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Paddling Kauai's Napali Coast: Haena Beach to Polihale Beach

There are several ways to see the famed Napali Coast of Kauai ~ having both hiked to Kalalau and now paddled the entire roadless length of this spectacular coast I can say for sure that logistical efforts of setting up the paddle are more than worthwhile.

By: Thomas Keefer + Save to a List

In an attempt to take in every last moment of a backpacking trip along Napali Coast, I laid down my pack amongst the boulders fronting Hanakapiai Beach for a swim. The furthest you can go without a permit, this beach is protected by a 2 mile walk along the Kalalau trail that climbs nearly 1000ft and which gives glimpses down the jaw dropping scenery of Kauai's Napali Coast. Walking out of the shade of the palms onto the sun drenched beach, I was surprised to see a familiar face from the kite beach in Kailua. Walking over to say hello, I realized that of this group of 5, who had landed their kayaks to adjust some loose gear, I knew 4 of them - kiters, runners and a classmate from the Naval Academy! Both amazed and overwhelmingly envious of the adventure they were setting out on, I asked for as many details as I could, then helped them cast off into pounding shore break. Walking back up the beach to complete the final 2 miles of the Kalalau trail that would close out this backpacking adventure, I vowed to someday come back and make the epic paddle from Hanalei Bay to Polihale Beach - a traverse of the remote, roadless Northwest side of the island.

Chuan and Carl working out our ride from Polihale back to Hanalei

With our move back to California delayed two months, there was an opportunity to try to pull this trip together. Chuan quickly agreed to go along and we secured some permits and the time off from work. Guides are not my thing but if you would like to do it without the aid (and expense) of a guide service, it quickly becomes apparent that logistics, more than the actual paddle, is the biggest challenge of this adventure . There are two main issues to overcome - the first is getting access to a kayak and the second is getting it back to town from Polihale Beach where the take out is at the end of a 5 mile section of rough, unmaintained dirt road. Sorting out these details, for me, are huge part of the fun on these adventures and with a little help from craigs list and an online Kalalau forum, we found access to a perfect tandem kayak and a promise of a pick up on the far end.

The Kauai bus delivered us to Hanalei from the airport and we met up with our driver, Carl. Carl was another Cali transplant who had moved to Kauai to escape the craziness of the mainland - a very common theme among the folks you meet riding the bus. Once we had traded a few beers for a safe place to store our extra gear at a local surf shop, we were free to satisfy a mutual burrito craving, spend time diving off Hanalei Pier, relax in the shade and enjoy a few mai tai's at Tahiti Nui.

Hanalei Town

As the sun began to set, we met up with Don, the owner of the kayak, for a trip along the final few miles to Haena Beach where would spend the first night and launch from in the morning. Don was a wealth of information on a wide range of issues including where to eat in town, the best spots along the route and also some tips on what to do from Milolii Beach. Camping at Haena, another of his recommendations, we were very close to the border of the old hippie nirvana - Taylor Camp. Heana is a very casual, low key spot and we were able to pitch our tent right on the beach and then explore the massive 'dry cave' prior to drifting off to sleep.

We woke up early to a passing squall and once the mandatory morning brew was complete, readied the boat for launch. A friendly free spirit from Alaska told us how she had been piecing together a living in Kauai for the past few years. House sitting, odd jobs and some painting apparently allowed her to enjoy her passion of dancing on the beach and enjoy the slow pace of Kauai. She said that she had always dreamed of Kalalau but not yet made the journey... some day..

Our Haena Beach campsite just after the morning squall had passed

The squall had left the seas slightly churned so we talked through righting the boat should we wind up in the drink - time well spent it would turn out. On kayaks there is no reason to skimp on 'grinds' so the cooler was loaded down with amazing dinners, more snacks than we could ever eat and what we thought would be enough bourbon. The only downside being that the extra weight can make the kayak more tippy.

Setting off from Haena Beach toward Hanakapei beach with some lingering sqaull clouds (photo credit: Chuan Napolitano)

The hike from the trailhead near Ke'e beach to Hanakapei Beach is only two miles but it takes most almost as many hours; on a kayak with 15 knots of breeze pushing you along connecting those beaches goes by very quickly. With Hanakapei oddly deserted, we decided to try landing the boat in the waist high surf, knowing that our landing later in the morning at Kalalau would likely be more exciting. We quickly developed a great process - paddle hard on the back of a swell until close and then ride the next wave in before both jumping out and quickly pulling the boat up the steep beach profile that is the standard form along the Northern coast of Kauai.

An atypically deserted Hanakepei Beach

Swimming in Hanalei Bay the previous day, we had developed a rough plan of what we would try to accomplish on the first day. There were at least two sea caves that we planned to explore, one of which is the second longest on the planet, and then land at Kalalau early enough to explore the the valley; possibly in hopes of finding a 400ft waterfall deep within I'd heard of on my first trip. The first cave, Ho'olulu cave, opened from the back of a small bay that provided a lee from the now building swell. Paddling deep inside, we found ourselves in complete blackness.

The entrance to Ho'olulu cave from the large, open bay in front (Photo Credit: Chuan Napolitano)

We eyed the much more narrow entrance to Waiʻahuʻakua cave and the signature waterfall cascading through a small hole in the ceiling and decided that it would be a pretty committing decision to paddle in. The seas were very mixed up in the small cove in front of the first of the two entrances so we paddled on, pretty disappointed. Passing the second entrance, the sun burned through the thick blanket of clouds and in unison said we were heading back to give it a go. Neither of us wanted to leave with any regrets and timing the swell a furious paddle gave way to many laughs and high fives and we drifted past the cascading falls. The more common name for this cave is 'double door' becuase it is a horseshoe shaped cave which you can emerge from further down the coast. Inside, the conditions were more mellow and spectacular. Soon enough we were on the outside of the cave and very stoked. The sun had cleared the sky of clouds and we decided to push our luck with another loop - this time sharing the cave with a boat coming the other direction.

Entering Waiʻahuʻakua Cave's East entrance with its signature falls

It was now mid morning, we were fully charged and, having been able to experience the trip through double door cave, we could understand why Don was so excited about it and another cave we'd visit the second day. While we were commending ourselves for doubling back and going for it in double door, in what seemed like slow motion the kayak began to roll. We popped up with the boat upside down and quickly collected the paddles, stepped through the process of righting the boat we had discussed earlier and inventoried the gear.  Perhaps it wouldn't be an adventure if we didn't roll at least once!  Pushing further on, we explored the amazing Puakuau sea arch with an incredible waterfall cascading over it. The cliffs along Napali are replete with waterfalls - each seemingly more beautiful than the last. Later in the day, another paddler told us that the ancient Hawaiian's prized the water falling from that arch for its healing properties and used their canoe paddles to re-direct it into containers.

The amazing Puakuau sea arch and prized falls just before Kalalau Beach (Photo Credit Chuan Napolitano)

We stopped at one final secluded beach just before landing at Kalalau to re-fuel. Landing in the surf was becoming second nature and after taking some more photos we were off for the final paddle segment for the day.

The tiny, unnamed beach just before Kalalau that surely does not exist in Winter.

Arriving at Kalalau Beach is a life dream for many. Having been fortunate enough to do it both from the infamous 'Red Hill' a few months prior along the trail, and now from the sea, it is easy to understand why. It is absolutely spectacular. The intense 'mana' and raw beauty of this 'aina' is simply overwhelming. Surfing a waist high wave onto the coarse sand we landed amongst a few other kayaks at a portion of the beach that seemed marginally less steep than the rest. We exchanged high fives and talked about how different it was to arrive by kayak - still full of energy and ready to charge in the valley above.

High Fives after a perfect landing at Kalalau Beach

There was another advantage of arriving by kayak so early in the day that I had not considered. Walking the trail between the few idyllic camp sites adjacent to the waterfall it became obvious we had landed after the hikers had left these prime spots but before anyone else had arrived. We found an amazing, perfectly shaded site among banyan, coconut and banana trees with a panoramic view of the beach and out of the sun's now intense heat. A perfectly formed fire pit was at the base of a fruiting date palm that offered up deliciously sweet treats.

Arriving by kayak puts you between departing and arriving hikers ensuring you'll find the choicest of sites

We had about five hours until sunset and over a simple lunch of tuna and peanut butter wraps we planned to try to find the towering falls at the base of the massive cliffs forming the inside of Kalalau Valley. After filling up on water at the stream crossing below Red Hill, we quickly made our way through the 100 ft tall mango trees and fruiting guava that line the 'hippie highway.' The junction of the easy to miss trail connecting you to the 'community garden' is just before the easier to find 'big pool' - a welcome spot to cool off in a freshwater pool and the destination for most in the valley. Kakua nuts are everywhere above the community garden and even the slightest of slopes mean you are sliding around on them.

One of many papaya trees in the garden as well as a banana plant and avocado tree in the background (Photo Credit: Chuan Napolitano)

The largest mango tree I've seen, with a single rope leading high into its branches, marks the center of the garden. The tree is surrounded by a moat of sculpted irrigation paths which direct water from the nearby stream to a massive number of fruit trees including papaya, banana, almond, guava, mango and many varieties of avocado. These flows feed mature taro fields, a small patch of pineapple and a sprawling maze of zucchini vines and flowers. There are also a huge number of ornamentals growing up there. I have visited three times now and never seen another person in the garden but it is clear that the land is being continuously worked to perfection and produces enough to easily subsist for as long as you would like to.

Pineapple shot taken on a trip a few months before; these were gone on this trip

Banana and Avocado from the trees of the garden Ripe papaya was a welcome addition to a pretty bland lunch (Photo Credit: Chuan Napolitano) Some of the ornamentals decorating the garden

The mission to find the falls was still ahead and we wanted to watch the sunset from the beach as well so we continued along the path toward the stream providing all the water. Picking our way along a discontinuous path upstream we arrived at a 40 foot waterfall and spent some time cooling off in the pool below it, careful not to push our luck too long against the occasional rocks falling from above.

A sun faded, mossy rope made the slab climb up and over the first falls marginally safer and from there it was a mix of cross country navigation and piecing bits of a goat path together. Don said he had been to the upper falls before and thought perhaps it was a mile from the lower falls. Thankfully it seems it was about half that - the kakua nuts all over the steep sections of hillside made moving up and down interesting, but soon enough the falls came into view through the thick canopy. Waimakemake Falls is an amazing treasure tucked deep enough that most won't both to make the trek but it was very much worth it. It was a challenge to be able to capture the entire height of the falls and eventually after a bunch of photos and some time wading in the pool, we turned back toward the lower portion of the valley.

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Waimakemake Falls, deep in the Kalalau Valley (Photo Credit: Chuan Napolitano)

Sitting on the bank of 'Big Pool' we laughed at the ridiculous amount of ground we'd covered that day. I started to drag a bit and was ready to head back and relax at the beach and catch the sunset. The walk back was very casual but after 11 or 12 miles of paddling and 8 miles of hiking it was great to settle into the hammock and take it all in. The iconic view of Kalalau Beach just after the stream is ever impressive.

Kalalau Beach from just past the stream crossing What an amazing day. Tired but stoked after a long paddle and trek into the valley.

With still a couple hours until sunset and refueled, we wandered toward the west end of the beach to scope the swim to Honopu Beach, the most sacred of all beaches in the Hawaiian Islands and an ancient burial ground to warrior chiefs. Honopu was also apparently the film site for several movie scenes including one in King Kong. Interesting. The light of the setting sun lit up the unfathomably large rock falls on the beach. Each boulder was at least the size of a car - some as large as a house - and we contemplated what it must have been like when they came down just a few years ago. Navigating through the debris, we saw that it would like be possible to swim to Honopu in just a few minutes or possibly even walk! Now famished, we made our way back to cook dinner.

Looking back from the far West end of Kalalau Beach Some of the boulders that collapsed from the cliffs above, sealing off a couple of the caves below. Each was about the side of a car!

The tri-tip and asparagus dinner could not have tasted better after that long, epic day - one of the best I've had in Hawaii. A Kalalau sunset should make everyone's bucket list - its a constant change from gazing out over the ocean, mesmerized by the never ending breaking waves and enjoying the crazy pallet of colors and taking in the massive rainbows over the range. The navigational stars and venus poked out as the sun dipped below the horizon and shortly after we were eating dinner and enjoying a bourbon.  Before climbing into the hammock to close out an amazing day, I saw a few shooting stars tear across the darkness and a crystal clear sky lit up with the density of stars you can only see far from any light source. The milky way was beautifully bright.


The morning was a lazy breakfast - coffee and left over tri-tip complete with some amazing papaya from the valley. The trades affect the Napali coast with a steady push from both the wind and current along the route. In the late morning or early afternoon, though, the normal sea breeze kicks up and the churned up seas make swimming back from Honopu reportedly very difficult. Without fins and with still a decent paddle and some more exploring ahead of us at the next site, we weren't wanting to deal with that possibility so we set off early. At the final corner where the ridge separating Kalalau and Honupu beaches comes to the sea, we peered around to see that we needed to swim only 200 yards or so to the beach. 

The western side of Honopu Beach - the two halves of Honopu are split by the famous arch

Honopu is a very serene place which exudes intensity - the colors are amazing, the water perfect and the sheer size of the walls is astounding. Tucked into the base of the arch is a small pool with massive craw fishing swimming around below the falls. There is very little traffic on Honopu - it is all but inaccessible during the winter months and even during the summer, it is an undertaking to swim until the currents have adequately nourished the base of the cliffs with sand carried from Kalalau. The sand at the base of the cliffs is peppered with stones; evidence of the cliffs slow erosion by the wind and sea. We walked the entire length of the beach and explored a large cave in the back of the eastern side. Not having the conditions to make this swim on the last trip here was a disappointment - it was amazing to be able to see it this time. 

30ft falls just inside Honopu Arch - the pool below had an old rock track set up for, presumably, the huge crawfish there Looking through Honopu Arch across the Eastern side toward Kalalau (Photo Credit: Chuan Napolitano)

 Walking back across the beach toward Kalalau, it was a great surprise to see that the tide had retreated enough that we would not have to swim on the way back. A few years of living in Hawaii had toughened our feet enough that the sharp lava rock, literally encrusted in delicious looking opihi, was not a problem. We made our way to camp just as some puffy cumulus clouds were building off in the distance to the east. A backpacker from Seattle had a bunch of questions for us about the swim to Honopu and it did not take long to convince him that he could not miss the amazing opportunity to go and explore it. 

Departing Kalalau under deteriorating skies  The Western half of Honopu Beach

In hopes of getting to the open ceiling Pukalani cave before some approaching squalls came through, we shoved off from Kalalau quickly and headed back in the direction of Honopu. A strong breeze punctuated occasional short squalls but the sea was still fairly calm and the the open ceiling cave was only a few miles away. Passing Honopu, the first cave came into view and the map showed that Pukalani was just past it on the far side of a prominent ridge. The profound beauty of the entryway to the cave, made more dramatic by reflecting wave energy crashing off the wall, is second only to the amazing tranquility of the massive room inside. We tied the kayak to a small knob on the side of the cave wall and did some cliff jumping and admired the improbable island in the center which had been the ceiling prior to the collapse of what was a massive lava tube.

Looking toward the opening of Pukalani cave - just outside the sea was quickly building Chuan getting ready to jump into the crystal clear pool of the open ceiling cave. Pukalani Cave

An hour or more slipped by and after looping twice around the perimeter of the cave, we pushed on back to the route toward Milolii Beach, our final campsite. The sun occasionally broke through the overcast but we found ourselves in the middle of a substantial squall just prior to reaching Nualolo Kai State Park, which we both mistook for Milolii because of the range markers that indicate the safe approach through the very shallow reef structure guarding its flank. Realizing our mistake, fortunately before landing, we paddled back through the reef and continued southwest. 

A half staked tent shaking in the breeze made it obvious we had reach Milolii. We were welcomed by a friendly group of paddlers, all of whom had spent considerable time exploring Napali and the rest of Kauai as well. The sun emerged and the winds had died less than an hour after our arrival and we contemplated if the right call would have been to spend half the day in the open ceiling cave while the weather passed; hindsight is alway spot on. Lunch was simple and the trail leading into the canyon from which the water flowed was next on our agenda. 

Milolii Beach looking both toward Polihale (right) and Kalalau (left) Milolii Beach - the campsites are primarily centered in the prominent cluster of trees

A well worn trail into the canyon seemed more frequently traveled by the massive number of mountain goats in the area than by humans. The primary reason for the trail is a maintenance route for the campsite's water supply which flows into a large cistern that provides the head pressure for the faucets below and buffers the occasional long spell between rains. Meandering along the stream, the path leads a couple miles into a large canyon which grows increasingly more reminiscent of the desert southwest. By its end, it is a 300ft deep slot canyon with a cliff marking the end of the trail where there is a small pool and a rather pathetic seep that seemed to be somehow be the single source of water in the stream. 

The small seep that somehow feeds the stream below

The initial cliffs were easy enough to navigate so we pressed deeper into the slot canyon and the terrain was now indistinguishable from the slot canyons of southern Utah. Quickly we were standing in a dry pool where a 250ft waterfall sometimes flows. 

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Nearing the end of the slot canyon - the divot in the far wall is actually a bore formed by the water is raging through this canyon when the rains come

 Lazing around in camp was much needed after two pretty full days. With our bourbon supply running dangerously low, dinner was started. The sunset from Milolii rivaled those from the beach at Barking Sands. Being the dryest portion of the Kauai, there is not much cloud cover and the sunset lite up the beach in myriad of purples and blues.

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Sunset from Milolii Beach Prepping dinner on the final night of the trip With an 11am pickup time and only five miles to paddle, the exit from Milolii was a lazy one. The spectacularly deep turquoise water was the calmest it had been on the entire trip and, based on an estimate a guide had told us on the beach the first morning, we had 90 minutes to meet Carl. The paddle South toward Polihale is a very easy one. The landscape bears little resemblance to the rest of the Napali coast. The vegetation is very sparse but the water visibility is great. We had heard that spinner dolphins enjoy this section of the paddle but we did not encounter any this day; the honu were plentiful, though and the every present tour boats were dumping throngs of Japanese tourists in to see a turtle. Stopping to snorkel about 2 miles before Polihale meant that we would surely be a few minutes late to meet Carl but as soon as we were in sight, we raised him on the radio and assured him were about the conclude the paddle Goats wandering through camp early on the final day (Photo Credit: Chuan Napolitano) The final paddle in to Polihale Beach

Snorkeling just before arriving at Polihale

Carl excitedly waved us in to a calm area of the beach and ferried some of our gear across the scorching sand. We pulled the boat up the beach and high fived.. happy to be in Polihale but shocked that the adventure was almost over. Carl's station wagon was surprisingly agile along the terribly rutted road back the start of the 2 lane highway that circumnavigates 2/3 of the island. The boat bounced up and down comically on his roof despite my best efforts to hold it steady. Carl shared a great deal of our enthusiasm for the beauty of the Napali coast and we promised to share the photos with him once back in town. 

Carl and I holding the boat along the dirt road from Polihale (Photo Credit: Chuan Napolitano)

The final pieces of the logistics puzzle fell into place when Don graciously agreed to meet up with us and all the gear at the Kauai Beer Company, where we could give back his kayak and, most importantly, wish each other 'salute' with some well earned beers and amazing food. There are so many ways to take in the majesty of the Napali coast. The paddle from Haena Beach to Polihale is an epic adventure that that I hope to return to someday. Sharing the adventure made it all the better.

What an epic adventure

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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