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.
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:
- Stop at the Kauai Coffee Farm to see coffee growing and sample the flavors.
- Take a drive down to see the blowhole Spouting Horn in Poipu.
- Drive north of Lihue and see Wailua Falls and Opaeka’a Falls which are two, very beautiful waterfalls.
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.