Kauai is a lush paradise, with mountains, waterfalls, and a dramatic coastline. It is the oldest and westernmost of the large islands in the Hawaiian chain, and as a result has the most diverse range of plant life, a feature that has earned it the nickname of the “Garden Isle.”
The main attraction is the beautiful Waimea Canyon, which competes well with other scenic sites around the world. Unlike Oahu, which concentrates on cultural, urban, and entertainment-related attractions, Kauai offers a land of adventure and things to do. Some of these possibilities include boat trips to view the scenic Na Pali cliffs on the Northwest coast, kayaking down streams, helicopter flights, hiking, and the beaches.
The island can be toured in two full days, with one day devoted to sites along the road west of Lihue, which curves up to Waimea Canyon, and a second day concentrating on the road that runs to the northern coast. However, most visitors will want to spend much more than two days on Kauai.
Discover the best places to visit on the island with our list of the top attractions on Kauai.
1. In Pali Coast State Park
Na Pali Coast State Park encompasses a remote area of Kauai, with dramatic mountain scenery that includes cliffs, waterfalls, and lush vegetation. The Na Pali Coast in the northwest of the island is one of the most inaccessible parts of the Island of Kauai.
The chain of mountains, climbing in places to 3,938 feet, forms steep cliffs plunging into the sea, whose beauty can only be fully appreciated from the water or from the air. Steep valleys on the landward side divide the mountain crests.
Thanks to this seclusion, a unique variety of vegetation have been able to survive here, which, together with the high, steep cliffs, offers a fascinating view of nature. The bizarre shapes of the weathered volcanic mountains with caves and waterfalls, the intense greenery of the thick layer of vegetation, and the hidden sandy beaches at the foot of the mountains are all worth experiencing.
It’s easiest to survey this part of the coast by boat or air. Both options provide amazing views of the impressive cliffs and shorelines. The Na Pali Coast Kauai Snorkel and Sail excursion combines the fun and excitement of a catamaran cruise in the Pacific with the unforgettable sight of approaching the Na Pali cliffs from the ocean. To make the outing even more special, passengers have the chance to take a dip off the shore and snorkel among the coral and bright fish.
Those who want to spend more time here and are not afraid of strenuous exercise can explore part of the Na Pali Coast on foot.
2. Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon rivals some of the most scenic canyons on earth and is often called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Not only is it deep, but the area’s red soil; green jungles, which line its streams and waterfalls; black volcanic rock; and mist cascading from the plateaus make it a colorful scene.
Two major lookouts and several hiking trails start from the road which runs along the rim. While the Canyon runs to the sea along Waimea Canyon Drive (SR550), the deepest part of the canyon is within Kokee State Park.
In addition to sightseeing at the rim of Waimea Canyon, visitors can find tours that visit other top natural attractions like Fern Grotto, Opaeka’a Falls, and the blowhole at Spouting Horn. Historic and cultural sites in the area include Captain Cook’s Landing and Fort Elizabeth State Park, the sacred cultural site of Holo Holo Ku Heiau, and the community at Koloa Town.
Address: Waimea Canyon Drive, Waimea, Hawaii
3. Koke’s State Park
Koke’s State Park is an extension of Waimea Canyon State Park and contains the deepest parts of the canyon. Another important spot is the Kalalau Lookout which, in theory, offers a view of 4000-foot cliffs of the Napali Coast, and is the only place to see this spectacular feature of Kaua’i from land.
Be aware that the cliffs are often clouded in mist, so a picture-perfect view isn’t always guaranteed. The lookout is at the end of the scenic road running through the park. Koke’s maintains numerous hiking trails, most of which spread out from the natural history museum and Koke’e Lodge.
The Koke’e Natural History Museum concentrates on the weather, geology, botany, wildlife, and Hawaiian culture associated with Waimea Canyon, Koke’s State Park, and the island of Kauai.
4. Kauai’s Best Beaches
You’ll find plenty of excellent beaches to choose from on the Garden Island, but some have gained a reputation for being especially popular with both tourists and locals. The beaches along the northern shore of the island tend to have rougher conditions during the summer months, and unfortunately many in this area are closed intermittently due to flooding.
It is always important to be aware of current conditions before swimming anywhere, and it’s a good idea to check to be sure the beach you picked is open since weather events can cause temporary closures for a variety of reasons.
One of the north shore’s most popular beaches is Kee Beach, which is famous for its resident chickens (yes, chickens). Kee is protected by a reef, which makes it safe for swimming and snorkeling in the summer months. Tunnels Beach is known for its excellent summer snorkeling and mountain backdrop.
If you are looking for a spot on the north shore to sunbathe and explore, Secret Beach lives up to its name by being relatively well-hidden. Tourists should, however, be aware that it is not ideal for swimming, as the currents can be strong and the waves rough.
The island’s best beach for kids is Anini Beach, also located on the north shore, but it has remained undamaged thanks to its protective reef. The reefs two-mile beachfront is protected by the reef, and it is also relatively shallow, making this an ideal family beach. Anini Beach also has a good range of facilities, and here you can find windsurfing lessons, snorkeling equipment, and a boat ramp.
On the south shore of the island, Mahaulepu Beach has something to satisfy everyone, with conditions that are good for swimming, snorkeling, fishing, and water sports like windsurfing. Located on an undeveloped stretch of coastline, you’ll find excellent hiking trails with great views and culturally significant sites.
Polihale Beach, located on the western side of Kauai, is arguably the most romantic beach thanks to its ideal location looking west to the sunset.
5. Polihale State Park
The remote Polihale State Park at the western end of the Na Pali Coast offers a wide white-sand beach, backed by the Makaha Ridge.
Visitors should be aware that lifeguards are not usually here, and currents are strong, so swimming and water activities in this area can be very dangerous during many parts of the year. Despite this, the park and its beaches are popular thanks to stunning views of the Na Pali coastline, as well as excellent shelling opportunities and breathtaking sunsets.
Visitors should also be aware that getting to the beach can be difficult, and like many of Hawaii’s more remote sites, rental cars may not be allowed on the access road.
Address: Hwy 50, Waimea, Hawaii
6. Wailua Falls
Between Lihue and Hanamaulu, road 583 branches off-road 560 and wind its way for a few kilometers to a waterfall. This double waterfall plunges 80 feet down a rock face. Legend has it that the chiefs of old Hawaii had to take the risk of jumping from the top of this waterfall to prove their strength and courage.
Tourists seeking a unique experience can visit the falls on a guided Wailua River Kayak and Hike Adventure. This five-hour excursion starts with an informative and scenic trip down the sacred Wailua River in double kayaks, which require no prior experience. The certified guide will point out ancient temples along the way and provide information about the unique plant life in the area.
Once back on land, you will embark on a one-mile hike to the base of Wailua Falls, where you can admire its beauty and take a dip in the pool at its feet. Tourists are then transported back to the starting point with no upstream paddling required.
Poipu lies on the warm and sunny south coast of Kauai, where the island’s finest beaches are located. Until the tourism boom, sugar was the main source of income for Poipu and its surrounding area. The development of tourism started relatively late here and consequently, it was far more intense than in other places.
Now, Poipu possesses Kauai’s largest number of luxury hotels and holiday homes. An urban development regulation permits buildings to be no more than three stories high so that Poipu can protect and retain its rural character.
Its favorable location near Lihue Airport, together with its pleasant climate and excellent surfing opportunities, has helped Poipu to become one of Kauai’s most popular resorts. The long, white sandy beach and the clear, blue water are an invitation to swim and surf.
The small village of Hanalei lies in Hanalei Bay on the north coast of Kauai. The village, which is blessed with a fine sandy beach, is at the same time a gateway to the scenic Hanalei Valley.
On the edge of the village, on Route 560, is the Waioli Mission House, built-in 1841. It is one of Hawaii’s best-preserved mission houses. On the left-hand side of the street is the old Waioli Huila Church, with stained-glass windows. It is now a community center.
The finest view of Hanalei Valley is experienced from Hanalei Lookout, on road 560, which is indicated by one of the customary Kamehameha signs. Hanalei River flows like a silver thread through the whole valley, which is a patchwork of sugar cane and taro fields. Mountains form the backdrop.
9. Kalalau Trail
Kalalau Trail is an 11-mile path along the Na Pali Coast, originally made and used by the early Hawaiians. This path is difficult and taxing, even for experienced walkers, but it’s one of the more unique things to do in Kauai.
The climb begins at Haena State Park in the north and ends after almost 11.5 miles in Kalalau Valley. To gain an impression of the landscape and vegetation, it is enough to cover the first two miles as far as Hanakapiai Beach. This stretch is easier to walk, although after rain it can be slippery, and good footwear is needed at all times.
Those who want to tackle the whole walk must take a tent and food with them and stay overnight before returning. Two to three days should be allowed to complete the 22-mile round trip. The path beyond Hanakapiai is steep, stony, and not without danger.
At the right time of the year, it is possible to sample wild fruits such as mangoes, bananas, guava, and apples, which grow beside the path. Campers need permission from the Division of State Parks.
Location: Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei, Hawaii