The ten places you must visit on Kauai

The ten places you must visit on Kauai

I’m lucky that I can regularly visit the beautiful Hawaiian island of Kauai and each time I visit, I try to obtain the best photos I can of the island. Kauai is not a very large island – you could drive around it in a day (although you will find the road doesn’t go all the way around!), and so the range of famous landmarks and beauty spots is more limited than you would find on a larger island. But the weather is always changing, the light varies by time of day, and there always seem to be other viewpoints I can take. Here are my top ten locations that you must visit and photograph if you are lucky enough to visit Kauai. Think of it as my top 10 instagrammable spots on an island full of them – Kauai!

If you are interested in a print of any of these images, just click on the image to be taken straight to my online store. You can get a print on metal, acrylic, canvas or just framed and also find it on many other products that would make great gifts for Christmas or Birthdays! You can see all my Kauai images via this link.

Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian chain of islands and so is rightly known as the Garden Island for its exuberant foliage and geology. It was not for nothing that both Jurassic Park and one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were filmed here – the whole island is magnificent. But where to start with the top 10? I decided not to rank them as I had already struggled to get this list down to ten and so I decided to instead describe them as if you were driving from the capital of Lihue which you will have landed. Of course you could theoretically do all the stops in 2 days, but you would miss the best light! Incidentally, I’ve found this to be the best guide to Kauai if you want to find all the spots that would have made my top 100! And don’t forget that you can always visit some of the local photographers to get ideas for locations as well – the gallery and store in Kapaa also runs photo tours that will efficiently get you to the best locations and provide guidance and advice on how best to shoot them. The last time I was there, they were also renting out lenses if you need that super-telephoto!

This map was made with Wanderlog, a travel planner on iOS and Android

We will start with the counter clockwise direction towards Hanalei and the north coast. After a nice drive of around 30 minutes from Lihue on Kihue Highway (route 56) you will find my first gem. It is just after the sign to the Na ‘Aina Kai Botanical Gardens (which is worth a visit if you have time and it is open). After going up a short hill, look to the left and this view opens up in front of you. It is one of those less well known views on the island – a panorama of the gorgeous landscape that was a key part of the Jurassic Park movie. You can imagine the dinosaurs roaming through this countryside!

Jurassic park landscape on the island of Kauai
Flowering trees frame view of the Na Pali mountains over fairy tale landscape of Kauai

This is best shot early in the morning, not long after sunrise, so you get the striking side lighting. It would also be nice to have some clouds – which is more normal on Kauai – but you can’t have everything. There is a great shot just to the right of this one with the trees and a small pond reflecting the sky. I parked in the small road on the right directly opposite the view.

While you are in this area, take a look on the right to see this magnificent acacia or koa tree. You need to step back as far as you can to get the full image – I used my camera vertically and took several shots rotating around to get the full spread of the leaves. You can then “stitch” them together in Lightroom or Photoshop to create the full panorama. Of course, your mobile phone will do this for you, as well!

Tree of life photograph with a large acacia tree encased in a beautiful rainbow. Available as a metal print in my store
Large wide acacia or koa tree on the road to Hanalei

My next easy to reach spot is the Lighthouse at Kilauea. The small town of Kilauea is lovely in itself and has a great small bistro and a bakery that sells its own bread and pizzas. Well worth the stop! The lighthouse is now a nature reserve for sea birds, but the view of the coast here is magnificent.

Panorama of cliffs housing bird sanctuary at Kilauea Lighthouse on north shore of Kauai

You can get great shots of seabirds circulating above the point and whales out at sea if you are lucky, so don’t forget your telephoto lens!

Not in my top ten, but as you are driving through Princeville, it is well worth stopping in three places – the overlook on the left gives a great panorama of the Hanalei Valley. Again, best early in the morning to get some definition in the hills facing you. You might be lucky to get one of the famous Kauai cockerels providing some local color!

Kauai cockerel on a fence in front of the overlook in Princeville of the Hanalei Valley
Wild cockerel stands overlooking the taro fields in the Hanalei valley from Princeville overlook in Kauai in Hawaiian islands

Then, about 2 minutes further is a view of Hanalei Bay on the right. Good for a broad view of where you are headed and sunsets can be great. You park by the side of the road on the corner. Then, at the bottom of the hill you cross the old Hanalei bridge and if you immediately turn left after it, you can get some striking shots of the taro leaves with the mountains behind. There is a similar view just as you are about to enter Hanalei itself – park at the Dolphin Center.

Taro fields in Hanalei valley with Na Pali mountains in the background
Panorama of Hanalei valley and taro fields at dawn near Princeville, Kauai, Hawaii

Back in 2018, there was a very heavy flood north of Hanalei which closed the road for many months. Although it is now open and you can drive all the way to Ke’e Beach you need to have a prebooked parking reservation at the State Park at that beach. I found that you needed to reserve this 30 days before the day you plan to go – so plan ahead and perhaps book several slots to make sure the weather cooperates! There is also a shuttle that you can take along that stretch of coast.

Hanalei is a place that I always come back to. Dawn here is to die for – the sun rises behind you when you are facing the ocean but as it rises it illuminates the distant mountains and there is a fantastic sense of peace on the large beach that is loved by surfers and boaters alike. I’ve got so many photos of Hanalei that it is hard to choose one, so here are two! Don’t forget to look for the unusual angles! You can read more about Hanalei and its pier in this story.

Long exposure blurred motion image of dawn over Hanalei pier in Kauai
Early morning walkers watch sunrise from Hanalei Pier with long exposure blurring the motion of the ocean waves
The under side of Hanalei Pier in Kauai
Long exposure blurs ocean and waves underneath Hanalei Pier in Hanalei, Kauai, Hawaii

I love this next gem early in the mornings. Lumaha’i Beach is just outside Hanalei and you park on a pullout on the right just before the beach and head down a forest path to reach the sand. This spot can change enormously from season to season and from day to day – one visit in May gave me these views of a calm and peaceful crescent shaped beach:

Calm tranquil peaceful day on the beach at Lumaha'i just north of Hanalei in Kauai
Rocks frame the turquoise ocean with surfer on board off Lumahai Beach in Kauai in Hawaiian islands

But a couple of days later it looked more like this:

Massive waves crash over the rocks on Lumaha'i beach in Kauai
Dramatic powerful waves crash over rocks on dangerous beach at Lumaha’i, Kauai, Hawaii

Be very, very careful if you ever think of going in the water here – it can be treacherous. Incidentally, for the film buffs, a famous scene from the film South Pacific was filmed partly on this beach.

Continuing north, the next must do spot is Tunnels Beach. Again, parking is difficult as you need to find a place in one of the narrow tracks leading from the main road to the beach. The guidebook I mentioned above gives specific details of the mile markers, but you will see the parking roads as you head north on the right.

Transparent waters on Tunnels beach in Kauai
Panoramic view down the sand at Tunnels Beach in summer on Hawaiian island of Kauai on North Shore

The combination of the crystal clear waters and the dramatic headland makes this a perfect vacation shot. I’ve also been here with my drone, and captured a very different view from up above the ocean. You can read more about Tunnels Beach here.

Aerial view over Tunnels beach on Kauai
Aerial panoramic image off the coast over Tunnels beach on Hawaiian island of Kauai with Na Pali mountains behind

Drive as far as you can travel in the north of the island, and you will reach Ke’e Beach. This is a gorgeous sunset shot as well as the start of the famed Kalalau trail along the Na Pali coast. This shot is best taken in the late winter as the sun sets further out to sea as the season changes to spring and summer. As I mentioned before you now need to reserve a parking time in this state park. Read more about Ke’e beach and the sunset opportunities in this story.

Sun setting over the receding headlands of the Na Pali coast from Ke’e Beach on north of Kauai, Hawaii

Even if you are there in the summer, it is a great place for the view along the Na Pali coast, and the waves here tend to create amazing shapes as they crash against the cliffs and each other. I’ve never managed to capture a fantastic shot, but with a long lens and a bit of luck, you could do it!

New day, new opportunities!! Going clockwise from Lihue on Kaumualii Highway (50) takes you to the next must-see spot. I didn’t mention Opaeka’a Falls on the first leg, because I find it a bit boring and difficult to take anything different than the standard overlook shot. But Wailua Falls on the right up route 583 are worth a visit. You park right by the falls and you have to sometimes reach a bit higher than normal to see the full extent of the waterfall. It is possible to climb down to the falls – I’ve never done it, and it is probably chained off, but check the guide book for more details.

Wailua Falls on the garden island of Kauai
Sun illuminates the twin falls of Wailua waterfall on Hawaiian island of Kauai

Driving onwards, you will pass Gaylord’s at Kilohana – a great place for lunch in the garden courtyard. Peaceful and a reminder of what life was like for the plantation owners early in the last century. Going further, you will see the road to Poipu and the famous Tree Tunnel on route 520. Not one of my top ten, but worth looking at! Here is a photo done as a digital oil painting. The light is probably best in the late afternoon, but getting in the middle of the road on what is quite a busy route to the beaches on the south coast is tricky!

Digital oil painting of the famous tree tunnel on the road to Koloa and Poipu on Kauai
Digital painting of famous mile long tree tunnel of Eucalyptus trees along Maluhia Road to Koloa Town, Kauai Hawaii. Later afternoon sunlight gives a very peaceful view of this tree covered road

As we drive along the south coast, you will normally be in much drier and warmer weather. There may be clouds over the mountains, but don’t worry – they come and go and add a lot to the grandeur of what is to come. Hanapepe is off on the right and has some interesting galleries and a swinging bridge, so you may as well rest your legs here. I always look in photography galleries on every trip. Someone who lives there can get the best light (usually) and so it gives me something to aspire to!

Aerial drone view of the wooden swinging bridge of Hanapepe over the river on Kauai

Once you reach Waimea you are almost there! Waimea Canyon can be accessed directly via route 550 in Waimea, but if you drive further there is an alternative route up and you can come down on the 550. Waimea Canyon has been described as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific and there are several formal overlooks on the drive north, as well as a number of roadside viewpoints. It is worth stopping at all of them as the light constantly changes. Early morning is interesting as you get the sunlight coming up the canyon from the ocean, but later in the afternoon is great as well. The late afternoon is best for the final stop on this road, so that might be the deciding factor. I’ve written a separate article about Waimea Canyon, here.

Waimea Canyon from a helicopter tour of Kauai
Aerial view of Waimea Canyon and landscape of hawaiian island of Kauai from helicopter flight

Continue further and there is a small shop and cafe before the road continues to rise towards its destination – the overlooks over the Kalalau Valley. There are two overlooks here – the Kalalau Overlook and the Pu’u O Kila Lookout. I think I prefer the second and you can hike from there to get different viewpoints of the valley 3000 feet below. You are probably only 10 miles from Hanalei here, but of course the mountain and swamp here is impenetrable. Mists and fog can roll into the valley and disappear just as quickly and the challenge is to get the right light for the composition you have in mind. Late afternoon and sunsets are great from here as the sun shines sideways up the valley, accentuating the folds in the mountainside.

Pu’u O Kila Lookout over the Kalalau valley on the Na Pali coastline of Kauai
High definition panorama over Kalalau Valley in Kauai, Hawaii

Well, that concludes the top 10 (or so) photo opportunities on Kauai. However, I’m not done! I wanted to mention two things that are worth doing – one is the open-door helicopter trip organized by Jack HarterIt isn’t cheap, but the helicopter only holds four people plus the pilot and everyone (except one poor person) has an open door to shoot from without any problems with reflections or windows getting in the way. I understand they choose the seating arrangement based on weight and the person in the front middle tends to be the smallest one of the group so pack on the pounds at some of the wonderful restaurants on the island. I strapped a GoPro to my leg for videos and my Sony A7R3 with a 16-35mm lens for my main images. The hour long tours run all day, but I think the afternoon is probably best because of the light on the Na Pali coast. Watch for the weather forecast to try to get a day with limited cloud cover although you will find the forecast changes regularly! I’ve written in more detail about this open-door helicopter tour here in this article.

Helicopter aerial view of the Na Pali coastline of Kauai
Aerial view of Na Pali coastline and landscape of hawaiian island of Kauai from helicopter flight

Finally, if you are there in the late spring and summer, you can take a boat trip down the Na Pali coast from Hanalei as I described in this article. I’ve also taken one from the south coast in the winter, but you spend forever just sailing along a relatively boring bit of coastline and then you don’t have time for the full experience of the dramatic parts of the island. I don’t know what it is like, but I did see a small boat leaving Hanalei this past January on a tour, so maybe there is an opportunity if you do go in the winter. Otherwise, I guess you will have to visit Hawaii and particularly Kauai more than once!

Na Pali coast of Kauai from sunset boat tour leaving Hanalei
Kalalau Beach at the end of the trail on Na Pali coastline in Kauai from sunset cruise

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. I’ve never visited any of the Hawaiian Islands, and it’s likely I never will. As such I greatly appreciate your tour of Kauai. You’ve provided a chance for me to visit this tropical paradise from the comfort of my own home. I find it interesting how “exotic” destinations often have features that reminds one of home. For example, I found the “Mile Long Tree Tunnel” very appealing. It is not unlike similar scenes here in the Carolinas. Of course our tree tunnels are made of Live Oak rather than Eucalyptus trees. Thanks for sharing Kauai. I enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks Bob for your kind comments! I will be visiting your blog soon and hope to be transported to your locations! I’m intrigued with the striking forest images in this blog post. Perhaps this will have to be the first one I read!

  2. You captured Kauai beautifully. I used to live there, in fact one of our kids was born there. I know all of these sights well except never saw Kauai from a helicopter. Actually going next month to visit family and will have camera in hand. I have climbed down to the bottom of the falls and did it at night. We were crawfishing and it needs to be dark so you can see their glowing eyes reflecting back. So much fun. Beautiful Kauai photography.

    1. Living there must be a dream, although we decided that it was just too far from anywhere to make it a good idea in our case. We really enjoy our visits and every time I come back with new and interesting takes on those same scenes. The last time I captured some nice colorful images of Queens Bath on a calm day – I know this is a pretty dangerous place to visit, but I am always careful… Here is one of the ones from my most recent visit:

      Enjoy yourself on your visit there – I’m jealous. Although we do have a visit to Oahu planned for January!

  3. I have never been to the Hawaiian islands but hope someday to go! You’re photos and descriptions are beautiful and inspiring! It is wonderful of you to share your insights and special locations on the island of Kauai.

    1. Thanks Sharon – it is a beautiful place to visit, but even better for photographers!

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