Adventurous (and Laid Back) Things to Do on the Lush North Shore of Kauai

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Rugged cliffs, pristine beaches, towering mountains and untouched wilderness span the beautiful island of Kaua’i. Unlike its more commercialized neighbors, including Maui, the Big Island, and Oahu, Kauai is the wildest of the Hawaiian islands, especially on its North Shore. Also known as the “Garden Island,” Kauai encompasses 533 square miles, much of which is covered in lush jungle.

From snorkeling alongside dolphins to chasing waterfalls, this island is a playground for adventure-seekers and nature lovers. The island’s North Shore is particularly popular among outdoor enthusiasts. Let the adventure begin with these top things to do on the North Shore of Kauai.

1. Visit Tunnels Beach

Experience Hawaii’s most photographed beach for yourself. Tunnels Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches on the island. It is surrounded by verdant mountains and peppered with palm trees. The beach is also a popular snorkeling spot due to the coral reef that sits just beyond the shore. You may even spot sea turtles while snorkeling here.

There is a surf break just beyond the reef for any confident surfers. There is parking at this beach but it tends to fill up, so you may have better luck parking at the adjacent Haena Beach Park.

2. Explore Hanalei town

Hanalei Town is a laid-back beach town backed by lush mountains and taro fields. The town sits along Hanalei Bay, a sandy, crescent-shaped bay where beach-goers sunbathe, stand-up paddleboard, surf, or snorkel. For some spectacular views, walk out along the Hanalei Pier.

The town itself is home to art galleries, surf shops, restaurants, and bars. Spend an afternoon window shopping and fuel up with an acai bowl or poke. Dive into Hanalei history at the Waiʻoli Huiʻia Church and Mission House, built in 1834.

3. Visit Limahuli Garden and Preserve

Kauai’s natural beauty is on full display at the Limahuli Garden and Preserve. This is one of five National Tropical Botanical Gardens on the island. The garden spans 17 acres and protects endangered native plants and archeological sites. It sits within a forested valley, laced with pristine streams. Many of the plants here can’t be found anywhere else in the world.

The garden is also a great place to learn about native culture. The garden’s taro garden and terrace system provide a glimpse at how native Hawaiians cultivated the land. You can explore the gardens via a guided or self-guided tour.

4. Hike the Kalalau Trail

For an unforgettable outdoor adventure, hike the Kalalau Trail. This 11-mile backpacking trail connects Ke’e Beach and Kalalau Beach along the Nāpali Coast. The trail passes through five valleys while boasting stunning ocean views. Along the way, you’ll see stunning sea cliffs, waterfalls, sea caves, and lots of lush jungle.

This hike is intense and is intended only for experienced hikers. The entire trip takes at least two full days, and it ends at the secluded Kalalau Beach, where you’ll camp for the night. If you have several days, you can explore more of the valley while staying at the campground. You can also just do a portion of the trail and return within the same day.

To access the full Kalalau Trail, you’ll need a permit, which can be booked through camping.ehawaii.gov. Make sure you start early and pack enough food and water.

Before you go, read our guide for women backpackers so you’ll have everything you need.

5. Visit the Waimea Canyon State Park

This impressive state park is home to a 14-mile canyon that cuts across the jungle. Also known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” this colorful canyon is known for its steep cliffs, red rocks, waterfalls, rainbows, and lush greenery.

If you’re up for a hike, explore one of the park’s many trails. Hiking trails vary in length and intensity while passing by waterfalls, swamps, native forests, and beautiful hideaways. There are also several scenic drives and lots of lookout points with epic views.

6. Relax at Anini Beach

If you need a break from hiking and adventuring, spend an afternoon lounging at Anini Beach. This Kauai beach is semi-secluded and attracts snorkelers, windsurfers, swimmers, and sunbathers. The beach is rarely crowded and there are plenty of trees that provide shade.

Amenities include restrooms, showers, and picnic tables. The beach is quite family-friendly, as the water is usually pretty calm, but there are no lifeguards so keep an eye out if your kids aren’t confident swimmers. There’s also a parking lot close to the beach. If you get hungry, head to the nearby Princeville Shopping Center.

7. Visit the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge

The Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for Hawaiian seabirds and other Kauai wildlife. Located on sandy cliffs overlooking the ocean, this refuge is marked by its tall lighthouse. The Kilauea lighthouse was built in 1913 and is on the list of National Historic Places. It’s also a great photo op.

After checking out the lighthouse, explore the rest of the grounds and keep your eyes peeled for Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles, and Humpback whales, which dwell just off the coast.

8. Cool off at Queen’s Bath

Located in Princeville,Queen’s Bath is a natural tidepool made of lava rock. The tidepool is about the size of a swimming pool and is home to some small fish. Sea turtles are also often spotted on the rocks surrounding the pool.

To reach the pool, you’ll have to walk a short distance from the parking lot. Albeit short, the path to the pool can be very slippery. This is especially true in the winter when powerful waves wash onto the rocks. More than a dozen people have drowned here after being pulled into the water, so be sure to check the surf report before planning a visit to Queen’s Bath.

9. Visit Haena State Park

Beaches, sea caves, taro fields, cliffs, lush forests, and archeological sites are all packed into this beautiful Hawaiian state park. Spanning 6,175 acres, the park is laced with hiking trails that boast stunning scenery and lead to secluded beaches, perfect for swimming in the summer months.

Haena State Park is also the trailhead to the Kalalau Trail if you’re up for a longer hike. There are campgrounds in the park, for those planning to spend the night. You can access the park either by driving or by taking a shuttle. If you do drive, be sure to make a reservation in advance, as there are only 70 slots per day.

10. Plan a Day Trip to Poipu Beach

Poipu Beach is not on the North Shore, but if you’re planning a day trip to the other side of the island, Poipu Beach is certainly worth a visit. This is one of the best beaches on the island, and it’s easy to see why. The beach consists of three golden crescents with shallow swimming areas.

The beach also lends itself to a variety of outdoor activities, including surfing, boogie boarding, and snorkeling. It can also be a great spot for wildlife viewing. Green sea turtles are frequently spotted on the sand and humpback whales can be seen in the distance between December through April.

There is a parking lot and lifeguards patrol the water seven days a week. There are bars and restaurants just a short distance from the sand.

11. Hike to Hanakapi’ai Falls

If you’re an avid hiker, Hanakapiai Falls Trail needs to be on your Kauai itinerary. To get there, you’ll have to hike for about two miles from Hanakapi’ai Beach. Keep in mind that getting to Hanakapi’ai Beach is already a 4-mile round-trip hike.

While many hikers stop at the beach, Hanakapiai Falls is certainly worth the additional hike. This waterfall is 300 feet tall and cuts through a lush cliffside. The elevation gain is 760 feet, so the hike is quite strenuous.

12. Kayak the Wailua River

The beautiful Wailua River stretches for 20 miles and is a great way to enjoy the island’s nature. The water is calm and there are no rapids, making it an easy river to paddle down.

There are several Kauai tours that organize guided trips down the river, but you’re also welcome to rent a kayak and paddle independently. Along the way, you’ll pass through the Wailua River State Park and enjoy beautiful rainforest views. If you’re willing to pair the kayak trip with a hike, you can get to Secret Falls, a breathtaking 120­-foot-tall waterfall.

13. Enjoy a Day at Sea

The largely untouched Napali Coast can be tricky to see, especially if you’re not a very strong hiker. Luckily, there are dozens of boat tours that show off this part of the island. Vessels range from large catamarans to sailboats to small ocean rafts.

While some tours offer a tour of the island’s sea caves, others boast an open bar or opportunities for snorkeling. Click here to browse the Kauai’s many boat tours and decide which is right for you.

Adina Keeling is a freelance travel writer from San Diego, CA. She worked in local news for a year until her wanderlust drew her to Costa Rica, where she is now based while freelancing and traveling the world. She has lived in three different countries and traveled to 27. An avid solo traveler, Adina wants to empower other women to safely travel alone.
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