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Kayak Voyage: Nā Pali Coast

Text by Matt Luttrell
Images by Ted John Jacobs

“The sun was just rising when we reached the point where the great palis or precipices begin. These precipices are one of the greatest wonders of the Islands, but the danger of examining them on the passage deters many persons from visiting them.”

– Gorham D. Gilman, Journal of a Canoe Voyage along the Kaua‘i Palis

A tiny swell pushes our kayak closer to the cliffs rising vertically from the sea, but we hardly notice. Just an hour into our four-day kayak trip and we are already awestruck by the imposing landscape. Letting out a loud hoot, my voice bounces around the walls of the huge aquatic amphitheater. Gilman’s words ring true 165 years later, nothing in Hawai‘i compares to the majesty of the Nā Pali Coast.

Paddling along the coast we see the tiny forms of hikers along the ridge, traversing the Na Pali trail towards Kalalau. The morning rain clouds have disappeared, and the sun paints the coastal landscape in brilliant colors. Our double kayak glides through the calm ocean waters as our paddle strokes find a natural symmetry. Caves dot this coastline and the most impressive of them all, Waiahuakua, is purported to be the third longest sea cave in the world at 1,155 feet. Comprised of two interconnecting caves, we enter from the west end and paddle through the horseshoe-shaped cave, passing a small waterfall before exiting out of the east.

Hugging the coastline, we paddle for another hour before we finally spot the oxidized red ridge located right before Kalalau Valley. A turtle pops its head out of the water right next to our kayak, startling us before hurrying back down to the reef below. Pulling the kayaks past the high tide line, my body aches from the four-hour paddle. A beach cave makes a perfect base for camp, but it proves a little sketchy since we have to run through a 50-foot patch of sand dotted with rocks that have fallen from the cliff above. Fellow campers have taken to calling the area the “kill zone.”

Later that afternoon, we head west from the valley. After 15 minutes the beach ends, cut off by a wall of rocks. We enter the ocean and swim around the wall and into the wide cove of Honopū. Sheer walls of lava rock rise nearly 200 feet in all three directions, rendering the beach accessible only from the sea. We swim lackadaisically towards the deserted beach, alternating between observing the small schools of fish underwater and marveling at the towering cliffs that surround us. Arriving on the east end we find a Hawaiian monk seal lounging on the golden sand, catching some rays. The seal opens its eyes intermittently to check us out as we lie on the sand. Since camping and boat landings are not permitted on Honopū, the beach is all ours.

Walking across the huge expanse of sand, we make our way over to the west end where a huge sea arch separates the two beaches of Honopū. Relaxing on the western beach (smaller in width than the eastern beach) we swim and watch sand crabs scurry back and forth. The descending sun casts a warm hue as tour boats motor by. Back at camp we watch the sunset while enjoying dinner, torn between looking at the slowly disappearing sun and the rainbow over Kalalau Valley. As darkness descends, millions of stars begin filling the night sky. We gaze upwards and name constellations before falling asleep.

We wake late Friday morning, sore from the previous day’s paddle and grab backpacks and water to explore Kalalau Valley. The two-hour hike back into the valley leads us into a lush forest, replete with a variety of fruit growing everywhere. Snacking on fresh guava and lilikoi, we pass huge banana trees with fruit that is too green to eat. Back at camp, we decide to return to the solitude of Honopu. We explore the back of the beach, where a big sand dune backs up against the rock wall. Climbing 60 feet up along a gradual incline, we are afforded an elevated view of the beach and of the sea arch. On the western beach we are elated to find two Hawaiian monk seals. Respecting the seal’s space, we lay 15 feet away and sunbathe with them before going for a swim. After another perfect day, our evening is graced by an impromptu nighttime show of shooting stars.

At the break of dawn we wake, anxious to begin the second leg of our kayak trip before the tradewinds kick in. Leaving the beach, we punch through the shore break in our yellow kayaks and begin the paddle to Miloli‘i. We pass two headlands before arriving at the Open Ceiling Cave. Translucent water glows at the entrance to the lava tube, reflecting off the shallow bottom. We snorkel alongside the walls and around a rock protruding from the middle of the lava tube like a perfect primordial stage.

A helicopter appears suddenly, buzzing the campsite upon our return. It swoops back around the small beach and lands right behind us. Three state rangers jump out and canvass the small beach to check for camping permits. We talk with the pilot and he tells us that they are trying to clear out all the squatters from Kalalau and Miloli‘i before the park is shut down in a week’s time for maintenance. After the helicopter takes off, scattering dirt and trash, we hike back into the valley to see if we can find a waterfall. No such luck. Returning to the beach, we admire the changing color of the sky. Blessed with another clear night, we are treated to an encore of last night’s show.

Underneath the bright midday sun, we paddle the remaining half a mile to our pick up spot on Polihale Beach. The beach is packed when our yellow kayaks glide over the turquoise water bumping up onto the shoreline. After exploring the most gorgeous 18 miles of coastline in the world by kayak, we land onto the powdery sand of Polihale. A kind and generous family give us each a cold beer. Looking back at the cliffs, we raise our frothy beverages in a toast to the splendors of nature.