Kauai is known for its endless opportunities outdoors, lush vistas, and unique landscapes. Even if you don't love the outdoors, Kauai will change your mind. With five state parks and plenty of public beaches, much of Kauai is a visitor's playground for exploring. Plus, you can drive from one end of the island to the other in around two-and-a-half hours, making it easy to check out all corners of Kauai. The vast amount of options on this relatively small island can be overwhelming, so we've narrowed it down to our top 10 picks of things you must do in Kauai.
Waimea Canyon is known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific – it has a rugged and grand look similar to that of the Grand Canyon in the Lower 48, but it's laden in tropical bright green flora and towering waterfalls. It's a must-see whether by scenic drive or on foot, but hiking through the canyon is by far the best way to experience its grandeur. Hikes range from the mellow Cliff Trail (under one mile) to the more intense, 5-mile Kukui Trail, taking you all the way down to the Waimea River at the canyon floor and back up.
In the heart of Wailua Bay is the gentle Wailua River. Rent a paddleboard or kayak from one of the outfitters in Kapaʻa and paddle downriver to one or more destinations on the river. Fern Grotto is a lush, fern-covered cave set amidst a tropical garden that can be reached from the Wailua area. You can also start from Wailua River State Park and paddle to the Uluwehi (Secret Falls) Trailhead, where you can get out and hike a half-mile to a simple, delicate waterfall. Or, for a more historical experience on the river, visit the Wailua Complex of Heiau, the previous central seat of power on the island. It features places of worship, places of refuge, prehistoric rock carvings, and birthstones, taking you back to ancient Hawaiian culture.
If you're looking to explore this scenic river on foot, head to Wailua River State Park to explore the area's several scenic waterfalls that Hawaiian dreams are made of. Wailua Falls is probably the most famous – it's incredibly picturesque and featured in general films and TV series.
As the oldest island in Hawaii, Kauai is home to the highest diversity of plants – more than 1,360 native plant species. So it's worth visiting a local botanical garden to see as many of them as possible in one place. Some of our favorites include Allerton Garden, Limahuli Garden and Preserve, and Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens.
Queen's Bath is a tidal pool formed by a sinkhole surrounded by igneous rock. Its clear blue waters and deep pool created by the surrounding rock make it a popular, scenic spot for swimming. Located on the north shore of the island in Princeville, conditions at the Queen's Bath can become dangerous when the surf is high, so be sure to respect the rules when the gate is closed – it's for your own safety!
After being closed for more than a year due to severe flooding, this iconic park reopened in 2019 on a reservation-only system (unless you're a Hawaii resident) to better protect this precious resource and mitigate impacts. And it's clear why – this rugged coastline is like no other, to lose this gem would be a tragedy. To get into the park, make reservations 30 days in advance here.
If you're looking for a leisurely daytime activity, snorkeling at Poipu Beach is the thing to do. Several shops nearby will rent you masks and fins. Then you can take to the water at your own pace, exploring the colorful corals, sea cucumber, sea turtles, and fish swimming around you.
Kauai has a vibrant community of growers and makers, and they share their goods at local farmers' markets in Hanalei, Waimea, and Kilauea. The Waipa Farmers Market is a favorite, hosted by an organization seeking to restore the area's natural resources and systems. Support local farmers by purchasing produce and locally-made foods, or take home an artisan, hand-made souvenir.
Hanalei is a charming, small town on the north end of Kauai that's teeming with shops, art galleries, restaurants, and bars. Known as a quaint, funky surf town, you'll find plenty of places to buy the perfect bikini, a new surfboard or wetsuit, or grab a poke bowl and fresh-squeezed juice.
You simply can't visit Kauai without grabbing some shaved ice made with your favorite tropical fruit syrup. Whether you've spent the day snorkeling, surfing, or hiking into Waimea canyon, there's no better cap to cool you down. Wailua Shave Ice might be one of the best, with flavor combinations like Almond Joy, Pina Colada, and Orange Dream.
Looking for a place to stay in the center of it all? Take a look at 17 Palms Kauai Vacation Cottages, conveniently located in Wailua Bay – a short drive from everything mentioned on this list. For more ideas of things to do during your visit to Kauai, read the rest of the Highline Adventures Travel Blog.