The Garden Isle was Garrett’s and my favorite island as I had expected it would be. From the many conversations we had with local residents, it’s their favorite, too. Maybe it was the magic of the helicopter ride that put it over the top, but we simply fell in love with its gorgeous landscapes and raw natural beauty. When we chose which islands to visit on our Hawaiian island hopping trip, we quickly opted to leave out Oahu as resorts and nightlife weren’t what we were looking for. Of the three islands we visited, Kauai was the least touristy and the most preserved. There aren’t many luxurious hotel complexes or resort, making it a lot more authentic. The island is both lush and wild, and the Na Pali Coast alone makes it the most beautiful place on Earth. We only spent 3 days on Kauai, but we traveled all over the island and already cannot wait to go back!
See also: The Perfect 5-Day Maui Itinerary
There is so much to see and do on Kauai, so it can be challenging to know how to make the best of your time there. This article compiles the 25 locations you cannot miss to help you plan a dream trip to Kauai!
When to go?
There is no bad time to visit Hawaii as the weather is extremely pleasant year round. During the winter months, you will enjoy a soothing breeze and see tons of Alaskan whales wintering in the warm Hawaiian waters. The only time I would suggest avoiding are school breaks as Hawaii can get quite busy during those times. Airfare is also more expensive during the summer and around the holidays.
Where to stay?
There are 3 major hotel concentrations on the island: near Poipu on the South side, along the eastern side from the Lihue airport to Kapa’a, and near Princeville on the north side. We stayed in Kapa’a during our first time on Kauai because it was a more central location, within an hour drive of both the north and south side. Next time, we’ll probably stay near Princeville as we want to explore more of the northern side of the island.
Where to go?
If you travel to Kauai, you will land at Lihue airport. It is a very small airport on the eastern side and the only one on the island. Kauai is the smallest of the 4 major Hawaiian islands. It only takes about 3 hours to drive from Waimea on the south side to Hanalei on the north side, so I highly recommend exploring the whole island.
How to get around?
In order to get the best Kauai experience, you must rent a car. Public transport is limited to the major highways and won’t lead you into the more remote areas that are definitely worth exploring. There are two major roads that run from the southwest side of the island near Waimea to the entrance of Haena State Park on the north side. These two roads are not joined together on the west side as they begin and end on the edges of the breathtaking Na Pali coast. To best help you plan your visit, the locations in this blog post were listed in geographical order, starting with the westernmost location and continuing along the coast to the north shore.
1. Waimea Canyon State Park
Nicknamed The Grand Canyon of the Pacific by Mark Twain, Waimea Canyon State Park is one of 5 Kauai state parks. There is a $10 entrance fee per vehicle for those without a Hawaiian drivers license as well as a $5 fee per person. Entry is valid for both Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park.
The park features 2 hikes: Iliau Nature Loop, and the Kukui Trail and several pullouts with overlooks. Over 10 miles (16 km) long, 1 mile (1.6 km) wide, and 3,500 ft (1070 m)deep, it is the largest canyon in the Pacific and a gorgeous sight to behold. We were told to visit Waimea Canyon in the morning to avoid cloudy skies, but the early morning hours can be quite foggy. We got the best views of the canyon during our helicopter ride. The sky was perfectly clear, and the red of the canyon contrasted magically with the bright green of the lush vegetation in the canyon.
Make sure not to miss the Red Dirt Waterfall on the left side of the road right before the entrance of the park, but please admire it from afar. You will see many people walk all over the waterfall, but this fragilizes the ecosystem as you may be bringing a fungal disease that is devastating to the indigenous Ohia trees and kills them at an alarming rate.
2. Koke’e State Park
Koke’e State Park can only be reached after driving through Waimea Canyon State Park. It features 7 hikes and two pullouts: Kalalau and Pu’u O Kila Lookouts.
It takes close to an hour to reach the final lookout from the entrance of Waimea Canyon drive. We chose to drive all the way to Pu’u O Kila Lookout to enjoy the unobstructed morning views and stop at the other pullouts on our way back. We were there around 9-10 am and had bright, blue skies, but there were some shady spots on the side of the canyon. Midday would probably be the ideal time to enjoy the views at Koke’e State Park shade free, but waiting to come this late in the day comes with a higher risk for cloudy skies.
3. Glass Beach
Glass beach is an ideal stop as you exit the park. Located in an industrial area in Eleele on the south side of Kauai, Glass Beach is the result of bottles and car glass dumping by Swiss Shoreline Company. The road that leads to the beach is dirt and a little rough. Like us, you may wonder if you are in the right area as you drive through roads lined with factories, but it will all be worth it once your reach Glass Beach. The glass pebbles found on the beach are the result of decades of smoothing work by the Pacific ocean. Please do not take any glass with you and leave it for others to enjoy.
Glass Beach is beautiful, but it is not a swim beach. High surf can be dangerous, and it is recommended you stay at a safe distance.
4. Spouting Horn Blowhole
After admiring Glass Beach, we continued along the coast to Spouting Horn Blowhole near Poipu Beach. The blowhole is beautiful and impressive. I highly recommend making a stop there before heading on to Poipu
5. Waikomo Shave Ice
I tasted lots of shave ice in Hawaii, but none of them compared to Waikomo Shave Ice. Many food trucks advertise shave ice that ends up tasting like a flavorless snowcone high on sugar and dyes. Waikomo Shave Ice uses all natural fruit juice and sugar cane. All their shave ice comes with fresh fruits and snow-capped with coconut milk and fresh fruits. It remains one of my favorite food stops in Hawaii!
Related: Hawaiian Food Bucket List
6. Poipu Beach
Named as one of the best beaches in America by the travel channel, it features a gorgeous swim beach headed by a lifeguard and great snorkeling opportunities. Poipu is also a great place to stay. It is home to many hotels and restaurants.
7. Shipwreck Beach
Shipwreck Beach is a good sunbathing beach and the location of the start of the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. Surf can be high, and currents are strong. Many people were swimming in the water, but I never got farther than waist deep after being rolled underwater multiple times. At some point, I rolled so far up the shore, I landed at someone’s feet. Always be careful when swimming in Hawai’i!
8. Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
If you enjoy taking a light stroll on the beach, you’ll love this short hike up the coast. The Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail is an easy out-and-back 4-mile (6.5 km) hike. Because it is an out-and-back trail, you can go as far as you want before turning around. It’s rare to find such a short hike featuring such great views of the shoreline within the first mile. We did this hike on our very first day in Hawaii, and watching the waves powerfully crash on the cliffs taught us to respect the power of the Hawaiian surf a little extra.
The Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail begins at Shipwreck Beach and goes all the way to Punahoa Point. The trail will take you through a sandy path, over rocky cliffs, and past a prestigious golf course. If you plan on staying at the Grand Hyatt on Kauai, you’ll be on the footsteps of the trail. I highly recommend adding this trail to your Kauai bucket list!
9. Tree Tunnel
On the way to Wailua from Poipu, you will drive through a tree tunnel. The vegetation channel is found right before the intersection between Maluhia Rd and Kaumualii Hwy. Make sure not to miss it!
10. Doors-off helicopter ride
If you only had to do one thing in Kauai, this would be it! The helicopter ride we took over the island is hands down our favorite memory of the entire trip. Though it is not cheap, it was worth every penny in my opinion. We went with Mauna Loa Helicopters as they are one of only two companies to provide doors-off helicopter rides on Kauai. The other company is Jack Harter Helicopters. We chose Mauna Loa for two reasons: 1) they had a higher weight limit which allowed my big guy to make the cut, and 2) they provide private tours with the guarantee to get the doors-off experience. Jack Harter can accommodate more passengers, but it is possible for one of them to end up in the middle seat and therefore lose out on the unobstructed doors-off experience. Both companies boast stellar safety records and amazing reviews. Mauna Loa is a tad bit cheaper at $342 per passenger for the Kauai experience. Make sure to book well in advance to guarantee you don’t miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We chose to splurge on a helicopter ride on Kauai to fully experience everything the island has to offer. A vast majority of the island is not accessible by foot or by car. The only way to admire the best of Kauai is by air. This helicopter ride will take you through Waimea Canyon, Jurassic Falls, the Na Pali Coast, over Tunnels Beach, and so much more!
Mauna Loa is a FAA flight school and our pilot, Max, was trained by the company before joining them as an employee. He had an amazing playlist and shared tons of information about the geography and history of the island. We were also very lucky to enjoy great weather and very few clouds. Kauai is one of the wettest places on Earth, so I was prepared for rain, but we never even got a drop.
11. Mountain Tubing
Our entire mountain tubing experience was fantastic. From the ride up with our guide, to the float, the picnic, and the discussions on the ride back, it was an unforgettable experience. Our guide, Mason, provided us with so much information regarding the history of the island, its people, the sugar cane plantation, the ecosystem, and so much more! The lunch was both delicious and filling and the float so relaxing and enjoyable. Kauai Backcountry Adventures truly makes you a part of their ohana (family), and I would recommend this experience to anyone visiting Kauai.
Make sure to book in advance to guarantee you get the time slot that you want. The experience lasts about 3 hours from start to finish with about 1 hour in the water. Snacks, lunches, and waters are provided as well as GoPro rentals on demand. We brought our own and captured great footage of our time with Mason and his crew!
12. Wailua Falls
Wailua Falls was our very first stop after we got off the plane. The Wailua Falls overlook lets you see this magnificent waterfall from up top. It is the only way to admire it as it is not accessible from the river. Do not climb over the ledge to reach the bottom of the waterfall. There is absolutely no trail. It is muddy and dangerous, and many people have been injured there before.
13. Kayak the Wailua River
We headed to the Wailua River the afternoon of our first day and were very disappointed to find out that kayaking companies are no longer allowed to float the river on the weekends. This allows the locals to enjoy the river on their off days without hordes of tourists, and we can’t blame them one bit. We decided to switch our Saturday and Sunday itineraries and headed south instead. That evening we were fortunate enough to meet a local who offered to let us borrow his inflatable kayak for free. We headed back to Wailua River State Park the next day and let in at the boat ramp near Kuamoo Rd. Though companies aren’t allowed to drop anyone in the water, you are free to bring your own floating device and drop it in the water yourself, which is what we did.
We had kayaked many times before, but it was our first time on an inflatable kayak, and we struggled to say the least. After finding out we forgot to inflate a small section on the bottom of the kayak as well as the fin, it became clear where our governing problems were coming from. Adding in our large weight difference, we had a recipe for disaster. Thankfully we pushed through and finally made it to Kamokila Village (permanently closed) where the Wailua River splits.
What should I bring?
Along with my water shoes, I also brought my waterproof phone pouch, and I’m so glad I did. It was my first time using it, and I was a bit worried about it being too flimsy since I had purchased it from Walmart, but everyone I saw had the exact same one, and I was very pleased with it. I left my phone in the pouch while on the water and only took it out for pictures. Many articles I read also recommended bug spray, but I did not find it necessary. We did this hike in March, and I suspect the mosquito population increases during the summer months, so you may want to bring some just in case.
Should I go on a tour?
Many tour companies offer guided tours to Fern Grotto and Secret Falls, and while I’m all about experiences, I do not find it worth it to hire a guide to reach these locations and would rather spend my money elsewhere.
14. Fern Grotto
After energetically paddling for an hour and a half, we finally reached the Y-intersection. The intersection is located only 2 miles downstream, so you should reach it within 45 minutes if you don’t have to deal with governing issues like we did. We went left first and “parked” our kayak near the entrance of the trail. Another couple was leaving as we arrived, and we had the place entirely to ourselves. After a short hike in the jungle featuring gorgeous plants and flowers, we finally reached the grotto, which is huge. I had seen pictures, of course, but they do not do it justice. It is such a magnificent location, and it can only be reached by kayaking the river. Garrett was in a much better mood by then, and we were so glad we hadn’t turned around and missed out.
15. Secret Falls
After leaving the grotto, we kayaked back to the confluence and headed left again to reach the Secret Falls trailhead. It’s only about a 5-minute paddle from the intersection to the rocky shore where you’ll dock your kayak and get out. Kayaking on the weekend was actually great as we met very few people and were able to enjoy the beauty of nature without the crowds.
Uluwehi Falls, more commonly known as Secret Falls, is a beautiful waterfall that isn’t so secret anymore. The Uluwehi trail is a 2-mile out-and-back trail that will take you through thick vegetation, across a river, and into the jungle. The trail is rated as moderate, but I would say it’s quite easy until you get to the wetter, rockier part near the pool. You will need water shoes to complete this hike as it requires you to cross the Wailua River and get over fallen trees and rocky formations. The water was only about 1-2 ft (45cm) deep when we crossed. Depending on recent rainfall, the river may be much higher than that, making it hazardous to cross. Do NOT cross the river if the water levels are too high! As pretty as this waterfall is, it is not worth endangering your life and that of the Kauai first responders.
Enjoy dipping your toes in the freshwater of Uluwehi pools for as long as you wish then turn around the same way you came. Keep in mind that paddling back will likely take a bit longer as you’ll be going upstream.
16. Opaeka’a Falls Overlook
Located right across from the (now closed) Kamokila Village entrance is the Opaeka’a Falls overlook. There you’ll find bathrooms, picnic tables, and as anywhere else on Kauai, lots of chickens.
DID YOU KNOW?In the 1980s a powerful storm blew hundreds of chickens out of their coop all over the island. over time, these chickens have become feral and now roam freely throughout kauai where they are protected.
17. Sleeping Giant trail
Sleeping Giant, also known as Nounou Mountain, is one of the most popular trail on the island. There are actually two trails: East and West. East Sleeping Giant is a 3.4 mi (5.5 km) out-and-back trail while West Sleeping Giant is a 1.7 mi (2.7 km) out-and-back trail. East Sleeping Giant is more challenging, but both will take you into the heights of Kauai and feature amazing views of the island below.
18. Kilauea Lighthouse
Open Tuesday through Saturday 10am-4pm, the Kilauea Lighthouse is located within the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. The entrance fee is $10 for those 16 and older. Reservations may be required, so make sure to check their website before you go. If you cannot make it to the lighthouse during opening hours, you can still admire it from afar. The observation deck features not only the picturesque lighthouse but also a multitude of wild birds nesting on the shore. All birds are protected on Kauai (yes, including the chickens) making it the perfect safe haven for seabirds.
19. Anini Beach
Anini Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches on Kauai. Ideal for swimming, surfing and snorkeling, it does not feature a lifeguard but remains one of the safest beaches in Kauai. As previously mentioned, high surf can be deadly in Hawaii, so it is important to research where you decide to go swim.
Anini Beach is also less crowded than other more popular beaches like Poipu, making it the perfect place to read your favorite book or build sand castles with your little one.
20. Hanalei Valley
As you make your way up the north shore, you’ll enter Hanalei Valley. If you were lucky enough to do a helicopter ride over Kauai, then you may remember flying over this area; it is home to beautiful beaches and wet taro fields. Make sure to stop at the Hanalei Valley Lookout for a beautiful picture opportunity of the valley below.
21. Queen’s Bath
Queen’s bath is a seaside tide pool carved into the rock. I recommend you get there early as parking spots are scarce and fill up quickly. Queen’s Bath can be closed in the winter months due to high surf, so please do not begin hiking if the gates are closed. I know I am starting to sound like a broken record, but people drown in Hawaii all the time because they do not heed the locals’ warnings, so please, please, always be careful. You should never swim when the gates are closed, but even standing near the shore is dangerous. Rogue waves can sweep you out to sea in an instant.
There is a short 20-minute hike to reach the pool. Water shoes are highly recommended as this 0.8 mi (1.3 km) trail can get muddy and the rocks slippery.
22. Waiʻoli Huiʻia Church
If you’re leaving Princeville and headed toward to far edge of the island, you’ll drive past an adorable little green church called Wai’oli Hui’ia Church. Make sure you don’t miss it. There is a large community multisport court right next to it.
23. Tunnels Beach
Tunnels Beach gets its name from the many underwater lava tubes that lie along its shore and provide great snorkeling. It is one of the most beautiful and family-friendly beaches on Kauai as it is both lifeguarded and complete with picnic tables. This long stretch of white white sand also features jaw-dropping views of the Na Pali coast, that make for an ideal backdrop to the Hawaiian sunset.
24. Kalalau Trail
The Kalalau trail is a bucket list item for many visitors of the Garden Isle. At 22 mi (35 km) round trip, it is not for the faint of heart.
Do I need a permit?
You do not need a permit to visit Ke’e Beach, hike to Hanakāpīʻai Beach (4 mi/ 6.5 km round trip) or Hanakāpīʻai Falls (9 mi/ 14.5 km round trip). However, hiking the full Kalalau trail to Kalalau Beach requires a permit as overnight camping is needed to complete the 2-day journey.
All reservations and permits must be obtained on the Haena State Park website. They go quickly, so I highly recommend you set your alarm for 12:00am HST 90 days before the start of your trek, or you are likely to miss your golden ticket to the most popular hike on the Na Pali Coast.
25. Watch the sunrise or sunset
If you are coming from the mainland United States or Europe, you’ll likely be very tired on your first night in Hawaii. Take advantage of the jet lag to go to bed early and wake up in time for sunrise. We were lucky enough to get a room with ocean view from Kauai’s only hostel (now closed). Our balcony bed provided not only the most gentle breeze, but also gorgeous views of the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean.
Kauai is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and I hope this article helped convince you to move it up your bucket list. Make sure to check out our other Hawaiian guides before you visit!
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