I only have one day on Kauai. What should I see?

Kalalau Valley
Kalalau Valley

I’m kicking off this new series of one day island itineraries with a visit to Kauai. If I only had one day to visit Kauai, I would focus my time on seeing the Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Parks.  These colorful parks are adjacent to each other, so it’s easy to see both in one day and they are completely free to visit.  Baring any weather issue, you’ll end up with many beautiful photo opportunities and views that will almost take your breath away. The photo above shows the Kalalau Valley that you can see from the Kalalau Lookout and Puu o Kila Lookouts at Kokee State Park. So, let’s take a practical look at how we can see these excellent parks in one day.

waimea canyon go visit hawaii
Waimea Canyon

Arrival and arranging transportation:

First, you’ll most likely arrive in Kauai at the Nawiliwili Harbor or at the main airport in Lihue. You can pick up a rental car and/or shuttle service to the rental companies. (I suggest you shop around for rates and make a reservation before you arrive. See our Hawaii rental car tips.) Be sure to grab a free map provided by the rental car company and use it to navigate your way to the southwest side of the island heading in the direction of Highway 550, Waimea Canyon Drive. If you don’t want to do the driving, you can easily find tour companies who can arrange a full service tour for you.

Considerations before you get to the parks:

  • New as of 2019 – entry fees are required at Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Parks for visitors. Check this page for current fees and advisories.
  • You’d be wise to bring along a sweater or other types of layers as the higher altitude means about 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler in these two parks as compared to Lihue where you came in on the ship or at the main airport.
  • We recommend wearing sneakers for short hikes and some uneven surfaces.
  • Sunscreen and possibly a hat are important to wear.
  • There is only one restaurant in the park.  It’s located at the Kokee Lodge and it serves breakfast and lunch, so plan accordingly. There are restaurants and grocery stores in Koloa town and Waimea and points in between. These towns are off Highway 50, which is the main highway that you take to get to Waimea Canyon Drive.
  • Allow approximately 90 minutes travel time roundtrip, to and from Lihue.  Maybe add a tad more to be on the safe side.  Be sure and allocate enough time to return your car and get to your gate at the airport or harbor for your cruise ship.
  • If you are prone to carsickness on winding roads, you might want to bring something to prevent it. It’s not terribly windy, but it is curvy as you can see from the photo below.

At the parks:

  • Allocate about two to three hours to drive around and stop at the lookouts. Most of the lookout points will be very obvious. Don’t miss the Kalalau Lookouts. Clouds often drift in an out of here, so if it’s cloudy at first, wait for a bit. That’s what I did and I was able to capture the photo at the top.
  • If you the time available, consider some hikes. A very short (0.3 miles), but lovely hike with excellent views of Waimea Canyon is the Iliau Trail. The trail is named after the iliau plant that is native only to Kauai. If you have more hiking time to allocate, check out the Canyon Trail.
  • I liked driving Highway 550 into the parks and Highway 552 out.
  • See my article on Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Parks for a few more details.

If you still have time, here are other ideas of what to see on your way back to Lihue:

And what else would I do if I had two days or maybe more?

  • I’d take a helicopter tour of Kauai. In my opinion, Kauai is one of the most beautiful islands for helicopter tours. See these Kauai helicopter tour options.
  • In smoother water during summer months, I’d take a morning catamaran cruise of the Na Pali Coast. Though this might be trickier to fit into a one-day schedule.
  • See the North Shore and stop along at some of the gorgeous beaches there.
  • See more of my suggestions for best Kauai things to see and do.
  • Also see these other itinerary ideas for a Kauai vacation.
  1. G’day,
    My wife and I are travelling from Sydney, Australia to Hawaii in late July 2011. This site has been exactly what I was looking for as we will be spending only 1 day in Kauai. I am planning an itinerary based on some of your suggestions as a surprise day for my wife. I have already booked a scenic flight and a dinner cruise and I hope we will have time to see the rest in our rental car.
    Ill let you know how it goes when we return to the land of Oz (Australia)
    Cheers – Jason

    1. Jason — glad you are finding these suggestions to be useful. I’ll look forward to hearing about your experience. Hope you and your wife have a wonderful time!

  2. G’Day Sheila,
    Got back to Sydney a few days ago and I thought I would let you know how we went with your suggestions.
    As I said in my earlier email, we only had one day in Kauai to see as much as we could.
    We had a great time thanks largely to your web site. We were able to maximise our time and we got to see a lot of the island.
    We hired a Mustang convertable for the day and headed off around the island. We also managed a scenic flight and a dinner/sunset cruise in our busy schedule.
    Kauai is a beautiful island and when we return to Hawaii we will most definatly spend a lot more time there/
    Once again thanks for the info in your site. It helped us more than you could imagine.
    Cheers – Jason
    Sydney, Australia

    1. Thank you, Jason, for taking the time to share your kind feedback. I’m so glad to hear that you were able to see and do so much with just one day in Kauai.

      As you said, Kauai is a beautiful island. It’s definitely worthy of more time on your next visit.

      Thanks again!

  3. So, I just found this site, and am intrigued. We actually will have 3 days on Kauai — but we’re having a hard time deciding on an accommodation location — so I have find comparable condos but can’t decide between Princeville, Kapaa and Poipu — what should I consider to help me make the decision.

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