Polihale State Park is one of Kauai’s best kept secrets. Within the state park, you’ll find one of the longest beaches in the state. The super clean, crisp and clear water allows you to peer into the waves to spot sea turtles and whales from the comfort of the coast. And the beach features a series of pavilions that are perfect for overnight parties where you fall asleep on the sand underneath a dazzling array of stars.
Most tourists don’t make it to this spectacular west coast spot because Polihale State Park sits at the end of a dirt road. And when you get a half-mile off of paved roads, you leave more than 90% of tourists behind.
This state park is for the intrepid ecotourist looking to get away from it all, and who isn’t afraid to take that rental car off-road. It’s for the explorer who wants to connect with locals while experiencing the raw beauty of the Garden Isle. And here’s how to do it.
Kauai is a unique little island. And if you pull up a map of the circular Garden Isle, you’ll see there’s a coastal highway that almost completes a full circle around the island. The Kuhio Highway is only interrupted by the indomitable Na Pali Coast on the northwest side of Kauai. So, the highway resembles a backwards C-shape that looks like a crab’s pincers pinching the mountains of the Na Pali Coast.
On the southern side of the Na Pali Coast, at the bottom tip of the crab’s lower pincer, you’ll find Polihale State Park. The state park’s beach faces due west, you’ll have uninterrupted views of Niihau towering off in the distance and you’ll be one of the last few people in America to watch the sunset.
You can also look at the circular island of Kauai like a compass. Each of the directions on the face of the compass -- North, East, South and West -- features a different climate zone. And you can feel the difference in the air as you drive around the island.
The north is the jungle. The air is humid and it often rains. The landscape features waterfall-covered mountains, towering palm trees and a myriad of tropical flowers. You can feel the sticky air all the way from Hanalei to Ke’e Beach at the northern end of the Kuhio Highway. On the other side of the Na Pali Coast, at the southern end of the Kuhio Highway on the western side of the island at Polihale State Park, the air changes dramatically.
The western side of Kauai is a desert. The air is hot and dry, it rarely rains and the landscape is completely different. The mountains are covered in colorful clay and low-lying shrubs instead of waterfalls, and the trees are rough with pointers like cactus.
You can depend on a beautiful, dry and sunny day at Polihale even when it is pouring on the other sides of the island. It’s the perfect escape when the weather fails you in Lihue, Princeville or even Poipu. You just need to be brave enough with your rental car.
Simply drive down the Kuhio Highway south out of Lihue. The road will stay inland as you pass north over Poipu and Koloa before it bends west. Keep driving through the town of Waimea as the road hugs the southwestern coast. The highway will then turn north to head a bit inland again. Continue to follow the road until it ends.
At the very end of the highway, turn left onto a dirt road that tracks alongside a farm at the base of a mountain range. The dirt road is graded, it can be bumpy and washed out, but your rental car should navigate the road just fine. An economy car should be able to make it all the way to Polihale State Park unless the road is washed out by a recent rainstorm. But rain is exceedingly rare on this side of the island.
Continue along the dirt road until you come to a hill under a monkeypod tree. This is the official entrance to the park, and there should be a sign to greet you. At this point, you have two choices. You can continue along the dirt road towards the mountains, or you can drive up the sandy hill to the top of the hill to find the first pavilion.
Polihale is dotted with covered pavilions that you can rent for the day. You’re likely to see locals enjoying the pavilion, and you may even crash a birthday party, but nobody will care much if you park near their pavilion to get to the beach.
Each of Polihale’s pavilions is built high upon a dune hill. The pavilions are surrounded by dry climate trees and their sharp barbs, but there is plenty of shade. On the other side of the pavilion, you’ll have to stomp down the soft sand of the dune down to the beach.
And the beach will take your breath away. White sand sprawls out as far as the eye can see in either direction, and the water here is electric blue. In fact, pay attention to the waves just before they crash. The water is so clear that you can see turtles, dolphins and even whales inside the waves.
To your north, you’ll see the first towering cathedral cliff of the Na Pali Coast. Behind that dry wall of clay and shrubs is Kalalau Valley; the prize jewel of the Na Pali. The cliff can’t be climbed. The only way into Kalalau Valley is by boat, air or by foot on the13-mile Kalalau Trail from the north.
Behind the beach and the towering sand dunes is a dry forest of ironwood trees that feature spiky spines. Always wear sturdy sandals near the trees, or you might be dealing with a cactus-like spine in the foot. And off in the distance looms Niihau; the privately owned island where the locals live an ancient and authentic Hawaiian lifestyle.
There are no lifeguards on Polihale Beach, and you’re a long way away from help. Your water safety is completely up to you.
The water at Polihale tends to be choppy and turbulent. The soft sand gives way steeply to make for powerful waves just feet off the beach. Oftentimes, the currents on the beach are at odds. You can see waves pounding into each other longways across the beach, and this creates side and rip currents.
Only swim at Polihale if you are incredibly confident of your swimming ability, ocean experience and fitness. Don’t be fooled into a false sense of security if you happen to see locals body surfing the waves. It may be too powerful for you.
You should be safe if you wade into shallow water in certain areas at certain times of the day. You may be able to sit down comfortably in knee-deep water, but you’ll have to keep your wits about you. The currents change quickly, powerfully and dramatically at Polihale. In fact, it’s best to keep out of the water altogether to stay absolutely safe.
You can check the surf conditions online before heading out to the remote park, but the water is usually choppy. The beach is better suited for a picnic, romantic sunset and a few drinks with locals on the beach.
Many of Kauai’s locals love to party on Polihale Beach. You’ll see trucks and cars parked at certain pavilions, and you might even see the beginnings of a bonfire. Groups of friends love to drink, dance and sing around the fire only to fall asleep on the sand for the night. And you might even be asked to join a party if you’re at Polihale at sundown.
Technically, you’re supposed to register with Hawaii’s Division of State Parks and pay a $12 per night, per person fee for an overnight stay, but it is loosely enforced. Don’t worry about the fee if you decide to join a party of locals, but you may want to register and pay if you plan on camping as a tourist by yourself.
Polihale Beach is the best place to spot humpback whales during mating season. The season runs from January to March, and the whales love to frolic and play in the waters off the west coast of Kauai. If you’re really lucky, you’ll also see spinner dolphins. And in a very rare instance of interspecies play, you might witness dolphins spinning like footballs in the air after being thrown off the snout of a whale.
And you can take advantage of the pavilions and picnic tables by grabbing yourself some of the world’s best poke in Waimea Town. Stop at Ishihara Market, walk all the way to the deli in the back and order some of the store’s amazing poke. It’s all caught fresh in the channel between Kauai and Niihau, and there’s a wide variety to choose from. You’ll find ahi, shrimp, mahi and other kinds of poke.
Take the poke out to the beach, watch the sun dip into the amazingly blue waters of the Pacific as whales and dolphins frolic, and enjoy the romantic isolation. You’re watching the last sunset in America.
If you do stay at Polihale past sunset, then you’ll have to expect frogs on the road during your drive back. Hundreds of frogs will be scattered on the ribbed dirt road which will slow your ride back to your hotel.
Keep your head on a swivel because Polihale is the only beach on Kauai where residents are permitted to drive on the sand. Locals love to rip trucks down the beach, and many of them drive trailers out on the sand for elongated camping stays. Don’t put yourself in a hard-to-see spot on the beach unless you want to become an obstacle for a speeding beach truck driver.