Kaua‘i is made up of one giant extinct volcano. The island is located in the tropics at 22 degrees latitude, meaning that it receives direct overhead sunlight twice each year three weeks before and after the summer solstice. (No part of the mainland United States ever receives direct overhead sunshine due to its more northern location.) The island is 553 square miles, with 50 of its 113 miles of shoreline composed of sand beaches. Compared to the other Hawaiian Islands, Kaua‘i and O‘ahu have by far the highest proportion of sand beach shorelines. You might read in brochures about “white sand beaches.” Actually, they are golden sand beaches, unlike the truly white sand beaches found in other parts of the world. Kaua‘i is too old to have any volcanic black sand beaches since the creation of volcanic black sand ends when the lava flow stops. (Waimea’s black sand beach is from lava flecks chipped from riverbeds and from dirt.)
Kauai Map Attractions
Kauai North Shore
For the sake of clarity, we will identify the north shore as everything north of Kapa‘a. While this description includes Anahola (which some may consider east shore), it is easier to remember it this way, and anyone driving north of Kapa‘a is usually going to the north shore anyway. The main highway, which stretches around the island, occasionally changing its name, has mile markers every mile. These little green signs can be a big help in knowing where you are at any given time. Therefore, we have placed them on the maps represented as a number inside a small box. We will often describe a certain feature or unmarked road as being “0.4 miles past mile marker 16.” We hope this helps.
Everything is either on the mauka side of the highway (toward the mountains) or makai (toward the ocean). Since people get these confused, we’ll refer to them as mauka side and ocean side.
All beaches we mention are described in detail in the section on Beaches.
Driving north of Kapa‘a, you’ll see Kealia Beach on your right, just past mile marker 10. This is a popular boogie boarding beach. At this beach you can often see water spitting into the air from the collision of an incoming and outgoing wave, called clapotis for the trivia-minded. (Doesn’t that sound more like something a sailor might pick up while on shore leave?)
Next, comes the town of Anahola. This area is designated Hawaiian Homelands, meaning it is available to persons of Hawaiian descent. The spike-shaped mountain you see on the mauka side is Kalalea Mountain, also called King Kong’s Profile. As you drive north of Anahola, look back, and you will see the striking resemblance to King Kong.
There are several secluded beaches north of Anahola that require walks of various lengths, including Waiakalua Beach and Larsen’s Beach. In 2014 the founder of a fairly successful website reportedly paid $200 million for the land fronting Larsen’s so he could build a vacation home. We have it labeled on the map as Zuckerland.
The former plantation town of Kilaueais just past mile marker 23 and is accessible off Kolo Road. It is known for the Kilauea Lighthouse (808-828-1413). This is a postcard-perfect landmark perched on a bluff and represents the northernmost point of the main Hawaiian Islands. When it was built in 1913, it had the largest clamshell lens in existence and was used until the mid ’70s when it was replaced by a beacon.
The Highway past Hanalei was scheduled to open on May 1, 2019; however, that date has been pushed back to May 20th at least, after more than a year of repairs due to the April 2018 flooding. Unfortunately, only the highway is currently being repaired, not all the additional infrastructure damaged by the floods. As a result, the area is not ready to receive visitors just yet. A shuttle to Ha‘ena State Park at the end of the road won’t be available until some time in June and the parking lot there is not ready for cars yet. As a result, community leaders are asking that visitors refrain from coming into Ha‘ena until the rest of the repairs are complete. We will keep you updated.
Kauai East Shore
Kaua‘i’s east shore is where the majority of the population resides. The kings of yesteryear chose the Wailua River area to live, making it forever royal ground. All members of Kaua‘i royalty were born in this area. Kuamo‘o Road, designated as 580 on the maps, is also called the King’s Highway. In ancient times only the king could walk along the spine of this ridge. (Kuamo‘o means the lizard’s spine.)
In the extreme northern part of Kapa‘a is a delightful waterfall called Ho‘opi‘i Falls, which you can hike to.
While we are up the road off the main highway, there are several hikes in this area that provide excellent views. The Nounou Mountain Trail (also called the Sleeping Giant), the Kuilau Ridge Trail, the Jungle Hike and the Secret Tunnel to the North Shore are all located inland and all are worthy of consideration.
Lydgate Beach Parkis one of the safest places to swim on the island. It has a boulder-enclosed pond that allows water and fish in but keeps out the ocean’s force, though the water clarity is not very good due to some well-intentioned but harmful work done in 2011. See Beaches. There is even a keiki (kid) pond, which is shallower. Add to this showers, restrooms and two playgrounds, and you have a nice little park for a day at the beach for those who don’t want to expose themselves to the open ocean.
Coming from Kapa‘a and just before you enter Lihu‘e from Highway 56, you see Ma‘alo Road (583) on the mauka side. This leads to Wailua Falls. The state is so proud of this popular attraction they have devoted a whopping four parking spaces for cars and festooned the area with no parking signs, which seem to be universally ignored from what we’ve seen. In ancient times (and as recently as 2016, which you can see on YouTube), men would jump off the top of the falls to prove their manhood (which was often left on the rocks below). This test can be fatal. Government maps list the falls’ height at 80 feet.
East Shore Best Bets – Kauai Beaches
Best Beach Walk— Lydgate Beach Park to Kauai Beach Resort
Best Place to Let Little Ones Swim in the Ocean— Baby Beach
Best Uncrowded Beach—In Front of Wailua Golf Course
Best Boogie Boarding— Kealia Beach
Best Evening Stroll—Paved Beach Path between Kapa‘a Beach Park and Kealia
Best Place to Grab a Drink and Head to the Beach—Poolside Bar at Islander on the Beach
Kaua‘i’s interior is mountainous, with deeply eroded valleys and large plains around most of the coastal areas. Its rainfall is more varied than any place in the world. The northern and eastern parts of the island (called the windward side) receive the majority of the rain, with the southern and western sections (leeward side) considerably drier.
The sunny south shore… where rainfall is less frequent, and sunshine is abundant. Many people prefer the sunnier quality of the south shore to the lushness of the north shore. Fortunately, you can have it all.
For the sake of this discussion, we will consider the south shore as everything past Puhi to Kalaheo. Past Kalaheo, the character of the island changes again, and we will cover that in the West Shore Sights section.
Driving down Hwy 520 you come to the town of Koloa, sometimes called Old Koloa Town. This was the first sugar plantation town in all the islands when Kamehameha III leased the land to Ladd and Company in 1835. The town has much charm and is worth a stop. Perusing the historic plaques and taking in the sights can be done in an hour. Next to the Crazy Shirts store there is a marvelous monkeypod tree whose branches seem to meander forever.
Continuing to Po‘ipu on Hwy 520 and doglegging onto Po‘ipu Road, watch your speed. This is a notorious speed trap and sobriety checkpoint area, and the limit is 25 mph, slowing to 15 mph near the school. (The Koloa-Po‘ipu Bypass shown on the map is an even more effective speed trap because you are easily lulled into going over 40 mph.)
Past mile marker 4 as you approach Po‘ipu, the offshoot on the far side of the traffic circle instead takes you onto Lawai Road where you’ll come to Prince Kuhio Park. (Enter the park from the left side of the wall.) There you will find a monument to Prince Kuhio, the last royally designated heir to the Hawaiian throne. He went on to become a delegate to Congress until the early 1920s. In this park you will also find the Ho‘ai Heiau, impressive in its perfection and almost chiseled appearance. The entrance is toward the rear on the left side.
After Lawa‘i comes Kalaheo. There are a handful of good restaurants and shopping opportunities here (including some pretty good pizza). One of Kalaheo’s lesser known gems is the Kukuilono Park and Golf Course(see Golfing in the Activities section). This is the private course and garden donated by Walter McBryde to the people of Kaua‘i. If you want to try your hand at golf, this is the place to learn. The price is $10 per day (cash only). The small Japanese garden located on the course was Mr. McBryde’s pride and joy. This is where he chose to be buried, near the 8th tee.
If the south shore is called the sunny south shore, western Kaua‘i should be called the very sunny west shore. That’s because rain is very scant indeed, and the temperature is 3 to 4 degrees hotter than most of the rest of the island. The first two things visitors notice on this side of the island are the relative aridity of the land and the red color of the soil. Trade winds coming from the northeast lose the bulk of their rain on Mount Wai‘ale‘ale, creating a rain shadow on the west side. Unless there are Kona winds (meaning from the south or west), you can pretty much be assured that it will be dry and sunny on the west side. The red dirt is especially vibrant because of the high iron content of our volcanic soil. This combined with lots of moisture and time has made the iron oxidize. The soil is literally rusty.
As you drive along the main highway leaving Kalaheo, you will come to the Hanapepe Valley Look-Out , described in the South Shore Sights section. After you go through ‘Ele‘ele (where many of the boat tours leave from), you come to Hanapepe. Called Kaua‘i’s “Biggest Little Town,” Hanapepe is but a shadow of its former self. It was founded by Chinese rice farmers in the mid to late 1800s. They were opium-smoking bachelors, and underground opium shops could be found there as recently as the 1930s. Hanapepe was the only non-plantation town on the island, and it gained a reputation as Kaua‘i’s wildest spot. In 1924 they had a riot that killed 16 Filipino workers and four police officers. This was a violent and flamboyant town that had as many bars as churches. It began to decline in the late ’70s. The 1982 opening of Kukui Grove Shopping Center in Lihu‘e marked the end of an era for Hanapepe’s business community.
If you drive through Fort Elizabeth and take the dirt road, you’ll come to the mouth of the Waimea River.This can be a beautiful area to linger and watch the interaction of the ocean with the river, especially when the river flow is low. The dark, rich sand separating the ocean from the river is saturated with water from the river. White waves sometimes gently lap up and down the sand without sinking in, creating a delicate show of contrasts. You’ll notice an olive green tint to the sand here. This is from a semi-precious gem called olivine, which the Waimea River tirelessly mines from its lava bed along with black flecks of lava, making the floor of the Waimea Canyon lower and lower in the process.
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