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Na Pali Coast Trail

A few years ago, I sat down and created a 100-item bucket list for myself. The first two items I put on that list were the Anapurna Trek in Nepal and the Na Pali Coast trail on the island of Kauai. Although I have yet to do the former, I did have the privilege of completing the Na Pali Coast a little over a year ago. The total trail is a 22-mile round trip hike along the northern coast of the island of Kauai within the Hawaii island chain. While it can be done over two days if you choose to camp within the Na Pali valley for a night, that would have required a permit which I did not have so I had to complete the full hike within one day (or as much as I could).

The full hike takes you through a series of peaks and valleys that make up the island’s northern coast. You are greeted by towering mountains filled with rain forest on one side and the pristine blue water of the Pacific Ocean on the other side. There is a reason this hike is often ranked among the best in the world and why I had included it so high on my own bucket list. The environment is simply stunning along the trail’s entire 22-mile length. Due to the state’s permit system, there is a limited amount of people that can access this trail daily, so it is very easy to hike for hours without seeing another person in sight. For anyone who wants to take on this challenge, obtaining a permit will take planning very far ahead of schedule. Due to the hikes popularity and limited permits given out on any given the day, these permits sellout within minutes (literally) of when they become available. A permit must be obtained online 30 days prior to when you plan on getting on the trail. From personal experience, after attempting to obtain a permit for 2 straight days with no success, I resorted to sitting at my computer on the daily reset time and continually hitting the refresh button until I saw the permits open for sale and quickly secured one (they were sold out in the 2 minutes it took me to finalize my permit acquisition). Luckily, the effort was well worth the trouble.

During my stay in Kauai, I stayed in a town called Princeville on the island’s northern coast. This town was a 30-minute drive from the hike’s trailhead. Given the length of the hike, I knew I had to get an early start. I woke up while it was still dark out and began the drive to the trailhead. I got there shortly before sunrise and was able to enjoy a few peaceful minutes sitting on the beach prior to my hike, watching a rainbow form on the horizon as the sun was beginning to finally come up. As this first light was beginning to dawn, I got on the trail and began this adventure. The first two miles of this trail are very well maintained and take place on densely packed earth and a very well-marked trail. The views are phenomenal from the very start. Jungles encompass the left-hand portion of this trail and rise into the cloud covered mountains while the crystal-clear blue water of the Pacific Ocean extend towards on the horizon on the right side of the trail. A variety of rain forest vegetation line the trail itself ranging from ferns to huge flowers to tiny orchids. After two hours of hiking, you come across Hanakapi’ai Beach. This is a gorgeous stretch of white sand beach that many tourists use as their destination on this trail. This also marks the furthest you can hike without needing a permit. For those who do not want to attempt the full 22 Na Pali Coast Trail, a half day hike to this beach or the nearby Hanakapi’ai Falls is a great half day hike that provides excellent swimming opportunities at either the waterfall or the beach.

Once you go past this beach, the trail remains well marked for a time, but it does develop a more rugged quality. Although it isn’t difficult to stay on the trail, there are certain parts where I personally had to back track to find the primary trail again, so some vigilance is required. The trail goes up and down through a series of valleys. Although there are frequent climbs in elevation required, the gradual terrain as you circumvent the valleys makes these gains reasonably accessible. There are several portions of the trail that do post a potential hazard. The best example of this is a portion known as the Nightcrawler Wall. While most of the trail is located on packed dirt, the Nightcrawler Wall is traversed along the side of a cliff overlooking the ocean. The walking space is manageable but limited so care should be taken when traversing this obstacle. There is a very steep incline in the cliff right near the walkway with a large drop-off into the ocean. Falling off the trail in this section would pose a very real life-threatening scenario.

A frequent highlight of this trail is reaching the outer most points of each of the valleys you are traversing. These are portions of the valleys that stick out into the ocean before the trail swings back inwards into the valley. These points allow you to see down the entire Na Pali coastline and provide incredible views of the series of valleys extending out into the ocean. By mid afternoon I was looking down into Kalalau valley, the final valley of this trail. This meant that I had hiked a little less than 10 miles for the day so far. As I was looking down at the beach that was located at the mouth of this valley, I was very tempted to hike the final mile and go for a swim to celebrate. However, I had to make the choice to turn around and hike back the way I came to ensure I would still have enough sunlight left to at least make it to the well-maintained portion of the trail. I enjoyed a quick lunch of trail mix while enjoying looking out over the Pacific Ocean before beginning the hike back the way I came; the 10-mile trek back to the trailhead.

I arrived at Hanakapi’ai beach just as the sun was setting. I had hiked 18 miles in the day by this point so decided to take a quick break on the beach long enough to enjoy a light dinner and watch the sun set into the Pacific Ocean. The light was quickly fading, and I still had 2 miles left to hike so I knew I couldn’t enjoy the view for too long. As soon as the sun was below the horizon, I began the final leg of the hike. Dusk was still providing enough light to see for the time being. Although I did lose light entirely, this luckily occurred in the final ½ mile of the trail. This portion of the trail was very well maintained so was easy to navigate with my flashlight. This does demonstrate the importance of tracking time on hikes such as these. Even though, I was able to navigate the final portion of the trail by flashlight, this would have been much more difficult to accomplish on earlier parts of the trail that were less maintained. I do not think my story would have had a happy ending if I was forced to navigate the Nightcrawler Wall in the dark.

By the time I had arrived back at my car, it was pitch black. Since this portion of the island has a very low population, there was no light pollution at all. The only source of light other than my flashlight were the stars above. When all was said and done, I had hiked 20 miles that day. Although I was not able to finish the entire trail, I was very proud of my accomplishment and excited to cross this item off my bucket list. I began the drive back to my hotel for a well-deserved meal and rest. There were more adventures awaiting me over the next few weeks that I spent in Hawaii, including kayaking the entire northern coast that I had just finished hiking. But that is a story for another day…

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