes on the majestic cliffs of the Na Pali Coast — some as big as 4,000 feet above the sea. The early Polynesians who first settled on Kauai spent time in what is now Na Pali Coast State Park, growing the crops they had brought over from their native land in canoes. Produce such as kalo, sweet potato and breadfruit flourished along the coast of Na Pali, while the ocean was rich for fishing and the valleys full of game for hunting. According to the Kauai Historical Society, early inhabitants of the Na Pali region left evidence of their existence dating back to 1300 AD (other parts of Kauai were inhabited as early as 200 AD to 600 AD).
What to See and Do
There is really no shortage of things to see and do within the park, as the views are unforgettable whether by land, air, or sea. Splurge on a helicopter ride with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters to see the massive cliffs from above, and along the way you’ll be able to spot the waterfalls and beaches that are un-accessible to most visitors. Hike a portion of the Kalalau Trail to Hanakapiai Beach (but don’t get in the water unless you’re a very experienced swimmer) or head to Hanakapiai waterfall.
For experienced hikers who are seeking an adventure, the entire stretch of the Kalalau Trail is an extremely challenging 11-mile trek of sheer cliffs, stream crossings and narrow passages.
Viewing the coast by sea is just as memorable, you’ll share the water with playful spinner dolphins and even humpback whales during the winter months. Opt for a catamaran for a more leisurely ride, or book a spot on a more thrilling excursion with a zodiac boat.
Accessible only by kayak during the calmer summer months, Miloli’i Beach is a gorgeous stretch of sand protected by a vibrant reef along the Na Pali Coast. This is a favorite spot for the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal to post up and relax on the warm sand, as well as Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles stopping by to feed off the coral. Camping is available here by permit only.
The Kalalau Trail provides the lone land access point to the famous Kalalau Beach, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Once you get past Hanakoa Valley, the trail gets rough and more dangerous. Through five valleys and 11 miles of rugged coastline, experienced hikers will be rewarded with some of the most culturally significant landscapes on the island. The trail itself was first constructed in the 1800s (don’t worry, it has been rebuilt and well-maintained since then), though early Hawaiians settled there much earlier than that. The full hike will take the better part of a whole day, so your only choices are to camp at your destination (by permit only) or hire a boat to pick you up at Kalalau Beach with weather permitting. Don’t expect to hike there and back in a single day, and definitely do your research beforehand.
Luckily for less-experienced hikers, or those of us who don’t want to foot the entire strenuous journey, the first 2 miles of the Kalalau Trail to Hanakapiai Beach make a perfect day hike. After reaching the beach, hikers can continue on to the 300-foot Hanakapiai Falls (another 4 miles round trip) if they choose. Anyone continuing on past the Hanakapiai Valley must hold a valid overnight camping permit, even if they don’t plan on camping.
(Remember to always check the weather before hiking in Hawaii, especially on Kauai Island where the rainfall can build substantially over short periods of time. The Division of State Parks has a guide on preparing for safely hiking in Hawaii.)
Fees and Permits / Camping
In-order to access both the Na Pali Coast State Park and the Kalalau Trail, visitors have to go through Haena State Park, which requires advanced reservations for entry (except for those who already have valid camping permits or those coming to the park by boat). To keep the historic area as pristine as possible, the state limits reservations to a certain number per day, so make sure you're planning ahead if you want to go. Non-Hawaii residents are required to purchase either a park entry reservation ($1 per person) or an online parking reservation ($5 per vehicle) prior to arrival. A parking reservation means that everyone in the car receives entry, saving a bit of money if you have more than five in your party. Reservations can be made on the park's website.
Camping is only allowed within the Kalalau and Hanakoa Valleys, and by valid permit only — that means no pitching a tent along the trailhead. Bring plenty of water with you, or a way to properly treat the water from the streams! Once you reach the designated camping sites, there will be no clean drinking water or picnic tables. There are no trash cans, either, so be prepared to haul out everything you bring in. There are, however, composting toilets available at Hanakapi’ai, Hanakoa, and Kalalau.
The rates for camping are $15 per person per night for Hawaii Residents and $20 per person per night for non-residents, with a maximum length of stay of five consecutive nights along the Kalalau Trail, one night in Hanakoa Valley and three nights at Miloli’i. Permits can be obtained online via the State of Hawaii Department of Land & Natural Resources website.
The Kalalau trailhead and the Na Pali Coast State Park begins at Haena State Park, at the end of Kuhio Highway (Route 56) on Kauai’s north shore. It is about 41 miles from Lihue Airport and will take roughly 1.5 hours to drive. The most economical and convenient way to get there is to rent a car, with the additional bonus of stopping by some other locations and sights along the way. The public bus will take you as far as Hanalei, and it is possible to catch a cab from there to the trailhead (though keep in mind the bus may not have room for the amount of camping and hiking gear required for the journey).
When to Visit
Throughout the year temperatures at Na Pali rarely drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius). The greatest draws of the summer months are much calmer waters and steady trade winds with slightly lower chances of showers. The winter months are more difficult to predict when it comes to weather. Rain is more frequent and relentless during the night and early morning, and occasional widespread storms can cause flash flooding.
In June visitors will enjoy almost three extra hours of daylight, compared to December when the sun sets earlier.
Speaking of sun, the sun in Hawaii has a higher ultraviolet index than other parts of the country — so don’t forget sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses even if it appears cloudy. UV rays can more than double in the summer compared to the winter.
What to See Nearby
Ke’e Beach: Ke’e Beach right at the trailhead of Kalalau is one of the best spots for snorkeling on the island. There are shallow spots with a protected reef making it much safer for swimmers than other beaches in the area, especially in the summer. There are restrooms, showers and lifeguards there as well — but don’t forget to get their early as the parking is shared with the hiking trail.
Tunnels Beach: Just a few miles north from Na Pali, Tunnels Beach is known for its world-class snorkeling and scuba diving. Behind the sandy beach, a tropical jungle background makes it one of the most unique spots on the island.
Hanalei Town: Charming and full of history, Hanalei is the closest major town to Na Pali Coast State Park. Because of this, most of the charters for the wide range of Na Pali tours leave from Hanalei Bay.