Hanakapi’ai Falls undoubtedly typifies the scenic beauty of the Hawaiian Islands as well as anyplace. It is one of the highlights to be experienced while hiking the Kalalau Trail along the famous Na Pali Coast on the north shore of Kauai. For the landscape photographer, it is absolutely worth the effort of what is a moderate to strenuous eight-mile round-trip hike, depending on your abilities and the condition of the trail, which varies considerably. The trailhead is near Ke’e Beach, at the “end of the road” to the north shore. Ke’e Beach itself is a site of cultural note. It was the location of the most important halau hula in Hawaii, where men and women endured arduous and strict training to learn to dance the hula, which was an extremely significant religious and cultural aspect of early Hawaiian life. Remnants of the stone platform that was the halau hula still remain, as well as the foundation of the nearby heiau, a place of worship.
From the trailhead, the hike to the falls proceeds for two miles along the Kalalau Trail to Hanakapi’ai Beach. The first mile is a gradual uphill climb to an elevation of about four hundred feet. The second mile is a somewhat steeper descent to the beach and can be a little treacherous at times if the trail is wet. When I took this hike, there had been about two prior days of dry weather. So the trail was in relatively good condition, although it was still slippery in spots. The views of the Na Pali coast from the trail are a bit disappointing. While the coastline is very scenic, good vantage points from the trail are rare. The most impressive and beautiful photographs of the Na Pali coastline are taken from boats offshore or from helicopters. As you arrive at the beach, the trail crosses Hanakapi’ai Stream. If the stream is low, it is easy to cross via boulders near the shore. Fording the stream when the water is high is very dangerous and should not be attempted. Visitors during winter will not find a beach at all, just a shoreline strewn with boulders. Sand on the beach is swept away each winter by powerful surf. The beach is rebuilt gradually after the winter storms subside, as gentler ocean currents deposit sand back on the shore. This is as far as hikers are allowed to go without a permit, even for day hiking, on the Kalalau Trail, which continues for another nine miles along the coast. However, the side trip to Hanakapi’ai Falls does not require a permit. There were many people at the beach the day of my hike. I quickly continued upstream towards the falls.
For the remaining two miles to the falls, the trail meanders mauka (towards the mountains) along the valley floor following the stream. Hanakapi’ai Valley was at one time populated with native Hawaiians where they thrived off the bounty of the sea and by farming taro, bananas, and sweet potatoes. Around 1900, coffee was also planted and farmed in the valley by non-natives. However, by 1920 the valley was abandoned as native Hawaiians opted for less isolated locations to live. The trail upstream is understandably more muddy since water is always present and shade is more prevalent. Three stream crossings are required as well as some scrambling at times, especially at one point near the falls.
Hanakapi’ai Falls is a quintessential Hawaiian intimate landscape. The main cascade drops 120 feet into a large pool. There are a few smaller cascades just downstream from the pool. I’m a firm believer that the most successful landscape photographers are those who take the time to case a scene thoroughly before shooting it. This includes looking for the not so obvious vantage point, angle, or combination of elements that helps to add interest to a photograph while drawing as little attention as possible away from the primary subject. My favorite photographs I took of Hanakapi’ai Falls include these smaller cascades in the foreground as they make their way around and over large volcanic boulders in the stream bed. One of the best vantage points I found was at a spot where my tripod was sitting in about six inches of relatively calm water near the right bank of the stream. However, these photographs do not lend themselves very well towards presentation on a Web page due to the vertical composition of the image. Too much detail gets lost after the image is reduced to a size to a point where it can be viewed in its entirety within the confines of a page without scrolling. So for this feature I chose a more evenly dimensioned image which focuses more on the main cascade.
I wouldn’t recommend the hike to Hanakapi’ai Falls to the casual hiker. Even under the best conditions, the trail has its hazards. The trip to the falls and back will probably be beyond the range of the average tourist out for a day hike. Under less than ideal conditions, the trail can be downright treacherous. Be prepared for rain at any time, especially for yourself but also to protect your camera equipment. For those who are capable, this is an enjoyable hike with the reward being the opportunity to see and photograph a classic Hawaiian landscape.