There is so much to do on Kauai, we haven’t even scratched the surface with the three trips we’ve been there. We love to hike and explore, and Kauai is the perfect place to do both.
Disclaimer: We are not licensed tour guides nor are we experts on the island of Kauai. The following hikes, exploring, and snorkeling information shared is from our own personal experiences and are not meant to replace expert advice or guided tours. Always, ALWAYS, make certain a situation is safe before proceeding. The dates we visited are included for mere reference as to when the hikes, exploring, and snorkeling were an option for us to do and should never be interpreted as fact that the hike, exploring, or snorkeling area shared will be safe during any future visits during the same months mentioned.
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Respecting the Island and the Locals
Before we dive into some of the activities we’ve done and places we’ve explored, I feel it is important to comment on respecting the island and the locals. Kauai is a very unique place in this world, and when you visit, it’s important to have some understanding of the culture of the Hawaiian people. It’s important to remember that as a visitor to the island, respecting the island and the locals who live on the island is only right. There are sacred lands and places that visitors aren’t very welcome, and you need to accept that as just part of visiting the island. Before going exploring or hiking or swimming, it is best to ask a local about where you plan to go. There are a few reasons for this.
One, some places on the island might not be safe due to recent weather conditions. If it has been raining a lot lately, even though the hike looks safe from the entrance point, that doesn’t mean it is safe along the whole trail. The further up the mountain you get, the more dangerous the hike gets naturally. Now add in rain water filling up ponds and rivers and rushing waterfalls, the danger becomes real, real fast.
The same goes for swimming. Always be sure to make note of signs you see, and if it says ‘Do not stand on the rocks’, then DON’T STAND ON THE ROCKS. Easy as that. Even with most places having known dangers clearly marked, there is still something to be said about asking locals before entering the water. An example of this is the first time we visited the island in February, we were able to swim right outside our resort on the Southeast end of the island. However, the next time when we visited in early September, the tide was different, and we weren’t able to swim outside our resort and had to travel to the North side of the island. What season you visit will determine where you are safely able to enter the ocean, and which hikes you will safely be able to do. Another easy way to tell is that if you don’t see anyone else in the water, chances are there is a reason for that.
Reason number two, not all places on the island are exactly ‘visitor friendly.’ Let me put it this way, imagine someone coming into your town and going to your favorite local eatery and finishing the last piece of the best pie in town, then going out in their 4×4 and tearing up all the local roads, even coming into your neighborhood and speeding down your roads and then swimming in your pool and leaving a mess for you to clean up while they go back to their hotel. Not cool right? Well, that is how some of the locals see their local hangouts and beaches. It’s not uncommon for locals to get upset because of tourists coming to their regular hangouts and retaliating by not being the friendliest or even damaging your rental vehicle or stealing your things. And to be honest, who can really blame them. This is their island, where they live, work, and play. Don’t ruin it while you visit for the week.
We love to explore and do things on our own, but we are also smart enough to be respectful, and to know when we aren’t welcomed. Our last visit to the island we were really excited to explore a swinging bridge that was in our island adventures guide, but once we got to the area and saw all the ‘Keep Out’ and ‘If you can read this you are in range’ signs, we knew we weren’t welcome, and we respectfully left the area.
The bottom line is, respect the island, respect the locals, and don’t be dumb. If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t feel welcome, chances are you aren’t, and its best if you just find another area to explore.
Items to Consider Purchasing:
There are a few items we’ve purchased for our hikes and exploring Kauai that we wouldn’t go without and we recommend for everyone looking to have a successful adventure.
Shoes: There is this little shop in Hanalei in the Ching Young Shopping Center called Pedal N’ Paddle that we found on our second trip to Kauai. It is here that we both purchased a pair of hiking/water shoes. They are so worth it, that when the hubs forgot his pair for our big hike into Hanakapi’ai Falls, instead of wasting another hour traveling back to our resort and getting his original pair, we just purchased him another. The shoes have a mesh top and holes in the bottom for water to leak out of. They also have amazing grip on the slick rocks and are padded enough that they have some support and are amazingly comfortable. We highly recommend them, and since they were under $50 at the time we purchased them, we really don’t think you can go wrong. The brand we got is RocSoc.
Hiking Backpack: A compact hiking backpack can be really helpful when navigating along some of the trails on Kauai. The backpacks we got are smaller and lighter than other backpacks. They also have chest and waist straps to help them hug to your body. This can be especially helpful when you are weaving through the overgrown trails on the off the beaten path hikes that we like to do.
First Aid Kit: A simple first aid kit is a good idea to have along in case the unexpected happens.
Flairs and Flashlights: You never know when you might find yourself in a situation where a flashlight would come in handy. Flairs are another just in case item.
Bug Spray: While the mosquitos and bugs don’t seem to be as plentiful as they are here in Northern Minnesota, the island still has their fair share of bugs.
Guidebook and Island Map: We always have a map with us and a guidebook. While there are several different guidebooks in print, we’ve found that the Ultimate Kauai Guidebook is the one we prefer to use ourselves. In this post I’ll refer to several places you can easily find more information on in your guidebook and look up how to get to on your maps. I hope you enjoy seeing it from our perspective from the photos and videos we’ve shared.
Hiking and Exploring:
We love to hike and explore around the island. We have a list of hikes we want to do yet, a list of hikes we’ve done, and some we want to do again. If you plan to hike while you visit the island, you’ll want to make sure to pay attention to the weather. Flash floods are common, and dangerous. The best advice we got is to talk to the locals before you head into the place you plan to hike. The season you visit the island in will determine which hikes will be available to you when you are there because of the amount of rainfall the island gets and the ways of the oceans tide. There is a saying on the island… ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes.’ And while this is mostly true, paying attention to the amount of rainfall that is accumulated during those 5 minutes and where the rainfall was located on the island can make the difference of a trail being safe or not safe.
That being said, Kauai is an amazing place to explore and hike.
On our second trip to Kauai we visited in early September 2011. We hiked a beautiful hike up to the Hanakapi’ai Falls.
This hike was challenging, and you’ll want to plan a whole day for it if you choose to try it. We wouldn’t recommend bringing young kids along for this hike. Be sure to pack energy bars and water, survival gear such as a first aid kit and flashlight aren’t bad ideas either, but travel lightly as there is a stream you have to cross several times along the trail. The hike into the falls is 2 miles, one-way, up a mountain. We took our time and enjoyed the trail and explored the mountain while we made the hike.
This is a hike you definitely want to check the weather and ask the locals for before you plan to go. Crossing the stream is mandatory to get to the waterfall so if there has been rain recently it may not be a hike that is possible to do safely. There is a lifeguard shack right before the entrance, if there’s been rain it might be smart to check with them before making your way up the trail.
Along the trail you will see Ke’e Beach. We explored a bit, along with everyone else who’d made it this far along the trail, and found a cool sea cavern, but it was mostly filled with water so we didn’t have much exploring to do with it. There is a very important thing about this beach though. If you choose to take the trail to the waterfall, you simply hike back up and continue on your way up the mountain. However, if you choose to continue past the beach, you need a permit. The beginning of the Hanakapi’ai Falls trail is also the end of the road on this side of the island. There are no roads on the far North end of the island, and if you wish to explore the North end, you must do so by boat, or by foot. Going further on this trail to explore the North end of the island requires extensive planning and packing, including overnight and survival gear. Not to mention you are also required to get a permit to do so. We haven’t done that hike, yet.
Once you make your way further up the mountain, you will find lots to explore. There is a thick bamboo grove with massive bamboo shoots. You can see how large they are compared to the hubs. We are talking massive.
The trail was casually marked with orange pieces of cloth hanging from trees when we did the hike. They were tough to spot sometimes, and we found ourselves continuing up what we thought was the trail only to come to realize it wasn’t the trail and having to backtrack several times. The hike back was especially tricky to spot the markers, so beware of that if it hasn’t changed since 2011.
After crossing the river several times you’ll start to hear the falls, and eventually you’ll get a peak of them from the trail. They are magnificent, and an amazing sight to see, even from afar.
We were not the only ones at the falls. We were mostly alone on the hike up to the falls, but once we got there we were with several other groups of people who had made the trek same as us. It wasn’t crowded by any means, and it didn’t take away from the magnificence of the falls, but this is a more well known hike for visitors to the island.
The falls go into a pool of water, which is cold because it is spring (waterfall!) fed. There were several people swimming in the water, and we chose to do so as well. For this trip I purchased an Olympus waterproof camera, and swam with it to take pictures from behind the falls. If you choose to swim, BE CAREFUL for falling rocks or boulders. When we were standing behind the falls there was a huge boulder that fell from the cliff and plummeted into the water. We all looked around quickly to make sure no one had been hit by it, and we were all a lot more cautious swimming back to the other side again.
Hanakapi’ai Falls-Video of our view from behind the falls (2011)
Hanakapi’ai Falls-Video of the hubs swimming across the pool to stand behind the falls (2011)
This is by far our favorite hike that we’ve done on Kauai. It had a little adventure to it with the distance and having to cross the stream several times, and the payoff of the waterfall was by definitely worth the hike. We’ve put it on our list of hike’s we hope to do again.
If you want to experience being up close and personal with a waterfall but aren’t sure you want to spend a whole day hiking up into the mountain to get there, Wailua Falls is a great option. We visited these falls the last time we were on Kauai and we weren’t disappointed.
There is a lookout to the falls that you can drive right up to and park at. From the lookout you will be able to see the falls and get some great photos. The lookout is pretty well the same height as the top of the falls and gives you a clear view of them and the pool they fall into below.
If you are looking for a little adventure you can hike down and swim in the pool below. The locals have tied ropes along the tree roots and it is possible to make the climb if you are able bodied. When we visited there had been some rainfall and the ‘trail’ was very wet and muddy. It’s also very overgrown with roots and ground cover. This is another one we don’t recommend taking young children down. You must be able bodied to make this hike and you must be willing to get a bit muddy in the process. If there has been significant rainfall when you’ve been on the island, you are best off just enjoying the view from the lookout.
The falls are 172ft and fall into a beautiful pool of water below. The water is cool and clear. The pool spills into a stream that is heavy with ground vegetation. We enjoyed hanging out by the water, swimming behind the falls, and the beauty of the water rushing down the 172ft drop. There were a few other people who decided to make the hike down to the pool and swim behind, but it wasn’t crowded by any means. You can stand on the ledge behind the falls, but don’t take the risk of jumping off. There is a strong undertow that is dangerous and not worth the risk.
Jurassic Park Gates
What started out as an adventure to find the Jurassic Park Gates from the actual filming of the movie turned into a completely different hike, but that’s not to say it wasn’t amazing. We followed our guidebook to find the entrance to the hike. This was one of those hikes that you need a 4×4 vehicle to even get to the entrance of the hike. We started following the trail, and the view was breathtaking.
After hiking along the trail for awhile, we came to what we think was part of the gate. See the pole?
We had a decision to make when we got to this point. See, we had passed a trail going off into the jungle and we kept talking about it and about how we wanted to see where it went. We chose to go back and see what the trail had to offer, and it was amazing. We squirreled off into the jungle and found ourselves along a trail on the side of a cliff. It was breathtaking and definitely our kind of hike.
We found ourselves coming upon an old spillway with an old sugar field drainage. There was one point along the trail, close to the entrance, where we saw the a hole that was the beginning of the drain that exited where we had hiked around to. You can see the wall/spillway still although it is no longer used for the sugar fields.
The water was brisk from being spring fed, but it was also beautifully clear. It was great for swimming in.
Unfortunately I can’t even begin to explain exactly where the beginning of the trail is at. We were planning on finding it again when we returned to the island in 2017, but the road to get to the Jurassic Park Gates was under construction and the only way in was by bike. So we didn’t make this hike again like we wanted to. If we are fortunate enough to return to the island again soon and the road is accessible by vehicle we have it on our list of hikes to do again.
Tunnels at Makua Beach
What snorkeling adventures you will be able to have will depend on the time of year you visit the island. If you visit in the summer/fall months, you will be able to snorkel an amazing area called Tunnels. Tunnels is located on the Northside of Kauai at Makua Beach. It is a series of tunnels created by lava flow. The tunnels or lava tubes are a snorkeler or scuba divers paradise. It is a favorite place for fish to hang out, and the crescent shape of the area creates calmer waters for swimmers. Always make sure to check weather and water conditions before entering the water, and never swim or dive alone.
One thing we realized when we visited Tunnels is that if you are confident enough to dive down a bit it really helps to have a snorkel that is a bit higher end with a purging valve where you can more easily expel the water from the tube. This is an example of the type the hubs got that has good reviews on Amazon. The hubs was confident with his swimming and snorkel skills and did dive down to explore a bit more. I on the other hand enjoyed the view from floating along the surface of the water.
Aston Islander On The Beach
As I mentioned in our Kauai travel post #1, Kauai-Tips For An Off The Beaten Path Adventure, we always stay at Aston Islander on the Beach in Kapaa. The beach here is amazing. It is clean, long, sandy, and never crowded. This was the first place that I’d ever tried snorkeling. If you visit the island during the winter months, you may be able to snorkel right outside the resort. Our first trip to Kauai was in early February, and we were able to walk in the water, collect sea glass, and snorkel. Our most recent trip in 2017 was in early January and the ocean was rough all around the island and we weren’t able to snorkel at all.
This beach is not advertised as a great snorkeling beach, and besides those staying at the resort, you aren’t likely to find many people coming to this beach to snorkel. But that isn’t to say there aren’t great things to see under the waves here!
In the ocean outside Aston Islander on the Beach there is some coral, so beware of that and be sure to wear water shoes. We walked West along the beach a ways and found a great place for snorkeling during our trip in 2007. We saw a lot of different types of fish, and were able to just float along and enjoy seeing everything below us.
If you visit the island in the Summer or Fall months, you may be able to hike into and snorkel in Queens Bath on the Northside in Princeville. This is a hike that you will definitely want to check with locals about before doing. It is advised not to try this hike from October thru May due to the danger that the high surf tide poses. It is a very real danger to be swept out to the ocean while watching the waves on the slippery lava rock. When the conditions are right and the surf tide is down, it’s become a more popular area and there is a parking lot right outside the entrance to the trail. You hike a short hike down a trail until you come to the lava cliffs which have ‘bowls’ formed on the tops. When the tide is right, the ocean splashes up and fills up the bowls. The sun beating down on the water makes for a nice warm bath. There are some great maps of the area showing which pools are safe and which are not. Make sure to do your research before choosing to explore this area.
Our second visit to Kauai was during early September and the conditions were perfect for this hike and to explore the area of Queens Bath. We saw sea turtles, swam in the pools of water, and snorkeled. The ocean gifted us safer low tides and the water in the pools was warm.
View of Queens Bath area from the trail (2011)
There are so many more places to explore on the island, and we can’t wait to return and do some more hiking and snorkeling. We learn something new each time we are on the island, like when to return if there are specific places we want to visit, and what adventures to add to our future to-do lists!
Stay tuned for additional posts in my Kauai traveling series coming soon!