The northwestern margin of Kauai is one of the most extraordinary places in the Hawaiian Islands. This is the Na Pali Coast, devoid of roads and built by stunning sea cliffs, pinnacled ridges, and remote seaward valleys. The Na Pali ranks among the most beautiful places not only in the U.S., but in the entire globe, and one of the few car-accessible places to appreciate it is the Pu’u o Kila Lookout.
This viewpoint marks the end of the Kokee Road, aka Highway 550, in Kokee State Park. It’s easily one of the top scenic overlooks on the Garden Isle, and it also serves as the trailhead for one of Kauai’s great hikes: the Pihea Trail.
Set at 4,000 feet or so in elevation, Pu’u o Kila sits above the headwall of the extraordinary Kalalau Valley, the biggest of the many valleys cutting back into the Na Pali cliffs. The Kalalau Valley meets the Pacific at Kalalau Beach, the fabled backpacking destination of those trekking the challenging 11-mile Kalalau Trail from Kee Beach. The faroff floor of the Kalalau easing down to the ocean, the spectacular sheer sidewalls rising up to jagged ridges—the vista is almost unreal.
While mostly clad in vegetation, the steep slopes and ridge crests in view represent some fascinating geology: the roughly five-million-year-old Na Pali lava flows of the Waimea Canyon Basalt. This incredibly rugged coast, heavily dissected by erosion, was once part of the shoulder of the original shield volcano forming the island of Kauai.
With sea cliffs rising more than 1,000 feet directly above the waves, and with staggered ledges climbing several thousand feet higher not far inland, the Na Pali creates one of the most precipitous seacoasts on the planet. (Pali in Native Hawaiian means “cliff,” by the way.)
We’ve talked up the Kalalau views from Pu’u o Kila, but the vista southeastward to the interior of Kauai is also quite stunning. Those sightlines extend across the great Alakai Swamp of the Olokele Plateau to the green rim of Mount Waialeale.
Waialeale—part of the broken-down crest of the old shield volcano—famously ranks among the very wettest places on Earth, given an average rainfall in excess of 400 inches. The Alakai Swamp below is a nearly trackless high-elevation jungle composing one of Hawaii’s great wildernesses.
Now, we have to be straight with you: Many visitors get out of their cars at Pu’u o Kila Lookout and see barely anything of what we’ve just described. That’s because this high Na Pali vantage is often swaddled in clouds. Depending on the conditions, you may peer down into mostly a mist-swirl, maybe with glimpses of the Kalalau cliffs and divides peeking through, or the lookout itself will be swallowed up in vapors.
The socked-in atmosphere at Pu’u o Kila is, honestly, kind of cool in and of itself. But, needless to say, it can also be super disappointing not to see the postcard panorama you’ve been keenly anticipating on the drive up Highway 550.
Timing your visit to the lookout for the morning will, generally speaking, give you the best shot at clear views. Clouds are more likely to build in during the afternoon. But even if you do arrive to cloudiness, it’s worth hanging around the Pu’u o Kila Lookout if you have time. The mists can clear in a relative blink of an eye.
The Pihea Trail embarking from Pu’u o Kila is well worth taking if your schedule allows. It proceeds along the rim, serving up additional beautiful views, to the Pihea Vista, another awesome vantage. Then it continues on to meet the Alakai Swamp Trail, which forays into the Alakai jungle. Lovers of Kauai’s native plants and birdlife will love these routes, which can definitely be challenging in wet conditions. Even just a shortish jaunt on the Pihea Trail from the lookout gives you a memorable taste of the Na Pali/Alakai country away from traffic noise.
“Unforgettable” is perhaps an overused adjective, but that’s the only word to describe the Puu o Kila Lookout. If you luck out with clear views, you’re going to remember the wild Kauai scenery from here for the rest of your life!
All else being equal, midmorning is usually most ideal for a visit to the Pu’u o Kila Lookout. We’ve already mentioned that clouds are somewhat less likely during the first half of the day. But if you come too early in the morning, shadows will obscure the Kalalau Valley. At 9 or 10 AM, sunlight should be nicely illuminating the Kalalau—and hopefully, you’ll beat the cloud buildup.