The most amazing sights on Kauai are natural ones. Towering cliffs with 1,000-foot waterfalls. Crescent-shaped beaches at the end of narrow coves. Tropical rain forests showered with more than 400 inches of rain per year. And Kauai’s small size makes it relatively easy to see most, if not all, of the “must-see” sites listed below in just a few days. If you visit the “Garden Isle,” be prepared to see some of the greatest natural splendor in the world.
Na Pali Coast by Helicopter
Jutting nearly 4,000 feet directly out of the Pacific, the rugged cliffs of the Na Pali Coast have become Kauai’s most-visited destination. The cliffs are heavily eroded on two sides, creating spiny mountains that are dotted with long, slender waterfalls and covered in lush vegetation. This 25-mile stretch of Kauai’s northwest coast was made famous by multiple shots seen in the original Jurassic Park movie. Because the mountains are difficult to traverse, the best way to appreciate their full beauty is by air.
A number of helicopter tours operate from Lihue Airport on Kauai’s East Coast. They can take you to the Na Pali Coast and back in 90 minutes or less. The Doors Off Air Kauai helicopter tour is rated #1 on TripAdvisor. Their doorless helicopters really do give you the best, unobstructed views of Na Pali State Park and other stunning sites on Kauai like Waimea Canyon (see below). Another highly rated option is Safari Helicopters. Many people who’ve done a helicopter tour say it was easily their best experience on Kauai.
Often called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” this 3,600-foot-deep trench in the middle of Kauai will wow even the most unflappable city dwellers. But unlike Arizona’s desert Grand Canyon, the 10-mile-long Waimea Canyon is a kaleidoscope of red canyon walls, black volcanic outcroppings, lush green vegetation, and white-blue waterfalls plunging hundreds of feet. Many say the shades of color change throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky, making this a place worth seeing more than once. Others say the colors are particularly magnificent at sunrise.
Unlike the Na Pali Coast, Waimea Canyon is easily accessible by paved Highway 550; it’s just 10 miles north of the South Shore town of Waimea. There are a number of impressive lookout points along the way and inside Waimea Canyon State Park, which also has several good hiking trails. At one lookout point, it’s even possible to see the neighboring island of Ni’ihau. This natural wonder is definitely not to be missed on any Kauai itinerary. For more information, visit Hawaii’s state parks website here.
At the northernmost point of Kauai–and the main Hawaiian Islands–is this spectacular promontory jutting into the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the point is a nearly 600-foot-high bluff offering tremendous views of the ocean and a small offshore island. Most of this small peninsula is covered by the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, which seeks to protect endangered birds native to Hawaii and many migratory species that visit the island. Some of the protected birds include the nene (Hawaiian goose), ‘a’o (Newell’s Shearwater), red-footed booby, and the Layson Albatross. At land’s end is the century-old Kilauea Point Lighthouse, which alerts passing ships to the rocky coast here. Note that reservations are required to visit the wildlife refuge and to take a tour of the lighthouse; they can be obtained online with a $1 fee by following this link.
In the center of Wailua River State Park on Kauai’s eastern side is Wailua Falls, perhaps the most picturesque and easily accessible falls on Kauai. Located only a few miles north of the town of Lihue, the 100-foot Wailua Falls spills into a giant pool surrounded by tree-covered cliff sides. Just before plunging over the cliff, the Wailua River splits into two streams, effectively creating two waterfalls when water levels are low. In fact, wailua means “two waters” in Hawaiian. Wailua Falls is easily visible from the road, but it’s worth getting out of the car to marvel at this natural splendor and take some fantastic photos. And if you arrive in the morning, you can often add a full rainbow to your pictures. Interestingly, Wailua Falls was featured in the opening credits of the popular TV show Fantasy Island. The falls are located at the end of Highway 583, so you don’t even have to hike to this unforgettable spot. Learn more at the Wailua River State Park website.
After the Wailua River exits the waterfall pool, it flows only a few miles to the Pacific, forming the beautiful Wailua Valley along the way. The valley, once the seat of royal power on Kauai, is dotted with ancient ruins. The best way to see the valley is to take a two-mile riverboat cruise along the Wailua River, the only navigable river on Kauai. The cruise departs from Wailua Marina and takes you to the Fern Grotto, which is an ancient lava tube filled with green ferns. During the cruise, you’ll hear songs and stories about Kauai’s royal past and get to see the beautiful Opaeka’a Falls. To book your unforgettable riverboat cruise, visit this website.
Often rated as one of Kauai’s favorite destinations, this nearly perfect semicircle of a harbor on the North Shore offers beautiful beaches, excellent swimming, breathtaking mountain views, and a quaint village perfect for shopping and eating. The two-mile-long Hanalei Beach has beautiful white sand, several picnic areas, and a short pier that will get you closer to the center of the bay. The waters are warm, clear, and fairly calm, which makes it ideal for swimming and stand-up paddle boarding (SUP). Behind the beach is some of the most stunning mountain scenery you’ll find on Kauai. Even better, the center of the town of Hanalei is only about a 10-minute walk from the beach. There you’ll find several eateries to fill hungry tummies and a couple of stores with authentic shave ice in many flavors, a must-try Hawaiian treat.
If you stick around into the evening, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic sunset. One great place to see it is from the pier at the north end of the beach. Another one is from the Hanalei Valley Lookout just a mile east of town on the Kuhio Highway (Highway 560). Spread out before you, you’ll see verdant fields surrounded by mountains and the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge in the distance. And looking west, you’ll witness the glowing orange sun dipping below the blue waters of the bay — a sight not to be missed!
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Bill Florence/Shutterstock.com.