My favorite yoga teacher and dear friend is camping in the Kalalau Valley the next few days to celebrate her birthday. This reminded me to share my dramatic sunset image I created the last time I backpacked in there in September 2019. I’ve been fortunate to visit this magnificent setting a half-dozen times over the past 20+ years. The Kalalau is a special, some would argue sacred, place located on the north shore of Kauai. In order to visit, I had to hike 12 miles along the rugged Na Pali Coast. It’s up and down, hot as heck, and in some spots quite treacherous. The trail can be intimidating, but I’ve never found the exposure to be a problem since I used to climb frozen waterfalls for fun. My photographer friend Stephen Matera flew out from Seattle to join me on this excursion. After camping for 4 days, this was my favorite image. I love how the sky briefly exploded with color as the sun sank below the horizon.
Recently, my best buddy Tom visited me on Kauai. This was his third trip to the island and I wanted to show him some locations that he had not previously visited. One afternoon, we hopped in my truck and drove around to the other side of the island in order to go hiking in Kokee State Park. On the drive up, Waimea Canyon was pretty socked in with clouds. We continued on to the Kalalau Lookout and glimpsed dramatic views of the valley below as the clouds swirled around us. Deciding to take our chances, we grabbed our gear and hiked down the trail to my favorite viewpoint which is not for people who have a fear of heights. As the sun lowered towards the horizon, the clouds cleared out and this spectacular scene was revealed. I had photographed this same composition years ago and still love how it frames the landscape. Also, my five previous attempts to photograph the valley in 2019 were all thwarted by thick clouds, so I am happy that we got to experience this magical sunset together.
I have been intending to share this exciting news for a while. My photo of the Na Pali Coast at sunset is featured on the cover of the 2019 Sierra Club Wilderness calendar! This is the second time in 9 years that one of my images was chosen for the cover. I photographed this dramatic sunset during the first winter after I moved to Kauai. I have been photographing this location for almost 20 years and it is one of my favorites on the island. Unfortunately, due to the extraordinary rain and floods this past April, it is currently impossible for visitors to experience this stunning view until the road is repaired. I hope that when it eventually reopens that there will be some significant changes to the parking situation and limits on the number of daily visitors.
The last month, I have been home on Kauai and had a lot of friends and family visiting. It has also been raining constantly, so I have not been attempting to do any photography. I was getting kinda antsy to shoot again, so on Sunday afternoon, I checked the satellite view and gambled that the weather was going to clear just in time for sunset. I threw my photo bag into the backseat of my truck and decided to drive out to Kee Beach for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long. It was ugly when I arrived. Pouring rain. Lots of wind. Man, what the heck was I thinking? After staring longingly at the gray horizon, I skulked back to my truck, grabbed my towel, and meagerly dried off. Just as I was about to literally throw in the towel and drive home for dinner, I noticed a faint glimmer of sunshine peaking below the clouds. I grabbed my camera gear and walked down the beach in the still pouring rain. I could tell that the light was only going to get better, but the rain still wasn’t letting up. The next few minutes anxiously passed by and the rain finally began to taper off. I pulled out my camera and got everything set up just in time to catch this intense, but very brief lightshow.
Last summer, I flew my drone above Polihale Beach on Kauai but did not create the image that I was hoping for. When I returned in December to try again, I was pleased to experience the ideal conditions which lead to this photograph. Late in the afternoon, the wind was non-existent and the clouds boiled over the rugged cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. I prepared my hexacopter for its initial flight and was ready for takeoff when the sunlight began to penetrate beneath the clouds on the horizon. Though I flew as far as 300m offshore and as high as 100m in the air, this photo was created at about half that distance and elevation during my reconnaissance of the scene.
It is difficult to adequately describe what it is like to visit the Kalalau Valley on Kauai. Most tourists only see this spectacular location from a boat or a helicopter, but they miss out on the authentic Kalalau experience by not camping on the beach or in the valley. I have been fortunate to be able to visit the Kalalau five times over the last 14 years, including four nights a little over a week ago. I tried to photograph this composition during my previous visit in May, but was thwarted by the afternoon clouds which obscured the ridges and blocked the sunlight. By returning again so soon, I was rewarded with the necessary conditions to create this dramatic image. I hope that viewers of this photo will take a few moments to appreciate the serene energy that is the Kalalau.
I am often asked what is my favorite location that I have photographed. This is a difficult question to answer, but one of the places that I would consider to be towards the top of my list would be the Na Pali Coast of Kauai. This otherworldly landscape with its 4000′ jagged ridges emerging from the tropical Pacific is simply breathtaking to behold. During my recent visit, I returned to the top of the island for the first time in almost a decade with my friends Patrick and Marcus. We set out to hike Kalepa Ridge before sunset. I would like to point out that this is not a trail for anyone who is afraid of heights, since much of the trail hugs the knife edged ridge which drops straight down into the Kalalau Valley. Towards the end of the trail, I discovered this ethereal composition and set up my camera to shoot sunset. For my effort, I was rewarded with golden light, dramatic clouds, and a deep sense of satisfaction to be able to spend time in such an amazing place.
I first visited Polihale Beach on the remote west side of Kauai in 2000 and last photographed it using my medium format Pentax 67 camera in 2003. It is a lovely beach on the dry side of the island, though, it is often overrun by 4wd vehicles. This makes it challenging to compose an image to say the least. During my recent visit, I was fortunate that it was the low season for tourism, so there were not that many people out there. Still, I had to get down very close to this sand berm in order to eliminate my fellow tourists and a few vehicles from my composition. I visited the beach two days in a row and on my second visit photographed this dramatic light against the cliffs of the Na Pali Coast with clouds billowing in the sky above.
I flew my hexacopter almost every day during my recent trip to Kauai, including at Kee Beach my last two sunsets. I have previously photographed the Na Pali Coast from the shoreline rocks on the far right of this image, but this time I flew my copter from the flat heiau hidden just above. Not only was this a perfect landing zone, but I had it all to myself. I find that it is much too distracting and dangerous to fly around people. I lucked out that there was almost no wind and the sun kept poking through the clouds to illuminate the scene. Dappled light underneath dark clouds is my favorite landscape photography situation. I digitally removed the tiny dots of people on the beach and snorkeling in the water, but also kept the original for my editorial clients.
Over the years, I have photographed a few epic sunsets while on our family vacations, which in some instances have paid for the entire trip. I do occasionally get some push back from my girls for getting up too early or disappearing in the afternoon, but it’s the price I pay for being a husband and father that makes his living by selling pretty pictures. During our recent trip to Kauai, I returned to Kee Beach seven days in a row to shoot sunset. Wouldn’t you know it, but my best image was photographed on my first attempt. I guess I should have stayed at the beach more with my girls. Oh, well. While setting up for this dramatic scene, I got hit by a few waves and right at the critical moment as the sun was touching the horizon a large wave washed completely over me and almost swept me out to sea. Yikes!