Kauai is full of postcard-perfect vistas, so you don’t really have to go out of your way to fill your feed with stunning images. But if you want to capture a scene that’s a little different on this Hawaiian island, catch a sunset from a different angle, take in the famed Na Pali cliffs without a day-long hike, or just glimpse a side of the island most travelers don’t see, there are some straightforward ways to do just that. Some are a short drive away or a pleasant walk — but none demand a grueling trek.
1. Waimea Canyon views
It’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon on Kauai’s west side and you decide to drive up Highway 550 from the coastal town of Waimea to the Waimea Canyon Lookout at 3,400 feet above sea level. But when you get to the parking lot, you find it’s packed with cars, and when you walk the steps up to the lookout, you realize all you can see is white. The 10-mile-long cleft of red earth that’s been dubbed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific is completely obscured by fog.
Next time, stop on the way up, just a couple of miles shy of your destination, and you’ll already be able to see the rust- and green-hued gorge, as you’ll be below the fog line. If you stop a little before that — at the Iliau Nature Loop, accessible right off the highway — you can take a short walk to get views of the canyon most don’t see. Oh, and another tip: if you do want to go to the actual Waimea Canyon Lookout after that, go in the morning; that’s usually before the fog rolls in.
2. Na Pali lookouts
Conventional wisdom has it that to see the weirdly serrated, emerald cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, you need to either paddle on a canoe or climb into a helicopter. The other known option is to get a permit and hike the sometimes treacherous 11-mile Kalalau Trail from Ke’e Beach up north — since, after all, no roads actually reach the famed escarpments. In fact, on your same journey to Waimea Canyon on Highway 550, you can continue northward past the canyon, almost to the end of the road. You’ll park in a lot right near the Kokee Park Geophysical Observatory. With your back to the observatory, walk towards the Kalalau Valley Lookout for spectacular views of the cliffs and the ocean beyond them. You may even catch a picture with tropical flora in the foreground.
Right here, you are also at the trailhead for the Kalepa Ridge path, so feel free to walk a little farther in for yet more views. Two other options include stopping earlier at the trail to the Another option is to drive a little farther to the Pu’u O Kila Lookout, where you’ll get views straight across Kalalau Valley, a stunning dale flanked by the Na Pali cliffs. Be sure to go in the morning for clear views.
3. Hanalei Valley vistas
Many people think you can only take in the view of Hanalei Valley from the car as you are winding down the twisty road off the Princeville bluff and towards the valley. In fact, there are some other ways to see it. A simple option is while you are descending into the valley, as you take the big 300-degree left-hand turn, to pull out to your right at a lookout point. We recommend continuing on and crossing the one-lane bridge down below and then immediately heading left onto Okolehao Road. Drive to the end of the road and take a short walk on the Okolehao Trail. This will give you much more dramatic views of the Hanalei Valley, with its taro fields and fruit trees, and the Hanalei Bay just beyond it.
4. Princeville sunset evenings
On the north shore of the island, many people rush down to the area near Hanalei Pier at sunset. It’s certainly a festive scene, especially on weekend nights for local teens, so by all means, check it out. But if you want sunset views most don’t see, then get yourself to Princeville and take the short hike down the Queen’s Bath trail at sunset. If the trail seems too daunting, or you don’t have time to clamber down to the beach before the sun dips below the horizon, keep driving on Ha Haku Road towards the St. Regis. After passing a set of condos located directly across from each other, you’ll see a patch of green on your right. This is before the parking lot to Hideaways, one of Kauai’s many little-known beaches. It’s the perfect spot to catch the sun dipping below the horizon — or, in summer months, dropping behind the peaks in the distance.
5. Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail scenes
The Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail is in fact a walk, but it’s generally flat and always freshened by ocean breezes. You can drive to Shipwreck Beach and find the trail to your left. You’ll walk up high, on the red earth of the Makawehi Bluffs and the trails and dusty sand-hued paths just above the sea, catching a side of the island not served by paved roads. Even though you are close to Poipu, a condo-dotted and sunny corner of Kauai, this protected area is free of development. Walk all the way to Punahoa Point and you can look across to Gillin’s Beach, another one of Kauai’s lesser-known beaches. If you want to continue to the Makauwahi Cave Reserve, you’ll see an area dedicated to native plant restoration.
6. Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge perspectives
The Kilauea Lighthouse is on the northernmost point of the island and is understandably a popular destination. And while it’s worth a visit, take a moment to stop before the ticket office to the lighthouse. You’re in the Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge, where you’ll likely to see Hawaii’s state bird, the nene, and several other native bird species. Take a photograph of the scene with the lighthouse, the point, and the ocean. Only then should you work your way to the lighthouse. Make sure you keep your eyes focused on the water, as this is a top spot for dolphin and whale sighting.
7. Kalalea Beach Trail overlook
Homes in the Anahola area are reserved for those of Hawaiian descent, and it’s important to be respectful of those who live here. Don’t, for example, go surf at Anahola Beach — unless you are there as the guest of a Hawaiian local and you are a damn good surfer to boot. But if you do want to get some fresh air and see this side of the island, the Kalalea Beach Trail can be accessed from the Kuhio Highway. From the trailhead, you can get vistas from up high of windy, wild Papa’a Beach. After the hike and photo taking, stop at the locally owned Kalalea Juice Hale just off the highway. The little orange building tucked into the foliage serves up some excellent juices and açai bowls.