Best Things To Do in Kauai
The Garden Island offers an endless amount of outdoor activity, whether you're looking to hike, kayak, swim or relax on the beach. By and far the most popular attraction on the island is the one-of-a-kind Napali Coast, which is best seen on foot hiking the infamous Kalalau Trail, trekking the edges of Koke’e State Park or from the air on a helicopter tour. If you're looking for a little less adventure, consider visiting the lower-impact Wailua River State Park or taking a dip in the calm waters of Poipu Beach Park or Kalapaki Beach. Those more interested in the underwater scenery will be in awe of the views from Hanalei Bay, Ke'e Beach or Tunnels Beach, the latter of which is considered one of the top spots for snorkeling on the island.
Updated October 3, 2019
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Waimea Canyon, aptly nicknamed the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific," should be at the top of every traveler's itinerary. This 14-mile-long, mile-wide and approximately 3,600-feet deep gorge is awash with spectacular scenery difficult to find elsewhere on the Hawaiian islands. Here, you'll find craggy red cliffsides and crested buttes blanketed in lush, evergreen vegetation as far as the eye can see, with waterfalls and rivers dotted in between. Most travelers who visit Waimea Canyon choose to take in the sight by car, as there are multiple lookout points situated along Koke'e Road, including the popular Waimea Canyon and Puu Hinahina lookout points. If you're hoping to explore outside your car, there are trails in the canyon that range from easy to difficult. Many trailheads can be found off of Koke'e Road, with some, including the Cliff Trail Lookout and the Waipo'o Falls Trail, accessible from the Pu'u Hinahina lookout point. Helicopter tours are another great way to view the canyon from all angles.
While at Waimea Canyon, be sure to pop over to the equally stunning Koke'e State Park. What makes Koke'e Park so interesting is that despite being right next to Waimea Canyon, the park has a completely different makeup. Koke'e Park occupies thousands of acres of rainforest, and as such produces a different microclimate (the farther you drive up Koke'e, the colder it gets). Like Waimea, travelers commonly explore the park via car, as the main road through Koke'e cuts through the park. While here, be sure to visit the Kalalau Lookout and the Pu'u O Kila Lookout for stunning views of the Napali Cliffs. If you want to get even closer, consider taking the Awa'awapuhi Trail, which takes hikers to the edge of some of Napali's famous cliffs. Another trail worth trekking is the Alakai Swamp Trail, which spends more time going through the park's rainforest. Wherever you decide to hike, whether it's in Waimea Canyon or Koke'e, bring proper hiking shoes to avoid falling from the slippery mud often found on Kauai trails.
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The Napali coast is a 17-mile expanse of rocky, steep, but oh-so-gorgeous series of cliffs that stretch along Kauai's northwest shore. Travelers agree there's no better way to experience Kauai's natural beauty and eye-catching terrain than at Napali, so you should make plans to marvel at it – either on foot, from the water or from the air (there are no roads that go along the Napali Coast).
Hiking the Kalalau Trail is the least expensive method of surveying this coast, but it's also an incredibly strenuous excursion that only experienced hikers should attempt. Other popular ways of taking in Napali are via boat or helicopter, which allows travelers to see parts of the coast inaccessible on foot, such as untouched beaches, sea caves and sky-high waterfalls that are tucked between the fluted cliffs. Visitors say those prone to seasickness might want to reconsider a boat tour, as the north shore's waves tend to be very rough. If you can handle the exorbitant fees, many agree a one-hour helicopter tour is the best way to view Napali; there will be no achy muscles or queasy stomach, plus you'll get to see more of the area in a shorter period of time. Whatever you choose to do, travelers said the extra effort – whether it's a challenging hike, rocky boat ride or expensive helicopter tour – was completely worth the extra effort.
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Located on Kauai's west coast, Polihale State Park is the last beach before the Napali Coast begins. On the northern tip of the beach, you can enjoy an eyeful of the edge of Napali's cliffs, and south of that, you'll have a whopping 17 miles of shore all to yourself. Because the beach is so big, it's rarely crowded. But that's also thanks in part to the road to the beach, which is an unpaved, dirt path that stretches for about 5 miles. It's so uneven that some rental car companies prohibit driving on this road. Since the road can sometimes floor during heavy rain, you'll want to check conditions before you go.
Recent visitors agreed the road to Polihale is definitely rough, but many said the beauty of the beach is more than worth the journey. The roaring waves coupled with the striking cliffs as well as the beach's lush dunes and soft sands left visitors in awe. Because it is a trek to get to the beach, travelers suggest making a day of it by bringing a picnic or even camping (for a fee), both of which are allowed. And if you have the time, stay until sunset. According to recent visitors, the sunsets here are otherworldly.
- #4View all PhotosfreeKe'e Beach#4 in KauaiBeaches, Natural Wonders, Recreation, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Natural Wonders, Recreation, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Along with Polihale State Park, Ke'e Beach is the safest beach to access for prime Napali views. Ke'e Beach is conveniently situated at the Kalalau trailhead, offering beachgoers sweeping views of the Napali cliffs from the comfort of the sand instead of the muddy Kalalau Trail. Unlike Polihale State Park, there are lifeguards posted here and depending on the time of year, it is safe to swim and snorkel, so long as you keep close to the shore. The beach also offers restrooms and showers, though due to its close proximity to the cliffs, there is no cell phone service.
Because of its stunning north shore location, recent visitors couldn't help but fall in love with Ke'e Beach. But remember, because of its location at the Kalalau Trailhead, this beach does see considerable traffic. Some recent visitors noted that parking here is exceptionally difficult. There is only one parking lot for the trailhead and the beach, so if you want to avoid a parking headache, visitors suggest you arrive as early as 10 a.m.
- #5View all PhotosfreeTunnels Beach#5 in KauaiNatural Wonders, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDNatural Wonders, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
If you're looking for a great place to snorkel in Kauai, head to Tunnels Beach. Tunnels Beach is located on the north shore of Kauai in Wainiha, about 2 miles east of the Kalalau Trail and 9 miles west of Princeville. The beach offers an expansive reef that is suitable for both novice and experienced snorkelers. Travelers can expect to see batches of coral, small sea caves and tunnels as well as wildlife, such as turtles, plenty of colorful fish, and if you're lucky, a Hawaiian monk seal. If you're not up for snorkeling, visitors say this beach is still worth a trip for its fantastic location. Here, the water is clear, palm trees abound and if you look toward the west, you can admire the cluster of lush, jagged peaks that flank the beach.
There are lifeguards stationed at Tunnels Beach and regularly posted signs outline the day's conditions. If there are signs discouraging visitors from swimming and snorkeling, do listen, as the north shore is known for being a lot rougher than southern beaches. If you're still unsure of conditions, just ask the lifeguard. It's advised that novice snorkelers stay close to the shore in the inner reef; only advanced snorkelers should venture to the outer reef, which features steep drop-offs and is subject to stronger currents. There aren't bathroom facilities at Tunnels Beach but there is some at the nearby Haena Beach Park, which is a little more than a half-mile southwest. Recent visitors also warned that parking is a problem, so plan to arrive as early as 9 a.m. if you don't want to walk too far. For more information on Tunnels Beach and other snorkeling hot spots, visit the Hawaii tourism board's website.
- #6View all PhotosfreeKalapaki Beach#6 in KauaiBeaches, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Despite its close proximity to the airport, cruise port and multiple hotels, travelers maintain Kalapaki Beach is a relaxing spot. The beach is located on the west side of the island in Lihue, an area known for friendlier swimming conditions and easy access to amenities. Kalapaki is an especially swimmer-friendly shoreline because of the nearby Nawiliwili Bay, which features a jetty and breakwaters that stop big waves from coming in. As such, this won't be the most exciting surf spot, but rather the perfect place for a relaxing dip or an afternoon of paddleboarding. And thanks to its location right in back of the popular Kauai Marriott Resort, travelers are steps away from eateries, shops on Rice Street, as well as water sport rentals.
While recent visitors do agree that Kalapaki is perfect for a soothing afternoon under the sun, some said that when cruise ships are in port, the beach does experience more visitors. And although this beach is backed by a Marriott property, it does not have lifeguards, so be mindful of conditions and don't swim at night. There are no set hours for Kalapaki Beach and it is free to visit, even if you aren't a Marriott guest. For more information on Kalapaki Beach, visit its website.
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Poipu Beach Park is considered one of the most popular beaches in Kauai. This small shoreline situated on the southern shore of the island appeals to many types of beachgoers thanks to its golden sands, calm waters and convenient location in the heart of the Poipu resort area. Here, sun seekers can easily kick back, relax and layout for hours in between the palm trees while those with kiddos needn't worry about heavy waves interrupting a family swim. Those looking for a little more adventure can enjoy boogie boarding (the beach features small waves) and snorkeling.
Poipu's versatility can be attributed to its tombola, or sandbar, that sits in the middle of the beach, affording two types of swimming environments. Little kids can wade around the left side's shallow, calm waters while more advanced swimmers and snorkelers explore the open bay on the right side. What's more, if you visit during the right time of year, you can get an eyeful of local wildlife. During migrating season (December to May), you may be able to spot humpback whales spouting in the distance. And on the shore, you may see some endangered Hawaiian monk seals taking a siesta. The downside to Poipu's popularity is there's very little chance for privacy here, especially in the peak travel season.
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Hanalei Bay is located about 4 miles southwest of Princeville, one of the island's premier resort areas. Hanalei Bay is composed of three different beaches: Waioli Beach Park, Hanalei Beach Park and Black Pot Beach, the latter of which is sandwiched between the historic Hanalei Pier and the mouth of the Hanalei River. Travelers say they didn't notice much of a difference between the three beaches, noting that unless there are signs posting otherwise, it's safe to swim. Lifeguards can be found at multiple points along the beach and bathroom facilities are also on-site. And just a few blocks south on Kuhio Highway, travelers will find many more amenities, including dining options, shopping, as well as various water sport rentals, including kayaks and catamarans. If you're looking to surf in Kauai, know that this spot is loved by locals.
It's important to note that while Hanalei is safe for swimming, conditions vary by season. Travelers who visited during winter said that the waves were a lot rougher, while those who came in the summer said the waters were calm. Always pay attention to signs posted by lifeguards and never swim at night. There are no set hours for Hanalei Bay and it is free to visit, even if you're not a guest at one of the bay's hotels. Because the beach is so big, visitors say the beach doesn't get too crowded, but warned that there isn't a whole lot of parking in the area, so be sure to get there early to score a spot. And even if you're not up for swimming, surfing or boating, travelers say the beach's unparalleled beauty – especially considering its sweeping views of the nearby mountains – are more than worth the journey. For more information on Hanalei Bay, visit the Hawaii tourism website.
- #9View all Photos#9 in KauaiHiking, Natural Wonders, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Natural Wonders, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
If you want to experience Kauai's majestic rainforests without breaking too much of a sweat, then you'll want to add Wailua River State Park to your itinerary. This park is home to the only navigable river in Hawaii, allowing visitors to get an eyeful of the lush valley on a boat tour. Other popular points of interest in the park include Opaekaa Falls and Wailua Falls, both of which travelers can drive to. Wailua Falls is unique in that that the rocky terrain of the river above forms two separate streams that create two waterfalls in one spot. Meanwhile, the water of Opaekaa Falls glides down a jagged cliffside. From its vantage point, you can't see the source of the falls nor its end point; the area is completely shrouded in jungle vegetation. However, it is one of the most accessible waterfalls in Hawaii, with its vista point located right off of Kuamoo Road.
In addition to housing notable natural attractions, Wailua River State Park is known for its historical significance. Ancient Hawaiians used to consider this river sacred. As such, several temples and royal sites were located here. If you have time, stop at the Wailua Complex of Heiau, a National Historic Landmark that houses remnants of this era, including ruins, ancient birthing stones and stone carvings with petroglyphs.
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