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Kauai’s Famous Napali Coast

The Napali Coast was created millions of years ago and is constantly being shaped by the rain, wind, and sea. It has been named one of the fastest eroding coastlines in the world. The Napali Coast State Park includes over 6,500 acres, and over fifteen miles of isolated coastline.

Many areas of the Napali Coast are known to be ancient fishing villages, with materials from dig sites suggesting it began to become inhabited between 1000 and 1400 A.D. Western contact changed the way of life for Hawaiians in the 1800s — many adopted the Western religion and cultures, forfeiting their native ways of life for a more civilized lifestyle in the 1900’s. Disease and civilization were the main reasons inhabitants left the Napali Coast for more populated areas of the island.

What You See on our Napali Raft Tour

Just a few minutes out of Hanalei Bay, you see Haena point, the start of the Napali Coast. It is recognizable by Kee beach, the last accessible beach on the north side of Kauai. This lifeguarded beach boasts a nice reef with good snorkeling in the summer when conditions are right.

The first point of interest, just over a mile by sea from Kee beach, is Hanakapiai beach and valley. This was the first valley to be settled by ancient Hawaiians, evidence of housing, farming, and fishing still exist. In the summer Hanakapiai has a white sand beach, but in the winter the pounding surf sweeps the sand away to reveal a rocky shoreline.

Several sea caves exist along the Napali Coast, some large enough for our vessel to enter when ocean conditions permit. The overhanging walls of the cliffs of Napali have been eroded away by the relentless surf, creating magnificent sea caves in various shapes and sizes. Two miles down the coastline, after passing Hanakapiai, we find the first accessible sea cave known as Hoolulu. Be on the lookout for many seabirds that love to perch in or near the caves. The next cave you see is Waiahuakua, which features the highest waterfall on Napali. The water drops 3,600 feet, which has carved out a hole in the roof of the cave where it then falls into the sea. The last impressive cave is towards the end of the Napali Coast, and is known as the open ceiling cave, which was formed by the collapse in the roof of a lava tube.

Many of the valleys of Napali are known as “hanging valleys” because the floor of the valley is raised several hundred feet, versus being at sea level. This is caused by rainfall runoff that has eroded the edges of the land. The next valley, Waiahuakua Valley is an example of a hanging valley.

The next bay is Hanakoa, which used to be another sizeable farming community. Terraced walls still exist; the land once provided ample growing grounds for taro and coffee. It is believed that Hawaiians lived in this valley into the late 1800s.

Kalalau Valley and beach is easily one of the most recognizable images of Kauai. Kalalau Valley is four miles deep and three miles wide, providing excellent conditions for farming and supported a large community of Hawaiians. This beach and valley are the destination for most hikers that embark on the Kalalau trail; you can often see hikers and Kauai mountain goats utilizing the trail along the cliffs. Kalalau Valley was home to an estimated 4,000 Hawaiians in the 1800s, a school and church was even established here by missionaries. In the summer you see many campers enjoying the beach, waterfall, and camping areas.

The next valley we encounter is Honopu. This is another hanging valley, with the valley floor just over 150 feet above the beach. This majestic area was once a sacred meeting place for the ali’i, or royalty of Hawaii. This isolated valley was only accessible via the ocean until a rope ladder was woven and placed at the base of the cliff to connect the beaches. This beautiful beach features a very unique archway that has been the site for several blockbuster films. Jessica Lange was seen hanging here in the 1973 version of King Kong, Harrison Ford ran away from pirates here in Six Days and Seven Nights, and most recently Johnny Depp made his way through the arch in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The arch does not look too big from a distance, but many years ago a helicopter pilot proved his skill as he flew through the Honopu archway for a movie called Acapulco Heat.

Continuing down the Napali Coast, you see Awaawapuhi and Nualolo valleys consecutively. These large valleys are connected by a trail along the cliffs, accessible through Kokee State Park. Nualolo was the longest inhabited valley of Napali, a fishing village of 300 people lived there until the 1940s. The terracing in the valley can be seen for miles. The reef in front of Nualolo is an incredible fringing reef, supporting an abundant variety of fish.

The last major beach along the Napali Coast is the Milolii coastal flat, also once home to a Hawaiian fishing village. The reef fronting Milolii valley extends 250 feet offshore and is known to many as “turtle town.” This area is the perfect foraging site for honu, or Hawaiian green sea turtle, commonly spotted in this area.

The last point of interest on the Napali Coast is the popular snorkeling spot known as Treasure Beach. Steep cliffs front this beautiful snorkel location near Makaha Ridge. Makaha Ridge is easily recognized by the radar, weather, and satellite stations on top of the cliff, visible from the ocean. The highest gust of wind measured up there was 227 miles per hour during Hurricane Iniki in 1992.

In the distance you might see the alluring Polihale Beach State Park, with miles of white sand beach. That is the beginning of the longest stretch of white sand beach in Hawaii, stretching for fifteen miles toward the town of Kekaha on the west side of Kauai.