The road to Shangri-la is supposed to be an ephemeral thing, a mystical path to a hidden valley where peace and beauty prevail. But on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i it's simply Kuhio Highway, a twisty two-lane blacktop that ends in a muddy parking lot on the island's north shore. There, past the sands of Kē'ē Beach, the cliffs of Nā Pali rise straight from the green Pacific like giant palisades that keep the modern world at bay.
It's a lovely illusion, of course. Unlike the fabled Shangri-la, Nā Pali is emblazoned on every tourist map of Kaua'i—and this magazine is partly to blame. A single photo in a 1960 article on Hawaii unveiled a lush valley shielded by 3,000-foot cliffs to a generation hungry for just such a place. The caption read: "Napali's towering cliffs wall a Shangri-la valley accessible only by sea.… Junglelike glens tucked amid the ridges offer an unspoiled world for the adventurous."
That image, and many more that followed in print and film, inspired a pilgrimage that continues to this day. Some visitors kayak the 15-mile stretch of fluted cliffs, sea caves, and scalloped beaches during the calm seas of summer; others make the trip in "extreme" rafts, outboard-powered assault craft that can surmount almost any sea. Even more take the one-hour helicopter tour to get the Jurassic Park view—Nā Pali starred in that movie, as well as in King Kong, South Pacific, and many other Hollywood fantasies. The young in heart and leg hike a harrowing 11-mile goat trail to the largest of the valleys, called Kalalau, where they often overstay their five-day camping permits by weeks or even months.
All are latecomers to a geologic drama that has played out over millions of years. The Nā Pali Coast is the scarred shoulder of an ancient shield volcano that once rose more than five miles from seafloor to summit. Like all the Hawaiian islands, Kaua'i was born over a plume of magma called a hot spot. As tectonic forces moved the island off the hot spot, its volcanic fires cooled and water, Earth's elemental sculptor, took over. Rain—nearly a hundred inches a year in parts of Nā Pali—carved out the deep valleys from above and draped white-plumed waterfalls over the precipices. Giant winter waves exploded against the basalt cliffs as sea level rose and fell, gouging steep, unstable slopes. The result: a series of plunging valleys, fluted walls, and razor-sharp ridges soaring thousands of feet from the Pacific. On big screens and small, Nā Pali has come to represent paradise on Earth.
For the early Hawaiians, it was also home, a place to fish and plant their terraced taro fields. Their presence is palpable in Nu'alolo Kai, one of the westernmost valleys along the coast, now accessible only by boat. Signs of more than six centuries of continuous occupation dot the landscape: stone walls, ceremonial platforms, remnants of houses and canoe shelters, as well as numerous burial sites.
In Hawaiian culture everything in the world contains mana, a spiritual power imbued by the gods and the ancestors. The mana at Nu'alolo Kai is so strong even a visitor from halfway across the globe gets goose bumps. "The Hawaiians call the feeling 'chicken skin,' " says Alan Carpenter, an archaeologist with Hawaii's division of state parks, which administers the area. "I get it every time I come here."