Hawaii Part 1: Rugged & Breathtaking Kauai

In June, I ventured to Kauai to celebrate my good friend Andy’s wedding. Back in 2000, Andy left the island and came from across the globe to attend the University of Maryland with me and our college friends. Somehow, I think he mixed up his directions! Who would leave Kauai for Maryland? Certainly not me, after the trip I experienced.

Kauai is an island of beautiful paradoxes. It is the oldest in a set of young volcanic shield volcano islands. It is home to one of the wettest places on Earth, as well as a huge beach desert.  It has some of the most plush, lavish beach resorts and has some of the most remote campsites.

In exploring this wild and scenic island, I thought it would be best to explore it intimately from one of those campsites. While I’m still relatively new to camping, the times I had done it were always worthwhile. So I set forth to Kauai to explore the island on my own for a few days, before my fiancé joined me for Andy’s wedding.

Kauai’s distinctive and dramatic natural features are tied to a very compelling geologic history. Kauai is the oldest in the chain of Hawaiian shield volcanos, though older islands exist to the west into the Midway islands. A shield volcano is the result of a hotspot, originating from deep below the Earth’s crust, spewing lava upwards and above sea level. As tectonic plates move, the hotspot builds islands over different locations — resulting in the chain we see today.

Kauai formed nearly 6 million years ago, as one huge volcanic rock. While volcanic rocks are some of the most resilient, such “basalts” have a fatal characteristic which spells doom for each such island. When exposed to water, these rocks rust, just as iron does, and become extremely erosive. Add weather, including heavy rainfall and wind, as well as time, and it means that Kauai is slowly being eroded into the sea and out of existence.

One can see this geologic history and future when witnessing some of Kauai’s most grandiose natural structures:

To the north, the Na Pali coastline is a rugged stretch of cliffs that acts as a wall against moisture coming in from the sea. As the moisture arrives and pounds against the mountains, large amounts of rain are dumped on the cliffs. Over millions of years, this water has chiseled curves and flaps in Na Pali before spreading and drying to the south. As the water chisels down, it reveals more basalt to the elements in the central part of the island, causing the volcanic rock to rust and redden — the Waimea Canyon. The moisture that originates in the north quickly loses steam over the large mountains and through the canyons, and barely has any strength to rain on the southern part of the island — and results in desert like shorelines near Polihale.

It’s quite amazing to me to see a snapshot in time of Kauai in the midst of its dynamic geologic changes. It’s a microcosm to me of the gargantuan wheels of the Earth and Universe that are constantly at work, reshaping our surroundings in profound ways.

So to experience all of the amazingness that Hawaii and Kauai is, I decided to first camp at Kokee State Park. After grabbing  camping equipment from Andy at his house in Lihue, I made my way to Kokee and hunkered down in a spot just near the parking lot. It was far easier camping at Kokee than my last trip at Olympic National Park, the latter which I had to hike 4 miles to the campsite!

My Campsite at Kokee

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My Campsite at Kokee
Just past sunrise, sunlight through mist from the mountains causes a rainbow that stretches deep into the red Waimea canyon

After an afternoon of wandering about the park, I realized that half of the hiking trails were no longer in service. The guidebook I used, “Kauai Revealed” (highly recommend, by the way), warned me of this but I was adamant nonetheless. Finally, at sunrise after my first night, I decided on the Canyon Trail, which took me straight into Waimea Canyon.

And what a site that canyon is. The “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” is a stark red and orange trough to a babbling brook of the Waimea river. The canyon walls are made of the same basalt from millions of years ago, but now oxidized and decomposed to a packed red sand. With just a little effort, you can literally grab the rock off of the walls and sift it through your fingers, like uncooked rice.

As sunrise approached, clouds formed and dissipated over the peaks of the canyon walls. Lack of cloud cover is not usually a good thing when it comes to landscape photography. But, the geology of Kauai came through for me! Mist from the cliff tops to the northwest sprayed through the canyon gorge. As the sun rose above the horizon, light streamed through the mist and created a beautiful rainbow:

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Rainbow Canyon
Just past sunrise, sunlight through mist from the mountains causes a rainbow that stretches deep into the red Waimea canyon.
Nikon D800, Nikon 14-24 @14mm, CPL, f/9, ISO 50, 1/80 sec

After sunrise, I spent some time just soaking in the incredible sight before me. What was most evident was the stark green trees that grew in the flatter curves of the red walls:

Canyon Walls Waimea

The Canyon Green
Green trees adorn the red walls of Waimea Canyon, Kauai.
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 70-200 F4L IS with 1.4x TC @202mm, f/9, ISO 50, 1/5 sec

At the end of the day, I returned to the canyon to see how the light had changed. After the sun set, a fierce wind picked up. I noticed it pushing through a set of trees just barely hanging to their roots. I liked the juxtaposition of shapes between the roots and the blowing leaves:

“Keep Reaching”
[image_frame align=”left” height=”320″ width=”640″ title=”Trees cling to their existence on the steep walls of the Waimea Canyon, Kauai” alt=”Keep Reaching”]http://navinsarmaphotography.com/wp-content/gallery/places/hawaii/waimea_cliffside_tree.jpg[/image_frame]

Trees cling to their existence on the steep walls of the Waimea Canyon, Kauai.
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 24-105 F4L IS @ 85mm, 10 stop ND filter, f/16, ISO 50, 25 sec

While Waimea Canyon is undoubtedly one of the most amazing places I’ve seen, I was even more excited to check out the north coast and the famed Na Pali coast line – where the rugged greens rise high in “cathedrals” cut through the basalt. While Na Pali might be best seen from the air and sea, where one does not need to balance on sharp cliffs to gawk a view, it is still quite amazing to sea from the Kalalau Trail. A legendary and strenuous “hike”, this trail winds 11 miles from Kee beach to the Kalalau Valley itself, in the heart of Na Pali.

I decided to hike a portion of this trail. One – because you need a permit to hike past a certain point and two – because I had been hiking non stop for 3 days at this point!

I started down the trail just before sunrise. I scaled up and down the mud, through thick brush before being treated to a majestic scene of the stretch of coastline fading to the distance:

“Soft & Rugged”
[image_frame align=”left” height=”512″ width=”640″ title=”Pink clouds float from the sharp cliffs of Na Pali, Kauai” alt=”Soft & Rugged”]http://navinsarmaphotography.com/wp-content/gallery/places/hawaii/napali_coast_sunrise.jpg[/image_frame]

Pink clouds float from the sharp cliffs of Na Pali, Kauai.
Nikon D800, Nikon 14-24 @18mm, CPL, f/9, ISO 50, 1/5 sec

I continued two miles to Hanakapiai Beach. A pit stop of sorts for those who camp and come through the trail, it was empty that early in the morning. I spent some time just hanging on that beach and watching the violent waves crash against the basalt columns. I could see why there were several signs to beware of the current.

I then shifted my path inward towards Hanakapiai Falls. The trail became much rougher at this point as it lined the rapids that flowed from the green cliff tops. Often times, it took a climb here and a swing there to stay on the path. I still lost track of the path many times as it is one of MANY trails in Kauai that is poorly marked. After two miles of hiking and traversing the river several times, I finally arrived at the falls.

Majestic, and worth it. The falls dropped amazing amounts of water from high above into a green pool. From there, the pool overflowed down a through the valley and towards the beach I came from. After gawking at the immense falls up close, I found a spot a couple hundred yards away that captured the flow as well as its journey towards the ocean. I used an ND filter to highlight the movement in the water, which formed in amazing eddies over the submerged brush:

“Jungle Cascades”
[image_frame align=”left” height=”900″ width=”600″ title=”Rainwater from the cliffs surges through Hanakapiai Falls and into the Valley. ” alt=”Jungle Cascades”]http://navinsarmaphotography.com/wp-content/gallery/places/hawaii/hanakapiai_falls_swirls.jpg[/image_frame]

Rainwater from the cliffs surges through Hanakapiai Falls and into the Valley.
Nikon D800, Nikon 14-24 @17mm, ND8, f/22, ISO 50, 5 sec

After that was the long, 4 mile trek back to Kee. If I can say one thing, it would be that Kauai’s trails (including the Pihea trail, which I completed but don’t mention here since I didn’t get any great images from it) are hardcore. They are certainly adventurous and rough. But, I really feel like I appreciate the land that much more in that I was able to experience the wilderness of it.

The next couple days, I stayed relatively close to the paved paths — as Andy’s wedding celebrations started and I couldn’t be TOO too rough looking (any more than four days of being unshaven, wet, and caked in clay red-stained clothes and my looks might not have even been salvageable!).

I first ventured up the North Coast onto King’s and Queen’s bath. An amazing geological structure, this is an enclave of black volcanic rocks (by the way, I am not sure why these rocks remained black as others had oxidized over the years) at the shore of the violent Pacific.

What an dramatic and humbling experience! As the tide rolled in, it brought immense waves that crashed emphatically against the rocks. The best compositions were down where the waves crashed (of course), so I had to try my luck to position myself down there.

A couple deep breaths and an adventurous spirit and I was down in the rough — if only for moments. Every 10 seconds, a gargantuan wave would approach, causing me to quickly scamper to safe ground. Now, I’m not a fool, so I don’t think that any of these waves ever really threatened my life or risked me falling into the ocean, but a little slip here or there and I could have been in trouble! A game of hide and seek with the waves, and luckily I came away with just a wet shirt and slightly wet lens:

“King’s Brew”
[image_frame align=”left” height=”427″ width=”640″ title=”At sunset at King’s Bath, water from the incoming tide pulls and smashes against the volcanic rock of the North Coast that leads to Na Pali” alt=”King’s Brew”]http://navinsarmaphotography.com/wp-content/gallery/places/hawaii/kings_bath_kauai.jpg[/image_frame]

During sunset at King’s Bath, water from the incoming tide pulls and smashes against the volcanic rock of the North Coast that leads to Na Pali.
Nikon D800, Nikon 14-24 @22mm, 10 Stop ND filter, f/22, two exposures for dynamic range (blended by “darken” mode)

As I continued to watch the waves building and smashing against the coast, I was intrigued by the way the water collected its momentum. Just outside the cove of King’s Bath seemed to be a drop off in elevation of rock. As water receded, it began to collect and form new waves that, in turn, came towards the shore. This repetitive process was mesmerizing, and slightly different each time. Sometimes the water would curl up and fold, and other times it would take interesting wheel like shapes as they charged forward. Here is such a wheeling motion behind the sheen reflection of the warm sunset light:

Off to the Races
Momentum in wave formations gathers in interesting shapes and colors at King’s Bath, Kauai.
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 70-200 f4L [email protected], ISO 250, f/7.1, .5 sec, 

On my final day at Kauai, I decided to venture back up Kokee to Kalalau Lookout. Where I would have LOVED to embark on one of the epic trails that align the ridge, I simply did not have time and had to work with the lookout point. But, given my days of experience with the cliff lines, I had something in mind.

What intrigues me the most about Kalalau and the entire northern chain of cliffs are the sensual shapes taken through years of erosion from dripping rainfall. Such exquisite cuts in the valley and ridges were a joy to explore through my lens.

I first took notice at the cliff tops that face out towards the Pacific. I had two distinct visions: I felt that the black & white really accentuates the shapes against the vast pacific ocean, while the color gives a little more sense of place and view into the ridges.

Na Pali cuts a jagged space high above the Pacific Ocean

Cut from the Sea
Na Pali cuts a jagged space high above the Pacific Ocean.
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 70-200 F4L IS @70mm,  f/9, ISO 100, .5 sec

alalau, with its intricate shapes and contours, stands high and mighty above the Pacific Ocean

Kalalau, with its intricate shapes and contours, stands high and mighty above the Pacific Ocean.
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 70-200 F4L IS @70mm,  f/9, ISO 50, 2 sec

My last image from Kauai might be one of my favorites. After spending time studying the shapes of the cliffs of Kalalau, I then concentrated on the valley walls themselves. Cool mist covered the valley, muting the colors in the high altitude. But a small amount of sunlight pushed through to the tree-lined cliffs, and accentuated the frayed card deck shape that stretched into the distance:

Kalalau Valley Sunrise

Mist in the Valley
Mist scatters the cool morning light amongst the cliff edges of the Kalalau Valley.
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 70-200 F4L IS @75mm,  f/11, ISO 50, 2.5 sec

I hope you enjoyed my images from Kauai. Soon, I’ll share the images from the tail end of my trip in Maui.

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