Kauai is a tropical paradise that will enthrall adventure travelers as much as families. Famous for its golden, sandy beaches, you could spend day after day lazing by the turquoise waters.
But rising out of the Pacific is a jaw-dropping coastline, punctuated by the unrivaled Na Pali Coast. Here, you’ll discover remote sea cliffs and a dense jungle with hidden waterfalls. Add on the impressive Waimea Canyon and the Wailua River and you’ll have no shortage of adventures.
Top things to do in Kauai
When the legs grow weary, the beaches will welcome you back and the bars will wait to serve colorful cocktails as the sun goes down. Wondering what to do in Kauai? Read on for our guide to the Garden Island.
1. Hike The Kalalau Trail
While the body is fresh and raring to go, trekking down the Kalalau Trail is one of the best things to do in Kauai. The hike is an overnight epic that will put your fitness to the test. But for those who take up the challenging hike, you’ll see the stunning Napali Coast as few can.
The popularity of the trail and fragility of the environment means you’ll require a permit to begin. But with that sorted ahead of time, you’ll want to get an early start. The trailhead is found at Ke’e Beach. The first two miles snakes along the coast towards the beautiful white sand of Hanakapiai Beach. This section can be busy as it doesn’t require a permit.
But once you reach the golden shore, you’ll turn inland and begin cutting through the Napali Coast. After nine miles of jaw-dropping vistas and thigh-burning undulation, you’ll reach the turnaround point. Some return for a total of 22 miles in a day, but most stick around to camp behind Kalalau Beach.
As you hang with fellow hikers, enjoy the remote corner of Kauai that you can only reach with a little sweat and a sense of adventure.
Kalalau Trail Info:
- Trailhead: Ke’e Beach
- Distance: 22 miles
- Difficulty: Difficult
- Elevation Gain: 6177ft
2. Waimea Canyon – The Grand Canyon of the Pacific
With the toughest hike on the island in the rearview mirror, you’ll be ready for what’s next. Kauai is teeming with opportunity and while the adventures may be slightly shorter, they’re no less exceptional. Next up is Waimea Canyon, a 14-mile crevasse that cuts through the jungle in Kauai’s southwest, exposing swaths of deep orange rock.
At its lowest point, Waimea Canyon is over 3,500 feet deep and a mile wide. You can explore the canyon by driving down the epic Koke’e Road. As you drive along, seeking epic viewpoints, you’ll be picking up your jaw after every hairpin corner.
There are several mesmerizing stops along the way, including the Pu’u Hinahina Lookout. Put the car in park and enjoy the brief stroll to panoramic views. The most popular stop, however, is the Waimea Canyon Lookout. It may often be busy, but the view is unbeatable down to the Waimea Falls.
If you’re ready for a hike, head out along the 2-mile return Cliff Trail. It’s quieter and brings you right to the edge of Waimea Canyon.
3. Swim At Poipu Beach Park (South Shore)
You’ve started off the trip with a bang, but now it’s time to put your feet up on the golden sand and find your tropical bliss. On the South Shore, sunbathing at Poipu Beach is one of the best things to do in Kauai.
The beach is split in two by a sand bar, offering a duo of silky arcs to choose from. They’re both within a protected bay, with the outer reef slowing much of the swell. So not only is her soft sand perfect for a day of reading true crime on the beach towel, but it’s also prime for snorkeling.
Aside from other travelers, you’ll often be joined by green sea turtles and the Hawaiian monk seal. When you aren’t swimming or admiring the wildlife from afar, Poipu Beach is backed by resorts offering easy access to restaurants and sunset cocktails.
While you are in Poipu, make sure to try your hand at some Ziplining. This Zipline Adventure has 8 Ziplines and is a perfect way to enjoy some beautiful views and some adventure!
4. Go Whale Watching
From mid-December to April every year, large numbers of migrating humpback whales make their way to the Hawaiian islands. There are many viewpoints on the island that will allow you to spot the whales from afar, but nothing beats seeing them up close.
The Auau Channel that splits Maui, Molokai, and Lanai may be the most renowned whale watching spot in Hawaii, but Kauai has something those islands don’t, the Na Pali Coast. Short of doing the Kalalau Trail, there are only two ways to truly capture the dramatic sea cliffs. That’s on a boat trip or a helicopter tour.
So why not do two for the price of one? Head out along the spellbinding coast in search of humpback whales, admiring the scenery as you go. It won’t take long to spot the humpbacks, as they’re the most acrobatic whale species on the planet. If you’re lucky, you’ll see many whales breaching the surface before tumbling back down, creating a new set of waves.
5. Visit Tunnels Beach
For excellent snorkeling with bright colorful fish head to the serene Tunnels Beach. On Kauai’s North Shore, the beach comes with lifeguards who monitor the swimming conditions. However, with limited parking, you’ll want to arrive early.
It’s worth the early rise in order to get some tranquil snorkeling done in the early morning light. Dive into the translucent water with the reef spanning out in all directions. The reef’s sea caves and intricate tunnels mean there’s a surprise around every corner. As you explore the effervescent coral, keep an eye out for sea turtles and monk seals making their way to the warm sand at Tunnels Beach.
After completing the inner reef, venture to the outer, where you’ll uncover tumbling sea cliffs but will also have stronger currents. Those who stay on dry land can kick back and admire the towering mountains behind them.
6. Take a Helicopter Tour
Speaking of towering mountains, if you want to see them from above, this is what to do in Kauai. Kauai’s varied landscapes are hard to fathom and the sheer scale of the mountains and valleys often makes adventuring on foot a bridge too far. So, in order to see some of the most majestic parts of the island, you’ll need to take to the sky.
Book Your Helicopter Tour of Kauai Here!
From above, the island’s veritable kaleidoscope of colors is on full display. See the deep blues of the Pacific Ocean fade to white as it crashes against the dark brown cliffs. As the cliffs rise, the browns mix with light oranges and greens until the deep rainforest takes hold.
Taking a helicopter tour is a great way to capture the might of the Na Pali Coast and see pods of whales. But your tour can also take you to difficult-to-reach places, including the otherworldly Manawaiopuna Falls (Jurassic Falls).
7. Witness The Queen’s Bath
A brief trip from Princeville, one of Kauai’s premier resort towns, is the unique Queen’s Bath. The “bath” is an enormous tide pool enveloped in lava rock. Hawaiian royalty would come to the North Shore to relax in Queen’s Bath’s sacred waters.
To the left of the natural tub is a miniature cliff that features several small waterfalls pouring in. As they fall, the bath rises and falls with the ocean, creating a dazzling sight.
The best time to visit is in the summer when the water around Kauai tends to be calmer. In the winter, with the rough swell, Queen’s Bath can be a spectacular but dangerous place to swim. Many choose to bypass that and simply admire the beauty from a safe spot. But if you choose to venture in, stay vigilant for large waves and wear sturdy shoes.
8. Stroll The National Tropical Botanical Garden
The National Tropical Botanical Garden is dedicated to saving, studying, and also discovering new tropical plants. Its headquarters are found right here in Kauai, with the island home to four distinct gardens (the fifth is in Florida). Since the gardens opened in the 1960s, the gardens have grown to cover almost 2,000 acres teeming with thousands of species from tropical regions around the globe.
It’s an effort to preserve these unique and beautiful species, with much of the garden home to endangered or threatened species. The NTGB even rediscovered a plant that was believed to be extinct.
Alongside these tropical plants is the largest assemblage of native Hawaiian plants on earth. Wander through any of the four gardens and discover why Kauai is known as the Garden Isle.
9. Discover Wailua Falls
Known for its eternal rainbow, Wailua Falls is both easily accessible and absolutely stunning. On the island’s east coast near Lihue Airport, follow Highway 583 and continue driving until the dead end.
From there, simply step out of the vehicle and admire the 80-foot waterfall that tumbles down in two sections into a jade-green swimming hole. But if watching from above only inspires you to want to get a closer look, venture down the steep but short slope where you can swim in the refreshing waters beside the roar of the falls.
However, for a true adventure kayak along the Wailua River. It’s the only river you can kayak on the island and will take you not just to Wailua Falls but by ancient temples and through the unspoiled jungle.
10. Grab Lunch at One Of The Food Trucks
When we think of what to do in Kauai, our minds think of mountains, stunning waterfalls, and white sand beaches. But we need to add a fourth thing to that list: food trucks.
The island’s food truck scene will be one of the best surprises on your travels. You’ll find them all over, alongside beaches, at the trailhead, and around town. You’ll come across all sorts of food and drink that will keep you fueled, from fish tacos to refreshing fruit smoothies. The best part? It’s dirt cheap.
But like all things, there’s always somewhere that does it best. If you only have one food truck experience, head to Kapaa, where you’ll find them in abundance. Try Al Pastor Tacos or Nixtamai for Mexican cuisine. To cool off, eat shaved ice at Shave Ice Tege Tege.
11. Boogie Board at Shipwreck Beach
Along the coast from Poipu Beach is the aptly named Shipwreck Beach. Many a boat has accidentally and sometimes on purpose come in contact with the beach’s offshore reef, meeting its demise.
While Poipu gets the crowds, this beach remains relatively quiet. It’s a popular surf beach thanks to its lively swell. But the swirling water doesn’t make for the best swimming, so arm yourself with a boogie board at the very least.
On sunny days, it’s a romantic spot for local and traveling couples who can enjoy the tranquility as they look out across the rusty ship lingering offshore. Another reason to visit is the soaring 40-foot cliff. You’ll spot thrill-seekers jumping off the cliff like clockwork.
12. Walk The Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
Departing from Shipwreck Beach, the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail will give you a glimpse into the past. It’s one of the easiest hikes to do on the island, and the perfect complement to a day lazing on the sand.
The trail meanders along the coast with never-ending views of the Pacific, lush mountains, and red cliffs. You may even see whales. Start early to avoid the heat, as there is little shade along the path.
Along the way cross paths with the limestone cliffs, laden with fossilized marine life. Continue past kiawe trees to reach the Makauwahi Caves, where you’ll find more fossils. The trek ends at Maha’ulepu Beach, a remote cove and great rest stop.
Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail Info:
- Distance: 4 miles
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation Gain: 150ft
13. Experience Hawaiian Culture
You’ll spend plenty of time exploring the island’s epic landscape. But taking time to experience local culture is one of the best things to do in Kauai.
There are a number of ways to do this, with many resorts putting on their own experiences. Some will have a nightly hula dance along with the opportunity to create a lauhala (traditional basket) or learn how to use historic hunting tools.
Other ways to learn about Kauai culture are by visiting the Kauai Museum and the Koke’e Natural History Museum. Combine that with visits to small villages like Koloa and Hanapepe for the complete experience.
14. Hike To The Kilauea Lighthouse (North Shore)
On the tip of Kauai’s North Shore is a rugged peninsula home to the Kilauea Lighthouse. The historic structure stands almost 200 feet above the Pacific Ocean and was complete in 1913.
There is a car park close to the lighthouse, providing easy access. But it’s best to arrive early or late in the day to avoid the crowds. Unfortunately, you can’t enter, but the sweeping views will quickly blow away any sense of sadness.
The lighthouse is located within the Kilauea Point Wildlife Refuge. So bring along your binoculars, as this is one of the best spots on the island to enjoy some bird watching.
15. Find Secret Beach (Kauapea Beach)
Just minutes from the Lighthouse on the North Shore is Secret Beach. The name no longer fits, as word has very much gotten out. However, it remains one of the top beaches on the island.
After a steep 10-minute walk down to Kauapea Beach, enjoy the expanse of golden sand and the tranquility of the baby blue water. Behind you are soaring, craggy cliffs providing a scenic backdrop. Such is the size of the beach, that even in peak season, you’ll have plenty of room for yourself.
In the summer, swimming here is on point. But come winter, it’s a surfer’s paradise and a source of free entertainment for onlookers.
16. Swim At the end Of Hanakapiai Falls Trail
Featuring the first section of the Kalalau Trail, this trek is the perfect alternative for those who can’t complete the overnight journey. Additionally, you don’t need a permit.
Begin by following the breathtaking coast to Hanakapiai Beach. Stop for a breather and prep your legs for over 2500 feet of elevation gain. As you cut inland, the trail rises steadily through the jungle and doesn’t let up. Your sense of adventure will be put to the test after every lingering tree root. But eventually, you’ll make it.
Hanakapiai Falls is one of the best in Hawaii. It’s a 300 feet tumbling white veil that splices the dense jungle. Jump in for a swim, before returning to Ke’e Beach.
Hanakapiai Falls Trail Info:
- Trailhead: Ke’e Beach
- Distance: 8 miles
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 2664ft
17. Try Surfing at Hanalei Bay
The charming coastal town of Hanalei is home to the largest harbor on the island. Hanalei Bay is big enough to feature a trio of white sand beaches to complement the local hikes, beach bum culture, and farmers’ markets.
When you aren’t enjoying the local culture, choose between Hanalei Beach Park, Waioli Beach, and Black Pot Beach. They all combine to create the crown jewel of Kauai surfing.
Watch from afar or enjoy a lovely swim by the beach. Later, wander along the sand to find the Hanalei River and its historic pier. Finish with a refreshing beverage at any of the beachfront bars that dot Hanalei Bay.
18. Tackle The Alakai’i Swamp Trail
Beginning at the show-stopping Pu’u O Kila Lookout in Koke’e State Park, the Alakai’i Swamp Trail promises to be the most unique hike yet. Essentially an alpine swamp, the trail begins along the Pihea Trail where you’ll have beautiful views of the Kalalau Valley.
Soon the trail switches left, and you’ll be met with raised boardwalks. From there, you’ll venture through the highest rainforest and swampland on earth.
The key to this hike is knowing you’ll get dirty. As helpful as the boardwalk is, there’s no getting out clean. Wander among the giant hapu’u ferns, before reaching the unrivaled Kilohana Lookout where you’ll feel on the edge of the world.
Alakai’i Swamp Trail Info:
- Trailhead: Pu’u Kila Lookout
- Distance: 7.7 miles
- Difficulty: Moderate/Difficult
- Elevation Gain: 1332ft
19. Swim At Anini Beach
After getting all muddy in the Alakai’i Swamp, treat yourself to the colorful Anini Beach. As you step onto the soft marshmallow sand, you’ll spot the colors of the vibrant reef streaming through the surface. The off-shore reef is also the reason Anini Beach features some of the calmest year-round swimming in Kauai.
The beachis on the North Shore and spans two miles. The slight gradient allows for an abundance of shallow water, perfect for families with young kids. On top of the views and easy swimming, Anini Beach offers a full range of amenities, from bathrooms and showers to picnic tables.
If you want to explore the reef, you can rent snorkels right on the beach.
20. Polihale State Park
To experience one of the most secluded and pristine beaches on the island, venture into Polihale State Park. The park is renowned for its golden shore, but as access is tricky, you’ll rarely see large crowds.
The only way to reach the coast is along a rough and undulating 5-mile dirt road, fit for only 4WD. Whether you venture in on four wheels or two feet, you’ll be rewarded with mesmerizing, unspoiled heaven and over 15 miles of golden sand.
From your private paradise, admire the emerald Makaha Ridge, which leads to the sharp cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. Get your camping permit, so when day turns to night you can kick back with friends without a care in the world.
21. Tackle The Sleeping Giant Trail
The Sleeping Giant Trail soars up the ridgeline on Nounou Mountain to 360-degree views. Legend has it that the mountain was created by a giant who ate too much at a celebration held in his name. He essentially fell into a food coma, drifting into an eternal slumber. From a distance, you can make out the shape of the giant.
The initial trek takes you through a sprawling tree plantation that began in the 1930s. As you gain elevation, the trees begin to disperse, leaving you with a quintessential ridgeline hike. As the mountain falls away to either side, the trail levels out with wondrous views in every direction.
Complete the hike at sunrise or sunset, for a story you’ll be telling for years.
Sleeping Giant Trail Info:
- Trailhead: East of Halelili Road
- Distance: 3.6 miles
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 948ft
22. Witness Mount Waialeale
Known as the wettest spot on earth, Mount Waialeale is a collection of sweeping cliffs. Each year, Kauai’s second tallest mountain receives around 450 inches of rain. In fact, in the 1980s, it once got over 660 inches!
It’s no surprise then that Waialeale means “overflowing water”. You’ll be a lucky traveler to see the summit as it’s often encased in clouds. While hiking to the peak is not common, it’s known to be home to ancient ruins.
There are two trails on the eastern side. One of them, a 5-mile hike to Blue Hole, rewards hikers with an up-close view of the weeping wall. While those exploring in a helicopter should make sure to fly over Mount Waialeale.
23. Try Shave Ice
You cannot come to Hawaii and not try shave ice. It is one of the most popular treats in the Hawaiian Islands. Shave Ice is a pretty simple dessert but a satisfying one after hiking or a day at the beach. Essentially, it is shaved ice that is topped with a flavored syrup and is often served with a scoop of ice cream in the middle.
If you are in Kauai we recommend Waikomo Shave Ice in Poipu or Hee Fat General Store which has some of the best Shave Ice on the island. No matter where you get it you won’t regret it.
How to get to Kauai Hawaii?
Kauai’s Lihue Airport can be found on the island’s east coast. Thanks to Kauai’s growing popularity, many airlines offer direct services from mainland USA.
However, it’s just as common to fly into Honolulu Airport on Oahu before changing planes. The flight time between the two islands is a short 25-minutes.
There is no public ferry that connects Kauai to the other Hawaiian islands. If you’re willing to splash the cash, then you can charter a boat between each destination.
Getting around Kauai?
Like all Hawaiian Islands, Kauai has limited public transport. Visitors will find a range of guided tours, but in order to explore on a whim, you’ll need a rental car. You can comapre Rental Car Prices Here for the best deal.
This will allow you to drive from the North Shore to the South Shore without issue. Although you can explore Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park with any vehicle, it pays to rent a 4WD. Your options will open up, allowing you to venture further off the tourist trail.
Drivers will also want to have a map of Kauai pre-downloaded onto their Google Maps. This will allow you to not get lost in times of spotty service.
Best time to visit Kauai?
The weather in Kauai remains incredibly stable throughout the year. The winter “dips” to the mid-70s (24c) with summer reaching the mid-80s (29c). So you’ll always be able to enjoy some balmy weather.
The wettest part of the year is during the winter, but storms tend to come and go quickly. They’re also mostly restricted to the East and North coasts, aka the windward side of Kauai. The leeward side is typically drier.
Because of the trade winds, the ocean is calmer during the summer with the swell picking up in the winter. However, there are some beaches that remain swimmer-friendly throughout.
Ultimately, there’s never a bad time to visit Kauai. The summer comes with great swimming, hotter hikes, and more expensive hotels. Winter is slightly cooler, swimming is rough, but you’ll enjoy epic surf and whale watching.
Where to stay in Kauai?
Kauai Beach House Hostel is located on the beachfront in Kapaa. Choose between budget dorms and private suites. Enjoy the free Wi-Fi and an outdoor pool while being within walking distance of shops and multiple beaches.
Simple, clean, and affordable yet right on the Pacific Ocean, Kauai Shores Hotel is value for money. The basic two-story hotel is comfortable with basic king bedrooms and a private balcony. Enjoy the on-site pool while being steps from shops, restaurants, and the beach.
With views of the majestic Na Pali Coast, 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay is the choice for an opulent vacation. Each room has island decor with the views streaming in. When you aren’t out traveling, relax in the incredible infinity pool that looks over the bay.