Planning your vacation to Hawaii? Leave plenty of room in your itinerary for the best things to do in Kauai. This popular Hawaiian island is famous for its beautiful beaches, spectacular mountains, and, of course, the beautiful Na Pali Coast.
Kauai is encased in gorgeous white sand beaches. Some are protected by vibrant coral reefs, great for snorkeling and safe swimming; others offer top-notch surfing. Beyond the coast, you’ll dazzle at natural wonders like rainforests and canyons shaped by ancient volcanoes where trails lead to waterfalls and never-ending views.
Not sure what to do in Kauai? Plan the perfect trip with this guide to the best places to visit in Kauai.
Must-see places to visit in Kauai, HI
Waimea Canyon State Park
You’ll find no shortage of epic things to see & do in Kauai, but Waimea Canyon State Park promises to be among the most memorable. A mix of lush greens and dense oranges, the canyon will have you blinking twice as you gaze upon it.
There’s a reason Waimea Canyon is known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Its deep valleys cut through the rugged mountains for 14 miles, 3,600 feet deep below the tallest peak. Dotted across the rich cliffside are several jaw-dropping waterfalls, tumbling endlessly down the canyon.
There are several ways to explore Waimea Canyon State Park. You can appreciate the spectacular scenery from one of the many viewpoints along the epic Kok’e Road. But for the adventurers among us, head out on the 2-mile Cliff Trail that takes you to the edge of the canyon.
Poipu Beach Park
On the sun-soaked southern coast, Poipu Beach Park is one of the best places to see in Kauai. Reward yourself with a true Hawaiian experience as you laze upon the golden sand shores with the turquoise water floating in and out.
Once home to sugar plantations, the land around the beach is now home to large luxury resorts, making use of the exquisite location. The popular South Shore beach offers exceptional scenery while remaining close to restaurants, attractions, and some of the best places to stay on Kauai.
The off-shore sand bar and lack of swell make Poipu Beach one of the most popular beaches on Kauai for families and young kids. Enjoy pleasant swimming with the chance to spot humpback whales in the distance between December and May.
The quaint coastal town of Hanalei is blessed with the biggest bay in Kauai: Hanalei Bay. The powder-like sand coats the edges of town. At Hanalei Bay, surf culture, farmers markets, and a backdrop of dense green mountains create a wonderful place to visit.
Hanalei Bay features three pristine beaches: Hanalei Beach Park, Black Pot Beach, and Waioli Beach Park. They all blend into each other and are more noted for their great surf breaks than for swimming. Along the bay, you’ll also find the mouth of the Hanalei River and the historic pier.
Just back from the beaches are rows of waterfront restaurants and bars. Aside from surfing, paddleboarding, kayaking, and smaller catamarans are a great way to explore the expansive bay.
Wailua River State Park
Speaking of great places to kayak, Wailua River State Park is home to the island’s only river you can explore on a kayak adventure. Meandering through 20 miles of lush jungle, kayakers will pass epic waterfalls, including the 80-foot Wailua Falls, along with ancient Hawaiian temples otherwise known as heiau.
Although it’s an epic adventure, you don’t need to have any prior experience to make your way down the Wailua River. In fact, you can jump on a kayak that has an outrigger for more support, while your guide will make sure you’re ready for the journey.
If you aren’t up for a kayak, you can drive to a viewpoint of Wailua Falls and Opaekaa Falls. Before heading out, pay a visit to the Wailua Complex of Heiau to explore the National Historic Landmark, with petroglyphs, ruins, and birthstones.
Around the corner from Poipu is the rocky and aptly-called Shipwreck Beach. Much time may have passed since the beach earned its name after a wooden ship sunk off-shore. But its craggy cliffs will evoke plenty of images.
Sitting on Kauai’s South Shore, Shipwreck Beach has a large open shoreline, with ample room to spread out on the golden sand. The beach’s reef break doesn’t make for the best swimming. Arm yourself with either a boogie or surfboard to make the most of the rolling waves.
To the edge of the South Shore beach, you’ll find visitors jumping off the 40-foot cliff into the water below. Join if you wish, but the swim back can be choppy.
If you forgo the kayak trip down the river, make sure you still arrive at one of the best things to see in Kauai: Wailua Falls. A winding road will take you through the mountainous jungle to a viewpoint where you can see the falls in their full glory.
A stunning body of water, Wailua Falls juts out off the edge of the cliff in two parts, tumbling 80 feet into the pool below. It’s been said that Hawaiian chiefs would jump from the cliff to showcase their courage.
The soaring white mist flies back up, creating endless rainbows and adding more colors to the vibrant landscape. There’s an unofficial trail down to the pools, but it’s not maintained. In true Hawaiian fashion, it’s also very slippery.
If you like adventure and are wondering what to do in Kauai, the Kalalau Trail is your answer. Traversing the edge of the spellbinding Na Pali Coast, the 11-mile hiking trail is not for the faint of heart. One of the top hiking trails on Kauai, it’s a veritable journey through the beautiful but unforgiving landscape in the Kalalau Valley.
Most join the trail from Ke’e Beach and walk two miles to the gorgeous Hanakapiai Beach. Those who venture beyond will need overnight gear and a hiking permit.
While the trail may only be 11 miles, there’s no exit at the end. Instead, you’ll camp behind Kalalau Beach, reveling in the amazing memories made.
One of the best places to go in Kauai for snorkeling is Tunnels Beach. With limited parking, be sure to arrive early at this popular North Shore beach. After diving into the crystal clear water, you’ll explore the reef that spreads out in each direction. Among them are intricate tunnels and caves, where vibrant sea life roams.
As you swim at Tunnels Beach, keep your eye out for green sea turtles and even the rare Hawaiian monk seal. Snorkelers can swim relaxed thanks to the beach’s lifeguards, who will keep a keen eye on the swimming conditions. Tunnels Beach has an inner reef for newbies and a brilliant outer reef, home to sea cliffs but stronger currents.
Those who stay onshore can admire the monstrous peaks to the west, soft white sand, and calming water.
Located in Wailua River State Park, Secret Falls is another majestic waterfall that encapsulates the true beauty of Kauai. Secret Falls, also known as Uluwehi Falls, is no longer much of a secret. But its hard-to-reach location means you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the cascading falls away from the crowds.
The only way to reach Secret Falls is along the Wailua River. Unless you’ve become pals with a local, you’ll likely have to sign up for a guided kayak tour. The journey itself is worth the price of admission on its own. Enjoy spectacular views of the Sleeping Giant (Nounou Mountain) and Fern Grotto.
On arrival, gaze upon the stunning falls, dropping 100 feet into the swimming hole below.
Sitting on Kauai’s North Shore, Secret Beach remains tucked away from sight and requires a steep downhill hike to arrive on its golden shores. Also known as Kaupea Beach, the stretch of sand lets you enjoy the privacy provided by the backdrop of the rugged cliffs with ample room to spread out.
Minutes from the coastal town of Kilauea, Secret Beach remains relatively calm in the summer months. However, come winter the swell picks up and the currents show their might. Locals flock to Secret Beach with their boards and put on an exciting show for onlookers as they try to tame the burly surf.
As one of the most kid-friendly beaches on the island, Anini Beach has long been a hit with families. Although on the North Shore, you can expect protected swimming all year long thanks to the off-shore reef.
Spanning much of Anini Beach’s two-mile shoreline, the waves are minimal, with plenty of shallow water to wade in. Besides the calm swimming conditions, all visitors can make use of the range of on-site amenities. These include bathrooms, showers, and picnic tables for a nice shaded lunch.
To make the most of the experience, you can rent snorkel gear at the beach and explore the beautiful coral.
Koke’e State Park
As one of the top tourist attractions in Kauai, leave plenty of room on the itinerary for Koke’e State Park. The park is next door to Waimea Canyon and features the deepest part of the canyon.
While you’ll see plenty of red sandstone cliffs in Waimea Canyon, the landscape quickly changes. Koke’e State Park is flooded in thick rainforests, where the temperature rapidly drops as you gain elevation.
You can easily drive through the park stopping at amazing viewpoints, including the Pu’u Kila Lookout, where you can gaze upon the mesmerizing cliffs along the Na Pali Coast. To explore the rainforest, trek along the 3.5-mile Alakai Swamp Trail.
Sleeping Giant (Nounou Mountain)
On your way to Secret Falls, you’ll bask in long-range views of the Sleeping Giant. If you’ve been inspired to hike to the top, you’ll be happy to know there are three ways to arrive at the summit of the Sleeping Giant, also known as Nounou Mountain.
The most direct Sleeping Giant Trail is the East Trail. The trail is 1.75 miles one way but has a sharp elevation gain. The most popular hiking trail is the West Trail, clocking in at 3.8 miles return. Departing from the end of Lokelani Road, you’ll head through the yellow gate and be immediately surrounded by gorgeous forest.
Scramble over rock outcroppings for vast vistas on your way to a protected picnic area near the top. Enjoy a break with panoramic views of the countryside and the Pacific Ocean before basking in even better views on the summit.
Just outside of the popular resort town of Princeville on the North Shore, Queen’s Bath is a stunning tide pool enveloped in burnt lava rock. In years past, Hawaiian royalty would bathe right here and soak up its sacred waters.
Along the edge of the Queen’s Bath is a small cliff where multiple falls provide fresh mountain water, as the pool rises and falls with the ocean. Many visitors to the spectacular location remain away from the water and cliff as the surging waves can be quite dangerous and the conditions volatile.
If you choose to head into the water, remain vigilant, wear sturdy shoes, and keep an eye out for large waves.
Na Pali Coast
You can experience the jaw-dropping Na Pali Coast in a manner of ways. Whether it’s on the aforementioned Kalalau Trail or on a dinner cruise as you caress the spectacular coastline. There’s no right or wrong way. But the 17-mile coast, teeming with cathedral cliffs and plummeting falls, is the most picturesque part of Kauai.
For some, the region will feel familiar as it featured plenty in the iconic film, Jurassic Park. Na Pali Coast remains untouched from the advancement of time thanks to its soaring peaks and narrow valleys that act as iron shields.
Aside from cruises and hikes, you can kayak along the coast to explore sea caves and quiet beaches. Or even take a helicopter tour to the otherwise inaccessible Manawaiopuna Falls.
Polihale State Park
Speaking of remote, on the edge of Na Pali Coast lies Polihale State Park. The road to the beach is unpaved—and many rental cars aren’t allowed to make the 5-mile journey. Those who make it, whether on foot or on four wheels, will immediately be rewarded with an untouched paradise and 17 miles of bright white sand.
With the emerald-hued Makaha Ridge providing the immediate backdrop with long-range views of the knife’s edge of the Na Pali cliffs, you could spend all afternoon admiring your surroundings.
The swimming here can be rough, and there are no lifeguards. But with space to spread out and overnight beach camping allowed, simply kick back and enjoy the show.
Known as the “wettest spot on earth,” Mount Waialeale is a weeping landscape that receives 450 inches of rain on average every year. It’s no wonder Waialeale translates to overflowing water.
Endless waterfalls drape down the side of the mountain, carving their way through the dense rainforest and lush greenery that’s never left thirsty. Seeing the 5,148 feet summit is a tricky task, as clouds gather around its peak, often refusing to disperse.
You can hike around the eastern edge of Mount Waialeale on two hikes, including a 5-mile trek to Blue Hole, presenting you with an unforgettable “weeping wall.”
Recommended places to stay in Kauai for sightseeing
For travelers, the best places to stay in Kauai include the North Shore near Hanalei and Princeville and the south shore near Poipu. These areas are home to many of the island’s top hotels, resorts, and vacation rentals.
Offering guests private beach access and a outdoor pool, Hanalei Bay Resort is one of the island’s top accommodation picks. Each condo features convenient amenities like cable TV and air conditioning, with some offering guests kitchens for a full self-catering stay. Other on-site facilities include a spa, tennis courts, and a hot tub.
Sitting on 20 acres of private land, the Sheraton Kaui Resort is Kauai beachfront luxury at its finest. From the blissful outdoor pool, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, tropical cocktail in hand. After a day of Kauai sightseeing, settle in at the on-site restaurant to watch the sun dip below the horizon.
With its tropical gardens and array of luxurious amenities, the Grand Hyatt is one of the top hotels on Kauai. Guests will love indulging in epic local & international cuisines at one of the seven on-site restaurants. Families will love cooling down in the outdoor pool, replete with thrilling water slides. Other facilities at the hotel include a spa, a salon, tennis courts, and a golf course.