You’re going to get muddy in Kauai – but you’re guaranteed to capture stunning ocean views and feel the cool mist from towering waterfalls for your efforts.
Kauai is known as Hawaii’s Garden Island – because of its rich landscapes – and also because much of the island is only accessible by air or sea due to its dense interior. Kauai is the oldest and northernmost of the Hawaiian Islands and its volcanic past is clearly evident in its terrain.
But the section of Kauai that can be seen by car or foot is a must see on any trip to the Hawaiian Islands.
The first stop on your Kauai itinerary should be a road trip up to the north shore to set your eyes on the Napali Coast. Some of the best views can be seen for free on the first section of the Kalalau Trail. You can hike the first 3km section or all of the 18 kilometre trail, but you need to obtain a permit in advance to hike past Hanakapiai Beach.
You can find out everything you need to know about getting a permit here.
For a taste of the Napali Coast, the first section of the Kalalau Trail is all you need. The trail offers breathtaking views of turquoise waters, old lava flows that are now towering cliffs, and a pretty creek crossing flowing out to sea. There are steep sections of the hike, but with plenty of viewpoints, you have time to catch your breath.
If you choose not to do the whole Kalalau Trail – you have another worthwhile option. You can continue another 3.5km past the beach to the spectacular Hanakapiai Falls. Trust me – they will not disappoint but you have to work to get there.
On the day I went the trail had just reopened after heavy rain closed the track so it was very muddy. You hike through thick mud, past bamboo forests, more mud, creek crossings you can rock hop over, and then the real adventure – creek crossings where the only way to get across is to get your feet wet – or possibly half your body if you’re short in stature like me! Or you fall in. That happened too – but it was all part of the adventure and with the humidity – I didn’t mind going for a swim.
After your hike, you’ll want to clean yourself off and there’s no better way than jumping in the ocean only a couple of metres away from where you finish the hike. Ke’e Beach is a sheltered cove and is perfect for a dip and some snorkelling.
The north coast features a number of beach parks along it’s coast – all you need to do is find the carpark and check them out.
If you’re not on a tight budget, you can also see the Napali Coast by air or sea. A number of operators offer boat tours of the coast, and these can be combined with snorkelling. There’s a multitude of helicopter companies on the island – and your choice is dependent on what you want to see and your budget. Prices range from about $A150 for an hour long flight. Flights may include Waimea Canyon, the Na Pali Coast and the famous waterafall from Jurassic Park.
On Kauai’s south coast, the go to spot is the Waimea Canyon.
From Lihue Airport, it’s about an hour’s drive via the town of Waimea. There’s two ways up – the most scenic way is Waimea Canyon Road, accessible from the centre of Waimea. You’ll get canyon views on the way up and ocean views on the way down.
Waimea Canyon is nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. It’s over a mile wide and 1500 metres deep in some parts. You can view the canyon from several lookout points, or if you’re keen to get the legs moving, take the Canyon Cliff Trail. The trail starts either from the carpark at the Pu’u Hinahina Lookout, or off Halemanu Road. By starting from the Halemanu Road trailhead, you’ll avoid the steepest part of the hike but parking can be hard to find.
The Canyon Cliff Trail takes you into the canyon and to the top of the Waipo’o Waterfall. From the end of the hike you’ll get spectacular views across the canyon and you’ll feel on top of the world!
Waimea Canyon is part of the Koke’e State Park. There’s a number of trails in the park and one of the more popular ones is the Awaawapuhi trail, which leads to the valley rim of the Nualolo and Awa’awapuhi valleys and views over the Na Pali coast.
At the end of the canyon road is the Kalalau Lookout, offering views out to the ocean and a different perspective of the coast to what you see on the Kalalau Trail.
Other places to visit in Kauai
Another hike you can do that gives you 360 degree views over Kauai is the Sleeping Giant hike, located in Wailua. It’s hard to miss the looming mountain near the main highway on the island’s east side. The hike takes about an hour each way and you’ll be rewarded with coastal and mountain views.
For a more relaxing way to see the sights Kauai has to offer, you can drive right up to the viewpoints of Opaeka’a and Wailua Falls, located in between Lihue and Kapaa.
Things You Should Know:
- A permit is required to hike or camp on the Kahalua Trail past Hanakapiai Beach. Permit numbers are limited so apply for your permit well in advance of your trip.
- The Hanakapiai Beach is known for dangerous waves. It’s best to just take a look here and leave your swimming to nearby Ke’e Beach or other beaches on the north coast.
- The best way to get around Kauai is to hire a car. The island is easy to navigate with clear signage and only one highway around the island. Major car rental agencies are represented at Lihue Airport.
- Much of Kauai is inaccessible by car, and can only be seen by air or sea. A number of helicopter and boat companies operate on the island offering different packages depending on budgets and what you want to see.
- Waimea Canyon and the Kalalau Trail get very busy year round. Try and get to both of these early (by around 8.30am) or you may find out it’s hard to find a park. Parking inspectors are very present on the island and you must park in designated areas or risk copping a fine.