Last Updated on March 17, 2023
Known for its unique geography and unparalleled natural beauty, Kauai is one of the most breathtaking islands in the world. Ninety-seven percent of its land is covered with undeveloped mountain ranges and lush, tropical rainforests, earning it the well-deserved moniker, the Garden Isle. Wondering what to do in Kauai, Hawaii? Get outside!
The oldest isle in the Hawaiian Islands chain, Kauai is where worries vanish in the trade winds, warm seas gently lap the golden sands of the island’s beaches, and fascinating rainforests shelter some of the earth’s rarest birds and plants.
Kauai is an outdoor lover’s nirvana with the many incredible natural treasures you’ll find–whether by land, sea, or sky. It’s no wonder that more than 60 feature films have been shot on this stunning island.
Here are my 10 favorites when advising people what to do in Kauai, Hawaii.
What to see on Kauai
Kauai by Helicopter
You have to do it at least once. Yes, it’s pricey, but there’s nothing like it. Seeing Kauai by air is indescribably breathtaking.
My one-hour helicopter tour by a local pilot took me over dramatic razor-sharp cliffs, secluded beaches, pristine blue waters, and spellbinding emerald green valleys. With waterfalls and rainbows too numerous to count, Manawaiapuna Falls of the Jurassic Park movie fame was one of the most awe-inspiring.
The entire tour was so amazing I seriously did not want to disembark the helicopter at the end.
Sail the Na Pali Coast
I had a taste of this magnificent paradise on my helicopter tour, but seeing it by boat provides a whole different perspective. This is the Hawaii of your dreams.
Twenty-two miles of verdant valleys with nearly vertical walls hug the coastline, and thundering waterfalls plunge into the sea from cliffs as high as 4,000 feet. The Na Pali Coast is Hawaii’s last true wilderness where no road crosses. It is mind-boggling and brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it up close and personal.
I call this stretch of Kauai Heaven on Earth.
One of the best ways to see this lush coastal paradise is by foot, but even seasoned hikers find the narrow, strenuous, 11-mile footpath challenging.
Though I planned a hike here, tropical rains made the paths slippery and treacherous. A Na Pali day sail turned out to be a great choice.
Wet and Dry Caves
Many visitors to Kauai are so eager to hike Na Pali Coast that they miss some genuine jewels along the way—the wet and dry caves.
Located along the main road in Haena State Park, the Waikapalae Wet Cave is fed by an underground spring that eventually flows to the ocean. Water levels in the cave are affected by the tides. This intriguing tropical cavern was one of the settings of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
The Maniniholo Dry Cave can easily be explored through its massive entrance. I followed a recommendation to carry a flashlight, which made the experience of walking through the dark and intriguing cavern even better.
Explore Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon is dubbed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific and after one visit here I understood why. Ten miles long, more than a mile across, and over 3,500 feet deep, it’s one of the Hawaiian Islands’ most awe-inspiring sights.
The cavernous gorge’s name means reddish water. Its rich palette of orange, red, and amber are a result of the erosion of the canyon’s red soil. The canyon sports amazing vistas of massive, weathered rocks, vivid green vegetation, and long white strips of ribbon waterfalls.
Hiking is popular here, but when time is limited another option is taking in the scenic rim overlooks along the drive and enjoy the breathtaking views of the glorious gulch.
Beaches of Hanalei Bay
Kauai has many beautiful beaches, but the most dazzling are strung out like pearls in a necklace along seven miles of Kauai’s north shore. One of the most famous is Hanalai Beach, where Puff the Magic Dragon frolicked in the autumn mist in the 1962 folk music hit by Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Hanalei is the archetypal Hawaiian beach paradise featured in countless travel posters.
Surrounded by towering volcanic cliffs and waterfalls, Hanalai Bay is a half-moon stretch of golden sand. The incredible coral reefs found here are protected from strong currents normally seen on the north shore.
National Geographic Traveler named Allerton Garden one of the 50 Places of a Lifetime. This botanical garden is an 80-acre area haven situated along a picturesque bay on the south shore of Kauai. Allerton is dedicated to preserving native and exotic tropical plants and stemming the tide of extinction.
The impressive gardens, once the royal home of Hawaii’s Queen Emma, have some of the most beautiful tropical flora, fauna, streams, waterfalls, and fountains found on the island.
One of the most iconic highlights of the garden are the famous Moreton Bay fig trees whose towering canopies and massive roots were featured in Hollywood blockbusters Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean.
See Spouting Horn
The Hawaiian equivalent of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Geyser, Spouting Horn delights visitors with an impressive plume of seawater that jettisons up to 50 feet above the south shore’s rocky coastline.
Powerful ocean swells funnel sea water through a lava tube resulting in the impressive spray of water. The spectacle is at its best during winter months and high-surf days.
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge and Lighthouse
A 200-acre headland habitat, Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is the island’s only wildlife refuge open to the public. It includes stunning cliffs, two rocky, wave-lashed bays, and a tiny islet serving as a jumping-off spot for island seabirds.
I spotted rare birds circling the cliffs along with the endangered nene, a native goose often seen strolling past visitors. Spinner dolphins, Hawaiian monk seals, and green sea turtles also inhabit these waters and are visible to excited spectators.
The biggest draw to the area is the 52-foot lighthouse, built in 1913 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hike Makawehi Lithified Cliffs
To be honest, coming here was due to a local referral. I originally intended to hike the Na Pali Coast, but due to inclement weather I instead headed to sunny South Shore Poipu to experience a geological wonder known as the Makawehi Lithified Cliffs.
The magnificent coastal hike through stretches of a quiet, pine-needled forest leads to commanding views of churning Pacific waters along the rugged edges of sun-bleached cliffs. Multi-hued rock formations weathered by thousands of years of pounding surf are almost other-worldly.
On my return, I unexpectedly stumbled upon a small ancient and sacred Hawaiian burial site. The stillness of this secluded area was unexpectedly interrupted by a fresh gentle breeze stirring through the treetops. A reminder from the ancient Hawaiian gods that their mana (life force) still lives here.
Kayak to Secret Waterfalls
Perhaps surprisingly, Kauai boasts Hawaii’s only navigable rivers. My kayaking trip on the scenic, tranquil, and nearly 20-mile stretch of the Wailua River took me past lush jungle landscapes and towering green mountain ranges.
A moderate 45-minute hike from my landing point guided me through a tropical rainforest. At the end, I was rewarded with mesmerizing views of a secluded natural pool and the thunderous applause of the 100-foot Uluwehi Falls. Also known as Secret Falls, it is aptly named in its remote location.
After a refreshing swim in the cool waterfall-fed pool, I lunched atop massive boulders overlooking the falls before returning to my kayak for a return trip down the river.
I once heard it said that you don’t just visit Kauai, you absorb it with every one of your senses. After all, this emerald jewel of the Pacific has long been considered one of the world’s most alluring destinations.
Who knows how many more unexpected treasures remain to be discovered? But this I know: Kauai is a place you must have on your travel list.