Driving Tour of Kauai's North Shore

Tunnels beach and bali hai point on the north shore of Kauai, Hawaii, usa. resort destination

M Swiet Productions / Getty Images 

No visit to Kauai would be complete without a drive along Kauai's North Shore. Guidebooks differ about where the North Shore of Kauai actually begins. Some maintain that anything north of the town of Kapaa is part of the North Shore. Some say it begins in Anahola and some, based strictly on geography, insist it begins in the Kilauea.

This article begins the journey in Anahola and proceeds through Kilauea to Princeville. From Princeville, we'll drive down the bluff to the town of Hanalei and then along the coastal road all the way to Ke'e Beach in Haena State Park.

Along the way, you'll see some of the real hidden gems of the North Shore of Kauai. This is a long road trip that includes many stops. The smart money is on stopping for the night at one or more of the places discussed here or at another lodging you choose.

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View of Kalalea Mountain

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Driving north from Kapaa on Highway 56, you'll enter the Anahola area of Kauai. If you don't see a town center, it's because there really isn't one. Much of the land has been designated for those of Hawaiian descent. As you pass mile marker 14, glance at the mountain to your left. This is Kalalea Mountain. The second peak from the left was once referred to by Hawaiians as Mano (Shark) Mountain since it resembled the fin of a shark. More recently it has been referred to as King Kong's Profile because it also resembles the head of the great ape featured in the 1976 remake of "King Kong," which was partially filmed on Kauai. This peak was also featured in the opening credits of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." 

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Na Aina Kai Botanical Garden

Greenhouse in Na Aina Kai Botanical Garden

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Just past the 21 mile-marker on Highway 56, take the first right turn onto Wailapa Road. At the end of the half-mile road, enter through our iron gate and park next to the Orchid House Visitor Center of Na Aina Kai (Lands by the Sea) Botanical Garden.

Garden founders Joyce and Ed Doty returned to Kauai from their ranch in Northern California in 1982. What was begun as a landscape project has grown to 240 acres that have been developed into a myriad of diverse gardens, complete with one of the largest collections of bronze sculpture in the United States? 

Na Aina Kai's include a hedge maze, waterfall, koi-filled lagoon, forest of 60,000 hardwood trees, miles of trails, and a beautiful secluded white sand beach. 

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Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge

Kilauea Point

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

The entrance to Kilauea is just past the 23-mile marker on Kolo Road. 

Kilauea was once a major plantation town on Kauai. The Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, just down the road from the town, is a must-see. The centerpiece of the refuge is the historic Kilauea Lighthouse, built in 1913 and in operation until 1976 when it was replaced by an automatic beacon.

Managed since 1985 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ocean cliffs and open grassy slopes of an extinct volcano provide breeding grounds for native Hawaiian seabirds and nene, the endangered Hawaiian goose.

At Kilauea Point, you might see red-footed boobies, Laysan albatrosses, wedge-tailed shearwaters, and other seabirds in their natural habitat. The National Marine Sanctuary waters surrounding the refuge are home to Hawaiian monk seals, green turtles, and, in winter, humpback whales.

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Secret Beach

Secret Beach

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre 

The next stop is Kauapea Beach, better known as Secret Beach. To get to the beach from Kilauea, make a right turn onto the first road marked Kalihiwai Road. Look for the unmarked, unpaved road on the right, just a short distance from the highway. Drive toward the end of the dirt road and park along the side where space is available. Walk down toward the home at the end of the road and look for the trailhead to the left.

The trail leads to the western end of Secret Beach. It's relatively short but steep in parts and often slippery, and the hike back up the path from the beach can be very strenuous.

Secret Beach is best known for two reasons. The song "I'm as Corny as Kansas in August" in the film version of "South Pacific" was filmed. It also is known as one of Kauai's clothing optional or nude beaches. It's rare but not impossible to find nude bathers on the beach. 

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Anini Beach

Anini Beach

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

The next stop along Kauai's North Shore is Anini Beach. Heading west on Highway 56, cross over the Kalihiwai Bridge and then make a right turn on Kalihiwai Road. A short drive down Kalihiwai Road takes you to a fork in the road. Bear left on Anini Road and you will quickly find yourself on the coast.

This two-mile coastline is one of the most beautiful on Kauai, and the views are stunning. Offshore is the longest continuous reef on Kauai, which makes this area of the coast one of the safest for summer swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, spearfishing, kitesurfing, and windsurfing. The bottom near the shore is sandy, which makes it perfect for children. In winter these waters can become extremely dangerous with a strong rip current.

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Shopping center in Princeville

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Back on Highway 56, past the 27-mile marker, you'll come to Princeville. Princeville is a planned resort and residential community that sits on about 11,000 acres on a promontory between Anini Beach and Hanalei Bay. It's the location of many condominium and vacation ownership resorts, single-family homes, a number of restaurants, a shopping center, the last gas station on the North Shore, two championship golf courses, and the St. Regis Princeville Resort. The resort opened in October 2009 after a multi-million dollar renovation at the site of the former Princeville Resort. The lobby bar and terrace offer up some of the best views in Hawaii. It's a great place to have a cocktail and enjoy the sunset.

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Hanalei Valley Overlook

Hanalei Valley Overlook

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

A short distance down the highway on the left is the Hanalei Valley Overlook, immediately past the Princeville Center. Make sure that your tank is full before you head down into the valley since there are no gas stations beyond this point.

The overlook is a must stop, especially on a clear day. From the overlook, you'll get a fantastic view of the valley below with its taro fields bisected by the Hanalei River. If the foliage on the hillside has been cut back, you might even see the famous one-lane bridge that you'll soon cross as you enter the valley.

The Hanalei River was designated an American Heritage River by President Bill Clinton on July 30, 1998, one of only 14 rivers nationwide that received this classification.

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Hanalei Pier and Hanalei Bay

Hanalei Bay

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre 

As you drive down into the valley you'll notice that the road is now called Highway 560 and the mile markers have started over again. Mile marker 1 comes before you reach the bridge over the Hanalei River.

After crossing the bridge. you'll drive west past taro fields on your left and the river on your right. Soon you'll enter Hanalei Town. Before you get to the town, take a right on Aku Road right after the Tahiti Nui Restaurant and Cocktail Bar and then another right when Aku Road dead ends into Weke Road. This will take you to Hanalei Pier and Bay.

On the right, you'll pass a beautiful home set amid a large, grassy lawn. This is the former Wilcox Estate, used in the filming of the TV mini-series "The Thorn Birds." A bit further down the road, you'll come to the parking area for Hanalei Pier and Black Pot Park.

Hanalei Pier itself has been used in numerous films, but it and the adjoining beach will forever be associated with one motion picture, Rogers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific."

The beach on either side of the pier was the main filming location for most of the beach scenes involving the sailors led by Luther Billis, played by Ray Walston. It was here that Juanita Hall as Bloody Mary, with voice dubbed by Mary Martin, sang the song about the mysterious island Bali Hai.

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Hanalei Town

Hanalei Town

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Back on the highway, you'll soon find yourself in the business district of Hanalei Town. Hanalei Town is part surfer town, part vacation home to the rich and famous, part New Age, part old Hawaii, and part the hippie culture of the 1960s. Nowhere on Kauai will you see such an interesting group of locals intermixing with visitors on a daily basis.

You can walk the length of town in about half an hour, but it will take you a lot longer to explore all that the town has to offer.

In Hanalei, you'll find a wide assortment of restaurants for almost every taste and price range, from burgers and pizza to seafood and Polynesian cuisine.

Hanalei also has some great shopping. The most interesting stop is at historic Ching Young Village, which offers several unusual shops. 

If there has been raining recently be sure to look at the mountains that form the backdrop of the town. Namolokama Mountain is said to have up to 23 waterfalls, which can be seen from town after a heavy rain.

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Lumahai Beach

Lumaha'i Beach

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

The way out of Hanalei takes you around the far end of Hanalei Bay and up the cliff. Just past the 4-mile marker, you'll likely see cars parked along the side of the road. These belong to folks who have decided to take the short hike 150 feet down to one of Kauai's most beautiful beaches, Lumahai Beach. This beach is not for swimming. The surf is dangerous, especially in winter, and strong currents and undertow are present year-round. The eastern end of the beach, reached via the path from the cliff, is the most stunning, especially when waves are crashing against the rocks that extend from the far eastern point of the beach.

This beach also was in the movie "South Pacific" and bears the nickname of "nurses' beach" because this is where Ensign Nellie Forbush, played by Mitzi Gaynor, "wash(ed) that man right out of my hair."

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Other North Shore Beaches

Tunnels Beach

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Continuing west from Lumahai Beach, you're in for more beautiful North Shore beaches: Wainiha, Kepuhi, and Tunnels.

Kepuhi Beach is home to the only resort west of Princeville, the Hanalei Colony Resort and is a great place to stop and eat. The resort has a good restaurant that is open for lunch and dinner called Mediterranean Gourmet and a gallery/coffee shop called the Napali Art Gallery & Coffee Shop if you'd like a lighter meal.

Tunnels Beach, aka Makua Beach, is one of the best places to snorkel in Hawaii. But parking for this beach is very difficult. Tunnels Beach is connected to the next beach to its west, Haena Beach. It's directly opposite the Maniniholo Dry Cave on the left side of the road. Haena Beach has a park with restrooms, showers, and picnic tables, and a large parking lot. There is no reef protecting Haena Beach, so the surf can be dangerous, with powerful shore breaks and rip currents.

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Limahuli Garden

couple on a bench at Limahuli Gardens

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

Past Haena Beach, look for the entrance sign to Limahuli Garden on your left. Park at the visitors center. Limahuli Garden is part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, which is dedicated to discovering, saving, and studying the world's tropical plants and sharing what is learned.

Limahuli Garden and Preserve is in the Lawai Valley. The garden is back-dropped by the majestic Makana Mountain and overlooks the Pacific Ocean. In Hawaiian, the name "Limahuli" means "turning hands," which recognizes the ancient Hawaiians who built agricultural terraces out of lava rock and planted cultivars of kalo (taro), an important cultural food crop.

The plant collections at Limahuli Garden focus on the beauty of plants that are native to Hawaii and/or culturally significant to Hawaiians. They include endemic Hawaiian species, plants introduced by the early Polynesian voyagers, as well as culturally important plants that were introduced during the plantation era starting in the mid-1800s.

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Haena State Park

Haena State Park

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

As you leave Limahuli Garden, the road dips down and you'll drive across a small stream. You have reached the end of your journey and the end of the road at the 230-acre Haena State Park.

Haena State Park is one of Kauai's most popular parks for both locals and visitors. Near the overflow parking lot is a jungle that includes Taylor Camp, a "clothing-optional, pot-friendly tree house village," which sat on land owned by actress Elizabeth Taylor's brother, Howard, from 1969 to 1977. The tree houses and village are long gone, but telltale signs of it can still be seen throughout the jungle. When you emerge from the jungle you will find yourself on the beach, an especially beautiful place at sunrise. 

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Kee Beach and the Kalalau Trail

Ke'e Beach

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

Haena State Park is best known for two things: Kee Beach and the start of the Kalalau Trail.

Kee Beach is a busy, lifeguard protected beach that is a favorite for family gatherings, shore fishing, snorkeling, and swimming in the summer because of its reef-protected lagoon. In the winter the surf picks up, and high waves and unpredictable currents make this an often dangerous spot for water activities.

The area surrounding the beach is a lush, dense tropical rainforest with numerous ironwood trees, coconut palms, ti plants, and guava trees. On a clear day, the beach offers stunning views of the Na Pali Coast.

While the beach is most popular with local residents, the end of the road for many visitors marks the beginning of a hike on the Kalalau Trail.

The Kalalau Trail provides the only land access to the Na Pali Coast from Haena to the Kalalau Valley. The trail, which begins at Kee Beach with an initially steep, and often slippery, rocky incline, crosses five major valleys before ending at Kalalau Beach.

The hike can be challenging and often slippery and dangerous, especially for those who decide to proceed past Hanakapi'ai Beach. A special-use permit is required to hike past Hanakapiai, and camping permits are required for Hanakoa and Kalalau valleys.

Hiking at a steady pace, Hanakapiai can be reached in about two hours. After crossing the Hanakapiai Stream, you can proceed inland and hike another 1.8 miles up-valley to the 300-foot Hanakapiai Falls if ​you have the energy.