The sheer violence of the place is overwhelming. Large sand dunes with a blanket of green vines conceal the mighty Pacific Ocean as you approach, but can’t silence its roar.
You try to hurry toward the sound, but your feet sink into the thick soft sand. Underneath an ominous grey sky, it’s enough to get your heart racing.
Standing atop the dune you can finally see the turmoil. The waves, which rise above your head, smash against a beach that slopes toward the water as if bowing down in submission before receiving each massive blow (thank you sir, may I have another?).
As the water releases, it becomes a nasty amalgam of grey foam and brown sand.
To your left, the sandy coast curves endlessly away. To your right the dark green cliffs of the Na Pali Mountains rise straight up from the ocean shrouded in misty clouds making them even more unobtainable.
As you watch wave after wave crash into terra firma you realize that the terra that you stand on isn’t so…firm.
You’re standing on Polihale Beach State Park on Kauai, the westernmost public place one can travel to in the Hawaiian Islands. The tiny island of Niihau, which in better weather can be seen from Polihale, is farther west, but is called The Forbidden Island because even though it is inhabited, it is privately owned and visitors are rarely allowed.
Beyond Niihau are several uninhabited islands and atolls that stretch for almost 1,000 miles. They are nothing but prehistoric rocks, what’s left of ancient volcanos that crossed the Hawaiian Hotspot in the Pacific Plate long before Kauai a gazillion years ago.
The wind and waves of the open ocean have battered them to nubs. It is a fate that awaits Kauai in another 20 million years. Watching the waves at Polihale Beach you witness the disintegration in action.
Finding Polihale Beach
To get to Polihale Beach, vehicles must traverse an old sugar cane road, an unpaved ribbon of sand and dirt that can be impassible when it rains. For those who have 4-wheel drive and know what they’re doing, visitors can drive on the beach and between the dunes.
Most rental car agencies prohibit their cars from coming here, but we won’t tell if you do. If you do make all the way, Polihale is one of Kauai’s widest beaches and at 17 miles, is not only the longest on Kauai, but the longest beach in all of Hawaii.
Polihale Beach is the end of the world for both the living and the dead. According to Kauai lore, Polihale is where the souls of the departed begin their journey to the underworld. The spirits would climb up the cliffs next to beach and jump off to the spirit realm.
Overlooking the ocean on the north edge where the beach meets the cliffs is an ancient Hawaiian Heiau or sacred site. The spirits were said to rest here before the journey. Today a visit to Polihale is still a spiritual experience.
Modern visitors to Polihale treat it like any other beach. They picnic, sun bathe, build sand castles and walk along the shore. The only thing people don’t do is swim. The waves are too big and strong underwater currents and undertows make even wading dangerous and there are no lifeguards to save you if you try.
At the southern tip of Polihale is an inlet called the Queen’s Pond where a small reef protects it enough for swimming. Despite these hazards, Polihale is popular with locals. As a Hawaiian State Park, visitors can camp in designated areas and the park has picnic pavilions, showers, water fountains and restrooms.
Locals have always enjoyed Polihale, but for travelers, it can be daunting, especially the drive. To get there safely, it is best to rent a Jeep or other type of 4-wheel drive vehicle. For those renting regular cars, the drive can be done, just be sure to do so when the road is dry.
Because of Palihale’s remoteness, make sure to pack everything you’ll need for a day trip – snacks, water, maybe a jacket or extra clothing in case the weather changes.
A beach umbrella also comes in handy not necessarily for rain, but for shade during intense sun or to block the wind from blowing sand in your cooler. Don’t forget to apply plenty of sunscreen.
When you get there, you can whisper goodbye to the spirits while watching Kauai disappear from under your feet.
How to get there: From Lihue, take Highway 50 around the south side of the island toward the town of Kekaha where the road becomes Kaumuali’l Highway. You’ll pass the entrance to the Pacific Military Range at Barking Sands and head into the sugar cane fields of the Mana Valley.
Follow the signs to Polihale Beach State Park. Once in the park, there will be several camping areas and entrances to the beach, but for the best views and to get close to the Na Pali Mountains, take the road as far as you can. At the end will be restrooms, picnic pavilions and parking.
Provisions: Waimea is the closest major town to Polihale and is the perfect place for refueling the car and stocking up on provisions beforehand or recharging at a café afterward. Also, be sure to stop at Lappert’s original ice cream and coffee shop in nearby Hanapepe.
Author Bio: Carrie Dow is a freelance travel writer based in Lakewood, CO, whose work has appeared in Islands, International Living and TravelWorld International. She is the Local Editor of DrinkDenver, a part of The Drink Nation, a website and smartphone app devoted to finding the best happy hours in cities across the US. She is also the International Pet Examiner for Examiner.com where she writes about animal-based travel and global animal welfare issues. She is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the Cat Writers’ Association. An occasional football widow, she is mom to an Australian cattledog and a Siberian husky.