Hawaii and its Garden Isle have long been on my budget list.
There are tons of long lists of things to do in Kauai scattered across the internet. Some of the activities mentioned on these lists seemed like no-brainers (like going on a ridge hike) while others seemed like filler (like visiting a garden… the whole island is a garden!).
So after much research and spending time in Kauai, I’ve arrived at a list of worthwhile activities to do on your Kauai trip. I’ve divided them into three categories: Must Do, Should Do and Could Do activities in Kauai.
The Must Do’s are the activities I most recommend, if you have the time and resources to do them. The Should Do’s are strongly recommended, but might not suit everyone’s interests and needs. Finally, the Could Do’s are activities that were fun and definitely worthwhile, but don’t be concerned if you’re unable to see them all on your trip.
Of course, everyone’s preferences are different. I’m an outdoor person, so obviously, this list is riddled with outdoor activities. Take these as a recommendation meant to help you with your travel planning.
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Map of Things to do in Kauai
In the map below, I’ve highlighted all of the activities and accommodations mentioned in the post. Although the island is small and driving times aren’t too much, I still found it easiest to group activities together by location.
“Must Do” Things to do in Kauai
Okay, let’s start off with the Must Do activities in Kauai. These were my absolute favorite things I did on the island during my visit.
At $300+ per person, this is an expensive activity. Despite the price tag, I think a helicopter tour is 100% worth it. All of the tours cover the entirety of the island, covering highlights like Jurassic Falls, Waimea Canyon and the Na Pali Coast.
You can go with a doors-on or door-off helicopter ride. Most depart from the Lihue airstrip. I did a doors-off ride with Jack Harter Helicopters and it was incredible. It was $359 and lasted about 65 minutes (the cost per minute is actually a lot lower than what I’ve seen in other destinations).
Through the tour, the pilot explained all of the sites we passed them and we got so close to different waterfalls and mountains. Some of the areas are difficult, or impossible, to reach on foot, like Jurassic Falls and Kalalua Valley. The helicopter tour makes the entire island accessible!
Pu’u O Kila Lookout + Pihea Trail
This was my second favorite part of the entire trip and I didn’t see it listed anywhere online. Pu’u O Kila Lookout is the last stop along Koke’e Road. The lookout itself is quite popular and provides a wonderful view of Kalalau Valley. However, the best views come from the Pihea Trail.
Within 200 ft of starting the trail, I was audibly gasping at how beautiful the view of the valley was.
Now, I went all the way to the top of Pihea (about one mile each way). If I’m being honest, it was not worth the muddy climbing required to reach the mediocre lookout. Just do the first 1/2 mile and you’ll get more than enough gorgeous viewpoints.
Tip: I visited midday, so the sun was shining down into the valley and bringing everything to life. I think this would also be an excellent place for sunset.
Nā Pali Coast Boat Tour
The next activity I most definitely recommend is a boat tour of the Na Pali coast. There are a few options, from lazy sailing to speedy boats, depending on what you’re interested in.
I went with the Na Pali + Nihue Adventure by Holo Holo Charters. This was a 6-hour trip from Port Allan, to the Na Pali coastline and then to the “forbidden island” of Nihue.
Unfortunately for my tour, upon reaching the start of the Na Pali coastline we were met with high winds and 100-foot swells, meaning we couldn’t get to the Na Pali coast or Nihue. Apparently this occasionally happens in the winter months. The weather forced us to turn around early and shorten the tour (they gave a generous partial refund to accommodate this).
The rest of the tour made up for this disappointment, however. We went to a location along the southern coast that is frequented by dolphins. At least fifty dolphins came right up to the boat to play. It was incredible. You can see three dolphins in the sunset photo below, and other groups playing right below the ship – the dolphins were less than 10 ft from me!
Waimea Canyon Lookouts
Waimea Canyon is stunning. The red, orange and brown of the rocks contrast so beautifully with the green trees and blue sky. As you drive into the state park, there are several opportunities to pull over and take in the view.
The three lookouts with the best views of Waimea Canyon are Waimea Canyon Lookout, Pu’u Ka Pele Lookout and Pu’u Hinahina Lookout. Check out all three to see the falls at different angles.
Note: Once you arrive at your first lookout, you need to purchase a day pass (when I was there it was $10 per car + $5 per person) and the day pass can be used at any lookout for the rest of the day. Just place it on the dashboard of your car.
“Should Do” Things to do in Kauai
In our next section, here are the things I think you should do in Kauai, but if they don’t match your interests or itinerary, it’s not the end of the world.
Camping and/or Sunset at Polihale Beach
This was easily one of the highlights of the whole trip. The only reason I’ve put it in the “Should Do” category is that Polihale Beach is difficult to access.
Polihale Beach is the further point west that you can drive. After exiting the highway, there’s a 25-30 minute drive on a pothole-filled, gravel road. 4×4 vehicles are recommended! If you’re willing to put in the effort to get here, though, you will be well rewarded.
Polihale has a huge sandy beach that stretches right up to the start of the rocky cliffs of the Na Pali coastline. You can’t swim here – it’s considered the most dangerous beach in Kauai due to its surf and riptides. But it’s also known to have the best sunsets on the island!
I camped at Polihale Beach (you can reserve a spot for $35) so watching the sunset was easy. I brought a sleeping bag and sleeping pad and slept in the Jeep. There were lots of other people camping there as well.
Hike the Kalalau Trail (or at least to Hanakapiai Falls)
The Kalalau Trail is Kauai’s premier backpacking trail. It starts in Ha’ena State Park, the furthest northwest point you can drive to. From here, it traces the Na Pali coastline, passing through highlights like Hanakapi’ai Beach and Hanakoa Falls, before ending at the beautiful Kalalau Beach. The whole trail is 22 miles and is typically done as an overnight backpacking trip.
It can be quite difficult to get a permit for the full trail, especially in peak season and on weekends. However, you can do the first ~5 miles to Hanakoa Falls without a permit. You’ll just need to make a parking / shuttle reservation at Ha’ena State Park.
The only reason I’ve put this as a “Should Do” is because the trail is challenging. Even the first section to Hanakapi’ai Beach (which is only 4 miles total) has 1200 ft of elevation gain. The trail is very exposed and can get flooded and windy in bad weather. Don’t put yourself at risk by doing this hike if it’s outside your abilities.
I, unfortunately, had my reservation cancelled due to a storm while I was there, so I wasn’t able to do the Kalalau Trail. I’ll definitely be back for it though!
Swimming at Poipu
There is a reason so many resorts are in the Poipu area. Poipu has some of the best beaches for swimming. There’s soft golden sand and a gentle surf; you don’t need to worry about riptides or storm surges here. There’s typically a lifeguard on duty (depending on the exact beach you go to).
I spent an afternoon at Kiahuna Beach and Poipu Beach – it was wonderful. I’ve also heard good things about Baby Beach (a little west) and Shipwreck Beach (a little east).
Also, the beaches are public. So even if a beach is adjacent to a resort (like the Sheraton) and looks like it would be a private beach, it’s actually open to the public!
Hike Awa’awapuhi Trail
Awa’awapuhi Trail is a ridge trail located in Koke’e State Park. It’s 6 miles round trip, with about 2000 ft of elevation gain. The trail is marked as moderate on AllTrails and I saw hiking groups of all ages and abilities on the trail.
Although a ridge trail, it’s not like you’re on the edge of a ridge for several miles. Most of the trail is wide with a gradual incline/decline and trees on either side. After some rain, the trail gets really muddy. Either bring hiking boots with good traction or trekking poles.
The view from the end of the trail is beautiful – you can see the bright blue water of the Pacific Ocean as it crashes into the red and green Na Pali coastline. I did the trail in the morning, and the only downside was that the sun was behind the coastline, so the coast looked a little grey. Perhaps doing the trail in the early afternoon would be better.
Note: The other popular ridge trail is Kalepa Ridge Trail, which is only 2 miles and 600 ft of elevation gain. However, when I arrived at the Lookout at the trailhead, there were several signs saying the hiking trails were closed and requesting people not jump the fence to do the hike. If this is the case when you visit, please respect the sign and do Awa’awapuhi Trail instead. It is excellent!
I did not expect to enjoy snorkelling as much as I did. I enjoy swimming in open water, but I’ve always been scared to open my eyes underwater or have a fish (or shark) swim into me. Well, on the southern coast of Kauai, where snorkelling is so popular, the water has insane visibility. You can clearly see all the way to the reef below.
And swimming around the reef are dozens of species of colorful fish! I saw recognized a few varieties from Finding Nemo. My favorite moment though was encountering three sea turtles. Wow, these creatures are so much bigger than I expected and they pass through the water with so much ease and grace.
I think how much you enjoy this activity will depend on the sea life you see – I don’t know if I’d recommend it so strongly if I hadn’t seen the sea turtles. And wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, of course.
I did the snorkelling as part of the boat tour, but you can also do it as a standalone activity.
“Could Do” Things to do in Kauai
Finally, here are all of the other activities that would be great to do while in Kauai. I don’t think any of these will be the highlight of the trip for you, but they’re all worth checking out if you have time.
This is a pretty double waterfall near Lihue. I visited it while I was killing time before my helicopter tour and, despite being mid-morning on a Wednesday, the lookout was quite busy. There isn’t really anywhere to go once you’re at the falls (no hiking trails) so it’s very much a take-a-photo-and-leave kind of tourist attraction.
If you’ve got the time and like waterfalls, definitely check it out. But don’t change your itinerary trying to fit this waterfall in if you have other things planned. (Besides, the waterfalls on the helicopter tour are way better, anyways!)
Kauai Coffee Company
Once upon a time, I was a bit of a coffee connoisseur, so I really enjoyed the walking tour of Kauai Coffee Company. They have the largest coffee plantation in Hawaii and their coffee is used in blends all around the world. There’s a free self-guided walking tour through the plantation. I bought a coffee from the café and then spent 25 minutes walking the tour and learning more about how coffee is made.
You’ll drive right by it as you’re driving from Lihue to Waimea Canyon, so this is a really easy detour to make if you need a caffeine boost and to stretch your legs.
If you’re already on the north coast and driving by it, visit the Kilauea Lighthouse. Built in 1912, Kilauea is an attractive lighthouse with waves raging below it and seabirds flying above it.
The lighthouse is part of Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. The rock ledge is part of a dormant volcano and provides shelter to a variety of birds and aquatic animals, like ‘Ā (Red-footed booby), Mōlī (Laysan albatross), ‘Ua ‘u kani (Wedge-tailed shearwater), as well as ‘Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua (Hawaiian monk seal), Honu(Green sea turtle), and Koholā (Humpback whale). Bring binoculars if you’re into birding!
You can pay $10 to go into the refuge and walk toward the lighthouse. The main viewpoint (seen in the photo below) is from the parking lot (so you can get this far without paying).
From Ku’u O Kila Lookout, there’s also an option to follow the Pihea Trail all the way to Kilohana Lookout, which is about 8.5 miles roundtrip from the trailhead. To reach the lookout, after Pihea you descend into Alakai Swamp (overgrown and muddy, but the boardwalks help some).
I had considered doing the full trail, but once I encountered how muddy and overgrown the start of the Pihea Trail was (and how it was supposed to rain and get muddier) I opted to skip it.
While hiking the Pihea trail, I met two couples who live in Hawaii and have both some the full trail. They recommended doing it if you live in Hawaii or will be in Kauai for more than a few days. The trail takes a long time, and although the view is beautiful, it isn’t the best use of time if you’re only in Kauai for a couple of days.
Historic Town of Hanapepe
Between Poipu and Waimea Canyon is the historic town of Hanapepe. It used to be one of the largest communities on the island, but now it’s affectionately referred to as “Kauai’s biggest little town”. The buildings are all plantation-style houses from a century ago, now filled with shops.
Hanapepe has a semi-famous swinging bridge, a Lilo & Stitch mural, a beautiful mosaic and a decorated truck. After parking the car, I walked to both of these sights and it was good to stretch my legs. Nothing in Hanapepe is particularly noteworthy, but it is an attractive town and definitely worth a little exploring.
On Thursdays, there is a Farmer’s Market and on Fridays, artists gather to showcase their work. Either of these times could be a good opportunity to see the town bustling.
Manini-Holo Dry Cave
I’d driven to the north shore for Tunnel Beach, but the real highlight turned out to be Manini-Holo Dry Cave. Across the road from Tunnel Beach and a little west, there is a large entrance to the cave and anyone can enter.
The cave goes surprisingly far back… there was a point where everyone was on their hands and knees, holding iPhone flashlights and the cave just kept going. I didn’t go to far in myself (I’m not quite with tight spaces), but I still found the cave super cool!
Camping at Koke’e State Park
In contrast to camping at Polihale State Park, I found camping at Koke’e State Park to be quite underwhelming. The campground is on a large grassy field surrounded by trees and near the main road, so there isn’t any viewpoint. The bathrooms were also quite clean and there’s a café and restaurant nearby (open 10am to 4pm most days) with wifi (no cell service in this part of Koke’e State Park).
Maybe I’m biased because it was raining when I arrived and people weren’t hanging out together here like they were at Polihale. But it just didn’t seem like a must-to camping location.
That said, it’s a convenient place to sleep if you want to catch a late sunset or an early morning sunrise at one of the lookouts, or go on a hike. I was the only one at the Waimea Canyon Lookout at sunset and captured the most beautiful sunset-rainbow combination (see below).
Where To Stay in Kauai
Hotels in Kauai
At first glance, it looks like Kauai has a ton of hotels. But when you think about how many people visit Kauai each year, you realize the supply is just enough to meet demand in peak periods. Book your accommodation early to avoid high rates!
Budget hotels come in at about $150-250. I stayed at one, the Kauai Palms Hotel, the night I arrived in Kauai. This was a really convenient place to stay as it was less than 10 minutes from the airport and they have lockboxes for keys if you’re arriving late at night like I was. The room was small and modest, it had air conditioning and was clean. The hot water in my shower didn’t work, but besides that it was good.
Mid-range hotels can be up to $500 per night. I spent one night at the Sheraton Kauai Resort in Poipu and this one was about $400 during the Thanksgiving long weekend (I used Bonvoy Points so it ended up being $30).
The hotel was pretty nice. It had a swimming pool, great linings and a good restaurant. It has excellent proximity to Kiahuna Beach, which was excellent.
Luxury hotels… well, the sky’s the limit! There are some incredibly fancy hotels in Kauai. For my last night in Kauai, I booked a night at the Grand Hyatt Resort. Thankfully I was able to book with points, otherwise, a basic king room was $1300!
The Grand Hyatt was beautiful. The landscaping alone was the most exquisite garden I’d seen outside of a botanical garden. My favorite part is that there are tons of pools on different levels all connected by a lazy river you can float down. The restaurant was good and I’ve heard the spa is really nice as well.
To my surprise, I didn’t spend a lot of time in the resort and wouldn’t book a night in such a fancy place again (even on points). I’m not able to relax long enough to make use of the pools and actually preferred sleeping in the Jeep (where I met other travellers and could see the stars and sunrise).
Camping in Kauai
Out of my five nights in Kauai, I spent two nights camping. Originally I was going to spend three nights and hit all of the state parks, but that, unfortunately, didn’t work out.
There are three state parks in Kauai. State parks are $30 per person, per night if you’re not a Hawaiian resident and $20 per night, per person if you are a Hawaiian resident. The two car campgrounds, Polihale and Koke’e, have great amenities (showers and picnic areas).
- Kalalau State Park – Campground accessible by an 11-mile hike on the Kalalau Trail. This is the hardest reservation to get (I couldn’t get one initially and then when I did, it got cancelled because of unsafe conditions on the trail).
- Polihale State Park – Undesignated campsites on the southwest side of the island. Excellent proximity to the beach and incredible sunsets, but it’s at the end of a bumpy road. Proceed with caution.
- Koke’e State Park – Designated campsites in the midst of Waimea Canyon. This is the most built-up campground and a good choice if you want to catch a sunrise from one of the lookouts in Waimea Canyon (you do want this).
Between the two, I preferred Polihale. It was so beautiful, had an amazing view of the stars and sunset.
And there are four county campgrounds in Kauai. County campgrounds are $3 per person, per night for non-Hawaiian residents, and free for Hawaiian residents. I met a few people who had spent nights in each of these spots.
- Salt Pond Campground – This is a well-rated campground in the southeast corner of Kauai.
- Anini Beach Campground – Good campground on the north part of the island and the only campground near Princeville. All of the people I met said this was their favorite.
- Anahola Beach Campground – This is a very poorly rated campground on the east side of Kauai. Hundreds of reviews say there is a lot of activity at night on the beach (drinking, drugs, vehicles doing donuts on the sand) and many of the people who have stayed here report feeling unsafe and/or being awoken by police in the middle of the night and told to move. I didn’t consider camping here.
- Lydegate Campground – This is the most established county campground and it’s closest to Lihue and the airport. Similar to Anahola, there are a lot of reviews of drinking/drugs/sketchy people at the campground and people report feeling generally unsafe here. Again, I didn’t consider camping here.
One thing to know about county campgrounds is that they all close for ~24-48 hours each week.
Finally, there are some private campgrounds.
- YMCA Camp Naue – I was unable to get a reservation here but it has generally good reviews. If you want to stay here, book early.
- Kumu Camp – I booked a night here but ended up camping elsewhere. The reviews are a very mixed bag. If you’re car camping, it’s $35 and there’s a decent place to set up. From what I could see from photos online, the cabins and showers are horrible looking. Also, Kumu shares a beach with Anahola Beach Campground, so there are reports of similar night activity here.
Well, I hope this has all been helpful and you’re ready to plan your own trip to Kauai. As I’ve said a few times, these were my favorite things to do in Kauai; this is not a comprehensive list of everything there is to do. I would definitely do the helicopter tour, boat ride, and a few of the hikes again. If you have any questions, please leave a comment or send me a message on Instagram!
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