I like to think of Hanakapiai as Neverland’s Playground. It’s a picturesque hike to a breathtaking waterfall that’s worth the work. Mountain apple blossoms drop their fuchsia petals in the late spring, carpeting the trail to Kauai’s 300-foot Hanakapiai Falls.
The delicate flowers add their brilliance to the waterfalls and lush greenery of one of nature’s ultimate playgrounds, and provide a soft spot for another treasure along the eight-mile trail: mangoes.
A dozen unripe fruits peppered the trail in early May when I took on the eight-mile, round-trip hike in Kauai’s Napali Coast State Park, and I examined a few before finding one ripe enough to eat.
But the mangoes didn’t appear until I’d hiked the first two miles; from the trailhead at Ke’e Beach to Hanakapiai Beach.
Those first two miles of the trail are all about endurance, with a hill that gets hot in the steady sun and stretches of thick vegetation that can become stifling without a breeze.
The reward for the journey is Hanakapiai Beach, a breathtaking place for lunch but not a good spot to get into the ocean. Rip currents at the beach make for treacherous swimming.
From the beach, the trail to Hanakapiai Falls turns inland and the focus switches to dexterity as hikers navigate tree roots and rocks. Water flows over the trail in many places and the trail crosses the stream five or six times before reaching the falls.
Rock-hopping down the trail, I worked up a sweat and was delighted to find a natural pool about three miles into the hike. The water was so clear I could see the bottom, but the pool was deep enough for a full swan dive.
After lounging in the pool, which is fed by a low waterfall, I picked my way through the forest for about half of an hour to reach the centerpiece of the hike: Hanakapiai Falls.
Jumping into the pool that surrounds the falls isn’t as peaceful as diving into some of the other places along the trail. The frigid water is a shock to your system and I wasn’t the only one that let out a yell after diving in.
By noon, about 20 people congregated along the edges of Hanakapiai Falls, and I sliced into the mango I’d found while I watched every single one of them take a turn in the water.
Most swam in brisk circles around the edges of the falls, and a few brave people took on the challenge of swimming directly underneath the waterfall.
A man from Florida asked me if I thought a rock falling from the top of those falls would kill him if it hit him in the head. I told him I didn’t know the probability of that event actually happening, but with that thought in mind, I suggested he not stay under that plume too long.
After spending hours in The Garden Island’s Napali jungle gym, the hike back to the Ke’e trailhead is long and can be exhausting.
I was thankful I’d remembered to conserve enough water for the journey back — especially the last uphill climb where the heat that can set in and become uncomfortable.
But, even in the arduous climb back to my car, I was able to take a few breaks and soak in a fresh breeze while catching my breath and taking in the staggering coastline views one last time.
During one such pause in my climb, I considered how many people get stuck on this wilder side of Hanakapiai Stream due to inclement weather. The water level can rise in this stream suddenly and strand hikers overnight.
Some people who have tried to cross the stream in high conditions have been swept out to sea and lost their lives.
Knowing this, I’d been watching the weather for days prior to taking the hike, and I also stashed a can of beans, a lighter, an extra jacket and a portable straw that filters water in my pack. I encountered only beautiful weather and my pack was a bit heavy, but I felt it was better to be safe than stranded without anything to eat.
I returned to a packed parking lot about eight hours after I’d started my Hanakapiai Falls adventure. Because I arrived at the trailhead early that morning, I had a prime spot and my car was shaded enough that my back-up water bottle was still chilled.
I caught the dredges of the sunset over a Rob’s Salad and a gin and tonic at Olympic Café. Then I unloaded my gear and set that can of beans from my pack on my pantry shelf for the next time I get a chance to play in the North Shore’s natural nirvana.
Written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published May 24, 2017. Photos by Jessica Else.