Go Guide: 10 Favorite Adventures in Kauai
By KEEN Canada Ambassador Brooke Willson
If you could only bring two things with you to a tropical island, what would they be?
For me, it's KEEN shoes, of course. And friends! Earlier this year, while Canada was still covered in a blanket of snow, two of my friends and I started to talk about how much fun it would be to go on a trip to Hawaii together. All three of us LOVE the outdoors, love adventure, love hiking, and love tropical locations, so we thought Kauai would be the perfect place for that. And it was!
After 9 days of non-stop hiking, camping, ziplining, and, yes, hanging out at the beach, too, here’s our list of 10 must-dos on the island (and the shared experiences that made our friendship even stronger).
1. Wailua River State Park
Wailua River State Park is home to two great hikes: Wailua Falls and Sleeping Giant, which are on opposite sides of the park. Wailua Falls is a very popular spot, where many people stop at the lookout to take in the beautiful view, and you can also hike down below to see the waterfall from a different perspective. When it’s rainy, it’s extremely slippery, so be prepared!
Sleeping Giant is a little bit of a longer hike that we thought would be great to shake off our jet lag and airplane legs on our first day on the island. It is only 2 miles each way, and many of the locals use it more as a quick “workout hike.” There are two routes up. On the east side, you have more of an ocean view the entire time and more luck if it’s rainy and wet, whereas the west side (the side we took up) is more forested, “rooty” and challenging in the mud… but who doesn’t like a good challenge? Was worth every step.
2. North Shore by boat
Before our trip, Kauai was hit with a lot of rainfall and flood damage. The flooding ended up closing down the North Shore of the island, where the world-renowned Kalalau Trail (or Napali Coast Trail) is located. You need a permit to hike it, and we weren’t on top of things enough to have obtained it ahead of time ( they were sold out until September). Without permits, you can only hike the first two miles of the 22-mile roundtrip trail. We were hoping to at least hike the first bit, but we weren’t even able to do that due to the road closure. It was time to pivot. So, instead of hiking it, we had the privilege of seeing it from the ocean thanks to @napaliodyssey. We went on a five-hour boat tour, and got to see numerous dolphins, waterfalls, ridge lines, beaches and all-around beautiful views, and we were able to boat right into a number of caves on the shore. It was a great experience, as the North Shore landscape is incomparable to anything else on the island.
3. Koke’e State Park
Koke’e State Park, on the west side of the island, is FULL of amazing views, hikes, camping and more. We headed for Awa'awapuhi bright and early, for an 8:30 a.m. start on the trail, which winds through a highland forest with occasional ridge top views. It’s all downhill, which means all uphill on the way back, (these ‘upside down hikes’ are common in the area) to the grassy point that overlooks the sheer cliffs of Awa'awapuhi and Nualolo valleys resting 2,000 feet below.
From the Awa'awapuhi lookout, the majority of people head right back up, but we brought extra food and water and went on to hike the Nualolo Trail from here, which is an extra 9 miles. It is a beautiful hike, through the woods, with rewarding views and greenery/wildflowers. The terrain/length can be quite challenging depending on the conditions, especially if it’s wet. After 2.1 miles on the Nualolo Cliff Trail, you connect to the Nualolo Trail for another 3.8 miles. Then, you have the option to hike an additional 1/2 mile round trip to the Lolo Vista Lookout. It is known to be super windy on this point (which it was) with beautiful views if it’s clear. One thing worth noting: The Nualolo Trail ends at the Koke’e Campground, about 1.5 miles down the road from the parking area at Awa'awapuhi trailhead.
4. Alakai Swamp Trail
Starting at the Kalalau lookout, our plan was to hike the Alakai Swamp Trail (7 miles round trip), which offers glimpses of native plants and bird watching as it passes through rain forest and bogs on its way to Kilohana. When the weather is good, the views from this vantage overlooking the Wainiha Pali are amazing, though we were unfortunately faced with rain and fog/socked-in conditions for 80 percent of the hike. We would get glimpses here and there of views and could only imagine what it would’ve been like had the skies been clear. Then, with 1 km left to go, the clouds decided to clear and we had UNBELIEVABLE views of the valley below from Kalalau Lookout.
5. Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon is known as “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” stretching 14 miles long, 1 mile wide and up to 3,600 feet deep. We could’ve easily explored here for days. We started our hike at the Kumuwela Lookout, where we watched the sunrise the day before. There is a clear sign right by the parking lot marked “Canyon Trail – 1.8 miles each way.” It is an “upside-down” hike…going down into the canyon the whole day and then you have to come back up. You hike through a forested area for a while, before being welcomed with amazing views of the canyon. From the viewpoint you can hike down another 0.2 miles to a ‘fork’ in the trail where to the left takes you to a smaller waterfall, and right will lead you to the top of Waipoo Falls. Many people don’t realize when you reach the falls that you can cross the creek and continue on further. We hiked for another mile past this point and were welcomed with even further views of the canyon.
6. Kalepa Ridge Trail
Kalepa Ridge Trail was by far my favorite trail of the trip (if I had to choose). The views were unbelievable, and the weather/sunset we had could not have been more perfect. The trail is an unofficial trail that leads downhill from Kalalau Lookout in Koke’e State Park, along the ridge line between Kalalau Valley and Honopu. It’s unmarked and not officially maintained, and it should be hiked with caution if one is afraid of heights or steep cliffs! Since it’s an unofficial trail there is also no official length, but it took us about an hour. Many people hike a little more than a mile down the trail to see the incredible, panoramic views of the Na Pali Coast and Kalalau Valley.
7. Glass Beach
Glass Beach isn’t mentioned in most guidebooks, and there are no signs directing drivers to it, but it is really unique and great for those who enjoy collecting sea glass. (We found it close to our camp spot at Kekaha Beach on the west side). The shoreline is covered with TONS of brown, aqua, clear and blue sea glass pebbles.
8. Ho’opi’i Falls
This 2-mile out-and-back trail located near Kapaa ends at a beautiful waterfall and is good for all skill levels. Halfway in there is a great little cliff/swimming hole you can enjoy, before continuing onto the larger waterfall at the end. The whole trail is beautiful, it follows the small river/creek bed the entire way through lush forest and greenery. The trees are also super fun to climb. (Be sure to pack bug spray…the mosquitos were WILD!) The end destination is the perfect hangout spot—you can wade in the water, play in the waterfall, or go off the rope swing!
9. Sunset at Queens Bath
First, be sure to grab shave ice in Princeville before making the quick 10-minute trek down to Queens Bath from the parking lot. Although the scenery is beautiful and pleasant, like many ocean attractions, the area should be approached with caution and can be dangerous if you don’t pay attention. They say, “It’s important to check the surf report before you visit the ocean on Kauai. Simply watching the sea for 20 minutes before you approach is not good enough. The biggest waves of the day, as predicted by the surf report, could arrive at any time without warning.”
10. Dog Time at the Kauai Humane Society
Jessie and I left our pups behind, so it was nice to spend some time with local ones at the Kauai Humane Society to fill that void. You can pick the dogs up between 11-2 and take them for hikes if you want, too. There have even been a number of people from around the world who have adopted dogs from the Kauai Humane Society.
There’s a saying that it's “not about where you go, but who you go with.” I feel like this is very true. But when you add an epic place AND epic people, it does not get any better than that.
Shared adventures really are the best adventures.
If you go:
What car to rent
We decided to go with a 4-door Jeep, which was spacious for three of us and all our gear, and could handle the back roads and beach driving to campsites.
Where to stay
We stayed three nights at the Kauai Beach Hostel before transitioning to camping. The Kauai Beach Hostel is located in downtown Kapaa, with shops all around, restaurants, cafes, and ocean view/beach access right behind it. Our balcony looked right out onto the water.
Where to camp on the beach
We camped on Kekaha Beach and Ahini Beach. Ahini Beach on the North Shore was very busy—with people and mosquitoes. And you need a permit to camp there. At Kekaha Beach, we fell asleep to the sound of the wind and water, and were able to leave our tent tarp off as the night was free of rain. The stars were UNREAL.
Where to spend downtime
We thought we would end the trip with a little more relaxation, as we were go, go, go for a week straight. So we stayed at the Grand Hyatt Kauai. I would highly recommend looking into staying here even if it is just for a couple nights. The staff, food, drinks and everything in the resort was perfect. The ocean view from our room was also incredible.
Where to get coffee (super important!)
Java Kai in Kapaa, which also has great breakfast and lunch options.
How to get those epic views
When we arrived at the Awa’awapuhi lookout, the views were socked in by clouds. But we waited 15 minutes and were gifted with an amazing view. This was a common occurrence during our time in Hawaii: Views would come and go, and you could be lucky or unlucky depending on when you went. The weather/cloud coverage can be unpredictable, and locals often say to wait it out, as things can change quickly! Luckily it did for us.
Born and raised in Alberta, Canada, 27-year-old blogger, athlete and photographer Brooke Willson has taken full advantage of her own backyard in the Rocky Mountains, and beyond. You can find her out hiking, trail running, kayaking, biking, backpacking, or camping with her pup Timber in between finishing up a dual degree in social work and teaching. She hopes to combine her passions for the outdoors and youth education and inspire the next generation to get outside. Follow her amazing vistas and adventures on Instagram at @brookewillson.