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A Beginner's Guide to Exploring Kauai

Get to know the Garden Isle, one of the most beautiful places in the world. What to do, where to stay and the best spots to eat.

By: Will Cebron + Save to a List

Kauai is a lush island paradise of immense canyons, powerful waterfalls, vast jungles and pristine beaches. It’s quickly become one of my favorite places to visit and I find myself returning year after year. Because there’s so much to do, I thought I’d share my favorite adventures and some tips on where to stay and eat.  


Backpack the Na Pali Coast via the Kalalau Trail

Photo: Jason Horstman

If you’re coming to Kauai in the summer (the north is usually pretty rainy during winter) and have backpacking experience, you’ll want to consider the stunning Kalalau Trail. You’ll need a permit so plan this portion of your trip in advance as these sell out. The trail hugs the ocean and wraps you around the Napali Coast for eleven stunning miles. Once you’ve hiked in, you’ll camp out on a beautiful beach before returning the same way. This trail can be dangerous and people have been airlifted out when heavy rains make the path back impassable, so exercise caution. If you want to experience part of the trail on a day hike, you can head up to Hanakapi’ai Falls which is eight miles round trip and leaves from the same trailhead.

Camp and Hike in Nualolo Valley

Photo: Karyna Wilkerson

This six-mile out and back hike is a personal favorite of mine, as it combines incredible views of the Napali coast with a drive through Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park. The trail snakes through dense forests before opening up onto a ridge-line and then culminating at a cliff overlooking the Pacific and the lush valleys below. Fair warning, the hike out is all downhill so the way back can be exhausting in the mid-day heat. If you’re up for a big day, you can turn this hike into a loop with the Nu'alolo trail.

Hike the Pihea & Alaka'i Swamp Trail

Photo: KaRyle Soto

A long but relatively flat day hike with a stunning outlook at the end (caveat, if it’s clear), the Alaka'i Swamp Trail is usually best in the summer when the trail is less muddy. That being said, you should pack lots of water, bring a rain jacket, and prepare to get a little dirty in all seasons. Part of the experience is the walk along boardwalks through bogs, swamp and rain forest, often shrouded in fog.

Hike to Waipo'o Falls

Photo: Karyna Wilkerson

This is an easy hike that takes you to an 800ft waterfall cascading down into Waimea Canyon. If you're short on time or taking someone out who is less experienced, this is a good one to consider. Other ones that fall into this easier range are Sleeping Giant or Queen's Bath (check the tides here, be cautious and know it's unsafe in winter).

Helicopter Tour

Ok this isn't really the same type of adventure but if you do one thing on Kauai, you should consider a helicopter tour. Passing over the jungles and countless waterfalls, the ride gives a unique perspective on how much of the island is still untouched wilderness. For photographers, I’d highly recommend the doors off helicopter from Jack Harter. Just dress warmly as the wind can make the doors off ride pretty cold.


Little Fish

This is my go-to spot after a morning surf. They have a couple locations including a new one in Poipu by the athletic club. Good coffee, sandwiches and smoothies but the acai bowls are out of this world. For some reason, I felt like the food was better at the Poipu shop vs. the original Hanapepe location. 

Kalaheo Café

Head here if you want one of the best breakfasts on the island. It’s hard to beat the house-made cinnamon bread french toast.

Kauai Beer Company

The Kauai Beer Company recently started serving food (previously it was a bar only), and I was surprised by how good it was. Personal favorite is the citrus ponzu pork sandwich paired with taro fries.

Shave Ice Paradise

Right in Hanalei is a little shop that offers shaved ice and macadamia nut shakes. If you’re up in Hanalei, skip their shaved ice and get the shake. It's so good. I’m still dreaming about it.


North Shore vs. South Shore

A big question when coming to Kauai is what part of the island to stay on. Once you’ve made that decision, it’s easy to figure out accommodations. Honestly you can’t go wrong with the North Shore or South Shore, each definitely has its merits. The North Shore has a more rugged coastline and tends to be rainier which leads to lush jungles and waterfalls. The South Shore is typically sunnier and features several properties set right on the beach. I'm partial to the South Shore but that's mainly a convenience thing. You can get to Hanalei or Waimea Canyon within an hour drive from Poipu, whereas you're looking at about two hours from Hanalei to Waimea or Polihale. That's just me though.

I’ve tried to select adventures and trails that are already published versus ones that have been shared by locals. Having traveled to Kauai many times, one thing I’ve noticed is how protective locals are of their secret spots - you’ll find most refrain from geo-tagging locations. With that being said, you'll find plenty of amazing trails here and on the Outbound that will easily fill up your trip.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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