Kauaʻi is the perfect place to get out and explore the natural world. As the oldest island in the modern-day chain, the island has had 4 to 5 million years to erode, producing some of the most dramatic, jagged mountains you’ll find in all of Hawaiʻi. Waimea Canyon on the south shore, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” is perhaps its greatest natural wonder, but don’t tell that to the Nāpali Coast up north.
Combined with a lush, forest-covered countryside, adventurers will fall in love with what locals call the “Garden Island.” Whether you’re looking to explore on foot, four wheels, or four hoofs, there’s an adventure on Kauaʻi for everyone, and none of them require you to step into the ocean or off solid ground.
Table of contents
Table of Contents
- ATV Tours
- Farm Tours
- Horseback Riding
- Luau shows
- Parks and Botanical Gardens
- Volunteering Opportunities
Here’s a rundown of what you can find on Kauaʻi, along with our recommendations:
ATV and Off-Road Tours
Thanks to its abundance of dense nature, Kauaʻi is a heaven for off-road ATV tours. They are an exciting, family-friendly way to explore miles and miles of natural terrain, often times in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Many times, they explore private ranch lands and upcountry mountains. Others explore old plantations, or seek out waterfalls.
ATV tours are fast and fun half-day activities that usually last about 3 hours. They include driving instructions, multiple stops at scenic places, and take place rain or shine (be ready for mud!). Tip: We recommend bringing a change of clothes and towel, as ATV tours can get muddy in a hurry.
Read more in our comparison of all ATV tours on Kauaʻi.
Kauaʻi’s mountainous and geological terrain, including the Nāpali Coast and Waimea Canyon, get so much attention that people sometimes overlook its beaches. True, it doesn’t have the same quality or quantity as Oʻahu and Maui (the top two islands for beaches), but Kauaʻi has plenty of scenic sand to offer.
Some of our favorites include:
- Polihale State Park, which remains one of the state’s most open, natural beaches;
- Hanalei Bay, which, while popular, offers mellow vibes and a lush, mountainous backdrop;
- and Gillin’s Beach for its simplicity and tranquility.
Other recommendations for beaches on Kauaʻi include:
- Best beach to take kids: Lydgate Beach Park/Poʻipū Beach
- Best beach for beginner surfing: Hanalei Bay / Kalapaki
- Best beach to go snorkeling: Tunnels and Keʻe Beach
- Best beach to get away from the crowds: Kekaha, Barking Sands, and Polihale strip
Want to learn more? Read our guide to beaches on Kauaʻi.
Looking for breathtaking golf courses in Hawaiʻi? You’ve found the right island. Kauaʻi has nine courses, a mix of resort-owned and independent options, and each offer spectacular views of the island’s natural scenery, including the mountains, lava rock, and ocean.
The best of the best
The shining star is probably the Princeville Makai Golf Club. It sits on a bluff above the ocean along the north shore, offering a combination of ocean and mountain views that have landed it on lists of the world’s most scenic courses.
There are also notable courses down south, including the Ocean Course at Hōkūala (Līhuʻe) and the Poʻipū Bay Golf Course. All of these courses will cost more than $200 a round per person, but if you’re looking for once-in-a-lifetime golf experience in Hawaiʻi, these courses are a great bet. If you are staying at or near these resorts, be sure to ask the course if they provide a discount for guests.
Local courses (more affordable)
If you’re looking for something more local and a bit more affordable, you can check out some of the “local” courses on Kauaʻi. They cost about half the price – around $100 a round or less – and while not quite as dramatic, still offer plenty of beautiful scenery and well-groomed holes. Check out Kiahuna in Kōloa, Puakea in Līhuʻe, and Wailea Municipal Golf Course.
They don’t call Kauaʻi the Garden Island for nothing. The island is blessed with an abundance of agricultural and ranch lands, producing a variety of products, from tropical fruits to local beef.
In addition to visiting individual farms and producers, Kauaʻi also offers various food tours that will showcase a variety of local ingredients within the culinary scene. The island’s food scene has come a long way in the last decade, introducing a strong food truck scene and expanding its locally owned, independent food offerings.
Read more: in our guide to culinary tours and activities for Kauaʻi.
The increased focus on local food is a good step for both Kauaʻi and Hawaiʻi in general. Since it became part of the United States, Hawaiʻi has imported nearly 100% of its food, relying on shipments from the mainland. However, in recent years, farmers have been working hard to reestablish a locally-sourced food chain. Locally-produced products remain expensive, but options are expanding – which is something to celebrate.
Below are some farm and agricultural tours we recommend if you’re interested in learning more about the food scene on Kauaʻi:
- Hanalei Taro: Of all the crops in Hawaiʻi, taro is by far the most revered and the most sacred, as it sustained Native Hawaiian life for centuries. Kauaʻi’s north shore is riddled with taro fields, with many belonging to Hanalei Taro. Get an up-close-and-personal look at taro farming on Kauaʻi by jumping on the Haraguchi Rice Mill Tour, which includes a look at taro fields and a historic rice mill.
- Kauaʻi Coffee Co.: There’s no official tour at Kauaʻi Coffee, but there is a walking path and posted signage for a self-guided experience, which focuses on how coffee is grown and produced. The limitless free coffee samples in the lobby are reason enough to make a quick pit stop.
- Lydgate Farm Chocolate Tour: Chocolate lover? See how locally-grown cacao goes from “branch to bar” on this 3-hour tour (tastings included).
- Kauai Sugarloaf Pineapple: Kauaʻi is not known for its pineapple history in the way we think of Oʻahu, Maui, and Lānaʻi, but you can nevertheless get the full experience at the Kauaʻi Sugarloaf Pineapple plantation. The two-hour tour takes you through their fields and includes a frozen pineapple treat.
- Kilohana Plantation: This family-friendly farm tour is a narrated train ride through tropical gardens. It includes fruit tastings as well as the chance to feed goats, pigs, and sheep.
- Tasting Kauaʻi: If you’re looking for a proper food tour, check out Tasting Kauaʻi. They offer tours around the island with different themes and focus on local food vendors.
Kauaʻi is a hiker’s paradise, with myriad trails across a variety of terrains – for a small island, you will be pleasantly surprised by the diversity of landscapes you can find. From the jagged peaks and coastal trails of the Napali Coast to exploring the deep canyons of Waimea, there is a special hike for everyone on Kauaʻi.
Below, we provide a glimpse of our recommendations, as well as a link to more information. If you’re interested in hiring a guide to tackle Kauai’s best hikes, we suggest contacting Jeremiah at Kauai Hiking Tours. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Easy: The mellow Mahaʻulepu Heritage Trail runs 2 miles along the coast near Poʻipū, with many opportunities to stop along the way and check out various beaches, scenic points, historical sites, and lava rocks.
- Intermediate: The first two miles of the Kalalau Trail to Hanakāpīʻai Beach is one of the most scenic hikes in all of Hawaiʻi, offering incredible views and scenery along the Nāpali Coast.
- Hard: Looking for an adventure unique to Kauaʻi? Set off down into Waimea Canyon via the Kukui Trail. It descends several thousand feet to the canyon floor, where you can then follow the river and enjoy the views from below.
Read about the 15 best hikes on Kauaʻi, broken down into groups of 5 easy, 5 intermediate, and 5 advanced hikes.
Horseback riding tours serve two purposes: One, it’s fun! And two, it’s a great way to learn more about ranching in modern-day Hawaiʻi. Explore the land, take in the ocean and mountain views, and learn about the paniolo – or Hawaiian cowboy – culture and its history in Hawaiʻi.
Because paniolo culture carries with it tradition and reverence for the land and horses, we recommend choosing an operator/tour that is associated with an actual ranch. This ensures happy horses, respectful guides, and opens the door for you to learn about the historical and cultural aspects of the paniolo lifestyle.
Some horseback tours we recommend are:
- Princeville Ranch: If you’re super interested in paniolo culture, check out Princeville Ranch. Here, you can take lessons and get a glimpse behind the scenes at a working ranch.
- CJM Country Stables: If you’ve ever dreamed of riding horseback on the beach, this is your chance. CJM Country Stables runs tours on the beaches of the South Shore near Poʻipū.
- Silver Falls Ranch (currently closed): Operating on the north shore, Silver Falls Ranch runs tours through lush landscapes and often end at a small, mountain pool for a dip.
If you’re looking for evening entertainment that celebrates Hawaiian and Polynesian culture, then a lūʻau is right up your alley. Full of storytelling and dance, the performances take place around sunset and bring you on a journey back in time to retrace the ancestral history of the islands. The live shows are typically accompanied by a pig roast and all-you-can-eat buffet, and some include an open bar. Audience participation is often part of the show as well.
Lūʻaus in Hawaiʻi vary in their authenticity and food quality, but overall, they offer a family-friendly environment and provide a chance to try Hawaiian foods and celebrate its cultural history. There are many Luau shows on Kauaʻi, but here are a few we recommend:
- Best Lūʻau for families: Smith’s Tropical Paradise. This immerse experience takes place in the jungles of the Wailua River Valley, with plenty of room for kids to roam.
- Most Authentic Lūʻau: Lūʻau Makaʻiwa. Located at the Sheraton Kauaʻi Coconut Beach Resort, the oceanfront setting is tranquil, and the dancing/storytelling considered some of the most authentic on island.
See also our Oʻahu Luau guide, our complete list of Luau shows on the Big Island, and our Maui Luau overview for our recommendations of shows on the other islands.
State Parks & Botanical Gardens
There are 9 state-run parks on Kauaʻi that preserve the island’s natural beauty and provide opportunities for recreation and enjoyment.
Kauaʻi’s two main parks are the Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park and Waimea Canyon State Park.
You can view a full list of state-run parks here, but here are some standouts we recommend:
- Adventure Hiking: The Nāpali Coast and Waimea Canyon are two prime places to hike and adventure, but don’t forget about Kōkeʻe State Park (which is adjacent to Waimea Canyon). It offers myriad hiking trails that include canyons, lush valleys, and stunning coastal views.
- Beach Day: If you’re looking for a place to hide out in a beach chair, check out one of our favorite hidden gems: Polihale State Park on the island’s west side. It’s a great place for walking, sunbathing, and watching the sunset. Always check water conditions before swimming.
- Kayaking: Want to experience one of Hawaiʻi’s only navigable rivers? Rent a kayak or jump on a kayak tour to explore Wailua River State Park.
There’s a lot of natural beautiful scenery on Kauaʻi, but don’t sleep on its botanical gardens, which showcase local Hawaiian plants and allow visitors to dig deeper into the landscape. Here are a few we recommend:
- The Allerton National Tropical Botanical Garden on the south shore offers tours of its gardens, which contains a large collection of native Hawaiian and tropical species, including flowers, trees, and palms. The area was once owned by Queen Emma and has been featured in films such as Jurassic Park.
- The Limahuli Garden and Preserve on Kauaʻi’s north shore is a collection of archeological remains and endemic species in a lush, garden-laden valley. Both self and guided tours are available.
- Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens in Kīlauea features a lagoon, tropical flowers, and more than 100 bronze statues. The competitive advantage here is the variety of themed tours, which explore different ecosystems of the park and vary in their activity level (short hikes, longer hikes, cart rides).
Volunteering as part of your vacation might seem counter-intuitive, but in Hawaiʻi, it can actually help you connect with locals and learn more about the way of life. Many volunteer programs in Hawaiʻi offer unique perks, such as access to an otherwise private area, in exchange for volunteering with a local organization.
The volunteerism page on the GoHawaiʻi website is a good place to start browsing opportunities n Kauaʻi, but we also maintain a page with volunteering opportunities on the Big Island.
Travel 2 Change
If you’re looking for a way to get involved and still have a good time, check out the offerings from Travel 2 Change. They work with organizations and companies around the islands to promote win-win tour opportunities, such as hikes combined with beach cleanups.
Kauaʻi’s steeply sloped mountains and abundance of rainfall lend themselves well to waterfalls. Some have been featured in movies, like Jurassic Park, and others remain humble in their beauty. No matter where you are on Kauaʻi, you’re never far from a waterfall.
Waterfalls differ in their size, ease of access, and swimming potential. Below are some recommendations of waterfalls to visit:
- Best for families/ease of access: Wailua Falls/ʻŌpaekaʻa Falls. Head to Kauaʻi’s east side and Wailua River State Park to check out two of the island’s most easily accessed, classic Hawaiian waterfalls.
- Most Adventurous: Looking for the most epic waterfall hike? Take the Kalalau Trail along the Nāpali Coast to Hanakapiʻai Falls (see image below).
- Best Contrast: Most waterfalls occur in rainforests and high mountain terrain. But Waipoʻo Falls in Waimea Canyon is a wonderful exception, cascading 800 feet down the red canyon walls.
Ziplining combines adventure, scenic beauty, and the chance to push your limits, no matter how young or old. Kauaʻi’s collection of ziplines are mostly half-day experiences and offer mountain and jungle views.For example, Outfitters Kauai is good for thrill-seekers that want to drop into a pool straight from the zipline, and the Kōloa zipline is a good choice for families.
You can read more of our recommendations in our overview of Kauaʻi Zipline Tours.
Land activities on Maui and Oʻahu
We have made similar overviews of the land activities on Oʻahu and Maui in which we list the respective highlights for the islands and give a few recommendations for tour operators. Make sure to check those out if your trip takes you to one of those islands: