Kauai Is Home to Breathtaking Waterfalls, Lush Hiking Trails, and Landscapes You’ve Seen in the Movies

A verdant jewel towards the northwestern edge of the Hawaiian archipelago, Kauai is commonly known as the “Garden Isle.” It’s a well-earned moniker: nearly 97% of this rugged landscape remains undeveloped. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails hug pristine shorelines and moss-covered canyons. Cathedral-like spires of rock soar above the surf. Honeymooners can have Maui. This place is reserved for those in search of natural wonder. And with the reopening of the Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park earlier this year, there’s never been a better time to marvel at its majesty.

Kauai’s north shore was cut off to visitors after massive flooding wiped out parts of the roadway in April of 2018. It took 14 months of restoration to bring traffic back to Hāʻena State Park — gateway to the Kalalau Trail, Hawaii’s most famous hiking destination. The closure gave the local community an opportunity to better manage a delicate ecosystem that had become threatened in recent years.

“We were being inundated with two to three thousand visitors a day,” recalls Presley Wann, president of the Hui Maka'ainana O Makana, a nonprofit aimed at protecting the natural and cultural resources of the region. “Now you must plan visits to Ha’ena by making reservations on its website. There is a 900 person per day cap. And the feedback from both local residents and visitors has been overwhelmingly positive.”

YinYang/Getty Images
YinYang/Getty Images

The newly implemented North Shore Shuttle runs six times a day, bussing in tourists from the surrounding neighborhoods of Princeville and Waipa. Those who book two-three months in advance are rewarded with an experience that is far less hectic and far more sustainable than ever before. “We were seeing signs or degradation of our mountain trails, ocean resources, water quality, and parking impacts throughout Ha'ena community,” says Wann. After spearheading management initiatives on this part of the island, his organization was recently honored with the United Nation’s Equator Prize.

An 11-mile hike along the Napali coast is certain to elevate your heart rate. But you can also get a similar effect with Princeville Ranch Adventures. In addition to horseback riding and kayaking, the outfitter runs a 4x4 off-road tour. Guests take the wheel, speeding through tropical terrain to arrive at a backcountry zip line alongside a waterfall and swimming hole. The four hour experience includes a picnic lunch and starts at $169 per person. Expect to get muddy.

Life is hardly less exciting down on the South Shore, where cerulean waves invite all manner of watersport. At the Lodge at Kukui’ula in Kōloa, guests can now access adventure with a dedicated team of local guides. Huaka’i Outfitters is a recently launched program operating out of the luxury property’s oceanfront clubhouse. Here you can arrange everything from kayaking and snorkeling to mountain biking and beach cruising.

“We are fortunate to have a great team who live the lifestyle and can guide our guests in a way that is safe and enjoyable,” explains Mariko Lum, a professional stand-up paddleboarder who works Kukui’ula. “My favorite activity is our private hiking/mountain biking trail that loops around Aepohea reservoir and our organic farm. You can also SUP, kayak, or fish on the water. The place is one big playground.”

Regardless of the recreation you choose on the ground, you won’t want to leave Kauai without an adventure in the air. Because so little of the island is accessible by road (the main highway skirts just 3/4ths of its outer edges) an aerial view isn’t just a matter of simple sightseeing — it’s the only way you’ll ever encounter the garden isle’s sensationally lush interior. Head to Island Helicopters in Līhu’e to secure a seat in their $275-per-person Jurassic Falls Landing Adventure.

Utah-based Photographer Ryan Hou/Getty Images
Utah-based Photographer Ryan Hou/Getty Images

The one-and-a-half-hour-long circumnavigation of the island is broken up by a 25-minute pit stop at Manawaioipuna waterfalls. Piercing through dense jungle, the 400-foot cascade is instantly recognizable as the landing site to the theme park in the original “Jurassic Park” movie. Afterwards, the chopper climbs up and over mountain valleys on its way to a jaw-dropping Nāpali Coast climax.

“At the [heart] of our island is Mount Wai’ale’ale, the wettest spot on earth; yet just an hour away on the west side of the island is Waimea Canyon, a miniature look-a-like of the Grand Canyon,” describes Lum of the massive red-rocked chasm. “The thought of these two contrasting elements of Mother Nature — so distinct, yet so close — always overwhelms me with gratitude and reminds me of how special our island truly is. I was born and raised here, yet the huaka’is [journeys] and new discoveries never seem to stop.” Indeed, it could take a lifetime to traverse it all. The average vacation here last only a week, so choose your path wisely.