Kipu Kai, Finally

Kipu Kai is a large cove on the south-east coast of Kauai, between Lihue and Poipu. It has about 2 miles of shoreline, more than half of it sandy beach. This area is nearly cut off from land access by two ridges that go down to the ocean at right angles from Mount Haupu. The wedge of land in between the ridges, as well as the only access road over them is private and closely guarded, but the beach up to the high wash of storm waves is public by law.

The combination of remoteness, seclusion, and sandy beach makes it one of those mythic “forbidden” places, coveted by modern-day explorers. Needless to say, I’ve always wanted to go there.

KipuKaiFromAirplane1 Few helicopter tours fly over Kipu Kai, but you sometimes get a glimpse of this coastline from commercial airlines landing or taking off at Lihue airport. This image shows the series of cliffs that reach down to the ocean, making access along the shoreline impossible.
This photo shows how Mount Haupu towers 2300 feet (700m) over Kipu Kai, and how the ridges wall it off from the rest of the island. KipuKaiFromAirplane2

You can also see Kipu Kai from some of the boat tours, as well as one of the ATV rides, but all of them from a distance. Fishing boats must go by here all the time, but to stand on the beach, you have to either jump from a boat or paddle in on a kayak.

With the calm seas we’ve been having recently, fellow adventurers and neighbors Randy and Ronnie proposed we do just that. It was so calm that my wife and I brought along our 2-year old daughter. We had two choices for which route to take, either from Nawiliwili harbor area or from Kawailoa bay at the end of the dirt road in Mahaulepu. It’s about 2 miles of paddling from Mahaulepu and 4 from Nawiliwili, but coming from Kapaa, we figured we’d rather spend the time in the kayak rather than in the car.

That was actually a fortunate decision because we were experiencing Kona weather, with the wind and the swell from the south. That meant that we went against them when they were mild in the morning, and they pushed us along when they both picked up in the afternoon. Here’s the map of our route, which you can download if you have Google Earth.

KipuKaiMap (click for large map)

The easiest place to lauch a kayak at Nawiliwili is at the beach park on Niumalu road, behind the small boat harbor. We had a later start than planned, so to save a bit of time (about half a mile each way) we drove through the Marriott Resort, parked at the bottom and carried the boats onto Kalapaki beach. From there, we had a straight view of our intended route across of the shipping channel, behind the behind the breakwater, and beyond to the farthest point where we turn for Kipu Kai:

KipuKai1

KipuKai2 The ocean was perfect for kayaking and we were soon out of the harbor and going past the first point. High above us was Kalanipuu (780 ft, 240m), which has an aviation beacon because it’s so close to the airport.

From here on, all the ridges and coastline were unseen terrain to us.

Before making the turn around the next point, there is this cove and small valley. The valley is somewhat of an oddity because it is nestled into what looks like a single ridge from either side, splitting it in two. The cove only has a rocky beach, which would make it hard to land and explore the valley. KipuKai3

When we rounded the “furthest” point we could finally see towards Kipu Kai. The waves and wind picked up a bit, now that we were more exposed to the southerly pattern. The coastline here consists of steep ridges, with rocky cliffs that face the sea. After passing the point of the next cliff, we caught good views of the beach already, looking like they were just beyond the next point.

KipuKai4

But looks are deceiving from sea level, and we were barely more that half-way there. It took another hour of paddling into the wind and waves to finally reach the small bay at Kipu Kai itself. Mahaulepu is another 2 miles beyond the furthest point in the photo above.

KipuKai5 The swells going into the little bay were almost surfable size, which is way too big for a kayak. You can see on the map we got pushed in and had to turn around to avoid getting swept up. Waiting for a lull between sets of waves, we then paddled straight through to the lee of the rocks in this photo.
As we paddled in, we got a good view of Mt Haupu looming over the private residence. I was a bit disappointed to paddle so far and have such and “intrusion” on my adventure, but I told myself it meant this was the more sheltered and more scenic of the three main beaches. KipuKai6

We land at last, after 2h15 of paddling it felt good to stretch our legs and rest our arms. We had a picnic lunch in the shade of the rocks of the picture above, since it’s forbidden to walk off the beach into the trees above. There is also a sign that says not to climb on the rocks—I don’t think steep rocky coasts have a public right-of-way like beaches. I have heard they keep a keen eye on visitors to make sure no one is tempted. We did see someone leave the house on an ATV, but I never saw whether they came to watch us or some other ranch business.

Speaking of ATVs, the private dirt road to Kipu Kai goes through the low notch in the ridge above the house. One of the ATV tours goes up to that col, but not down into Kipu Kai, click for the view from up there, and then tell me where you’d rather be.

KipuKai7

Then we went to expolre all the beaches we could walk to from here, which included the main beach above, and some smaller ones we saw on the way in. You can see where we went in the yellow path on the map above. The people on the beach above retreated to the house after we landed, so we had the place to ourselves. They must have been members or guests of the family who own the land, but I’m not sure if anyone lives in the house permanently or wether it’s just a weekend retreat.

At the end of the first beach is a wide expanse of extremely shallow reef. It is very flat and had less than an inch of water, none in places so we walked carefully on it. In little pools that were deeper, there were intact pink coral, sea cucumbers, and in one, juvenile pennant butterflyfish.

PinkCoral KipuKai8
LoloSeaCucumber
GreenSand GreenSandCloseup
RustedChain TangledNet

After the shallow reef, we climbed through some short rocky stretches to access the further beaches. Here were some nice stretches of sand without footprints, at least until we arrived. These beaches are at the foot of steep slopes reaching up to the high ridges. In places where runoff usually flows down from theses slopes, it has carried the green olivine crystals from the volcanic rock down to color the beach. The reef still continues here, so there is no swimming, just laying on the warm sand and staring up at the cliffs, in a way that reminded me more of Kalalau than any other place.

On the way back to the kayaks, we stayed in the rocky areas instead of the reef and found the two large pieces of maritime trash—yet both very artistic in their own way. My first impulse was to want to take them home, then I realized that I could never carry them on a kayak, and secondly it was their contrast with the relatively pristine surroundings that gave them their character.

Back on the main beach, we could look back and see the other beaches we had walked to. We could also see that the waves were getting larger, so we had better not linger:

KipuKai9

With over 4 miles of paddling ahead of us, we never even considered going to the two other main beaches to the south. Those would have to wait for another flat ocean day, and probably be wiser to attempt from Mahaulepu. The swells were noticebly larger than in the morning, perhaps the largest I’ve done in our little kayak. We pitched and rolled a little, but no waves were breaking on us and we were never in any danger of tipping over.

On the first leg of the return, the waves were coming mostly from behind, but at angle. The caused the kayak to turn, and since have a rudderless kayak that the rear paddler steers by changing the stroke, I was working extra hard. Now I understand why ocean kayaks usually have little rudders that can adjust for this. Still, the wind was at our backs and really helping us along the whole way. Plus, once we turned past the big point to head for the harbor, the waves were straight behind us and we could surf a little down each wave. In the end, it only took us 1h30 to paddle back, 1/3 less time than going.

But just because I’ve gotten into the habit of finishing with the bad news, here are two views of the development going on at the Marriott Lagoons, between the port and the airport. You can see the little detour we made on the return paddle in green on the map above.

LagoonsWaterfall What a pretty little waterfall I had never seen before, splashing down under the palm trees onto the rocks. Then I realized there is no stream here, and it must either be golf-course runoff or overflow from the artificial lagoons. Our friends thought they might be working on the Lagoons and draining them.
Manmade, yet nowhere near as pretty nor as ephemeral, we could also see one of the developments under construction. This used to be practically a blighted area. In the excess of the 80’s, there had been an ocean-front luxury shopping center for the resort guests. Later it was boarded up and the parking lot overgrown with weeds, only the brewpub survived but they no longer brewed their own beer. LagoonsConstruction

So it was little surprise it was being redeveloped. And from one of their ads, it seemed they were offering low-rise condos, from an aestethic viewpoint better than 4-story boxes or spread-out luxury homes. But on the picture above, you can clearly see that they’ve created a huge artificial hill, to create more valuable real-estate overlooking the ocean. In my mind, that should not be permitted because it destroys the natural topography, crowds the shoreline, and runs the risk of eroding faster. I’ve never been to Ninini (running waters), the little beach you can see below the development, but I’d be willing to bet that many more buildings will now be visible from that beach. And now those visions of Kipu Kai seem even more precious.

Printed from: http://great-hikes.com/blog/kipu-kai-finally/.
© 2017.

32 Comments   »

  1. Ripper says:

    Thanks for the trip report. It’s a place that’s always intrigued me as we flew in from Oahu.

  2. shad says:

    Hi I am 9 my anty and uncle are watching it for the owner I just got back from kipu kai.

  3. Kat Aha says:

    Would love to visit Kipu Kai, but not able to make the Kayak trip. Thank you for posting to your blog. I have been doing some research on the area and will be visiting in May.

  4. cole paton says:

    Kipu KIA is awesome just did the atv tour with troy and Ryan it was the best! Kipu KIA is beautiful and I hope to kayak there someday

  5. Miri Waterhouse says:

    I am also envious of everyone who has gone to Kipu Kai. My (now ex) husband tried to go and visit while he was working on Kauai, and HE wasn’t even allowed on the property. He is from the Oahu branch of the Waterhouse family tree. I am wondering if the “ATV tour” mentioned above is real (especially since he kept mis-spelling Kipu Kai), since even being related isn’t enough to get to the place… the beach route would seem to be the only way.

  6. Miri Waterhouse says:

    OK, I just did a little more searching… Kipu Ranch does the ATV tours, and it’s not the same family/location as Kipu Kai… close, but not exactly… now I have to wonder if my (now ex) husband went to the right place to begin with :) LOL

  7. Andy says:

    Hi, and thanks for the comments. I’m surprised that family can’t get in to visit, but I guess it depends on how well you know the current owners and caretakers. And yes, Kipu Ranch is unrelated, but they do have access on the private road, but only up to the pass. I’ve never gone with them, but from the photos you see on flickr, you get a nice view from up there. But it’s just the view, not access.

  8. Gordon Jacobsen says:

    Honolulu born and raised, now living on the mainland. As a Boy Scout back in 1963 our scout master (from Kauai, Charlie Scharsch) arranged for us to spend a week camping at Kipu Kai. We rode in on jeeps, picked up large sea shells off the beach, caught wild pigs and turkeys, and probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I do looking back on the experience today. We were definitely blessed to have been allowed in. Have hiked the Kalalau trail twice back in those days as well, when the trail was considered extremely difficult and inaccessible. Great memories. Back then a hermit lived at Kalalau, a Dr. Bernard Wheatley. We drove him crazy but he was still a gracious host to our gang.

  9. kaimana ah sam says:

    i lived in kipikai for years. we moved back to the big island in 99 but i just had to say that i truley know every square inch of that valley and miss it all!! most beautiful place you could ever visit and im sad that i havent been back since :( i wasnt going to comment but i had to say that even though you dont know the history of the valley i took a little offence to you saying that that “private residence” (which is not lived in, ment only for guest) was an “intrusion” on your adventure. the queen once took residence in that gorgeous home and its a VERY important part of the valley. i literally lived 20 feet from that house and as much as i wish that people could see and learn about these things im glad thats not always possible because it does not need to explain it self. im not trying to be mean im just a little protective of it. but thank you for posting your pictures! makes me home sick!
    Ke Akua Ho’omaikai Oe

  10. Haole Wowie says:

    To Kaimana ah Sam – just so you know you are mistaken, Queen Emma never lived in Kipu Kai, her residence was in Lawa’i Kai Valley…further west…. so I agree that houses along the shores are eyesores and typically belong to rich Californians. So to give everyone CORRECT history the Queen NEVER lived in that “gorgeous” home.

    Booya!

  11. Andy says:

    Wowie: to be fair, ah sam didn’t say it was the queen’s residence, just that she spent time there. However, as much as I admit I don’t know the history of the valley, I haven’t heard of any houses surving from that era. It was my understanding that the current house was a vacation house for the current owners and a caretaker’s house that was more or less permanently inhabited. From the photos, it looks like 2 main buildings. I do believe they are still ranching in Kipu Kai, but I don’t know if the ranch workers stay there or not. If anyone knows, please fill us in.

  12. T.M. Anderson says:

    I have been blessed to stay at Kipu Kai with friends that are “the family”. I hope heaven is that beautiful! There are caretakers who live there and family who stay there based on a schedule kept for vacation time. It is a memory that will be treasured forever.

  13. Jenvan says:

    Gorgeous, wonderful place; I’ve been in via land with the Rice family and picnicked and swum at those beaches.

  14. Chris says:

    After a little research, I see this is where they filmed to ‘unspoiled nature preserve’ scene in The Descendants.

  15. Andy says:

    Yes, the scene showing the family’s land in the movie The Descendants is taken from the private dirt road that goes over a ridge and down to Kipu Kai. If you take the Kipu Ranch ATV tour, I believe they have a permit to take you to that same spot (but not down to Kipu Kai). However, Kipu Kai does have a similar history: the ranch was originally owned by the Rice family, an old missionary family, and it was passed down into the Rice/Waterhouse “dynasty” on Kaua’i. However, the last of the family to die willed it to the county for public access, though his nieces get full private use of the property until their deaths. So sometime around 2030, it should finally be public. It’ll be interesting to see how the county manages access to it at that time.

    The movie does take some liberties with locations, because they are driving by Kealia beach, north of Kapaa, when they turn off the road to see their land. The road to Kipu Kai is south-west of Lihue.

  16. Lori (Fernandes) Giannini says:

    My great grandfather and grandmother migrated from Portugal to Kipu Kai in the late 1800’s. They worked there and was promised verbally a piece of the land by the King. In those days there were no deeds, so developers Alexander & Baldwin took it from him to plant a pineapple plantation.

  17. Lori Ann(Fernandes) Giannini says:

    I collect history of Kipu Kai. If there is anything you want to share, please email me.

    Mahalo
    Lori Ann

  18. Andy says:

    Hi Lori Ann, thanks for your comment. I didn’t know A&B ever owned the land or that they grew pineapples at Kipu Kai, are you sure about that? And even though you enter your email address in the comment form, it does not appear online for your safety. I do not recommend putting your email address in the body either, because then you’ll get lots of spam. If anyone wants to contact you, they can ask me and I’ll give them your email address (it does show for me when I moderate these comments).

  19. Don Hoyt says:

    Aloha Andy
    Thanks for the great blog. Your pictures are fantastic. My friend and I are preparing to paddle to Kipu Kai next week from Nawiliwili, surf permitting. We both paddle 16 foot touring kayaks with rudders so should be fun time. Have experience landing at Kalalau. A few questions if you don’t mind. Is the beach where the house is the best to land at and are the other beaches rocky?
    Thanks in advance.

    Don

  20. Andy says:

    Hi Don, good luck on your paddle, unfortunately the east side is getting swells again. I hope you have a chance to go. As for landing, it’s good you are experienced. Unfortunately, I didn’t visit or paddle to the other beaches, just the eastern-most one where the house it at. So I really don’t know the conditions, and anyways, they can easily change depending of the direction and strength of the wind and waves. But I am pretty sure they are sandy beaches (not rocky under the waterline).

  21. DRB says:

    To the author who thought the house was an intrusion on their adventure…No rich californians live in that house, nor own it. The property, along with the ranch home has stayed within the Waterhouse family since the beginning. It’s part of history for that valley. Part of the family lives on Oahu and the rest of the cousins and family live on the mainland. I will actually be lucky enough to stay at that house this coming week with very good friends who are part of the family. It’s a beautiful place and one of the few places on the island that hasn’t been overtaken by the tourist industry. There’s so much history in that valley and is truly an amazing place.

  22. Andy says:

    Hi DRB, don’t worry, I’ve read up on the history of Kipu Kai, and I know the house is a longstanding one. Notice that the “intrusion” was in quotations. You’re lucky to know the family and get an invitation. Fortunately, much of Kaua’i hasn’t been taken over by the tourist industry. Those who are willing to kayak or hike can easily find the true Kaua’i. That’s what I try to show on this blog.

  23. DRB says:

    Hey Andy,

    It was an amazing experience. One that I will never forget. It felt like a step back in time staying there for the week. Didn’t see a single soul our entire stay and having those beaches to ourselves was an experience in itself. The history that has been retained within the home is like stepping into a museum. Photos, books, and collectibles that you could spend an entire week reading and checking out. It’s great to see there still are places in our country that have not been taken over by the tourist industry. No offense taken by the “intrusion” comment. I completely understand you now. The spirituality while visiting Kipu Kai was strong and always felt like there was a presence of something else while we were visiting. Truly a magical feeling. We saw lots of seals, pigs, goats, and other wildlife too. I really hope that once the land falls into the state’s hands that nothing changes. My hope is that they stick with the plan of making it a nature preserve for others willing to take the hike to enjoy. While we were there many stories were told about the history of the land. Very cool to hear it from the older generations who basically grew up on Kipu Kai many years ago. My family and I are truly grateful for the opportunity and it’s one I will never forget. From the creaky floors in the home to the natural beauty of this untouched land is something that many of us don’t get to experience that often in our lifetimes. Thanks again for the great article, and nice work on making it over there by kayak. It’s not the easiest paddle, that’s for sure.

  24. DeborahFernandez says:

    I am desperately trying to see about visiting Kipu Kai Ranch as my grandfather was born there many moons ago. Anyone know how I could attain permission please?
    Mahalo!

  25. James says:

    Anyone that has actually experienced Kipu Kai are very protective over the place. As someone mentioned, I too know every inch of that land. I’ve been there for the first time when I was around 5 years of age and when I was old enough to learn how to drive I was given a lifetime job opportunity to work as extra help on what was once a full time working cattle ranch. When cattle ended I lost my job and some of the most memorable years.

    Although times have changed some things still remain the same. The history, the memories, and the spirit of the land. To answer some questions. No royalty lived there in modern times but princess Ruth ke’elikolani and queen Emma both loved to vacation there and there is furniture in the main house still in tact from those times.

    Long beach is federally protected and you may not land a boat and or kayak up on the sand, there are burials there and the fine of being caught is pretty steep not to mention it is very disrespectful to park on someone’s final resting place.

    All the buildings from when I was there last are still standing. There are garages and storage buildings and a barn. A shack where all the solar computers are monitored. The generator room and pump house next to each other, and the Well on the west end of the property against the mountain. Even the water tank and reservoir still stands, poorly maintained but all still there. There is that main house that has lots of bedrooms, most of em small. There is a small ranch house that used to house, another 3 bedroom home and another 2 bedroom home as well.

    Spent most of my teenage years working in Kipu Kai, first job experience I ever had and am very appreciative of the opportunity. There is lots of history in Kipu Kai and a lot of history is unknown and untold. I know this because I have seen the land and some of the past that has been forgotten and left behind. I have a great respect for that land for it has taken great care of me. A lot of people commenting on here claiming to know anything about Kipu Kai should know the facts before commenting because you never know who you may offend and honestly if you or anyone in your family have never been there for a decent period of time then you can’t say you know anything for sure.

    Apparently there are others out there lucky enough to experience Kipu Kai or who’s families have been blessed by such a special place. Based on my experiences I can tell you this, an untold truth of Kipu Kai is that there were a lot going on there in ancient times and a lot of good and bad happened there. It was a stronghold on the south eastern shore due to higher ground and Ha’upu acted as a barrier that protected the highly inhabited Hule’ia valley below. A lot of battles took place in Kipu Kai how much is uncertain, but a lot.

    I’ve always respected the land on Kauai but I hold a special place in my heart for Kipu Kai, it’s just a shame how no one is really caring for it how it should be and was once cared for. They continue to bring people in from away thinking they are going to take care of Kipu Kai like it’s their home but they take advantage of it and treat it like an extended vacation or private getaway. Since cattle ended in 2005 people have came and went over and over again. I guess the land has a way of getting rid of people that don’t care for it the way it should be. The spirits of the past, memories, and wildlife now inhabit the land, and in a way it’s better that way. The only people that would care for Kipu Kai the way it should be are those that cared for it before and who respected and loved every inch of that land as I do.

    Any questions just ask, but I don’t know everything about Kipu Kai. No one does, but I will try my best. By the way they don’t allow a lot of people access to the place because they want it to remain “private”. I get it but I feel family should be allowed to visit and people that have helped care for it throughout the years, I still have access to view it from the top of the mountain, but that’s as far as I go. Even if I could go down further I don’t think I would because it’s not how I want to remember.

  26. Andy says:

    Thanks James, for all the history and memories of the place. I realize my original article was a bit one-sided, from the point of view of the outsider who finds a way to visit this special place. I’m glad to publish the other side of the story in the comments.

    I hadn’t heard about the federally listed beach. I know there are burials at many dunes, but I didn’t realize those were in some way protected. Do you have more info about this?

  27. Shawn ilagan says:

    How long did it take you to make that kayak trip to and back? We have two kayak’s and live in Pittsburgh PA so won’t be bringing them with us but would love to also make the adventure when we visit in september 2017.

  28. Andy says:

    Hi Shawn, my GPS records show 2h15min to get there (in the morning against light wind and waves), and 1h30min to get back (in the afternoon, pushed by stronger winds and waves). I did this with my family, and I distinctly remember my wife holding my daughter who slept the whole way, and I paddled alone the whole way back, and it was still faster than into the wind.

    So the wind and wave directions are crucial and it’s important to check the forecast. If you have a headwind coming back to Lihue, you might have a very tough time making it back (and it might be impossible and you have to paddle to Maha’ulepu and call a taxi). Here’s a good site for both wind speed and wave height predictions: https://graphical.weather.gov/sectors/hawaii.php

  29. Quinn says:

    If you can believe it, I actually stayed in the ranch two years ago. I have family that are friends with the Waterhouse’s. It was the most magical experience I’ve ever had. We spent hours on the beach, surfing and snorkeling. The house is incredible. It’s not a giant estate, as you might think. It’s a beautiful ranch house with incredible rustic design. I wish so much to go back there, and hopefully I will someday!

  30. Andy says:

    Hi Quinn, thanks for sharing your story here. I still like to hear about special places like this.

  31. Deborah Fernandez says:

    I am visiting Kauai 9/23-10/1 and my cousin and I have our heart set on visiting Kipu Kai. Our great grandfather spent his younger years there and this would be a lifetime opportunity for us to visit. Can anyone help us to attain permission please? Mahalo!

  32. Andy says:

    Hi Deborah, I am posting this comment, but I doubt anyone actively monitors this blog post but me. I have no contacts for getting permission, so I can’t really help. If you are still in contact with family on Kaua’i, you might try asking them if they know someone. Good luck.

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