Kauai and the Na Pali Coast: Wow! Crazy! Impossible!

To read my Kauai journal from the beginning, click here

Parking at Ha’ena State Park was a breeze, with none of the chaos and congestion (not to mention $35 parking ticket) we’d encountered last time we were here, when we went snorkeling. We parked right at the edge of Ke’e Beach, at the Kalalau Trailhead.

Scary-looking signs greeted us: “Danger! Falling Rocks!” “Warning! Stream Crossings!” “Alert! Narrow Trail!”


“Look Out!”

We took a deep breath, bravely tightened our daypack straps, and started up the dangerous-sounding trail.


Up rocky steps. Up winding switchbacks. Up through the jungle. Up past the tops of trees. Up up up, until, at the ½-mile marker, we were rewarded with a stunning view of Ke’e Beach below: White-sanded, coconut-fringed, with sparkling turquoise blue water and the dark purple reef beyond.


And that’s pretty much how the day went: Wow.

Crazy, that’s another word I kept spluttering. And impossible. I used them to describe the crazy impossible vibrant colors of the ocean, and the crazy impossible breathtaking views of the Na Pali coastline, and the crazy impossible snaking trail, cutting across those crazy impossible narrow ridges, and the crazy impossible tangled jungle around us.

Wow! Crazy! Impossible!

Na Pali Coast cliffs

The Na Pali coast cliffs, like plates stacked in a dish drainer, viewed edge-on

We’d seen the Kalalau Trail twisting its way across the Na Pali fluted ridges (those crazy impossible razor-thin columns, like plates stacked in a dish drainer and viewed edge-on) from the helicopter. Virtually perpendicular, feet in the water (waves crashing and frothing below), heads in the sky – we’d seen the thin red Kalalau Trail cutting horizontally across them, impossibly narrow, zigzagging in and out, following each ridge’s crazy contour.

From the air, it looked like you’d have to inch along the trail, back flat against the vertical mountainside, toes likely hanging over the precipice with the crashing waves below, edging carefully along– one wrong step and you’d slide right off. Heaven forbid you meet anyone coming the other direction! Both parties would be clinging to the mountain-side of the trail. How could anyone pass anyone else? Someone would surely go over the edge. You can’t even turn around, because your daypack could knock someone (or yourself!) right off the cliff.

In fact, I wasn’t sure how the trail existed at all– it seemed like the whole thing should just slide down, slough off the mountainside. Those fluted ridges were too vertical to support any trail across them, never mind a trail wide enough for a person. Forget two people!

No wonder there were all those Danger! Careful! Look Out! signs.

It was crazy! Impossible!

And yet, here it was– comfortably wider than expected, roomy enough for two hikers to walk side by side, although the mountain side certainly went straight up next to one person, and the ocean side dropped straight down beside the other.

Watch. Your. Step.

We snaked along, sometimes on the inner side the ridge, where we might cross a small stream or rivulet, riotous jungle all around, and sometimes on the outer edge of the ridge, the perfectly blue Pacific Ocean sweeping off to our right, with the dazzling Na Pali columns marching away in front of us.

Crazy! Impossible!

Just: Wow.

Kalalau Trail and Na Pali Coast, Kauai

One of the inner ridges of the Kalalau Trail, with riotous jungle all around


On one of the outer ridges of the Kalalau Trail, with the Pacific Ocean sweeping off to our right, and the Na Pali cliffs marching away in the distance

We went slowly, as always, savoring the views, taking pictures, having fun. As we neared Hanakapi’ai Stream, two miles in, we descended steeply down, including down a muddy rocky section. Evidently it was slippery too, because people were picking their way oh-so-slowly, assisting each other, balancing with a hand on a rock, warily finding their footing. But my hiking boots, and Martin’s new hiking shoes, were sure-footed and easily gripped the muddy rocks. We waited patiently while people in front of us navigated their way down a step or two, and then we hopped confidently down, where we waited for them again.

We arrived at Hanakapi’ai Stream, with Hanakapi’ai Beach on the far side. It was a good-sized stream, rushing briskly around jumbled rocks and boulders, and everyone was making their way through it very cautiously.

A woman had died crossing this very stream only a day or two after our arrival here in Kauai. Kauai had been battered by heavy rains, a disaster area had been declared, roads were flooded, landslides had occurred. Rivers, streams and waterfalls were all grossly swollen. She had been attempting, unwisely, to cross this stream to reach the beach on the far side. The stream must have been raging a week ago. She apparently slipped, fell into the frothing water, and was swept instantly out to sea. Such a tragedy.

The stream was no longer dangerous, but most people were removing their shoes and wading ponderously through the rushing water, with walking sticks for balance and lots of helping hands from companions. But these were the same people who had inched their way laboriously down that slippery (was it even slippery? I guess it was slippery; they certainly acted like it was slippery) section.

Martin and I are pros. We don’t need no sissy pick-your-way-carefully stuff. Our boots stick. We’re sure-footed! We’re tough! How many streams have we effortlessly rock-hopped across? Countless! So we confidently (cockily) started rock-hopping across the stream. People were surely stopping midway to gawk, elbowing their companions, pointing and exclaiming, staring enviously at us: Look at those two young mountain goats, look how they just leap from rock to rock! How do they do it? So nimble, so agile! The breathtaking confidence, the exquisite balance, the unparalleled strength,  the graceful fluidity of their movements, just look at those two! – and then Martin stepped on a tippy rock, which promptly dumped him knee-high into the stream.

I hate it when that happens.

That’ll teach us to be arrogant. I avoided that rock and arrived, humble and dry-footed, on the far side. I hope no one was watching.

We sat briefly on black lava boulders in the shade of a hala tree, looking out onto the rocky beach and blue ocean, then decided to continue up the trail towards Hanakapi’ai Falls, another two miles up.

We never really expected to go the whole way. Eight miles round-trip of up-and-down terrain, with a one-hour drive on either side – it didn’t add up to a leisurely hike or an unhurried day, one that could be relished and appreciated. So we decided to just hike as far as we wanted, and turn around when we were ready.

We’d gone perhaps a mile past the beach when it ceased to be fun for me. It was very jungly, which was pretty, but also very mosquito-y. I was hot and sticky. I was a giant flashing neon sign to mosquitoes for miles around: “Good eatin’ here!”

I was utterly mobbed.

I kept swatting my legs, swatting my shoulders, swatting my face. Sometimes I’d kill three mosquitoes at once. They came at me incessantly. I flailed my arms to keep the hordes of mosquitoes at bay. Martin glimpsed an Erckel’s Francolin (a grouse-like bird) and I wanted to give him all the time in the world to view it, track it, photograph it, thrill over it – but I was in a black cloud of whining mosquitoes. I needed to keep moving or I’d literally be eaten alive.

We crossed Hanakapi’ai Stream again (much smaller up here), but after only a few steps Martin suddenly turned around, peered at me shrewdly, and announced, “You’re not having fun anymore.”

I danced about, smacking my shoulders, slapping my legs, beating the air, whipping my head, besieged by a thousand mosquitoes, feeling hot and sticky and uncomfortable, and bleated at him, “You’re right.”

Martin suggested we return to the cool stream, put our feet in the water, and have lunch.

Do I even need to say it?

Best! Husband! Ever!


The most perfect little pool, Hanakapi’ai Stream

We rock-hopped downstream and found the most perfect little pool, with a rushing waterfall and a couple of flat friendly rocks, and plopped ourselves down. I promptly stripped off my boots and shirt, and went in. We both splashed about in that pool of cold clear gushing water. We sat on a rock right under the waterfall and enjoyed shoulder-and-back massages. We frolicked in paradise.

Clean and refreshed, we climbed out and ate our thick sandwiches on a sunny rock, unmolested by a single mosquito. My neon sign had mercifully been turned off. I lay back on the warm stone, heaved a sigh of relief, and basked in the sun.

Kind of like a Monk seal.

That is what’s called a perfect afternoon.

We wanted to be back at Ke’e Beach for sunset. As we returned, the clouds moved in and we got a spattering of rain. At our main stream crossing, we rock-hopped across without mishaps or wet feet, and started up the trail. The sun came out – hot! – and then it rained on us – gee! cold!– and then the sun came out again. Back and forth, sun and rain, with some spectacular rainbows in-between.

At one point, someone behind us yelled, “Gecko!” and someone ahead of us yelled, “Rainbow!”

Geckos behind us! Rainbow ahead! Which one to see first?

Chaos and pandemonium ensued, as Martin and I ran up and down the narrow trail, bumping into each other, pushing each other aside, shielding cameras from the rain, yelling and pointing, turning this way and that, both wanting to be in two places at once. I ended up with the gecko. Martin ended up with the rainbow.

The gecko was cute, but the rainbow was a phenomenal double rainbow arcing over the whole Na Pali coast.

Wow! Crazy! Impossible!

We made it back to Ke’e Beach in time for sunset pictures. As we strolled down the beach, we saw two enormous sea turtles sitting past the lagoon on the purple reef.

Wow! An emphatic and spluttered wow!

I walked backwards the rest of the way down the beach, keeping my eyes firmly on those two turtles, until Martin settled on a photo site. Then I plunked myself down, put my binoculars up, and stared at those turtles for an hour while Martin took glorious photos of the Na Pali cliffs and flaming clouds, and (spinning around behind him) more rainbows, as well as a shorebird aptly named the Wandering Tattler, literally wandering around on the glistening cloud-tinted sand.

One of the sea turtles decided he’d go back to sea, and heaved himself along the reef until– splash!– into the ocean he went. The other turtle just sat there. I had a superb view of him.

Well, actually, he was just a brown lump.

I couldn’t see his head or flippers or anything that even remotely identified him as a turtle as opposed to a rock. But I’d seen him clearly when we first entered the beach, so I knew that the brown lump out there was a turtle.

Behind him, in the distance, I could see waves crashing up against the rocky cliffs of the Na Pali coast. The breakers would explode upward against the rocks and freeze for an instant in crazy impossible shapes, all splash and spray, in a crazy impossible shimmering sea green.

I focused back and forth with my binoculars: Turtle! Waves! Turtle! Waves!


Na Pali Coast

Just another Kauai sunset

At one point, Martin exclaimed, “Carol! Are you seeing this gorgeous sunset?” and I looked over to admire the sun sinking behind thick puffy clouds, all aglow, the color of luminous apricots, edges shining brilliant golden. Oh wow! Pretty! And I turned back to the turtle.

Martin started to laugh. “It’s just a lump!” he hooted. “It’s just sitting there, waaay out there, not even moving! What’s to watch for so long?”

Well… that round lump out there is a living breathing sea turtle. Call me crazy! I can’t take my eyes off it.

And so the light faded; the turtle became obscured in darkness, the flaming sky turned black. We blinked and looked around, saw each other, and realized we were the last ones on the beach. Hand in hand, we walked back to the Jeep.

The Na Pali coast, with its fluted ridges and crashing waves; the Kalalau Trail, with its spectacular views and outrageous colors; Ke’e Beach, with its majestic sea turtles and fiery sunsets; the entire day here, indeed, this whole magical Kauai vacation, overflowing with awe and wonder and love:

Wow. Crazy. Impossible.

4 Comments Kauai and the Na Pali Coast: Wow! Crazy! Impossible!

  1. Karen Gake

    Wow is right…your writing is so descriptive I feel as if I am right there! Makes me want to go back, soon! 🙂

    1. Carol

      I envy you guys!!! Where will you be staying? Unfortunately, I won’t be posting much more about Kauai… the vacation was ending… my next post will be the last, “Going Home.” I guess I just need to go back for more material!! 🙂


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