Did you know that the Garden Island has more sand beaches per mile of shoreline than any other major Hawaiian island? Kauai north shore beaches are so plentiful that you could be on the “Beach a Day” program for over a week and never leave the area. Some of these gems take effort to get to, but others are footsteps from where you park. Some offer a reef bottom environment for fabulous snorkeling, while others are best for swimming and/or catching waves. Starting with the far north end of the island, here are my top ten picks.
1. Ke’e Beach – Pictured Above
After a 15 month road closure, as a result of the 2018 Kauai Flood, Ke’e Beach is better than ever. This small, sandy beach used to be overly crowded with thousands of tourists driving to the end of the road, parking wherever they could, and embarking on the last stretch of sand before the Na Pali Coast. Now with new regulations limiting the number of parking spaces, Ke’e can be thoroughly enjoyed. There are shade trees, newly refurbished restrooms and a lifeguard stand. The lagoon has a shallow, sandy bottom for a little ways out and then a reef. On flat, calm days, schools of fish and turtles will entice you to swim just outside the reef. During the winter months, however, large swells make leaving the shallow, sandy area quite dangerous. Excess water in the lagoon causes currents in the reef opening on the left side of the beach. Ask the lifeguards if you are uncertain as to whether you should go out or not.
There are two ways to get to Ke’e Beach. A shuttle now runs from either Princeville or Hanalei to various stops along the last stretch of road, ending at Ke’e. If you prefer to drive your own vehicle, parking reservations must be purchased online. Information on how to go about buying shuttle tickets or getting parking reservations may be found in my blog: Update on Kauai Road Opening. Once you arrive at the parking lot, a wooden boardwalk takes you to the beach or to the entrance of the Kalalau Trail.
The Kalalau Trail is an eleven mile trail along the Na Pali Coast which ends at the Kalalau Valley. Permits are needed to hike the full trail (takes all day and is quite strenuous), however anyone with a day pass to Haena State Park (included in shuttle ticket or parking reservation) can walk part of the trail. Hanakapi’ai Beach (2 miles in) and Hanakapi’ai Falls (4 miles in) are favorites, but just going about 1/4 of a mile on the trail will bring you to some fabulous views down the coast. Therefore combining a walk, with time at Ke’e Beach, makes for a pretty great vacation day.
2. Tunnels Beach
This long stretch of sandy beach, with a view of Makana Mountain (Bali Hai), is a snorkeler’s dream. The water stays shallow over a huge reef which can actually be seen from space. Even in winter, waves break way outside, allowing for a snorkeling area that is typically quite safe. Scuba divers can be seen getting into the water here. They are diving down to the lava tubes, or tunnels, that are at deeper depths. Surfers and wind surfers catching the breaking waves in the distance are always fun to watch. Tunnels Beach is not for swimming, but snorkelers will get an eye full.
Parking is strictly enforced in the area. Parking tickets are $250. Many of the shortcuts have been closed. Now, your best bet is to take the North Shore Shuttle or park at Haena Beach Park, across from the Dry Cave, and walk to the right, down the beach. The parking lot fills up fast so plan to get there early. It is not easy walking through the deep, sometimes hot, sand to the perfect spot. If your goal is to see lots of tropical fish and then enjoy a fabulous view when you’re done, Tunnels is a must.
3. Lumahai Beach
Photo Credit: Kauai Bound
Remember the scene in the movie, South Pacific, where “she’s going to wash that man right out of her hair?” That scene was filmed at Kahalahala Beach, which lies at the far right, or eastern end, of Lumahai Beach. This is a beach so scenic that it consistently makes the list of the most beautiful beaches in the world. During the calm months of summer, the crystal clear water gently rolls up to the shore creating a saltwater swimming pool. A large lava rock projects from the shore into the ocean, a favorite jumping off spot for the brave (obviously checking the depth of the water first). There are trees which provide shade as well. It’s idyllic; what you think of when you think of paradise. In the winter, however, it’s another story. Big swells cause waves to crash onto the shore. It is still beautiful but swimming can be dangerous. Use good judgement.
To get to this special spot, drive past Hanalei Bay heading north. As you drive up the first incline you’ll see cars parked along the side of the road. Park and find the path leading down the hill to the sand. It’s just a 3 to 4 minute walk but it can be slippery if wet. The beach is 100 feet below the road.
Caution: The other end of Lumahai Beach, next to the Lumahai River is not recommended for swimming nearly any time of the year. Strong currents have swept people out to sea. Parking and access are easy if you just want a place to enjoy the environment without going for a swim. I would suggest a good book and a walk along the shore.
4. Hanalei Bay
Hanalei Bay actually consists of four beaches, two of which have lifeguard stations. This crescent shaped body of water, with a backdrop of lush green mountains and a newly refurbished pier, is a photographer’s dream. A sandy bottom, and gentle waves for most of the year, make this a very pleasurable place to swim and play in the water. Beginner surfers and boogie boarders can almost always find a good spot to learn and practice. More accomplished surfers wait for the winter swells or paddle out to the outer reefs. There is basically no shade so bring your reef-safe sunscreen and an umbrella.
There are four places to park around Hanalei Bay depending on what part of the bay appeals to you. Weke Road parallels the bay. At the south end of the road (turn right) there is a new parking lot which fronts the historic Hanalei Pier. Restrooms are currently being built. There is also a small dirt parking lot by the pavilion (also to your right), which will place you in the middle of the crescent with restrooms and a lifeguard stand. At the other end of Weke Road you can access three dirt parking lots by turning toward the bay on He’e, Ama’ama or Anae Road. These lots are not in the best shape with large pot holes. There are restrooms and a lifeguard stand here as well. The water tends to be a bit rougher in this area. It is known as Pine Trees and surfing competitions are held here every year.
Hanalei Bay is one of my favorite places to walk, especially in the early morning or just before sunset.
5. Pu’u Poa Beach
Pu’u Poa Beach is the sandy strip in front of The Princeville Hotel so sharing the space with hotel guests is a given. The reef comes fairly close to the shoreline, therefore its best use is for snorkeling. The views looking across the bay mouth to Lumahai Beach and the mountains are spectacular. If you want to expand your experience, consider purchasing a hotel day pass for the pool in order to swim and relax after your snorkeling adventure. A poolside bar and restaurant is there for you either way.
Parking is an issue. So, if you are staying close by, walk or ride a bike. Otherwise tip for valet parking at the hotel. You may access the beach by going through the hotel and taking the elevator down, or walking down a concrete path to the left of the hotel gate house and descending 191 steps.
6. Pali Ke Kua Beach, better known as Hideaways
Next to the Pu’u Poa Condominiums, and just before the gate house for The Princeville Hotel, is a tiny parking lot that is always full. Herein lies the problem with this excellent snorkeling beach, Hideaways. The path starts at the lot, descends the bluff with stairs and a railing, and then levels off on a trail. Total time: 5 to 10 minutes. Once on the beach you will find shade trees, coarse sand and not many people. When the seas are calm the snorkeling is superb but, like most of the Kauai north shore beaches, winter swells are dangerous. Huge waves can literally sweep the beach away.
There are actually two parts to this beach separated by black rocks. In calm water one can swim around the rocks to the right of the first beach. There is a concrete path leading down to this second beach. It originates at the Pali Ke Kua Condominiums but is legally for guests of the condo project only.
7. SeaLodge Beach
Just down the coast from Hideaways is another snorkeling treasure, SeaLodge Beach. Tucked below private homes, including our vacation rental, Honu Point, this small protected beach is not well known. It gets its name from the condominium project on the next point over where the access trail begins. The path, which can be slippery when wet, takes about 15 minutes. Wooden steps were installed years ago to help with the descent but erosion has not been friendly. Once around the point, black rocks take you to the coarse sand. False kamani trees provide much needed shade.
The water is shallow, creating a reef lagoon inside the wave break. Because there is no river nearby, the water is quite clear and the sea life is often abundant. Strong swimmers will go to the edge of the reef and be rewarded with a turtle sighting. Once we found a Hawaiian monk seal sunning on the sand.
Like the other north shore beaches, winter can be unkind to this beach as well. Water from the large swells may engulf the cove all the way to the cliff sweeping the sand out to sea. This doesn’t happen often but if the waves are super large, this is not the time to visit SeaLodge Beach.
Access is from the parking lot of Building A at the SeaLodge Resort. Once in Princeville, turn at Kamehameha Road and drive all the way to the end. For those renting a home on the bluff above the beach, there is an alternate access route that is within walking distance of the homes. Ask the owner or manager of your rental for directions.
8. Anini Beach
This stretch of reef is so long you can find just about anything you desire in a beach. Anini Road parallels the coast with little pockets of sand here and there before reaching the private estates and Beach Park. There are access lanes between some of the homes. Park on the side of the road and walk down the path to the beach. Otherwise keep going until you reach the park. There are plenty of parking spaces here, but with that comes plenty of tourists. There is a boat ramp, bathrooms, and a food truck, as well as small pavilions for get-togethers. Campers with permits set up their tents on the lawn past the boat ramp. During the summer windsurfers abound.
If you continue down Anini Road, past what used to be polo fields on the left and around the point, you’ll come to my favorite part of Anini. Here the road is bumpy, the beach is close and the waves break so far out you can barely see them. The water is super shallow; not a swimming beach. But, the snorkeling is good and if you stay away from the Anini Stream at the end, it is super safe year round. It is a wonderful beach for the keiki (children).
9. Kalihiwai Beach
Kalihiwai Beach is a dream for boogie boarders, swimmers and people who like to play in the waves. This beautiful bay has a sandy bottom and plenty of space for your towels and beach gear. What’s best is there are ironwood trees for shade, and parking under them deposits you right in the sand. The Kalihiwai River opens into the sea at the far west side. One can go quite a ways up the river in a kayak. Combining kayaking and beach time make for a pretty special day. Access is easy on Kalihiwai Road (Kilauea side of the long bridge that crosses the Kilihiwai River) between Kilauea and Princeville.
10. Secret Beach
There are two reasons why not many people make it to Secret Beach. One is that a pretty steep, 15 minute hike, is required to get there, and secondly it has long been a favorite for nude sunbathers. Public nudity is illegal in Hawaii but that doesn’t seem to matter to some sun worshipers. Not as prevalent as it used to be, don’t be surprised if you see someone in their birthday suit.
The reason you might want to go anyway is that this white sand beach is stunningly beautiful with a view of the Kilauea Lighthouse and the bird sanctuary (Moku’ae’ae Island) just off its point. The secluded shoreline is long so chances are you will have a fairly large part of the beach to yourself. The water is pleasant for swimming in the summer but not the winter. To the left from where you enter the beach are the Secret Lava Pools.
To reach Secret Beach, turn onto Kalihiwai Road (Same road that leads to Kalihiwai Beach). Turn right almost immediately onto a dirt road. Park at the end and take the trail down the cliff. Make note of where you enter the beach so that you will be able to spot it later.
How will you choose?
Each of these spectacular beaches has something special to offer. If you must narrow down your choices because you do not have enough time, or because you actually want to see other parts of the island as well, consider these factors:
Time of year – which beaches are safe?
Snorkeling, swimming or boogie boarding/surfing?
Access – easy or difficult?
Shade or no shade?
Whichever ones you choose, you are sure to bring back plenty of great photos and happy memories. Enjoy!
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