Hiking Hanakapi’ai; the Jurassic trek

I’m sure many people’s immediate vision when they think of Hawai’i probably isn’t hiking. Beaches, most likely. Hula and grass skirts, possibly. Or Mai Tais if you’re thinking along the same lines as me. Certainly when I first booked the flights for Kauai, the western most Hawaiian island, hiking wasn’t first on my list of things to do. But it turned out to be be one of the first, and one of the most exhilarating things we did do during our stay, and something I’d do again in a heartbeat. Albeit, with more water.

Na Pali Coastline

Na Pali Coast

If you’ve seen Jurassic Park, you’ll have seen the Na Pali Coast on Kauai. It’s primitive, untouched and stunningly beautiful. The island’s north western shore is made up of breathtaking forested cliffs that plummet down to the Pacific, and make up some of the most challenging hiking this side of the Rockies. One particular hiking trail, the Na Pali Coast trail is 17 miles long (one way) and many take a couple of days to complete it. However, the good thing is that there are some smaller, shorter, and no less rewarding hikes for the slightly less fit among us.

However, when I say less fit, I mean only slightly less fit – as I found out, you should still be at least able to haul yourself over rocks, tree roots and jump across rivers. Or perhaps fall in them. In the Hawaiian heat. We’ll come to that.

Hanakapi’ai: the road to the falls

The Hanakapi’ai trail is 4 miles one way, so was much more suited to my perceived level of fitness than the crazy coastal hike. The trail starts at “the end of the road” – quite literally, the island’s main road comes to a halt at Ke’e Beach, where the trail starts. It’s also the start of the Na Pali trail, so at least you get to start with some of the other crazy hikers and feel like you’re a bit hardcore.

The best time to start is early in the morning. We started at 7am – partly because we were jet-lagged and waking up at stupid o’clock anyway, but also because we figured starting in the midday heat would be a bad thing. The trail is certainly quieter, with very few people on it at that time. However, given the anticipated round trip time is 5-6 hours or so, the astute among you will realise this mean you’ll likely be hiking back at midday anyway. Either way, you’ll be in heat, which brings me on to my next point.

Bring lots of water. Lots. And bring some more.

We had 2 litres between us. It wasn’t enough. We probably should have had double that. As it was cool when we started, we didn’t really think it would be an issue, but at 1pm when you’re down to your last mouthful, with a mile of uphill rock trail before you, it gets a bit hairy. Bring more than you think you’ll need – there are no shops by the trail side.

Two miles in

The trail starts quite steeply, and hugs the beautiful coast for a couple of miles. You’ll travel no faster than two miles an hour (down to one an hour later on the inland part) as the first half mile is steep and rocky. After a while it evens out but regardless, you’re walking along some beautiful unspoiled coastline, so you forget about the exertion and focus on the view.

Beach view from the trail

Twin peaks

The trail

Hanakapi’ai Beach

After an hour or so, and crossing a rocky stream, you reach a beach. It’s idyllic but the warnings signs posted tell you to resist the temptation to jump in – the currents drag a surprising number out to sea, apparently (something deceptively common along Kauai’s north shore). There’s apparently (so the guide book told me) a toilet here, so I had some hopes of a little fella selling water, or even ice cream, and a nice clean lavatory shack. Alas, don’t get your hopes up. Travellers amongst you will be familiar with drop toilets in many other countries – now I can say I’ve been to one in the USA.

We took a while to rest at the beach, hang out with some domestic looking cats (while pondering how the hell they got there), checked out the cool looking trees, then continued in to the second half of the hike – inland to the falls.

Cool looking tree roots

Inland Trail

The trail starts getting more challenging at this point. You’re two miles in, and if you decide to continue, you’re committing to eight. We trekked past some massive bamboo forests, on which travellers have carved their names, initials and dates – a kind of wall of traveller’s graffiti. It made me smile when we added our own, I felt like I was part of a community, only a select few people get to do this, and I was one of them.

Bamboo - it's big

Continuing on, we forded streams (some more successfully than others) climbed rocks, over tree roots and further into the island. Eventually, as the heat built up, we finally got the first glimpse of our destination – Hanakapi’ai Falls – in the distance.

Our distant goal

The trail seems to end abruptly, and with the falls within hearing range, but if you search around, you’ll find the continuation, over some fairly wet a treacherous ground (did I mention that decent shoes are an absolute must?). Then suddenly, the area opens up to a stunning scene – a high waterfall tumbling down a sheer inland cliff face into an icy pool of crystal clear water.

IMG 0263

Photos don’t really do it justice. Neither do they do justice to how cold the water really is. Taking off my boots and dangling achey feet into it was great to an extent but I drew the line at jumping in – maybe if it was hotter, then I would have. And maybe if we’d remembered the towel. But on reflection, I kind of regret that. After all, how many times to you get to go swimming under a 200ft waterfall in Hawaii??

We hung around for about half an hour, soaking up the scenery, eating our picnic, and generally basking. It’s quite stunning.

But then, you have to head back.


The reverse trail is considerably harder. Not because it’s necessarily steeper; mainly because it’s bloody hot. Reaching the beach again is a relief, although up to that point you’ve mainly been in the shade. The last part, back along the coast is mainly out in the sun. That midday sun I mentioned. This is when you’ll realise you need all that water. And that most of the last 2 miles is uphill. Ouch. Take your time, keep hydrated and remember to enjoy the scenery. And maybe take solace in all of the idiots that you’ll now find hiking in the opposite direction, in appropriate footwear, with no water bottles to hand, in 37 degree heat, and realise you made a good decision to start early.

On reaching the start of the trail again at lunchtime, you’ve got gorgeous Ke’e Beach right there, complete with toilets and drinking fountains, and a lovely fresh sea to cool off in.

All in all the Hike to Hanakapi’ai Falls is a challenging, stunning hike, with a great payoff. And you’ll definitely sleep well afterwards.

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