The islands of Hawaii are not just one of the top travel destinations in the world, but also a paradise for nature and landscape photographers. Of the Hawaiian Islands, Kauai more than the others is the vision that most people have of a tropical Pacific Island – lush green valleys, volcanic mountains covered in rainforest, and miles of gorgeous white sand beaches along the coast.
I visited Kauai quite a few times during the years I lived in Hawaii and got to know it fairly well. If you are planning to visit the Garden Island, here are my recommendations for the top ten spots for nature and scenic landscape photography.
1. Kalalau Lookout – Kokee State Park
The view of Kalalau Valley from Kokee State Park is one of the most stunning vistas in the Hawaiian Islands. Pu’u O Kila Lookout is worth the short hike, but the iconic image of the valley and Ka’a’alahina Ridge is best taken from Kalalau Lookout in Kokee State Park. Be prepared for fog, rain and chilly temperatures, and don’t give up if the view is totally obscured when you arrive – the clouds and fog often roll through with breaks to reveal the grandeur of Kalalau. The photo above was taken during a very brief break just as the sun was setting. If you have to wait, work on close-ups of ‘ohi’a-lehua and ginger flowers or the graphic fronds of the uluhe fern.
2. Waimea Canyon
Some call this deeply eroded gorge “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific”. Maybe it doesn’t quite measure up to its namesake, but there are some grand views from the rim of Waimea Canyon. As with much of the rest of Kauai, the rock and dirt here is a rich rusty red due to high iron content. There are several developed viewpoints affording panoramic vistas the canyon. The view is looking east, and mid- to late afternoon light works best.
If you are visiting in June or July, walk the 0.3-mile Iliau Nature Trail for photos of the iliau, an unusual plant, related to the silversword, that is found only on Kauai. The blossoms are quite spectacular. If you’re familiar with the desert southwest U.S. you will see the resemblance to yucca in both the spiky leaves and the flowers.
3. National Tropical Botanical Garden at Lawai
Both native and exotic tropical plants and flowers abound at this beautiful public garden in a valley to the west of the Poipu resort area. The south side of the island is the generally sunny, but overcast days are great for close-ups of flowers, leaf patterns and such.
4. Spouting Horn
Among the several well-known blowholes in the Hawaiian Islands, this is perhaps the most famous. Fortunately, it’s also fairly safe to visit and photograph. Waves enter a tunnel in the rugged rocky coast and then shoot up through a hole in the lava, sending a sudden powerful spray of water up to 50 feet in the air. This is also a good place for sunset photos fall through spring, when the sun is setting a little to the south.
5. Wailua Falls
Waterfalls abound on Kauai, but the majority are not accessible to the public. This one is easy to get to, as well as being one of the largest. Depending on recent rainfall, the 80-foot drop will occur in two or three channels, or soon after heavy rain, a single mass of surging whitewater. Visit the roadside viewpoint early in the morning, both to avoid crowds (the prime viewing angle is extremely limited), and for a good chance of capturing a rainbow at the falls. It’s possible to hike to the pool at the base of the falls, but the trail can be steep, slippery and dangerous.
6. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge
Even if you’re not a serious birder, you’ll probably enjoy a visit to Kilauea Point. Red-footed booby birds, tropicbirds, ‘iwa (frigatebirds) and Laysan Albatross frequent this refuge, often flying close enough for great photos even with a moderate 200-300mm lens. Unfortunately, public access to the refuge is limited to 10am-4pm, but there is a nice early morning view of the lighthouse from the entry gate.
7. Hanalei Valley NWR and Hanalei Bay Beach Park
There are actually three (or more) great photo locations around Hanalei, but I wanted to keep this list to an even ten. Almost across the highway from the Princeville shopping area, look for the roadside pullout and Hanalei Valley Lookout. The cliffside viewpoint overlooks verdant Hanalei Valley and its patchwork of taro farms, backed by the forested mountains central to Kauai. The north side of the island is often rainy mid-day, so try this view early in the morning (good chance of rainbows) or late in the afternoon.
If you’re interested in seeing and photographing native Hawaiian waterbirds, drive into the valley on the road along Hanalei River. Hawaiian stilt, coot and gallinule (all sub-species of birds familiar to west coast birders) can be seen along the edges of the valley taro patches. You may also find the Nene (Hawaiian Goose), the Hawaii State Bird, both here and at Kilauea Point NWR.
Hanalei Bay Beach Park isn’t so much a nature photography location, but you’ll definitely want to go there for the views of the pier, a panorama of the idyllic bay, to catch surfers working the waves, or, in summer, to photograph the sun setting along the coast to the west.
8. Limahuli Garden and Preserve
Like McBryde and Allerton Gardens at Lawai, Limahuli is part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden organization. Here you can see native plants, introduced exotics, and terraced fields farmed with traditional Hawaiian agricultural practices. The garden also works to preserve and restore some of the native species unique to this area. Among the accolades this garden has received: Limahuli was named best natural botanical garden in the United States by the American Horticultural Society.
9. Ha’ena Beach and Ke’e Beach
The view along Ha’ena Beach to Mount Makana, the “Bali Hai” of the 1958 movie South Pacific, is probably the number one signature shot of Kauai. White sand beach, clear turquoise water and the distinct shape of the forested peak – it’s the idyllic vision of a tropical paradise.
The road ends at Ke’e Beach. Walk north a little ways from the beach access at the parking area, then look back for a fabulous view of the steep cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. When the surf is up (most common in winter), the wave action here is spectacular – the waves seemingly explode as they hit the reef. Ke’e and Ha’ena beaches are both great sunset locations.
10. Kalalau Trail
The 11-mile trek to Kalalau Valley is for serious backpacking only, but you can enjoy some of the best of it with a 2-mile hike from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi’ai Beach if you are an experienced hiker (parts of the trail are steep and rocky). Soon after the start of the Kalalau Trail, look back for a view of Ke’e Beach, then continue on the path for dramatic views of the Na Pali Coast. The beautiful white sand beach at Hanakapi’ai is great for photography, but extremely dangerous for swimming due to strong rip currents. From the beach, you can hike another 2 miles up the Hanakapi’ai River to a 300′ high waterfall. This is a moderately strenuous hike. Please note: I strongly advise you to NOT hike to Hanakapi’ai (beach or waterfall) in the winter. The trail gets slippery treacherous, the beach usually washes away and people have been swept away while trying to cross the river. You can, however, at any time of year, get some great views of Ke’e Beach and the Na Pali Coast just by hiking the first 1/4 mile or so of the trail from the trailhead at Ke’e.
Well, there you have my list of the best of Kauai for nature and landscape photographers. Do you agree? Let me know in the Comments, and feel free to add your own favorites.
For more great photo locations in the Hawaiian Islands, check these other blog posts:
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