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West Is Best: Hiking Kauai's Na Pali Coast

Columbus, Magellan, and Captain Cook pointed their bows west. Cabeza de Vaca and later Lewis and Clark strode west to discover North America's mountains, deserts, rivers and Pacific coastline. Gauguin traveled to Tahiti in search of beauty. Christopher McCandless, protagonist in Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, wandered to Alaska to find enlightenment. When an explorer wants solitude and adventure, the road often leads west. At least in the places I've lived - Texas, Spain, Chile, and Hawaii - the west glows like a gem and everyone wants a piece.

The same is true of Hawaii's westernmost island, Kauai. Voracious explorers venture here for similar knowledge, beauty and enlightenment that these first explorers sought.

The west side of Kauai, Na Pali, sits daringly off the electrical grid. Roads, buildings, and communication towers do not exist here. The narrow Kalalau Trail, the region's only thoroughfare, winds 11 miles from Ke'e Beach on the north shore to Kalalau Beach on the southern end. Intermediate-to-advanced hikers come here every year to find lush tropical forests, waterfalls to swim under, and cliffs (pali) that cascade into the ocean as far as the eye can see. I could relate my personal experience on the trail, but no one experience is ever the same.

The dry season is a safer but more crowded time to hike. From November to March hikers can expect frequent rain showers, heavier waterfalls, mud, and dangerous ocean currents. Day hikers can taste the beginning of the trail by hiking 2 miles to Hanakapi'ai Beach. Strong swimmers can hop in the water in the calm summer months, but drownings occur regularly here in the winter. If you have more time, you should hike 2 miles along the river to the back of Hanakapi'ai Valley. Water shoes are recommended, as much of the trail goes over river rocks and fallen trees. After 2 miles of difficult hiking, the giant Hanakapi'ai Falls serves as a resting place to swim, take photos, and relax.

Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park requires that visitors going beyond Hanakapi'ai carry a 5 day permit. Most permit holders choose to hike the rest of the trail the same day, spend three nights on Kalalau Beach, and hike back the fifth day. From here, hikers traverse 4 more valleys, each more strenuous than Hanakapi'ai, before reaching Kalalau Beach. Native Hawaiian plants and wild invasive goats comb the green cliff sides, and the panoramas become more and more spectacular. In Hanakoa Valley, the weary rest their legs at an old rest stop and peer into terraces once used by ancient Hawaiians to grow taro. In the late 19th century, coffee was planted here and continues to grow wild today. The daring can hike 1/2 mile up the left fork of Hanakoa stream to the falls. Many believe the monumental view of the falls to be well worth the hazardous trek.

The last 5 miles from Hanakoa to Kalalau include a stream crossing and narrow trail passages that are best hiked in dry weather. The drop-offs here are too steep to catch falling hikers. The Kalalau valley housed taro terraces until 1920, but has since been taken over by invasive trees such as guava, mango, and Java Plum. A mile long and more stunning than any photo, the sandy beach feels wild and virgin. A small waterfall trickles nearby, and visitors pitch their tents just behind the beach. Many visitors have overstayed their permits and live illegally in the valley. Various trails snaking through the valley lead to makeshift homes for about 100 hippies, nudists, and Vietnam vets happy to live off the grid. They eat off the land and return to civilization about every 6 months for essential supplies. Every now and then park rangers clear them out or force them to hide further up the valley.

Perhaps these valley-dwellers are just trying to live out the solitude and enlightenment that earlier explorers found in other parts of the west. Or perhaps they simply want to live out the reasons why so many hikers spend a few days here: to enjoy, to meditate, to heal.

A few tips for hikers:
- Don't forget water purification tablets or iodine, as there is no running water.
- Pack light. Wear shoes with good traction and bring a raincoat, tent or tarp, and sleeping bag. Also, don't forget sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
- Visit the state park web site below for information on how to get a permit.

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