Expansive lush greenery and tropical rainforests have earned the island of Kauai its nickname, “The Garden Island.” The natural beauty of Kauai is breathtaking with steep jagged mountains, cascading waterfalls, and rich green flora. Although the area of Kauai is only 550 square miles, there is a lot to do and see on the island. If you love natural beauty and outdoor adventures, Kauai is the Hawaiian island for you.
Renting a car is the only way to experience everything Kauai has to offer. Besides the occasional traffic congestion, driving on Kauai isn’t a problem. The only relatively challenging stretches to drive are the Kuhio Highway from Princeville to Ha’ena State Park and the road to Polihale State Park. The Kuhio Highway is similar to the Road to Hana on Maui with sharp curves and several one-lane bridges. The last five miles of the road to Polihale State Park are not paved and can be challenging without a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
The rugged mountains on the Napali Coast are only accessible by foot or boat. There is no road to drive around the entire island.
Where to Stay
There are three main areas to stay on the island of Kauai. The North Shore, East Shore, and South Shore. The North Shore gets the most rain and is therefore lush and green. The East Shore is a great central location for driving anywhere on the island. It is not as remote as the North shore and encompasses the towns of Kapaa, Wailua, and Lihue. The South Shore is the most touristy area on Kauai and usually has the sunniest weather.
You can’t go wrong staying in any of the three areas.
Things To Do And See On The Island Of Kauai
Almost all activities on Kauai center around getting outside and enjoying the natural beauty of the island.
Here are eight incredible things to do and see on the island of Kauai. They are listed from the northeast side of the island all the way around to the northwest side.
Hike the Kalalau Trail on the Na pali Coast
Arguably the most scenic hike in the entire state of Hawaii is the Kalalau Trail. The hike takes you along the rugged cliffs of the Na Pali Coast surrounded by lush greenery. The views of the powerful waves crashing below and the expansive Pacific ocean are absolutely stunning.
The Kalalau trail is rated challenging in part because the trail is usually muddy and slippery. If you luck out and have a sunny day, the hike will be much easier. The four mile hike to Hanakapiai beach and back is a perfect day hike. The first two miles of the hike are accessible without a pass but you will need a pass if you plan to hike past Hanakapiai beach.
The limited number of parking spaces at the trailhead had been a huge problem for years. In June of 2019, the State Park started requiring anyone who is not a resident of Hawaii to purchase a parking pass or ride a shuttle from Princeville. Parking, shuttle rides, and hiking passes can be purchased from Hanakapiai State Park’s website up to thirty days in advance.
Stand up Paddle Board on Hanalei River to Hanalei Bay
The Hanalei River is the perfect place for beginners to experts to stand up paddleboard. The river is wide and placid so your focus can be on the panoramic surroundings instead of staying upright on your board.
Kayak Hanalei is located along the highway in Hanalei adjacent to the Hanalei River. It is the most convenient place to rent stand up paddleboards in Hanalei. Parking is available on-site and you can start paddling from their private dock.
From the starting point at Kayak Hanalei, you can choose to paddle up the river towards Hanalei Wildlife Refuge or down the river or into Hanalei Bay. You can’t go wrong either direction although if you choose to go into the bay it is much more challenging to stand up paddleboard in the waves.
Rent a bike and ride the coastal trail in Kapaa
Riding a bike on the coastal trail in Kapaa is one of the best ways to spend a day in Kauai. The trail is four and a half miles from Kapa to Ahihi with stunning ocean views along the way. It is an easy bike ride with minimal elevation gain and loss along the way.
Coconut Coasters is a great place in Kapaa to rent a bike. It is close to the bike path and they have a variety of bikes to choose from. If you are traveling with kids, you can rent kid-sized bikes, kids’ attachment bikes, or a tow-behind trailer for a toddler or baby. They also rent beach cruisers and tandem adult bikes.
You could spend a whole day riding the nine miles round trip because there are so many beautiful viewpoints to stop at. Donkey Beach is a beautiful beach near the end of the bike path. It is accessed by a short hike down a steep trail. Because access is a little challenging, there is a good chance that you will have the entire beach to yourself.
There are plenty of great restaurants and food trucks for lunch in Kapaa.
Kayak up the Wailua River
Another placid river in Kauai that is perfect for kayaking is the Wailua River south of Kapaa. Most of the kayak rental companies on the Wailua River require you to go kayaking with a tour guide. The tour is about five hours long and goes up the Wailua River to the Secret Falls trail. The waterfall is a short but muddy hike from the river so make sure you wear appropriate hiking shoes or sandals.
It is possible to rent kayaks and go without a guide but it is a little more work. There is nowhere to rent kayaks right on the river so you will have to load the kayaks on top of your car and drive to the put-in. It is more trouble but if you want to get away from the crowds and kayak at your own pace, this is the way to go.
*Before or after your kayak trip, it is worth your time to drive two miles up Kuamoo road to the Opaekaa Falls lookout. The viewpoint offers an amazing view of the powerful waterfall surrounded by lush greenery.
Poipu beach is located on the sunny south side of the island where the weather is great for a day at the beach. It is the perfect beach park for snorkeling, swimming, boogie boarding, playing in the sand, or lounging on the beach.
There is plenty of parking available and a lifeguard on duty seven days a week. You will have a good chance to see sea turtles or a Hawaiian Monk Seal on the shore. The grassy park area behind the beach provides plenty of shade and several picnic areas. Brennecke’s Beach Broiler is right across the street from the beach. There you have the option to eat in the restaurant upstairs or get snacks and shave ice from the small store.
Spouting Horn Blowhole
The Spouting Horn Blowhole is a quick stop but definitely worth your time. The power of the Ocean waves forces water into a natural lava tube causing water to spray up to fifty feet in the air. It is an incredible sight and is often accompanied by an eerie hissing sound when the spray is large.
The parking lot is a short walk from the viewpoint. There is a chain link fence surrounding the viewpoint because it is very dangerous to walk on the shoreline near the spouting horn.
Visit Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon is called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”. If you are lucky enough to visit Waimea Canyon State Park on a clear day you will see why. The canyon has been carved out over the years by erosion from the powerful Waimea river. It is ten miles long and approximately 3,000 feet deep.
The best viewpoint of the canyon is accessed by the Iliau Nature Loop trail. The loop is a short 0.3-mile paved trail to an overlook that offers expansive views of Waimea Canyon on a clear day.
Adjacent to Waimea Canyon State Park is Koke’e State Park. If you have time for a hike I would suggest the Pihea trail. Although it can be extremely muddy, the views down to the Na Pali Coast are spectacular.
Polihale State Park Beach
As far north as you can drive on the west shore of Kauai, you will find Polihale State Park Beach. It is one of the longest stretches of beach in Hawaii and certainly worth the drive. With towering sand dunes, distant views of the rugged Na Pali cliffs, and limited crowds, Polihali is a beach that shouldn’t be missed.
The last five miles to the beach in Polihale State Park are accessed by an old sugarcane dirt road. The road isn’t well maintained and it’s recommended that you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle. It is possible to drive a regular car but it will take a long time avoiding the potholes and washouts.
Because of the remote location, Polihale beach is rarely crowded, especially if you plan a visit during the week. There is little shade and nowhere to purchase food so you’ll want to bring an umbrella and a cooler with snacks and drinks.
*There are no lifeguards on Polihale Beach and swimming can be dangerous. Enjoy the beautiful views of the distant Na Pali cliffs and numerous sand dunes from the shore and save ocean swimming for Poipu Beach.
Kauai is truly a nature lover’s paradise. There is so much to do and see on the island. The key to an amazing trip is to not try to fit everything in. Pick what you want to do and see and take your time enjoying the beautiful island of Kauai.
By Diane McAllister
Diane is the creator and writer behind the family travel blog travelswitheli.com. Travels With Eli provides destination ideas, travel tips, and inspiration for families to create priceless memories through travel. Diane loves planning and embarking on travel adventures with her husband and son. When not traveling she is enjoying life with her family in the beautiful mountains of Colorado.