You know the drill: emerald valleys, cascading waterfalls, and warm, turquoise water. Oregon’s rainy season may seem interminable, but on Kauai, it’s pretty much always 75 degrees and sunny. More than an excuse to drink piña coladas at a luau, Kauai’s relatively untamed climes are ripe for exploration, with secret beaches, desert canyons, and dramatic rainforests just a hop, skip, and a jump away (flights from PDX to LIH start at $559 on kayak.com). It’s all about how you get there.
For the Budget Explorer:
Backpack the Kalalau Trail
This rugged, 11-mile (one way) hike to one of the world’s most coveted, secluded beaches snakes along the legendary Na Pali coastline, undulating between deep, bird-filled jungles and breathtaking ocean overlooks. It’s a strenuous, occasionally harrowing trail, but anyone in reasonably good shape and with a strong sense of adventure will have no trouble completing the hike.
Good to Know:
- Permits are required for anyone camping along the Na Pali coast. We didn’t see a single ranger passed the two-mile mark, but better play it safe. Permits are available online.
- Because of its isolated location and livable conditions (it is paradise, after all), Kalalau Beach attracts a colorful assortment of characters, from free-loving nudists to Vietnam-vet lifers. Be prepared for local flavor.
- If you plan your visit during the winter season (Dec–May), keep your eyes peeled for Humpback Whales, which navigate the Na Pali Coast every year to breed, calve, and nurse their young.
Day Hike into Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon, carved into Koke’e State Park, was described by Mark Twain as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” (although, truth be told, he had never visited). That’s not an exaggeration. Up to 3,600 feet deep and 14-miles long, Waimea’s landscape of orange-hued rock formations, desert shrubs, and cool, gusty wind feels more like Utah than Kauai. Take the Kukui trail (5 miles round-trip) and descend to the bottom of the canyon, passing unforgettable views and reliably prolific rainbows.
Good to Know:
- This is a very customizable trail; you can opt for the shorter quarter-mile loop or continue on upriver another 3.5 miles for overnight camping (permit required).
- Pig hunters frequent this lesser-known trail, so be sure to wear bright colors when hiking in the area.
Snorkel Tunnels Beach
Widely regarded as the best snorkeling beach on Kauai, Tunnels offers a cavernous underwater wonderland of craggy lava tubes, lurking reef sharks, and plenty of sea turtles.
Good to Know:
- During the winter months, Tunnels (and the North Shore in general) is too turbulent for snorkeling. Your best bet is Po’ipu Beach Park or Koloa Landing, both on the South Shore.
For the Extravagant Thrill-Seeker:
Take a Boat Cruise Along the Na Pali Coast
While the Kalalua Trail offers amazing views of the cliffs above, the only way to see the full, awesome splendor of Na Pali Coast is by sea or by air. A number of companies offer boat tours, which sail along the spectacular, soaring cliffs. Leaving early, the boats often attract pods of racing spinner dolphins, encounter sea turtles and endangered Hawaiian Monk seals, and generally include a snorkeling stop. We recommend Captain Andy's Star boats, which are the newest available and offer BBQ lunch. $159 at napali.com
Good to Know:
- In the summer, boats leave from both the North Coast and the South. Since the North Coast voyages having less distance to travel, you get more time to take in the cliffs and investigate some of the caves beneath them. In the winter, all the large boats leave from the south shore. The reward for the extra traveling time is the opportunity to see whales all around you.
Take a Helicopter Tour
It might be one of the most expensive hours of your life, but it will also be one of the most thrilling. A helicoptor tour is the only way to see the entire island. You'll see unreachable sites like Mana Waiapuna (the falls made famous by Jurassic Park), wind up Waimea Canyon, hug the cliff faces and explore the hidden valleys of Na Pali, and if you're lucky, cruise over pods of whales. $249 at sunshinehelicopters.com
Dive under Ni’ihau
Off the shores of Ni’ihau (the “Forbidden Island,” 17 miles Southwest of Kauai) you’ll find some of the best diving in the country: crystal-clear waters filled with gigantic sea arches, endangered Hawaiian Monk seals and dolphins. The only catch? You need to be dive-certified to access this challenging marine playground—though there are plenty of other great dives on Kauai for first-timers. $350 at fathomfive.com