We recently took our fourth trip to Hawai’i — we’ve been to Oahu, Maui, and now for the second time, Kauai. The Garden Isle is the Hawai’i of my dreams, with pristine sandy beaches, waterfalls galore and emerald green cliffs that tower over the sparkling blue waters of Kauai’s north shore. It’s this sixteen-mile stretch of mountainous coastline called the Na Pali Coast that’s perhaps the most magical, and also the most difficult to access. You’ll have to get up into the air, out on a boat, or log some miles on the hiking trails to get the best views of this extraordinary and rugged coastline.
Schedule your trip to see the Na Pali Coast early on in your trip, because no doubt you’ll be wanting to go back for more. By sea, by air or by land, here are seven ways to explore Kauai’s Na Pali Coast.
The Na Pali Coast by Sea
Na Pali Coast boat tours range from 3 to 6 hours, so this is the best option if you want to get a good long look at the entire coastline. These boat tours are pretty popular and do book up, so reserve your spot early.
Also, you’re going to be out in direct sunlight for a big chunk of the day, so don’t forget to reapply your sunscreen – several times. And make sure it’s a reef safe sunscreen since you’ll most likely be going in for a dip!
1 By Zodiac Boat with Kauai Sea Rider Adventures
Hold onto the ropes, because this boat ride is a high-speed adventure! We hopped aboard a zodiac boat, a small inflatable watercraft, with Kauai Sea Rider Adventures for their Na Pali Coast Eco Adventure. This tour leaves from Kauai’s west side and goes all the way down the Na Pali coast before doubling back. That means you get to take in all the incredible views twice.
We left the boat harbor past Waimea Town a bit after 8 am and sped our way down the west coast. We took some time to drift through a huge pod of spinner dolphins in front of Polihale beach before reaching the Na Pali coastline. The views from out on the water are simply incredible. Along the way, our captain, Chris, shared some interesting history about the native Hawaiian settlements on Na Pali’s beaches, told us the names of the impressive peaks, and pointed out ancient paths carved into the vertical rocks.
On the zodiac, we could maneuver in and out of sea caves and even floated through a few waterfalls that dropped straight into the ocean. After reaching Ke’e Beach where the Kalalau trail starts and the Na Pali coast ends, Captain Chris turned the boat around to head back.
When we were about two-thirds of the way back, we stopped for an hour to have lunch and snorkel. I would book this tour for the epic views, not necessarily the snorkeling, though I did see a Honu (Hawaiian green sea turtle). Plus, after most of the day in the hot sun, it was refreshing to dive in and cool off.
I was impressed that we got to see the entire coastline and thought the crew did a fantastic job of making sure everyone was safe and having fun. The boat is small and gets rocked by the waves, so if you’re prone to seasickness like me, take some non-drowsy Dramamine a bit before you board.
We took this tour as a couple as it probably would’ve been a bit too adventurous for our two-year-old, but there was a family on our boat with a five-year-old and he did great. He sat sandwiched between his parents in the middle and held on tight, just like everyone else.
Click here to book the Na Pali Coast Eco Adventure with Kauai Sea Rider Adventures which runs May through September. If you’re planning a trip for spring or winter, check out their whale watching tours available December through April.
2 By Catamaran
While a zodiac tour is downright fun, you may be looking for something a bit smoother sailing or better suited for photography. If so, book a Na Pali Coast snorkel tour or sunset sail on a Catamaran. You won’t get as up close and personal or be able to venture into the sea caves, but you’ll be on a larger, steadier craft that will make it easier to capture some great photos. The size of the catamaran will depend on the company you book with – some are smaller and more intimate, while some carry a crowd and even have an open bar.
3 By Kayak
Paddling the Na Pali Coast on a kayak is by far the most strenuous way to explore the coast, but makes for an epic adventure. Na Pali Coast kayak tours are usually one-way journeys that usually leave from the north shore near Ha’ena beach where you’ll make your way across the Na Pali Coast to Polihale beach, taking advantage of the trade winds that blow across Kauai from the northeast.
However, in April 2018, there was a huge storm that caused massive flooding and damage on Kauai’s north shore, making it so these kayak excursions could no longer launch from this part of the island. As of the writing of this article, the roads to Ha’ena beach are still closed. Until this area reopens, most kayak tours are making a roundtrip journey starting and ending at Polihale beach, with a stop at Miloli’i.
The Na Pali Coast by Air
When we took our first trip to Kauai in 2014, personal-use drones hadn’t really become a thing, so aerial photos were pretty novel as you had to physically get up into the air to get that bird’s eye view. Even if you’ve seen some photos of Kauai from above, there’s nothing like actually seeing it yourself.
4 By Helicopter
If there’s anywhere in the world that I’d splurge for a helicopter tour, it would be Kauai. I’ll caveat this by saying that our Kauai helicopter tour is the only helicopter I’ve been in, but it was totally worth it. I’m usually the one gunning for the window seat on the airplane so I can keep my face glued to the glass in case any cool mountains or coastline come into view, but Kauai’s topography is beyond compare. And, as much of Kauai is inaccessible by land, it’s the only way you’re going to get a chance to see it.
Not only do you get the best view possible of the towering cliffs of the Na Pali Coast (and Nā Pali literally means “the cliffs” in Hawaiian by the way), but you also circle above Waimea Canyon (dubbed Hawaii’s Grand Canyon), Hanapepe Valley and Hanalei Valley. Soaring into the center of Mt. Waialeale, the heart of an ancient volcano was the most amazing part of the whole experience. We were dwarfed by the 5,000-foot rock walls covered in green foliage and gushing with waterfalls. This place is dubbed the wettest spot on earth, so we felt lucky that it wasn’t pounding rain so our helicopter could make it safely through.
These Kauai helicopter tours may cost more than your flight to the island, so be prepared to soak it all in. We used Blue Hawaiian Helicopters and had a wonderful experience, though I would be tempted to spring the extra money for a doors-off tour if we ever go again. With windows, you get some glare and reflection in your photos depending on the angles and the weather.
5 By plane
If you want to get up in the air but can’t quite stomach the cost of $250 per person, plane tours are a great way to view Kauai’s epic scenery. Wings Over Kauai offers flights on Cessnas and AirVans starting at $135 per person. The AirVan is a great option if you’re traveling with kids 3 and under as they don’t charge for them on this type of flight.
The Na Pali Coast by Land
While exploring the Na Pali coast by sea is tons of fun and by air it’s pretty epic, spending some time on the trails means you get to enjoy the view at your own pace.
6 Kalalua Trail
The Kalalau trail is often touted as one of the most beautiful hikes in the world. With no permit required to hike the first two miles of this trail along the Na Pali Coast, it’s one of the most popular hikes in all of Hawaii. The path starts at Ke’e Beach and hugs the coast until you reach Hanakapiai stream and beach. The trail can be muddy in spots, but it’s a fairly easy trail with views of the unbelievably blue water and impressive cliffs in the distance.
As previously mentioned above, Kauai experienced significant damage from rains and flooding in April, and this trail is still closed as of this writing. It is expected to reopen in November 2018, but check Hawaii’s state park website for up-to-date information.
The full Kalalau trail is eleven miles one-way, ending at Kalalau Beach. To continue on this more treacherous portion of the journey, you’ll need an overnight camping permit. No day use permits are issued, so you’ll need an overnight camping permit if you want to hike any portion of the trail past Hanakapiai beach. Permits cost $20 per person per night ($15 for state residents) and can be purchased here once the trail reopens.
For the summer months, these permits are available to purchase a year in advance, and often completely sell out. The trail between Hanakapiai beach and Kalalau Beach rises up and over narrow ridges, down through five valleys, across streams, and along the infamous Crawlers Ledge. This portion of the trail is what easily puts this hike in the ranking for one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. This video will show you what you’re in for, with a trail only a few inches wide and nothing between you and the over 100-foot drop to the rocky shores below.
7 Kalepa Ridge Trail
The Kalepa Ridge Trail starts in Kōkeʻe State Park, which you’ll access by driving through Waimea Canyon and parking at the Kalalau Lookout. Once you’re at the lookout, access to the trailhead is through a small gate to the left of the lookout when you’re facing the Kalalau Valley.
We always like to get an early start on the trails, but if you want to see the views, you really afford to hit the snooze button for this one. On our hike out, the sun made the ocean look impossibly blue and Na Pali’s craggy peaks bright green. By the time we were heading back, the fog was rolling through and soon we were completely socked in. If we hadn’t started earlier, the only thing we would’ve seen was white mist.
If you’re going to do any hike in Kauai, I’d do this one, especially with the current closure of the Kalalau trail. This hike along the Kalepa Ridge is one of the best vantage points of the Na Pali Coast, and since you’re on your own clock (and not a 50-minute helicopter ride), you can take the time to soak it all in.
Just a note, this isn’t an official hiking trail – it’s a hunter access route. We did see a few other hikers including a small group on a guided hike, so this is still a commonly used path. The trail can be very narrow in spots with huge drop-offs, so I would be extra cautious with bringing young children. And this path would be a whole different ball game under wet conditions – it would quickly turn into a slippery mudslide, and in quite a few spots, you really can’t afford to lose your footing. Just be aware of the weather conditions and stay safe.