Na Pali Coast
Na Pali Coast

Photograph by: Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, National Geographic April 2008

What do the movies King Kong, Jurassic Park, South Pacific, and Raiders of the Lost Ark have in common? They all include scenes shot on Hawaii's lush garden island, Kaua'i. With its crystal waters and jagged cliffs, the rugged northern Na Pali Coast offers a dramatic backdrop.

Hawaiian legend tells of Pele, goddess of fire, coming to Na Pali Coast in search of a home. But her sister and nemesis, Namakaokaha'i, a goddess of the sea, drove her away. Such natural-world battles continue today. The impenetrable stone archway that served as the gateway to King Kong's world is among the geologic structures hammered by rain, wind, and waves. Chuck Blay, a geologist and author of Kauai's Geologic History, says, "Na Pali is the result of a relatively long history of erosion."

Like other Hawaiian islands, Kaua'i formed over a hot spot, or magma plume. As tectonic forces moved the island off the hot spot, its volcanic fires cooled. Kaua'i, the oldest of the major Hawaiian islands, is the remnant of a shield volcano that formed about five million years ago.

Other elements helped shape Na Pali's unique fluted cliffs and meandering coastline. "Oxygen, water, and plants, with their roots and botanical acids, have weathered the chemically unstable lava rocks," Blay says. "Running water and groundwater have removed a lot of the rock from the island's surface, and ocean waves have removed sediment from the coastal areas--both resulting in steep, unstable slopes. Sea level fluctuation has definitely had an impact as well."

Climate is another driving factor on the island, says Blay. The island essentially creates its own weather in accordance with the trade winds. "That's why rainfall varies from nearly 100 inches on the eastern end of Na Pali to less than 20 inches on the western end," he explains.

The northern Na Pali Coast is also known for its captivating, if strenuous, 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which provides the only land access to this part of the island. While half a million visitors come to the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park each year, only a fraction attempt to complete the trail, which alternates between cliff-hugging, hair-raising turns and switchbacks into the valley's lush rain forest.


Bourne, Joel K., Jr. "Fortress Coast." National Geographic (April, 2008), 109-123.

Blay, Chuck, and Robert Siemers. Kaua'i's Geologic History: A Simplified Guide. TEOK Investigations, 2004.

Doughty, Andrew. The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook: Kauai Revealed. Wizard Publications Inc, 2007.

Other Resources
Geologic Kaua'i.

Na Pali Coast Ohana

Na Pali Coast Cave

Honopu Arch

Kaua'i's Visitors Bureau.

Simpich, Frederick, Jr. "Hawaii, USA." National Geographic (July 1960).

Na Pali Coast: Sacred Places

Early Hawaiians built sacred structures called heiau in the Kalalau Valley, which was occupied continuously for more than six centuries. At Nu'alolo Kai, a significant archaeological site, stone walls, ceremonial platforms, remnants of houses and canoe shelters, and many burial sites can be found. The sense of mana, or spiritual power, instilled by the gods and ancestors is particularly powerful here, according to Hawaiians. Alan Carpenter, an archaeologist with Hawaii's state parks, says, "Heiau were places to pay tribute to and communicate with various gods." In nearly all cases, he says, heiau included a built structure; some had just a single stone, others were full-scale shrines or temples—the size determined by class, gender, and family. "They were revered places," Carpenter says, noting that they also required sacrifices.

About 100 people, mostly commoners, lived in Nu'alolo Kai. They farmed terraced taro fields, collected shellfish, and gathered coral from the fringing reef to shape their bone and shell fishhooks. Reef fish included rudderfish, unicorn tang, and parrotfish. Raw and cooked urchins were popular, and urchin gonads were used as a condiment with fish, poi (cooked taro), and sweet potato.

Ceremonies were celebrated with 'awa, a ritual drink also known as kava, while hula dancers chanted and pulsed to the beat of the drums. Young men hurled firebrands from the cliff of Kamaile. Even King Kamehameha II made a trip to the island to witness the ceremonies. It's still unclear why the site was abandoned, but Hawaiians permanently left Nu'alolo Kai in 1919 for more populated parts of the island, including Hanalei and Waimea. It's possible that they were suffering from Western diseases or that their traditional trading system could no longer sustain them.

“State of Hawaii: Nu‘alolo Kai N? Pali Coast State Park.” Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Tomonari-Tuggle, Myra Jean. An Archaeological Reconnaissance Survey: Na Pali Coast State Park Island of Kaua‘i. Department of Land and Natural Resources, 1989.

Wichman, Frederick. Kaua‘i Ancient Place-Names and Their Stories. University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

Bourne, Joel K., Jr. "Fortress Coast." National Geographic (April, 2008), 109-123.

Other Resources

Edward Joesting, Kaua‘i, The Separate Kingdom. University of Hawaii Press, 1984.

Aerial footage of Kaua'i

Folk Hero of Kaua'i: Koolau the Leper

One of Kaua'i's best-known heroes, Koolau the Leper, was no stranger to the Kalalau Valley. Koolau was diagnosed with leprosy (today known as Hansen's disease) and was supposed to be relocated to Molokai Island’s leper colony, a place known as the "grave where one is buried alive." But he wasn't permitted to bring his family with him, so in 1893 he decided to seek refuge in the Kalalau Valley with his wife and son. He told his wife, Piilani, "I am with you until the bones are laid to rest."

Koolau's son, Kaleimanu, also showed signs of the disease, but the family was determined to remain together. When the deputy sheriff came to round up Koolau, Koolau shot him dead. Koolau and his family fled high into the hills, where at times they subsisted on only "a little finger-dip of poi, a little dried eel … and the dew off the leaves." Navigating tangled undergrowth and climbing precarious cliffs, the trio evaded Koolau's pursuers. Another day, after the government soldiers had engaged them in a firefight in the valley, Koolau asked his wife and son to put on their change of clothes, so they would be dressed properly for death. He said, "In the midst of this trouble, if I see that nothing remains, then I will shoot you two first and then shoot myself, and we shall all die together, then we shall not see the wicked deeds by these haole P.G. [Provisional Government forces]."

Again the trio managed to escape, successfully hiding in the uplands for two years. But Kaleimanu's condition was growing worse. With his last breath, the little boy asked his mother in a whisper, "Where is Papa? I am going to sleep." His mother's wail brought Koolau running, and together they held their son until he died.

Koolau and his wife lived for another year in the remote reaches of the valley. At times they would draw close to settlements where friends lived, remaining hidden but watching them from afar to feel more socially connected. But Koolau's symptoms became more pronounced. He told his wife, "We have lived together, looking to each other, and when I go, you must end your residence in this place and turn toward the homes of our families and give them all my love. Tell the truth if you are questioned, saying that mine was the trouble, which you and the child followed with me to the end, and that you fulfilled the oath [of marriage] you swore." Koolau grew sicker, and soon became incoherent. He entered a coma, and then, Piilani wrote, "Koolau slept quietly in death."

Piilani buried him in the valley, as he had asked her to do. Having fulfilled Koolau's final wish, she went back to their original family home, where Koolau's mother still lived. She told her of Koolau's and their son's passing. When the provisional government heard she had returned, they came to hear her story and absolved her of any wrongdoing. Piilani lived on the island until her death.


The True Story of Kaluaikoolau: As Told By His Wife, Piilani, trans. Frances N. Frazier. Kauai Historical Society, 2001.

Environmental Threats to Kaua‘i

Humans, from the early Polynesians to the Europeans, have irreparably altered the natural ecosystem on Kaua'i, introducing myriad invasive species that have severely threatened many native plants and animals.

Centuries ago Polynesians took along on their voyages about two dozen so-called canoe plants, including 'awa, a member of the pepper family, and taro (a ceremonial food called poi when it is eaten). Today other invasive plants, among them bamboo and mangrove, also threaten the island. These plants contribute "to the continued decline in biodiversity and health of native Hawaiian forests," says Kawika Winter, director of the island's National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Limahuli Garden and Preserve. The root systems of invasive plants also harm archaeological sites in the remote areas of the island.

Wild pigs and feral goats and cats have also altered the landscape. The pigs' and goats' grazing increases erosion, and cats eat the eggs of native birds. Mosquitoes, which are known to carry avian malaria and avian pox, have taken a toll on native forest birds from the lowlands. Today many bird species live only in forests 4,000 feet or higher—out of mosquito-biting range.


Northwestern Kaua‘i Recreation Map, Earthwalk Press, 2005.

Other Resources
Kaua'i Photos.

Kauai Garden Island News.

Blue Hawaiian helicopter tours

Aerial footage of Kaua'i

Dolphins on the Na Pali Coast.