The first rays of light were cresting over the green mountains above Hanalei, signaling a bright morning after overnight rainstorms, as we drove down the winding road into the surf town on the north shore of Kauai. My husband and I were up early and the town was quiet, with hardly any businesses open and just a few cars rolling through. On island time, one goes to bed early and wakes up late.
But we woke up before dawn because our day's adventure required it. The plan was to hike to one of Kauai's most famous waterfalls, Hanakapiai Falls. The 300-foot falls are at the top of a canyon that's accessed by way of the Napali Coast. The hike comes with a warning in the guidebook: It's hard and not for beginners. But the destination is worth every mud-slicked step.
The hike to Hanakapiai Falls is about 8 or 9 miles round trip, depending on the source or the guidebook. It's an out-and-back trail that's commonly hiked in a day. You can go farther down the Napali Coast, but for that, you'll need overnight permits and backpacking gear.
This hike is so popular, it used to see 2,000 or more people arrive every day, according to Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). But the DLNR recently rolled out a new adaptive management plan for Haena State Park , where the trailhead for the Napali Coast and Hanakapiai Falls is located. With a reservation and fee system, as well as limits on parking and shuttles from Hanalei to the trailhead, the new management plan caps daily visitors to 900 people, according to a statement from DLNR. The intent is to reduce the impact of so much visitation and protect Kauai's stunning natural resources.
I signed up for a hiking reservation and a spot on the shuttle a few weeks before our trip to Kauai; the process was easy, but I'm glad I was thinking in advance. Even weeks ahead of time, the limited parking spots were entirely sold out for our trip. The shuttle from Hanalei still had plenty of spots open, though.
I knew this would be a long, hard day of hiking, so I booked an early shuttle time that left Hanalei around 7 a.m. Still, I don't think I realized just how challenging the hike would be — and why. I hike a lot, especially in the Sierra Nevada and the trails around Lake Tahoe. But there's a key difference between the terrain: Tahoe's trails are dry. Kauai's trails, on the other hand, are very, very muddy.
At the park-and-ride lot, when I checked in with a man holding a clipboard, I asked how long it took most people to reach the waterfalls. A lot of people turn around when they reach Hanakapiai Beach, about halfway to the waterfall — making the round-trip hike about 4 miles long and much more doable. But I had my heart set on going the full distance to the waterfall.
The man with the clipboard didn't blink when he said it'd take me four hours, one way. If I go fast, I could do it in three hours. In the Sierra, my pace usually comes out to about 2 miles an hour, give or take. In Kauai, my pace stretched to a mile an hour. And I felt like I was hustling. Another way to say how technical the hiking in Kauai can be: 9 miles felt like 18. No joke.
There was also a deadline: The last shuttle back to town left the trailhead at 5 p.m. So that's why, as soon as the shuttle pulled up to the trailhead and opened the doors, I darted off and started walking at a fast clip.
The first part of the hike follows Kalalau Trail, which leaves Ke’e Beach and traverses all the way down the Napali Coast. The trail was built in the late 1800s and it is the only way to access the Napali Coast, unless you travel by boat or helicopter. But even before this trail was built, the Napali Coast was brimming with traditional Hawaiian communities who traveled overland on footpaths.
The Kalalau Trail crisscrosses dense rainforest and exposed cliffs that abruptly give way to the Pacific Ocean. Every step was wet and slippery, but this is not a trail you want to take a big fall on. In its most exposed parts, the edge of the trail drops to furious waves crashing against the cliffs below. The tide is so strong it has eroded the rock walls, giving the Napali Coast its rugged, raw look.
Not even a quarter mile down the trail, my pace slowed as soon as I started to climb a set of slippery stairs to gain elevation above Ke’e Beach. The air was spiced with sea salt and mangoes so ripe and heavy some pieces had fallen on the trail. The greenery took on so many shapes and patterns: stripes and fans, pointy things and soft leaves that unfurled like a feather.
The mud on the trail started out somewhat firm; the day was still early. But as rainstorms came and went, the mud became stickier and deeper, pulling onto the soles of my shoes and resisting every step I took.
Eventually the trail started to descend toward Hanakapiai Beach. This beach looks like Hollywood's version of paradise — a half moon of golden sand that's bordered by cliffs and seems to unfurl from the rainforest directly into ceaseless waves. But the guidebook warns that the waves, however beautiful, are powerful and dangerous. And a rescue is far away.
When I reached the mouth of the beach, a freshwater creek rumbled toward the ocean. I took my shoes off to fjord the stream, and after, I found a peaceful seat next to the freshwater to cool off, preferring to watch the waves crash on the sand rather than swim in them. I ate a quick snack and continued on my way. I still had a ways to go, and the hardest stretch of the hike was ahead, up toward the waterfall.
From Hanakapiai Beach, Kalalau Trail continues along the Napali Coast. But another trail leads up the canyon, and that's the one I followed.
By now, the tread on my shoes had entirely disappeared beneath a thick coating of mud. I took my steps gingerly. One gentle step, then the next. Even then, I slipped often and lost my balance, stumbling over to catch myself or else falling into the mud. I began to understand why the man with the clipboard estimated the extra hours for the hike. This was no place for fast, rushed movement.
My first big fall of the day happened in slow motion. My front foot slipped out from underneath my weight, pushing my body backwards and sideways at the same time. I saved my fall with my forearm, which was coated in a slick of brown when I peeled myself up.
The farther up the canyon we hiked, the quieter the trail became. The jungle seemed to swallow the sound of the waves. The air grew thick. But all the while, the trail followed the rushing creek, which we had to cross several times.
In hindsight, I recommend taking your shoes off, even if they are going to get muddy again and it feels futile. I didn't follow this advice and kept my shoes on while wading through the river. By the time I reached the waterfalls, though, and pulled my shoes off, my entire foot was ghost white and wrinkly from so much moisture and the absence of air.
The higher we got, the more technical the trail became. We were swinging around tree limbs, hopping between rocks, tiptoeing in the deepest mud puddles. At one point, I hoisted myself up a waist-high rock in the middle of the trail and when I glanced up, I saw my first glimpse of a silver cascade of water descending into oblivion.
Three and a half hours since we departed from the trailhead, we reached the foot of Hanakapiai Falls, landing somewhere between an average and a fast pace. I was too distracted by the power of the water overhead to think about my tired limbs.
The roar of the waterfall was so loud I had to shout to my husband. I craned my neck toward the sky to scan the entirety of the falls, from the bottom to the top. From down below, my perspective was disoriented and the height was hard to fathom. I was reminded of the waterfalls in Yosemite, except these falls are year-round, fed by a constant supply of rainwater.
The spray and mist from the waterfall seemed to create its own special rainstorm. It was so wet that most hikers didn't stay for long. We stripped down to our bathing suits and bare feet and waded into the dark pool at the bottom of the waterfalls. I had made it this far, of course I would jump in.
I crawled over slippery rocks like a crab and when I slipped into the water, my breath caught in my throat. It was cold; much colder than any other water I had experienced in Hawaii, but still not as cold as, say, Lake Tahoe. I took a couple of breast strokes, but I was wary of rocks falling from the high cliffs above me. And the power of the water beating into the pool was strong. So I didn't stay in for too long.
Shivering, I wrapped myself in a towel and hop-scotched rocks to get to a more semi-dry spot farther away from the waterfalls. We found a flat rock to eat lunch — just some PB&Js, with mango jam because we were in Hawaii after all. Then we began the long walk back into the forest, through the mud, along the ocean, up and over eroding cliffs. We had a shuttle to catch back to Hanalei, where a mai tai was waiting.
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Hanakapiai Falls is one of the most famous waterfalls in Hawaii. The journey there is harder than it looks. have 1856 words, post on www.chron.com at November 13, 2021. This is cached page on U.S News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.