Robert Frost’s advice to choose the road less-traveled is seldom a good idea when it comes to hiking in a jungle. Choosing the path well-worn has more to do with common sense than being a rebel.
There are so many great places to photograph in Kauai that it can be as overwhelming as a kid in a candy store with only 1 dollar to spend. Therefore, I will take us around the island starting at the end of the road in the northwest corner and go clear around the island to the end of the road at the other end. You can see on the map below the road generally follows the outer perimeter of the island. Notice the Kalalua Trail Head; that’s where we’ll start hiking to the Hanakapiai Falls. Notice there’s not a lot of distance between the Kalalau Trail Head on one end and the other end of the road at Kokee State Park and there’s no road. There’s a reason for that; the Na Pali Coast’s terrain is too rugged for building a road (see photo below this map).
Here’s why the road doesn’t go all the way around the island. The Napali Coast. A lot of movies have been filmed in this area, most notably Six Days, Seven Nights with Harrison Ford and Anne Heche.
I will start this photographic series at the end of the road (you can find this area on the map above marked Kalalau Trail Head) in the area commonly known as the north shore. The north shore is my favorite part of Kauai because it’s not crowded with high-rise hotels. We typically find a house to rent on VRBO so we can do our own cooking and relax more. I’m not a fan of sharing a building with 3,000 other families and their screaming kids.
The end of the road is Ke’e Beach, one of the best places to photograph sunsets on the island. We were there during January on this trip so the waves made most of the beaches along the north shore too dangerous in which to swim. There are warnings everywhere, but some folks ignore them.Tell people they can’t or shouldn’t and they will. Naturally, a few idiots tried it and had to be rescued. Some drowned. A local paramedic said the hardest part of his job was that vacationers usually die right in front of their kids. Two days before we arrived, the waves were 30′ tall. Notice the difference in the two photos of Ke’e Beach: one was taken in January and the other in September (we’ve made this trip before).
If you want to safely get in the water in January, go around to the east or south shores. Even in September, parts of the north shore waves are known for abducting people and rushing them out to sea faster than Steve Harvey can apologize for crowning the wrong Miss America.
Parking near the Ke’e Beach is a challenge because of heavy usage. Don’t be surprised if you have to park some distance and walk. Also, there is no cell phone reception in this area, but they do have an old pay phone for an emergency.
The hike to Hanakapiai begins at the beach just to the south of the lifeguard hut. You will see the trailhead for the Kalalau Trail which traverses 11 miles of the Na Pali Coast.
There is a pile of walking sticks by the trailhead and I would strongly encourage you to take one. My wife and I each have a nice pair of Leki hiking staffs which would have come in handy except we left them at home. Backpacker rates the Kalalau Trail as one of the Top 10 Most Dangerous Hikes in the U.S. To reach the falls, you hike 2 miles of this trail then turn up the Hanakapiai valley where the trail actually gets worse. To hike in to the falls and back out is an 8 mile hike and rated as strenuous; it’s at least a 6-hour round trip. But don’t let that stop you; we met an 80-year-old lady hiking it for her birthday!
One other suggestion that will make you feel good about yourself: take dry cat food. I’ll tell you why later.
The Kalalau Trail goes in 11 miles to the Kalalau Valley where an estimated 50-to-100 people live illegally in makeshift camps and live off the land; some have lived there 15 years. The local authorities raid it occasionally, but the residents see them coming and evade capture by leaving strategically placed donuts. The area was once owned by Howard Taylor, brother to movie star Elizabeth Taylor. The government pressured him in 1969 with intent to take it from him, which they ultimately did. He heard about the arrest of 13 hippies on the island from California, so he bailed them out and moved them into the valley where they set up a commune. There is a documentary and book about Taylor Camp.
After you start on the trail, you will find a nice vista at the .5 mile marker. This is a photograph taken from there of the Na Pali Coast.
The trip from the trailhead to Hanakapiai Beach is approximately 2 miles and you will have to cross the stream either by leapfrogging on the rocks or wading in the water.
Naturally, you’ll need good shoes with excellent traction for this hike. If you have shoes that wear comfortably even when wet, you should choose those. One alternative to leapfrogging the streams is to walk through them. As you hike from this point up to the Falls, there are several more stream crossings. Numerous flash flood warning signs are posted along the way. Some fools choose to ignore them, too.
After you cross this stream in the photo on the left, you have 3 choices: 1. Go up the valley to the Falls; 2. Continue on the Kalalau Trail; 3. Hang out at the beach.
After about an 2 hours of hiking and you cross the stream, you’ll reach Hanakapiai Beach. Here are a few photos of the beach taken during different times of the year:
While you’re there, make a few rock cairns to join the tribe.
Hiking along the coast is much different than hiking in the Rockies where I typically hike. In the Rockies, you hike four hours up a mountain only to take an hour to get back down. Coastal hikes are not like that; they are the same going in as they are coming out. If it takes you 3 hours to get to the falls, it will take you 3 hours to get out. Unless, as in my case, it started raining as soon as I left the falls and turned into a trail more treacherous and slimy than a presidential election. I had all my camera gear in a backpack and the trip out took so long I ended up hiking the last two hours in the dark and pouring down rain. I reminded myself that an adventure is something you set at home in your easy chair wishing you were having, but when you’re having it, you wish you were sitting at home in your easy chair.
Moving up the Hanakapiai Valley is more strenuous than the previous part of the Kalalau Trail you’ve been on because, even when the day is dry, most of the trail is wet. There are more rocks to scramble over and more stream beds to cross. Also, the trail gets a bit confusing at times so pay close attention to ribbons tied on trees. For as much money as tourists pump into Kauai, you’d think they’d mark their trails better.
The Bamboo Forest
There is a beautiful bamboo forest about a 1/2 mile up the trail that is worth spending some time exploring. Notice the trail is on the right side of the photo; see what I mean?
There is also a an old fireplace that is easy to miss if you just have your head down trying to navigate the trail.
Hiking on up the trail, you will catch glimpses of the waterfall before you get there. There are nice pools in the stream to either swim in or fall into like I did. I slipped off a shelf of rocks and managed to catch myself just as the bottom of the backpack touched the water. It took me 1.75 hours to get from Hanakapiai Beach up to the falls and I didn’t dilly-dally. I was crunched on time and moved as quickly as I could.
When you reach the falls, don’t be surprised if there are a lot of people. You will want to take a dip in the pool and, while most folks are clothed and nude-bathing is against the law, some folks ignore this and swim in their birthday suits. This is rarely deadly.
Remember earlier when I suggested you bring cat food? Here’s why: there are hungry kittens.
Some idiot thought it was a good idea to pack cats into both Hanakapiai Beach and Falls so they scavenge for whatever food is left by hikers. This kitty and a couple of others had a fine meal of my beef jerky.
Photographing the Falls
I always carry a tripod when I want photographs that I can enlarge to create WOW! photographs. I do this for a variety of reasons, but the biggest one is that I want to photograph with as low of an ISO as possible (100) with nature. I also want to have as much depth of field as possible so all of the photograph will be in focus. So I set my camera on a tripod, choose the “A” button, and select the highest aperture number as my camera allows me (f22). Those two factors usually slow my shutter speed way down and, for most of us, if we hold the camera in our hands for anything less than 1/6oth of a second, the image will blur. That’s why those great sunsets you try to capture with your cell phone don’t look nearly as good as they did to the naked eye.
So the equation for landscape photography is:
- Tripod (either use shutter release or set the timer so you’re not touching the camera – if you can, lock the mirror up)
- ISO – 100
- Aperture – f22 or higher if you can
- If you can’t manually override, select the mountain or landscape setting on your camera or any landscape setting. It will automatically set step 2 and 3. However, it will also slow down the shutter speed leaving a blur so you have to use a tripod, even if it’s a smart phone.
Like most nature photography, the light from Mother Nature makes all the difference in the world. This day wasn’t the best light nor was I there during the golden hour. However, what makes this photograph worthy of mounting on my wall like a trophy is this: the adventure of a hiking the last two hours in the pouring down rain in the dark wondering why, on God’s green earth, I started so late in the day.
The rest of this series will take you around the island starting on the northwest corner and making stops along the way. In fact, the next spot – Limahuli Gardens- is walking distance from Ke’e Beach. I’ll share great places to photograph, good times of the day, the right places to set up, a bit of history and a few photo tips along the way.
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