Drive over to the west side of Kauai, look out over the sparkling blue waters and take in the fact that you're staring at the open ocean for thousands of miles. You'll see the towering coast of Niihau, one small Hawaiian island west of Kauai, but that island is off-limits to tourists. Step foot on Niihau, and you'll be visited by a private security team that guards a population of people still living an authentic Hawaiian lifestyle.
There's not much America west of Kauai. A few uninhabited Aleutian Islands reach west off the southwest coast of Alaska, and only the American territories of Samoa, Midway and Guam lay further west. As you watch the sunset, you can feel satisfied that you're the last American to do so.
And that sense of isolation is what attracts intrepid eco-tourists to the Garden Isle. Kauai is one of the least visited islands on the map, but it is perhaps Hawaii's most beautiful. It's the type of island where you wake up early with the feral roosters, explore Kauai's indomitable natural landscapes by daylight, and it's where you fall asleep early exhausted from the day's activities while dreaming of the day ahead.
Kauai is anti-city. The local government ensures that buildings are shorter than palm trees, and it's difficult to find a rocking late-night bar. Most of the locals fill the bars at sunset dirty from the day's adventure to share stories before turning in early.
But this focus on the outdoors makes Kauai's activities very affordable. You don't have to worry about ringing up a huge bar tab or paying for guided tours when the island offers so much to do for free. All you need is a rental car and a sense of adventure, and you'll be treated to unforgettable adventures at absolutely no cost.
Take the Kuhio Highway south out of Lihue. Then, just as the road turns west, take a left onto Maluhia Road into the tunnel made of towering Eucalyptus trees. Right when you turn, you'll know why they call this place Tree Tunnel. The ancient trees, towering 40 feet above, lean over to create a perfect hallway canopy that nearly blocks out all the sunlight.
And this tree tunnel goes on for a while. At one point during the drive, the hall will envelop your vision both forwards and backward. It's a magical sight, and it makes you feel as if you've entered another world.
You are entering another world, of sorts. This is the unofficial start to Kauai's southern coast. And if you look at the circular Garden Isle as if it is the face of a compass, then each side of the compass -- north, east, south, and west -- is home to a different climate zone. As you head south, you'll feel the air get drier and a bit hotter. It rarely rains down here.
Eventually, you'll burst through the tunnel to emerge on a flat plain full of horses. The landscape is dotted with stunning tropical trees that make this place look like a scene out of Jurassic Park. And it's all framed by towering mountains off into the distance.
Continue south out of the Tree Tunnel, and you'll find the end of the road at Poipu Beach Park. This stunning and popular beach is perfect for families as it features a central dividing sandbar that effectively makes for two different beaches.
There's abundant parking near Brennecke's Seafood Restaurant, and you'll want to follow the foot traffic past the bathrooms, showers and picnic tables to the beach. You'll immediately see the dividing sandbar, and to your left, you'll notice the Keiki pool.
This little cove is protected by the sandbar and a jetty of lava rocks. The water here is usually calm and shallow which makes it perfect for the kids. You might want to strap water shoes on the little ones, though. The shallow bottom is sandy, but there are a few rogue lava rocks hiding under the waves.
The Keiki pool attracts sea turtles. They like the protected waters and abundance of underwater vegetation. You're likely to spot a turtle, but keep your distance when taking a selfie. The surf may push you into the turtle. The oils on your skin degrade the turtle's shell, and it's illegal to touch the friendly creatures in Hawaii. Law enforcement loves to hand out tickets for the offense.
On the right side of the sandbar, you'll find a large swath of soft beige sand. The water here is usually calm, but it gets waist-deep rather quickly. The bottom here is soft and sandy making it the perfect spot for a safe swim.
Look west as the sun sets, and you'll be treated to a silhouette of surfers against the soft oranges, reds, pinks, and purples of the sky. It makes for a stunning and enviable picture.
Some of the best beachside snorkeling in all of Hawaii can be found on a small, unassuming beach just west of Poipu. Of course, you’ll have to bring your own snorkel gear to make this a free activity. You’ll also have to bring your own gear because there is no gear to rent at the beach. But to get to this secret snorkel spot, simply take Lawai Road for a few minutes along the coast west, and you'll find a small strip of sand next to a restaurant.
There are just a few parking spots in front of the Lawai Beach Resort for Lawai Beach, but it's worth the frustration finding a spot. But once you get out of your car, you might be let down. That's because the beach can all but disappear up against the raised road at high tide. Don't let this dissuade you.
You can throw a towel down on the tiered lawn next to the Beach House Restaurant if the sand of the beach is underwater. And once you get into the water, you're entering a whole new world.
The water can get deep rather quickly here at Lawai, so snorkel only if you are confident in your swimming ability. You also might want to pack some fins or water shoes because the bottom is very rocky and full of coral.
You can hear it the second you dip your head underwater. The sharp clicks of parrotfish feasting on coral seem to echo and pop, and Hawaii's most colorful fish come into view. They seem completely apathetic to your presence, and some may even come within inches of your body.
If you really want to make a scene, bring a few pieces of bread into the water with you. Crumble the bread in front of you while a tornado of fish come to feast on the pieces. Children love the show, but don't do this too often. The locals may get upset.
Drive a little further west from Lawai Beach and you'll eventually hit the end of the road. You'll find a large parking lot, a bunch of stands selling local wares and natural phenomena that mustn't be missed.
You can park for free, walk through the stalls looking at scenic for free, and Kauai's amazing blowhole is absolutely free. You'll just have to put up with the feral chickens and chicks begging for food from sympathetic tourists. The same chickens that the locals shoo away all day.
After passing through the hallways of stalls, the sidewalk will lead you down to a viewpoint. You'll be perched atop a lava shelf, and the ocean water here seems to be impossibly deep blue. It's beautiful and foreboding at the same time.
You can watch as the waves roll under the lava shelf, fill a cave with pressurized water only to have a geyser-like explosion through a tire-sized hole in the top of the shelf. The spray can get up to 100 feet high, and it's beautiful watching rainbow-filled mist fade in the wind.
The best time to go is at high tide with a large swell, and most of the large swells come during wintertime. And, if you're lucky, you'll spot humpback whales breaching in the deep during mating season from January to March.
Take the Kuhio Highway all the way to the town of Waimea on the southwest coast of Kauai. You can see just how drastically the climate changes as you emerge onto the west coast. The air becomes arid and dry, and all of the clouds seem to evaporate. The trees get smaller and smaller, and you'll drive past fields of Kona coffee.
The word Kona roughly translates to the sailing term Leeward. It's the side of an island that is less likely to see a storm. The city of Kona, sitting on the hot and dry west coast of the Big Island, features a similar climate to Kauai's Waimea. And that's why you'll find Kona coffee on Kauai.
Once you hit the town of Waimea, take a sharp right onto Waimea Canyon Road. The road will switchback up a steep hill with breathtaking views of the town below. Feel free to stop, but there's much more explosive beauty to be found up the road.
You'll drive past an amazing waterfall tumbling down an undulating red dirt hill before you turn right to stay on Waimea Canyon Road. You'll continue to ascend, and the canyon will slowly emerge on your right. It'll keep getting bigger and bigger; deeper and deeper. And once you think it can't get any bigger, it does.
You'll find two very prominent viewpoints for the canyon along the road. These viewpoints feature platforms, bathrooms and plenty of parking. But there are plenty of unofficial viewpoints along the way. In fact, the road will feel like it hugs the canyon's steep edge from time to time. Feel free to stop at any viewpoint along the way, but make sure to pull your car completely off the road for safety.
The canyon itself is absolutely stunning. Verdant green splashes the orange and red striations of the canyon walls. Depending on the recent weather, you might be able to see an abundant waterfall flowing into the canyon's depths. It's no wonder why Mark Twain dubbed this place "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific."
Just when you think the road up Waimea Canyon couldn't get any prettier, you hit the end of the road. The absolute end of the road. Do not stop at the first sign for the Kalalau Lookout. Better views and more solitude await at the very end of the road; at the second Kalalau Valley Lookout.
The Waimea Canyon road winds its way up to the very edge of the Kalalau Valley; the prized jewel of the Na Pali Coast. This stunning valley can only be reached by foot, helicopter or boat. And there's no safe way down to the valley floor from the lookout.
Daring hikers challenge the 13-mile one-way Kalalau Valley Trail that starts on the northern end of the Na Pali Coast at Ke'e Beach. They ascend and descend each of the Na Pali Coast's cathedral cliffs and brave Crawler's Ledge to get to the verdant valley. You can live off of the land inside the valley. Fruit trees are abundant, and there's even a designated shower waterfall for campers.
From high above, the valley looks so beautiful that it appears to be fake at first. The clear air seems to make the blues of the water, greens of the vegetation and white of the beach hyper-real. It's dazzling and unforgettable. And it will make you want to hike the 13-mile trail to experience this slice of paradise.
The lookout allows you to walk right up to the valley's 3,000-foot dirt edge. Be careful around the edge, and make sure to step on dirt. There are ferns on Kauai that like to grow 30 or 40 feet up the sides of cliffs only to look like a short shrub on a cliff's edge. Step on a plant, and you might find yourself tumbling.
Take the Kuhio Highway straight through Waimea Town on the west coast while ignoring the turnoff for the Waimea Canyon Road. Follow the road until it bends back north to end at a hyper-green farm field in front of a desert mountain. Behind that mountain lies Kalalau Valley. It's the southernmost cathedral cliff of the Na Pali Coast.
At the end of the pavement, you'll find a graded dirt road that heads west towards the water. Brave the dirt road in your rental car for a few miles until the road splits at a massive monkeypod tree upon a hill. Here, you have two choices.
You can drive up the sandy hill to Polihale State Park's first pavilion, or you can continue down the road to find a series of other beachside pavilions. The road gets worse as you near the Na Pali Coast's cathedral cliff.
At each pavilion, you may find a gathering of locals celebrating a birthday or graduation. Most of them won't mind you parking nearby to enjoy the beach.
The pavilions are built on tall dunes, and you'll have to march down the dune to get to Polihale's stunning white sand beach. This is one of the longest beaches in all of Hawaii. To the north, you'll see the Na Pali's cathedral cliff standing sentinel for Kalalau Valley. To the west, you'll gaze upon the towering cliffs of Niihau. And beyond Niihau, it's the open ocean for thousands of miles.
The water here is crystal clear, so peek into the waves to spot spinner dolphins, turtles, and whales. This is one of the best places in all of Hawaii for whale watching between January and March. If you're really lucky, you'll experience a rare instance of interspecies play. Spinner dolphins love to spin like footballs high into the air after being launched off of the snout of a cooperating humpback whale.
The water here tends to be choppy and dangerous, and there are no lifeguards on duty. Stay safe by staying out of the water or wading into the shallows. And locals are allowed to drive their trucks on the beach, so make sure to throw your towel down in a conspicuous spot. You don't want a truck finding you on the other side of a dune. You'll also want to wear sturdy footwear at the ironwood trees at the back of the beach feature cactus-like barbs on their branches, and these barbs like to fall off and hide in the sand.
Kauai is covered in feral chickens. In 1992, Hurricane Iniki slammed into the island which unleashed all the caged chickens on the island. They’ve proliferated, and you’re now likely to be woken up by a rooster at sunrise.
This event showed Kauai’s authorities the importance of animal management, so the island decided to build an incredible humane society. And there’s good news -- visiting the animal shelter is completely free. You might even be able to borrow an animal for a short period of time.
Take Highway 50 south out of Lihue for about 10 minutes. Four miles out of Lihue, you’ll see the massive Kauai Humane Society on your right up against some misty mountains. As you drive into the parking lot, you’ll notice a series of dog parks for different sized dogs. You’ll also see a bunch of locals gathered around picnic tables inside the fenced-off areas as dogs run about.
The entrance to the humane society has a desk and a receptionist. You can stop to talk to the shelter’s representative, or you can simply walk past them into the animal areas. Feel free to explore the grounds to see all of the animals, which include dogs, puppies, kittens, cats, horses, and even pigs. And you can read about these animals on their cage’s placards.
If you happen to fall in love with a dog, you can ask a representative for a visit. They’ll take you to a penned-in outdoor area where you can play with the animal. And it’s hard not to fall in love when you visit the facility’s puppy room.
You can even ask the representative to borrow the dog for the day. You can take your new friend to the beach, on a hike or simply to the dog park next to the facility. Either way, it’s a great, free way to enjoy the outdoors with man’s best friend, and you’re giving a lonely dog some companionship. It’s nothing but good vibes.
Just north of Lihue, you'll find the east coast town of Kapaa along the Kuhio Highway. This cute little town is worth exploring, and the best way to explore the town is on foot along the Coconut Coast's bike path.
The path spans 2.5 miles, and it will take you to a series of beaches, beach resorts, shops, restaurants, bars, and hidden swimming holes. Feel free to walk the entire length of the bike path, or just a short snippet as you discover what Kapaa has to offer. Walking the Coconut Coast is a great way to familiarize yourself with the east coast's biggest town and to stretch your legs just after landing on Kauai. And keep an eye out for Orchid Alley.
You'll have to explore the center of Kapaa Town on foot to find this hidden little flower store. It's tucked away inside of an alley right in the middle of town. It's essentially hiding in plain sight.
Kapaa is Kauai's largest east coast town, and it's a place where plenty of locals live. And you can meet some of the locals as you explore this fascinating little store.
Kauai's central dormant volcano is the rainiest place on earth, and the water trickles out of its crater to forge Hawaii's only navigable rivers. You crossed one on your way up to Kapaa from Lihue in the town of Wailua.
This abundance of moisture feeds a myriad of life of Kauai, and that's why this little island is nicknamed The Garden Isle. Guavas, bananas, mangos, avocados, starfruit, jackfruit and noni all grow wild and abundant. But it's the elusive orchid that gets all the attention in this little store
Picked off of trees and rocks from all over the island, this flower storehouses all sorts of orchids in a tiny little open-air alleyway. The flowers are delicate, intricate and fascinating, and the fragrance is incredible. And it's the perfect little spot for a flowery social media pic.
Buried deep in the rainforest in the Wailua Homesteads is a hidden gem. There is a monastery built on the hills above the Wailua River, and the grounds are well kept, lush and colorful. It’s also a place of complete and utter peace. It’s the perfect place to visit when you want to be as far away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland as possible.
The monastery is about 20 minutes north of Kauai’s city of Lihue. Take the Kuhio Highway north, and just as you pass north of the Wailua River, take a left onto Route 580. Follow 580 inland for a few minutes before turning left onto Kaholalele Road to find this treasure.
There’s an incredible banyan tree on the grounds just as you drive up to the gravel parking lot. The tree’s limbs branch out in a myriad of ways, and walking under the tree’s canopy feels like a maze. But if you take the path near the tree deeper into the grounds, you’ll be treated to waterfalls, shrines and beautifully ornate buildings.
You must respect Hindu traditions in order to visit. You’re asked to dress up in an authentically Hindu manner, or, at the very least, to dress modestly. You don’t want to be wearing your swimsuits as you rock up to this peaceful place of worship.
The monastery opens to visitors from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. every day, and you can take a self-guided tour of the grounds using a provided map.
There’s a beautiful lighthouse perched atop the cliffs of northern Kauai, and you can at least visit the outside of the lighthouse for free. But what’s most impressive about a visit to the lighthouse is the sweeping views over the ocean to the north and the northside beaches below.
It’s an especially beautiful visit during whale season from January to March. Humpback whales from as far away as Alaska migrate for weeks to find the safe, warm waters of Hawaii. The breeding season seems to be celebrated by the breaching whales all about the island, and your chances of seeing a jumping whale increase dramatically from the lighthouse’s cliffs.
You can visit the towering, cliff-perched lighthouse by driving on the Kuhio Highway north out of Lihue through Kapaa to Kilauea. Once you see the Shell Gas Station and Menehune Market on your right, you’ll want to turn right onto the road behind the gas station. Turn left onto Kilauea Road, and you should be prepared for a unique little treat along the way.
As you drive through the town of Kilauea, keep an eye out of the purple house on your right. Feel free to stop to examine the house, and you’ll notice that everything about the house is a different shade of purple.
Ride Kilauea Road to its end on atop the cliffs. There is plenty of parking for the lighthouse, and you’ll have to pay a fee to enter the lighthouse itself, but there’s plenty of room for looking out into the ocean next to the lighthouse. And the view is free.
Take Kuhio Highway a little further north from Kilauea to the resort town of Princeville to find one of the island’s hidden gems. Take a right onto Ka Huka Road then another right onto Punahele Road. Take one more right onto Kapiolani Road, and you’ll find a dirt parking lot against a fence inside of a middle-upper class neighborhood.
You might have to get to the parking lot early in order to snag a spot. If the lot is full, you’ll have to wait. You’ll certainly get a ticket if you choose to park in the neighborhood. You might even get towed if you spend too much time down at Queen’s Bath.
You’ll find a short-yet-steep hike down to Queen’s Bath at the edge of the fence. The trail will take you into the thick forest, and the red dirt underneath is bound to be very slippery. Take your time descending the slippery trail while using rocks and exposed roots for footholds.
The trail will take you down to a lava shelf that is continually pounding by the Pacific. Once onto the shelf, turn left to hike west towards Hanalei. In a fifth of a mile, you’ll run into Queen’s Bath; an Olympic-sized swimming pool that has been naturally carved out of the lava shelf. There’s no mistaking these natural phenomena, so keep walking until it takes your breath away.
This free attraction is incredibly beautiful and unique, but it can be dangerous. The waves can reach up and over the lava shelf into the pool to rock swimmers with waves, or, in the worst-case scenario, pull swimmers out to sea. Make sure to check the surf reports before heading to Queen’s Bath, and only swim when the swell is at three feet or below. It’s also helpful to be there during low tide.
The rocks filter the ocean water to make for crystal clear conditions, and the waves throw tropical fish into the pool to provide visitors with an aquarium-like environment for snorkelers. You can jump off the lava rocks into the pool, but pick your spot wisely. The bottom of Queen’s Bath is approximately 10 feet deep but is littered with boulders of different heights.
Just east of Queen’s Bath, you’ll see a small cove with surf that rises and falls dramatically. Look closely, and you’ll likely spot sea turtles braving the surf for the abundant underwater vegetation.
And if you get really lucky, you’ll see local boys jumping into the cove when the water is low only to be blasted back up to the lava shelf on a large swell. But do not copycat this behavior. This is Turtle Cove, and it makes the setting even more magical.
The drive to Hanalei is almost as beautiful as the town itself, and you can get to this Northshore town by taking the Kuhio Highway through Kapaa, Kilauea, and Princeville. You’ll pass by a well-manicured macadamia nut tree farm and a local airport before descending into Hanalei’s valley.
You’ll hug switchbacks on a towering cliffside, and viewpoints of Hanalei Valley pop up quickly. You’ll want to drive slow, and if the view inspires you, you’ll have to pull off the road quickly into tight little viewpoint areas along the switchbacks. Stay alert and use your blinker.
You’ll look out over a valley of taro fields that are cut by the winding Hanalei River which is usually covered with stand-up paddleboarders. To the north, lies the crescent-shaped white sand of Hanalei Beach and the whole scene is crowned by waterfall-covered mountains. The mountains are usually misty and shrouded by thin clouds to give the whole scene a magical feel.
And if you look close enough, the mountains make out the silhouette of a sleeping dragon. This is Puff the Magic Dragon. He lives by the sea in a town called Hanalei.
At the bottom of the cliff, you’ll hit the north shore’s first one-way bridge over the Hanalei River. If there’s no oncoming traffic, then drive over the bride slowly. But, if there is oncoming traffic, you’ll have to pull to the right to allow them to pass. Count out five cars and then it is your turn. It’s a local courtesy.
The road will begin to hug the meandering Hanalei River as you pull into the surprisingly high-end town. Here, in Hanalei, you’re almost at the end of the road; you’re almost at the end of America. It feels so exotic and remote down here in one of America’s westernmost towns, but Hanalei is full of cute little boutiques, high-end restaurants, and tropical bars. Walking through town and window shopping is a great way to spend a few hours. And when you’re done, it’s time to head down to Hanelei’s perfect little beach.
There’s no right or wrong way to get to the beach. Simply drive towards the water through town, and you’ll run into one of a few different dirt parking lots. You’ll then be able to walk out to the soft white sand of the beach surrounded by the sleeping dragon of mountains.
The water here is usually calm, and even when the winter swell comes to the island, it’s usually safe for a swim. Of course, you are responsible for your safety in the water. Only go for a swim if the conditions are calm enough for your swimming ability. But Hanalei offers up some great body surfing when the waves are high because the beach features a soft, flat, sandy bottom.
The beach provides a romantic walk, and there’s even an iconic pier. Local kids are usually fishing or jumping off of the pier, and the end of the pier is a great way to look back at Hanalei to take in your surroundings.
Visitors to Kauai used to be able to drive the island’s coastal highway past Hanalei to visit Ke’e Beach and the Kalalau Valley Trailhead at the very end of the road. But a storm in April of 2018 changed all of that. The rain came down heavily, that it slides the road into the sea. The road has been rebuilt, but, in an effort to conserve Kauai’s incredible environment, the government has now put strict limits on traffic past Hanalei.
There is now a booth manned by rangers that limits visitors to 900 per day. You’ll also have to pay a small fee to pass the gates, but you can book online in advance to secure one of those 900 spots. Or you can jump on the new shuttle that runs from Hanalei to the end of the road. The shuttle’s ticket includes entry into the new restricted area, and you don’t have to worry about the limited parking at the end of the road.
While the conservation efforts will most certainly pay off in the long run, it has shut off the northwest portion of the island to free activities. You’ll have to reserve a spot and pay in order to access the Limahuli Botanical Gardens, Ke’e Beach, the Kalalau Valley Trail or the Hanakapiai Falls Trail.