Close your eyes. Picture your dream of Hawaii. What do you see? If you envision lush green fields, wild fruits, towering waterfall-covered mountains, and bountiful white sand beaches, then you are seeing Kauai.
Kauai is known as The Garden Isle. It’s the wettest, a lushest and most verdant island in the state of Hawaii. That’s because it’s a central dormant volcano, Mount Waialeale, which is the rainiest place on earth. Its crater is lovingly referred to as The Blue Hole, and all that rainwater carves its way back to the ocean via Hawaii’s only navigable rivers.
Add tropical heat to all that moisture, and you have a recipe for life; lush, ever-growing life as far as the eye can see. But for all its beauty, Kauai lacks in urbanization. You won’t find any semblance of the city on Hawaii’s westernmost touristed island. The island’s government has even outlawed the construction of buildings taller than a palm tree, so you’d be hard-pressed to find a three-story structure.
This is the island for the outdoor lover and the relaxer. It’s the kind of island that falls asleep early to rise with the sun (and the crowing feral roosters) to challenge the island’s indomitable landscapes. It’s the island for those seeking solitude in a remote paradise far from the hustle and bustle of the mainland.
You can see a lot of the island from your car, and you’ll find scenic landscapes in every direction. As you drive around the island, notice that each side -- north, east, south, and west -- has its own climate and landscape. It’s awe-inspiring to see just how much nature can be packed on such a small island, and it’s all waiting for you to explore. Here are Kauai’s six best scenic drives.
Kauai has but one major road. It hugs the coast, for the most part, and you’ll want to take that highway south out of Lihue to find The Hall of Trees. About eight miles out of Kauai’s “big city,” you’ll turn left towards the historic town of Koloa, and you’ll be instantly bombarded with otherworldly beauty.
The towering trees that line this road are eucalyptus. Yes, the same eucalyptus trees that koalas feed off of in Australia. If you stop to take a picture of the Hall of Trees, take some time to appreciate the scent of the fragrant leaves.
The northern end of Maluhia Road takes you through a towering tree tunnel, and the trees don’t look like they belong on the tropical island. For a moment, you may feel like you’re in England heading down a long driveway leading to a castle. And the trees bending over the road to make a perfect and massive hallway that will take your breath away.
The tunnel doesn’t last all that long, maybe a third of a mile, but it’s long enough to get lost in its beauty. At one point, you’ll be able to look both backward and forward to see nothing but a tree tunnel. It can feel like a portal to another world.
When you burst out onto the other side, the trees will clear to unveil evergreen pastures. Horses roam these fields, and the area is smattered with much more tropical-looking trees. You’ll be instantly whisked back to Kauai.
And just a little further down the road, you’ll arrive at the historic town of Koloa. This is where they make the island’s only spirit -- Koloa Rum -- and it’s a great place to stop for a snack. The town’s grocery store, Sueoka’s Market, sells box lunches, and you’ll find a charming little ice cream shop right next door. Have a tasty treat while you peruse the small town’s little shops to cap off the drive.
Drive north on the Kuhio Highway past Princeville and the macadamia nut farms. Just past the private airport, you’ll start a dramatic descent into Hanalei Valley. And you better be ready to pull over quickly. The first switchback down this massive cliffside is a wonderful viewpoint for the grandeur of the north shore.
You’ll gaze upon the valley from up on high. Fields of taro span to the foot of massive inland mountains that are covered in waterfalls. The Hanalei River winds its way to the ocean past the small town of the same name. And the half-moon bay is accentuated by a stunning streak of white sand that sits in stark contrast to the unbelievably blue water of the bay.
As you descend the switchbacks down the cliffside, it feels like you’re entering another world. The air gets hotter and more humid. The landscape changes from dense forest to clear, open fields. A winding river appears. And, at the very bottom of the road, you’ll be presented with the north shore’s first one-lane bridge. Here’s how it works:
Drive slowly. If nobody is coming the other way, cross the bridge. If someone is coming the other way, stop on your side of the bridge off to the right side of the road to allow traffic to pass. Allow five cars to pass, and then it is your turn. It’s a local courtesy to allow five cars to pass before the other side gets their go.
After the one-lane bridge, the road hugs the Hanalei River. The river feeds the fields of taro to the south, and you may see a few stand-up paddleboarders on the slow-moving water. And you’ll get to marvel at the hibiscus flowers floating in the water. Each bloom only opens for a day before dropping into the slow current of the river.
The road will wind its way past high-end restaurants before it enters the small town of Hanalei. You’ll be shocked at all the high-end stores in this remote part of America. You may even run into a celebrity if you grab a drink at the Tahiti Nui, Hanalei’s oldest bar.
And it’s a special treat to drive down to Hanalei Beach. The white sand is inviting, and then you’ll be surrounded by towering waterfall-covered mountains. Take a moment to look at the mountainous landscape around you, and you might be able to make out the outline of a sleeping dragon. That’s Puff the Magic Dragon. He lives down by the sea in a town called Hanalei.
They say that Mark Twain nicknamed Waimea Canyon “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” and it’s an apt description. You’ll be absolutely taken aback when you see the grandeur and might of western Kauai’s mighty canyon. And you can see most of the canyon during a scenic drive.
Simply take Kauai’s highway west towards the town of Waimea. Just past the Big Save grocery store, you’ll want to take a right up Waimea Canyon Drive. The road will switchback up a steep hillside to give you breathtaking views of the town below, and, for some reason, the ocean looks even bluer here on the west coast.
Fight the urge to stop for a picture on these switchbacks because the views are about to get a lot more beautiful. if you can believe it. The road will finally get to the top of the hill, and you’ll drive alongside a cascading waterfall carved into the tiered red dirt.
There will be one intersection. Make sure to stay right to keep climbing in elevation. Soon, the canyon will begin to emerge on your right. Continue to fight the urge to stop. The big viewpoints are just up ahead.
There are two main viewpoints on the Waimea Canyon Road. Each viewpoint has a parking lot and facilities. You’ll also find plenty of tourists at each location, but this shouldn’t dissuade you from making a pit stop.
The canyon is absolutely breathtaking. Your mind has a difficult time understanding the depths of this phenomenon. It almost looks fake. And the colors of the canyon really pop. Stark red dirt sits in contrast to the lush greens of trees and bushes. Minerals burst through the ground to give the canyon oranges and purples, as well. And off in the distance, waterfalls pour hundreds of feet into oblivion.
Keep driving up Waimea Canyon Road to find the second well-signposted viewpoint. Along the way, the canyon will continue to reveal itself. At times, you’ll be driving right on the edge of the canyon itself, but fight the urge to stop the car to have a look. Always pull off to the side of the road responsibly and then peer into the canyon on foot.
Kalalau Valley is perhaps the most beautiful place in all of Hawaii. It’s also the most difficult place to get to in all of Hawaii. There are no roads to this verdant valley because it sits in between two cathedral cliffs inside The Na Pali Coast on the northwest side of the island.
There are three ways to get to the valley. First, you can take a boat, but the valley’s beach is often violent as there is no protective reef or bay. Second, you can take a helicopter down to the valley floor, but the helipad is usually reserved for rescues and law enforcement. Lastly, and most commonly, you can hike to the valley. The trailhead can be found 11 miles north of Kalalau Valley at Ke’e Beach. Hikers must ascend and descend each and every cathedral cliff of the coast and traverse “crawler’s ledge” to enter this beautiful and remote valley.
From a distance, the Na Pali Coast looks like the massive talons of an island-sized dragon, and each of the talons reaches out into the ocean to create these cathedral cliffs. The cliffs create valleys, and the cliffs themselves are covered in crags, vegetation, and waterfalls.
But there’s good news -- you don’t have to boat, helicopter or hike to the valley to see its beauty. You can drive to the Kalalau Lookout at the very end of the Waimea Canyon Road.
The drive will take you past Waimea Canyon and through a small “town” known as Kokee. At 3,000 feet of elevation, Kokee can be chilly, so you might want to pack something warm to wear. Kokee is essentially a restaurant, open fields, tent camping sites and a collection of cabins. And the cabins can be reserved on the cheap with a two-night minimum stay.
Feel free to stop in Kokee to smell the abundant yellow ginger that wafts on the air. Continue your drive out of Kokee up more switchbacks. The road will narrow, and you’ll finally get to a sign that says Kalalau Valley Lookout near an observatory. Ignore this first lookout. Continue to drive.
Drive until the road completely ends. There will be no signs, but this is the bigger and better Kalalau Valley Lookout. You’ll walk up a small hill to a concrete lookout with railings, but the real thrill and the real views are on the valley’s edge. Just take extreme caution when walking up to the edge of the valley. It’s thousands of feet to the floor below.
Colors seem to be more vibrant in the valley. The blues are electric, the greens seem to glow and the red dirt looks like it’s been painted with a brush. The craggy valley walls are massive, the beach is a slash of white and the ocean shimmers in the distance. This, right here, could be the most impressive lookout in all of Hawaii. Just make sure to drive up here when it’s clear. You won’t be able to see 3,000 feet to the valley floor if there’s fog.
Ancient Hawaiians believed that your soul left this earth through Polihale Beach. That’s why the word Polihale translates to “The House of the Dead.” And it truly is a spiritual place.
Take Kauai’s main highway south out of Lihue, do not turn down the Hall of Trees and stay on the road as it bends to the west. Stop in the town of Waimea at the Ishihara Market. Walk to the back of the market where you’ll find a deli and the island’s most delicious poke. You’ll have your choice as the deli preps a variety of poke daily, and you can’t go wrong. Order up some fresh seafood and save it for the beach.
Continue on the highway west out of town. The road will hug the ocean before turning back north along the west coast. Eventually, the road will run out of pavement and you’ll have to drive on a washboard dirt road for a few miles. Take it slow. Your rental car should make it.
The dirt road will run alongside massive open farm fields with impossibly green crops. Off in the distance, you’ll begin to make out the southernmost cathedral cliff of the Na Pali Coast. Just behind that cliff sits the most beautiful place in all of Hawaii -- Kalalau Valley.
Keep driving on the dirt road until you come upon a massive monkeypod tree. It’s the first giant tree you’ll encounter here on the dry west coast. Under its canopy is a sign welcoming you to Polihale Beach Park. From here, you have two choices.
You can drive up the sandy hill to the beach park’s first pavilion, or you can continue down the dirt road where road conditions get worse. You’ll find more pullouts down the dirt road with each leading to another covered pavilion. These pavilions can be reserved and rented for the night.
The pavilions sit on hills that overlook the beach. You’ll have to climb down a steep dune to the water, and you may notice some tire tracks on the sand. You’re legally allowed to drive four-wheel-drive vehicles on the beach. If you’ve rented a 4WD vehicle, then let a little air out of your tires before hitting the sand. Full tires may spin in the soft white sand without traction.
The water here is crystal clear and the waves are huge. Look carefully into the oncoming waves to see dolphins, turtles and monk seals riding the surf. And this beach is absolutely perfect for whale watching between the months of January and March. You might even be lucky enough to see a rare instance of interspecies play where spinner dolphins swim onto the snouts of humpback whales only to be thrown into the air. And spinner dolphins always spin like footballs out of the water.
Take extreme caution when swimming at Polihale. There are no lifeguards, you’re miles from the nearest town and the surf can be violent. Carefully watch the waves before getting in. You may notice that they are breaking sideways into each other. This is a side current that can turn into a rip current. You can also fall victim to the undertow. It’s best to stay out of the water altogether, but, if you can’t help yourself, stay in the shallows.
Take out your poke from Ishihara Market and enjoy the sun setting over the towering island of Niihau off in the distance. Just drive back slowly. The dirt road becomes covered in nocturnal frogs after dark.
You’ll find Ke’e Beach at the exact opposite end of the Na Pali Coast from Polihale Beach. And, just like Polihale to the south, Ke’e Beach sits in the shadows of the Na Pali Coast’s northernmost cathedral cliff. The drive to this bookend beach may be the most beautiful drive on the island.
Take the Kuhio Highway north out of Lihue past Princeville. Descend the cliff to Hanalei Bay and drive past the town. You’ll hit another one-land bridge as the road hugs the western side of the bay.
As you leave Hanalei, you’ll enter another world. The road hugs cliff edges take you past remote beaches and all the houses out here are built on stilts. You’ll drive over a series of one-lane bridges and each takes you over yet another stream pouring into the Pacific.
There’s no mistaking the landscape here at the end of the road. You are deep in the heart of a rainforest. When the canopy breaks, you can look inland to see towering waterfall-covered mountains as the road hugs yet another white sand beach.
You’ll eventually hit a hard corner. A mountain stream will pour over the road and you’ll have to slow down to cross the water. That’s when the first north shore cave will present itself. These caves are filled with water and seemingly go on forever. It’s a haunting place to take a picture.
You’ll pass yet another cave before the landscape opens up a bit. You’ll be shocked to find a farm so far away from civilization, but that farm is telling you that you’re close to the end of the road. The road will then dip under the canopy of a thick rainforest before ending at Ke’e Beach.
There is a small parking lot here at the end of the road, and you’ll want to get here early in the morning to secure a spot. On the southern side of the parking lot, you’ll see the trailhead to Kalalau Valley which sits 11 miles down the coast. Continue walking towards the lifeguard tower to the beach, and the beach is absolutely stunning.
The jungle seems to crawl right out into the ocean here at Ke’e Beach. Feral chickens peck at fallen coconuts with their chicks right on the sand. And the beach is pressed up against a massive cathedral cliff. That cliff side gives a sunset picture from Ke’e Beach some impressive scale.
There’s a protective reef about 75 yards into the water, but the ocean can get up and over the reef when the surf is violent. If the water is calm, snorkel out to the reef to see an abundance of tropical fish.
If you’re feeling up to it, like the first mile of the Kalalau Trail. You’ll ascend the first cathedral cliff of the Na Pali Coast. At the top of the cliff, you’ll be able to see down the indomitable coast to make out each and every cathedral cliff. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, and it’s the best way to see the Na Pali Coast on land. You’ll also get beautiful views of Ke’e Beach below.