If you like this small taste of how we share location information, you might enjoy our ebooks on Iceland and Death Valley if you plan to photograph either of those places.
Most people think of the Hawaiian Islands as a perfect place for a relaxing, tropical vacation but they also provide some excellent opportunities for photography. We recently took a two week trip to the island of Kauai and highly recommend it as a photography destination (for reasons that this post will hopefully make clear!).
Kauai is known as the Garden Isle because of its lushness, with the claim of being home to the “wettest spot on earth” seeming plausible after taking even a passing glance at the waterfalls and tropical forests covering much of the island. Kauai also has extensive beaches and strong waves, especially in winter, which together create good opportunities for photographing the ocean. The jagged green cliffs of the Na Pali coast are a frequent stand-in for any movie or TV show that needs a fantasy, dream-like tropical setting. On the drier side of the island, the winding Waimea Canyon offers expansive views of red rock layers dotted with bright green trees and impossibly tall waterfalls.
In this post, we summarize some of our favorite places for photography and share a few travel tips that might be helpful in planning your own trip to Kauai. Our research was aided through some very generous suggestions from our friend Orion so some of the credit for this post goes to him, as well (thanks, Orion!). And for a little disclaimer, I will note that this post is meant to be a quick introduction based on two weeks on the island during the month of January. Conditions at some of these locations will vary quite a bit by season and this mini-guide is not meant to supplement your assessment of on-the-ground conditions. It is also not meant to be comprehensive since it is based on our limited experience - just a place to start your own research. If you are looking for local guiding and more inspiration, Aaron Feinberg would be a good place to start.
At the time we took this trip, we were both taking a break from full-time work and stretching our savings account became a priority. Camping on a tropical island seemed like a great idea, especially since many of Kauai’s campgrounds are quite affordable and located right near the ocean. In retrospect, this turned out to be a poorly developed plan (like our brilliant idea of camping in our tent during monsoon season in southern Arizona). The primary occupants of Kauai campgrounds are locals looking for a long-term, cheap place to stay and the ubiquitous feral chickens. The roosters have an inaccurate sense of time, crowing at all hours of the night and I never felt particularly safe, especially since we were toting around a large amount of photography gear. While we planned to spend only a few nights in a hotel during our two week trip, the camping plan quickly dissolved after a few sleepless nights.
The hiking and camping situations turned out to be our only disappointments in Kauai. Because of the moisture (at least in winter), most of the trails we visited were more like muddy, steep slip-n-slide adventures. While this was fun for the first quarter-mile, it became very tiresome and messy. Still, the diverse landscapes, dynamic weather, fantastic food, and warm weather all came together to produce one of the best trips we have taken together and based on our experiences, we highly recommend Kauai as a possible destination for landscape photography.
Locations with Photographic Potential
In comparing these locations to a map of Kauai, north generally refers to spots near Princeville and Hanalei, east refers to places in the general vicinity of Lihu'e and Kapa'a, south refers to the spots near Koloa, and west refers to the areas places like Waimea Canyon and Koke'e state Park. Kauai is small so getting between these places is easy and two weeks was enough time to visit and revisit most of the places we wanted to see. You will find directions and details for most of these places in any guidebook for Kauai.
Na Pali Coast
The most recognizable feature of Kauai is the Na Pali Coast with its jagged green cliffs falling towards crystal clear ocean waters. There are essentially four ways to see this part of the coast - hiking the Kalalau Trail (see below), a boat tour, a helicopter tour, and from the Kalalau overlook. We chose only the last option and seriously missed out. If you plan to visit Kauai, spend some time in advance deciding which of these options might work best for you because it will likely be a highlight of your trip. If you book a boat or helicopter tour, look specifically for options that cater to photographers.
Mahaulepu (south) – The Mahaulepu area features rocky shelves, rocks, and a few small cliffs, which together offer quite a few options for photography. Due to the shape and characteristics of the beach, photographing in different directions with different foregrounds is possible. The owners of the land surrounding the Mahaulepu area restrict access to the beach. Because the area is closed in the evening, sunrise will be your option for visiting this area. Some internet sources mentioned the poor condition of the road as being an issue for passenger cars but we had no issue accessing the road when we visited. Do proceed with caution with your rental car and check locally about access restrictions before visiting.
Spouting Horn (south) – The SpoutingHorn is a blowhole that shoots water about 30 feet in the air around higher tide. Access is limited: local authorities have placed fences and threatening signs about the danger of getting close to the Spouting Horn in this area. Visitors who go down to the area can also be fined for trespassing. In addition to the Spouting Horn, a local sugar company exploded another spouting feature at some point and it now fills like Oregon’s Thor’s Well. These features, along with wave-battered rocky cliffs provide some decent options for seascape photographs.
Shipwreck Beach (south) – We probably would not have stopped in this area had we not stayed at the Point at Poipu, a condo rental option near the Kauai Hyatt. With some exploring, this area turned out to be our favorite beach in the area as it packs a lot of interesting features in a small area. You can walk along the coast to the south from the Point at Poipu and along the way will come across a small rocky cove, wave-battered cliffs, and a sea arch through which waves crash. The beach in front of the Hyatt also features rocks, some small rocky shelves, rocks covered in sea grass, and some nice sandy sections. You can also hike up to the top of the cliffs to the north. We also saw whales, two seals, and sea turtles at a distance from this spot. The primary issue with this location is the people and the surfers in the water, especially around sunset.
Queen’s Bath area (north) – The Queen’s Bath area is a popular tourist spot during the summer, as water fills some large tidepools and provides a perfect place for lounging in the sun. In the winter, waves crash up and over some of the lava formations and cliffs, offering an opportunity to capture waves and splashes (from a safe distance, of course - numerous people have been killed at this location from getting into Queen's Bath and getting too close to the waves).
Kupuhi (north) – This beach, right by the side of the main road, features an interesting textured rock shelf covered in green sea grass and surrounded by golden sand. I found these little shelves and the wave motion around them to be a great subject for photography but we did not luck out with good cloud conditions here.
Larsen’s Beach (north) – You can access this beach by a steep, half-mile trail. The beach features some rocky shelves and small volcanic rocks on the shoreline at lower tides. This beach offers decent photography options when the rocks are exposed with the bonus of being off the beaten path (we did not see anyone on our stops here).
Ke’e Beach and Hanalei Bay (north) – These two locations are among the most popular stops in Kauai for tourists. If you have seen photos of sea cliffs with big waves, they were possibly taken at Ke’e Beach. The Hanalei Pier is also a popular subject for photography. Because we generally like more isolated places and both of these locations are almost always busy, we did not photograph either of them but you might find subjects of interest at both, especially if you are staying nearby.
Nukoli’i Beach (east) – This beach is located right behind the Kauai Beach Resort, one of the places we stayed. This beach was dirty and not really ideal for lounging but does feature some nice rock shelves that offered options for photographing interesting wave patterns and reflections of standing water on the rock shelf.
Tunnels Beach is also frequently mentioned as a popular spot for photography but we have not visited ourselves.
Waimea Canyon & Koke’e State Park (west)
Waimea Canyon is a little out of the way by Kauai standards, but well worth some time to explore. Waimea Canyon generally features a winding canyon of mostly red rocks dotted with lush sections of green foliage, complete with some distant waterfalls falling hundreds of feet.
We generally liked the afternoon light at the canyon better, as we had really nice storm clouds a few nights and the late afternoon light was generally nicer than in the morning, at least during January. Our favorite overlook for the canyon was the Pu’u Hinahina overlook. We also enjoyed the views from a few of the first unmarked pullouts where the canyon became visible. The main overlook is also nice, especially in the late afternoon (during January at least). We did not hike any of the Waimea Canyon trails, but a network of trails does exist for photographers interested in doing a bit more exploring.
Koke’e State Park is home of the Kalalau Valley Overlook, which has to be one of the most stunning vistas in the world. From a high vantage point, the overlook provides a view into a forested valley surrounded by jagged cliffs and often filled with misty clouds. We found both sunrise and sunset to be productive for the overlook, with more clouds in the afternoon. The most difficult part about photographing this spot is that a single photograph feels like a completely futile attempt to display the immense scale and beauty of this location.
The Kalalau Overlook also serves as the trailhead for the Pihea trail, a worthwhile hike. It is about 1,200 feet of total elevation gain over about 3.5 miles to get to another ocean overlook. We did this trail on a foggy day so we do not know about the quality of the overlook but did thoroughly enjoy the forests along the trail. The total elevation gain is somewhat misleading because this trail features a lot of up and down over a very muddy, slick, and nasty “trail.” After only about a fourth of a mile on this trail, it becomes obvious why Kauai has so few hiking trails – they must be hell to maintain.
Our favorite section of the Pihea trail for forest photography is around the Alakai Swamp trail junction and the section about a half mile from the overlook. The first half mile of the trail also has some great views of the Kalalau Valley (our favorite spots are about 200 feet below the overlook and right before the trail narrows and heads into the forest).
Some Other Spots
The Hanalei Valley Overlook (north) is also well worth a quick stop. This spot offers a really pretty view but only limited few photography options. The overlook is on the left side of the Kuhio Highway about three miles before you reach Hanalei.
The taro fields near Hanalei are fun to photograph, as well. When heading towards Hanalei immediately after the one-lane bridge (just below the overlook described above), turn left onto Ohiki Road for access to the taro fields and the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge. Be careful where you park and consider staying close to your car (based on our personal experience in getting scolded for parking in a spot that we thought was fine). This area can be good at both sunrise and sunset depending on the conditions. The popular Okolehao Trail (to an overlook of Hanalei area) departs from this same road.
All of the waterfalls we visited were disappointing for photography. After photographing waterfalls and creeks in a place like the Great Smoky Mountains or Columbia River Gorge, we may have arrived with too high of expectations, even though a friend had told us this would be the case. I also lost a lens to a small waterfall near Queen’s Bath, so that incident may have also soured my affection for Kauai’s waterfalls in general.
In preparing for our trip, we identified many waterfalls to visit (some roadside, some hikes, some big, some small) and found only a few to be mildly photogenic. Wailau, Opaeka’a, and Ho’opi’i were the three waterfalls that held the most interest in advance of our trip but were all mostly disappointing in person. When the surrounding foliage is lush (not winter), Wailua offers a basic composition from the top, with steep, muddy access non-trails to the base (discouraged by the local government). The standard view of Opaeka’a is quite distant and getting to the base is way more laborious than the anticipated reward, so we skipped trying the latter. Meeting some colorful locals along the trail to Ho’opi’i was the highlight of that hike for us, but some photographers might like the small waterfall plunging into a pool that is the main feature for that spot.
Generally, we found most of the “trails” to waterfalls to be nasty, slippery, and not very fun to hike, so we focused our time on other things after a few initial disappointments. If you are interested in seeking out Kauai’s waterfalls, the World of Waterfalls website is a great resource and probably a more enthusiastic source than this blog post.
Finally, we visited to two botanical gardens – Limihuli (north) and McBryde (south). Limihuli, near the end of the highway on the north side of the island, is an interesting spot for learning about the island’s plants and offers some very nice options for wandering around. Limihuli is laid out mostly as a reserve so the plants are less manicured than you might expect to find at a botanical garden but we still enjoyed this destination for plant and flower photography.
The McBryde-Allerton Botanical Garden complex is a major attraction on the south side of the island near the Spouting Horn. The Allerton Garden is formal, with timed, guided tours and expensive tickets. Given our dislike of such restrictions, we did not think the fee was worth it and instead selected the less formal McBryde tour in which you take a shuttle over but can choose when to return on a later shuttle.
We were pretty disappointed in the McBryde experience primarily because they randomly cancelled all of the afternoon bus shuttles without telling us when we booked our early afternoon tour, meaning we had less than an hour to see a large garden that requires walking from section to section and then back to the bus stop. We would go back to McBryde but would take the first shuttle in the morning to have more time. Also, the free garden around the visitor center is a good spot for macro photography and we found a bunch of friendly lizards in the plants right at the entrance.
Kalalau Trail (north) - The Kalalau Trail is often referred to as one of the highlights in visiting Kauai. A 22-mile (round-trip) hike takes visitors to a secluded beach below Kauai’s signature jagged green and red cliffs (the same cliffs that are frequently photographed by helicopter and boat). While part of the trail can be hiked as a day hike without a permit, permits are required to visit and camp at Kalalau beach. Because we were visiting for a quasi-vacation and did not want to haul our backpacking gear along, we skipped this trip but some of our well-traveled friends have shared that this hike has been one of their best travel experiences. If you are into backpacking, this hike could be a highlight of your trip.
What would we do differently next time?
- Skip the camping (except for Koke’e State Park, which was nice and fairly quiet). The roosters are a ton of fun to watch but are horribly annoying when trying to sleep. I did not feel safe in some of the campgrounds, especially when carrying expensive camera gear.
- We would probably stay for 5 days in the north (Hanalei or Princeville), 5 days in the south (at the Point at Poipu again if we could get reservations), a few days near Waimea Canyon, and a few nights for backpacking the Kalalau Trail.
- Go on both a helicopter tour for photographers and a boat tour of the Na Pali Coast. My frugal habits are good for a lot of things but trying to save money and not doing these two things was a bad decision.
- Eat at the chef’s counter at Bar Acuda as many times as we could, not just once. :) We had one of the best meals ever at this restaurant.
A Few Other Tips
- We much preferred staying in a condo over a hotel because it allowed some flexibility in preparing meals and being out for photography. We would definitely stay at the Point at Poipu complex again or do a VRBO-style rental of a condo if we return.
- The Costco in Lihue is a great place to stock up on food, including delicious and local fresh fruit. Ron also appreciated being able to eat a $1.50 hot dog in yet another community across the US.
- The best printed resource we used is The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook. The book’s organization is sometimes confusing but it was a good resource overall. There are no signs for many beaches or trailheads so having this book was really helpful in finding places. This guidebook also includes a lot of off the beaten path locations should you want some ideas for exploring.
- As mentioned above, Bar Acuda in Hanalei was our favorite place to eat. We also liked the Hanalei Coffee Roasters, the shave ice place next door to it, the taco food truck near the Hanalei Pier, and Chicken in a Barrel (a positive surprise).
If you have any other tips for photographing Kauai, please share them in the comments. And, if you found this helpful, you might also enjoy our ebooks on photographing Iceland and Death Valley if you plan to photograph either of those locations.