Things to Do in Kauai
With steep emerald cliffs, lush valleys, and remote cascading waterfalls, the Na Pali Coast is one of Hawaii’s most beautiful regions, and no visit to Kauai is complete without a visit to this magical coastline. There are only three ways to explore the Na Pali Coast—by air, by sea, and on foot—and each offers its own unique perspective.
Wailua River (Attraction - Kauai, USA)
Protected by Wailua River State Park, the Wailua is the largest navigable river in the Hawaiian archipelago (a feature found only on the island of Kauai). As the 20-mile (32-kilometer) river meanders through a lush valley, it passes through jungle landscapes and past two notable waterfalls: Opaekaa Falls and Wailua Falls.
Located on the north shore of Kauai, Hanalei Bay is one of the island’s most picturesque stretches of water. This crescent-shaped bay boasts over 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) of white sand beach backed by mountains, waterfalls, and laid-back towns and offers an array of watersports, including kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, and surfing.
A geological kaleidoscope of reds and browns, Kauai’s impressive Waimea Canyon—at 14 miles (22.5 kilometers) long, one mile (1.6 kilometers) wide, and 3,600 feet (1,097 meters) deep—is Hawaii’s version of the Grand Canyon. In fact, some say Mark Twain was the first to lend it its nickname: the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Stop on its winding rim road for views of a far-below river, sheer drop-offs, spectacular views, excellent hiking, and waterfall-lined crevasses, all just a short way away from the Garden Isle’s legendary Na Pali Coast.
Be prepared for more colors of green than you’ve ever seen before in the area surrounding Kauai’s central Mt. Waialeale—it’s one of the wettest places on planet Earth, receiving more than 450 inches of rainfall each year. It’s dominating sheer green 5,066 cliff wall has also been called the Wall of Tears, for the many waterfalls that fill its crevices and stream down its face during frequent rains. And, if the setting looks familiar, that could be because it starred as the backdrop for opening scenes of the original 1992 Jurassic Park movie. To get to the base of Waialeale, and to the the Wailua River, you’ll have to take a 4x4 down the bumpy Wailua Forestry Management Road and then trek in. Alternatively, several helicopter tours take you much closer to its cliff face—and its waterfalls—than you could easily get to on a hike.
The Menehune Fishpond is scenic—set amid lush jungle where craggy mountains are close enough to frame the edges of a killer sunset photo shot. But this giant pool of green-brown water has been attributed mythical qualities that are evident even in its name. Menehune is a mysterious race of little people—some say they’re like Hawaiian leprechauns—that have been credited with building sites throughout the Hawaiian Islands swiftly and stealthily. Legend has it they built this particular 39-acre loko wai (freshwater pond) by passing stones to each other from the village of Makaweli more than two dozen miles away, damming up the Hule’ia River with walls 900 feet long and five feet tall. In a single night. To get up close and personal with the work of the Menehune, join a kayak tour of the Hule’ia—it’s the only way to gain access into the otherwise off-limits Hule’ia National Wildlife Refuge that surrounds the pond. Fishponds like this one are found throughout the Hawaiian Islands and were used to store and easily retrieve fish for the alii or ruling class. And, the Menehune Fishpond is one of the best preserved examples of a Hawaiian freshwater fishpond still in existence today.
When the island of Kauai erupted from the sea between 4 and 5 million years ago, parts of the coastline were riddled with tubes where molten lava once flowed. One of those spots is the Spouting Horn on the island’s southern coast, where waves are channeled into the tube before violently erupting in a saltwater geyser over 50 feet in the air. Compared to other Hawaiian blowholes, what makes Kauai’s Spouting Horn unique is the guttural moan that precedes the powerful eruption. A second, smaller hole in the rocks funnels air as opposed to water, and the result is a sound that makes it seem like the rocks themselves are groaning. No wonder Hawaiians believed that amo’o was stuck inside of the rocks—a mischievous lizard of Polynesian lore that can still be heard to this day. Once finished admiring the geyser and feeling the ocean’s fury, peruse the homemade souvenir stalls erected by local vendors. Even if you don’t find that perfect give to bring back from your Hawaiian vacation, the locals are always a good source of friendly conversation.
Known as the Forbidden Island, Niʻihau is mostly untouched by outsiders, creating a microcosm of Hawaiian history and culture. Just 17 miles (27 kilometers) off the coast of Kauai, the island’s fewer than 200 residents speak Hawaiian and live without cars, electricity, and modern amenities.
Kauai is known as “The Garden Isle” for its exceptionally verdant beauty, and when you first catch sight of Wailua Falls it’s easy to understand why. Spilling 80 feet over a rocky ledge into a fresh water pool below, this double-streamed, misty cascade so perfectly captures the tropical essence that it was used as part of the opening scene for the TV show,Fantasy Island.
And, while there’s definitely no shortage of waterfalls on Kauai, what makes Wailua Falls so popular is the fact that you can see the falls without even having to hike. As you follow rural, Ma’alu Road as it twists its way up the mountain, there will eventually be a large parking lot approximately four miles up from the highway. Here, from a sweeping viewpoint on a country road looking over Wailua Stream, a heart-stopping view of Wailua Falls is only a few steps away. For an added, tropical, Wailua Falls bonus, try to visit in mid-morning on a clear, sunny day, when a thin rainbow can often appear in the softly spiraling mists.
Kauai, is green, and Kauai is wet—and that's why it's so beautiful. Parts of the island receive over 400 inches of rainfall every year, and all that rain means the Garden Isle is dripping in dozens of waterfalls. While some of these waterfalls require trekking through mud just to gain a glimpse of their splendor, others ones such as Opaekaa Falls only require stepping out of the car. Tumbling just over 150 feet, Opaekaa Falls is a year-round waterfall that is guaranteed to be flowing. The falls usually feature two separate streams that splash their way down the cliff face, but after periods of especially heavy rain, the two falls can merge into a single, explosive cascade. Whatever the size, the best time to visit is usually in the late morning when the falls are bathed in sunlight—and if it happens to be cloudy day, the falls are so close and easily accessible it’s easy to pay another visit.
More Things to Do in Kauai
The Napali Coast tops nearly everyone’s Kauai bucketlists with its sheer green undulating cliffs dropping directly into cerulean waters. The Kalalau Trail takes you back in and along Napali’s Valleys for 11 miles down to the beach and back up and out for another 11—a trip that takes most people at least two days to complete. Not for everyone. Enter the Kalalau Lookout, an easily accessible vantage from which to take in the deep expanse of Napali’s most recognizable Kalalau Valley and get a taste of Napali from land without all of the hiking. Sitting at an elevation of 4,000 feet, the lookout is perfectly positioned to take in the full two-mile-across valley and the ocean beyond.
There was once a time when the island of Kauai was awash in waving green sugar. When the last mill closed down, however, in October of 2009, the island was left searching for a new crop to step in and fill the void. Luckily for island plantation workers and caffeine lovers worldwide, coffee is starting to pick up on Kauai where the sugar cane industry left off.
Nowhere is this more evident than at Kauai Coffee Company in the town of Kalaheo, where over 4 million trees on 3,100 acres officially make this the largest coffee farm found anywhere in the United States. Take a guided tour through the coffee fields to learn the production process, or sample from over 20 different coffees at the large tasting room on site. Every bean that’s served and sold is grown right here in Hawaii, and when you’ve gotten enough of a buzz for the day, look out at the rows of waving green leaves that disappear over gentle hills to the tropical shoreline below.
Visible by kayak from the Huleia River, or from a roadside overlook, the otherwise closed-to-the-public Huleia National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Kauai is a popular bird watching spot. The site is one of just two sanctuaries on the planet (both National Wildlife Refuges on Kauai) home to wild populations of five species of endangered Hawaiian waterbirds—the Hawaiian coot, stilt, duck, goose (the state bird) and the elusive moorhen. Twenty-six other species of bird also call the federally-managed wetlands home. The lush landscape of riverine pools and waterfalls that surround the refuge have served as a jungle backdrop in several movies including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and Lost World.
The refuge’s flat valley, formerly comprised of wetland taro and rice paddies, is shielded from the sea to the west by a long ridge of peaks. It abuts Alekoko, the Menehune Fishpond, a historic aquaculture system thought to be built 1,000 years ago by an early and mythical race of Hawaiian of people called the Menehune.
With a natural wading pool for young swimmers, soft sandy beaches, and lifeguards, Poipu Beach Park is one of Kauai’s most popular family-friendly beaches. Visitors also flock to Poipu Beach to try to see one of Hawaii’s endangered monk seals, which often sunbathe on the shore. In winter, you might spot Humpback whales off the coast.
Evidence of a little-remembered attempt by Russians to gain a foothold in Hawaii between 1815 and 1817 can still be found in the remnants of an old fort alongside the mouth of the Waimea River. Though today the site is little more than jumbled red rock walls hinting at its former layout, an irregular octagon guarding entrance into Kauai via the waterway, it once was the site of grand plans to use Kauai as a permanent provisioning and trading station for the state-sponsored Russian American Company. With outer rock walls constructed from ancient heiau (Hawaiian temples), the fort once included residences, a chapel, gardens, a trading center and the main fort building. Visitors can explore what’s left via a self-guided interpretive tour following signage with drawings of how the area once appeared.
Here, Dr. Georg Anton Schäffer, sent to retrieve lost cargo from a wrecked Russian American Company ship, overstepped the orders of his mission. Schäffer instead built the fort complex, befriended Kauai’s chief, set him against the newly instated Hawaiian King Kamehameha and secured a sandalwood monopoly for the company. When Mother Russia learned of Schäffer’s actions, however, she disapproved. Russia didn’t want to become embroiled in the already complicated politics of the islands; they just wanted their cargo back. So, Russia summoned Dr. Schäffer home, leaving the fort to be claimed by the Hawaiians, and, later, after the dismantling in 1864, the elements.
In the shadow of verdant mountains, and shaded by palm and ironwood trees, Makua Beach has golden sand and baby blue waters. The post-card-perfect setting was featured in the 1958 movie South Pacific, but it’s the labyrinthine underwater reef, snaked with caves, that lends the beach its nickname and draws visitors today: Tunnels Beach is one of Kauai’s best snorkeling spots. Best of all, it’s frequently uncrowded.
Protected within a small cupped North Shore bay, two layers of reef offer different experiences. The smaller inshore reef boasts calmer waters and frequent sea turtle sightings, while the expansive offshore reef is a well-utilized scuba dive site with more varied terrain—some sections drop to 70 feet. The ocean-facing edge of the outer reef is popular with expert surfers. Both reefs are home to colorful wrasse, moray eels, butterfly fish and Hawaii’s state fish, the hard-to-pronounce Humuhumunukunukuapua`a. If you’re lucky, you may even see an endangered Hawaiian monk seal hauled out on the shore.
Perched at the tip of Kauai’s northernmost point on a rocky peninsula high above the Pacific Ocean, the Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Point Lighthouse was built in 1913 as a navigational aid for passing ships. Although its light was replaced with an automatic beacon in the 1970s, the lighthouse remains one of Kauai’s most popular attractions.
The dramatic landscape of Kilauea Point—a rocky promontory crowned by a historic red-topped lighthouse—is one of Kauai’s most scenic spots. And on this Island, that’s saying a lot. Pacific trade winds whip up the water surrounding the blustery point and drive them, shattering into millions of tiny droplets, against the more than 500-foot-tall sheer cliff faces. Seabirds soar and dive into the deep blue water for food.
Most of the expansive 203-acre refuge is off limits—it protects some of the largest nesting colonies of seabirds in the main Hawaiian Islands. But, from the short interpretive trail between the entrance and the lighthouse, it’s easy to find red- and white-tailed tropic birds, albatross, great frigatebirds, red- and brown-footed boobies and wedge-tailed shearwaters flying overhead. Hawaiian spinner dolphins, rare monk seals and migrating humpback whales (Nov. and April), can sometimes be spotted offshore. The area is also an important habitat for the nēnē, the world’s rarest goose and Hawaii’s state bird.
Visitors can climb the spiral staircase to the top of the lighthouse, built in 1913, for outstanding ocean panoramas on tours offered two days a week. A small bookstore and information center has details about the various birds and habitats in the refuge.
A sprawling expanse of reef—1,600 feet at its widest and one of Hawaii’s longest spanning two miles—looms just off the thin strip of white sand at Anini Beach. Parrotfish, moray eels, trumpet fish, needlefish, pufferfish and much, much more color the clear waters, popping against the drab coral rock. A thin sandbar beyond the residential area on shore often hosts fishermen and waders searching for seashells within view of the lighthouse and offshore Island at Kilauea Point in the east.
Despite steady winds that whip up light action for windsurfers that sometimes cruise its length, the coral acts as a protective barrier for the shallows making Anini one of the calmest and best snorkeling beaches on Kauai’s North Shore.
Kauai’s Fern Grotto is a fern-covered lava cave on the south fork of the Wailua River. Once off-limits to all but Hawaiian royalty, the Fern Grotto is now accessible to visitors, but only by boat. The grotto acts like an amphitheatre, and musicians are drawn to the site for its incredible natural acoustics.
Located high in the mountains above the Kalalau Valley, Koke’e State Park is one of Kauai’s most popular hiking destinations. The park offers over a dozen trails for all ages and ability levels from gentle bird watching trails to strenuous cliff edge trails. First time visitors to Kauai won’t want to miss the panoramic views of the Kalalau Valley and Waimea Canyon from the park’s lookouts.
Down a dirt road behind Hanalei’s iconic green Wai’oli Hui’ia church, the Wai’oli Mission House served as the residence for three different gospel-sharing families in the early 19th century. The charming two-story, four-bedroom home—one of the Island’s oldest Western-style dwellings—was built by Congregational missionary Reverend William Alexander and his wife Mary in 1837.
Though tours of clap-board house are offered only on certain days, and on a first-come first-served basis—ring the old school bell to alert the docents of your presence—visitors are treated to a unique blend of early Hawaiian-made home goods as well as items useful in missionary life: A still-functioning wall clock, koa bedframes and bookshelves filled with the missionaries’ tomes, a lava rock chimney, ohio wood floors, a traveling chest, a whale oil burning lantern and a spinning wheel. Many of the artifacts belonged to Lucy and Abner Wilcox and their eight sons who lived here between 1846 and 1869—the longest serving and final residents of the Mission House. Touring the historic home is an educational way to spend a rainy Hanalei day, indeed, the name “Wai’oli” means joyful water, perhaps a nod to the many waterfalls that stream down the mountains behind the old mission settlement during the rains or its proximity to the meandering Hanalei River.
Kauai’s capital city, Lihue is located on the eastern side of the island and is home to both the main cruise port and the only commercial airport. The city is also Kauai’s main shopping destination and boasts several historic spots, such as Kilohana, a historic plantation, and the Kauai Museum.
A historic sugar plantation set in the Garden Isle's lush tropics, Kilohana Plantation is a hub for Hawaiian culture and history. Visit the estate—centered around a historic Tudor-style mansion—to see tropical orchards, take historic train rides, visit a rum distillery, sample restaurants, participate in a theatrical luau, and more.