Driving on Kauai
You’re going to love driving on Kauai—the roads are clean, and the views are stunning! Whether you’re looking makai (to the ocean side of the road) or mauka (to the mountain side of the road) your eyes will be absolutely delighted with Kauai’s vibrant palette and diverse range of climate zones, geology, and vegetation. There are highlights such as the “Tree Tunnel” to Koloa and the swoopy curves of the Kalihiwai Valley, but to us– the beauty is around pretty much every corner—even the “boring” parts are breathtaking.
Kauai is known for being laid-back in nature, and that characteristic certainly extends to the road. The maximum speed limit on the island is 50 miles per hour, and you may notice that many drivers are purposefully non-aggressive.
Why is that?
There are a variety of reasons behind that. First of all, the majority of the highway here is only two lanes, and often, there’s very little shoulder. There are a lot of steep cliffs. Kids still walk home from school and ride their bikes around. Off the main roads, streetlights aren’t common. For reasons like these, Kauai’s driving etiquette is generally based on caution, respect, and the reality that we all have to live on this island together. Of course, there are outliers, but on Kauai, we try to maintain a “go with the flow” approach to driving.
We’ve compiled this collection of thoughts and hot tips regarding driving on Kauai—the good, the bad, and the ugly, in no particular order. If you’re planning to travel to Kauai, we hope that by understanding these factors, you’ll merge right onto the high road and help keep the roads here a safe and enjoyable place to be.
- There are no billboards here! Fun fact: Four U.S. states outlaw billboards—Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, and Maine. Of those four, Hawaii was the very first to do so, way back in the 1920s! We cannot express enough appreciation to our predecessors for having the foresight to protect the land and protect our senses. In today’s world especially, it’s an appreciated break for our eyes and our minds to be able to witness Kauai’s remarkable beauty, unobstructed by advertisements. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.
- You’re probably gonna need a car. Over the past few years, and for many complex reasons, Kauai’s tourism industry has started shifting to a “less is more” approach. We’re trying to focus on improving the experience for the number of visitors we already have, rather than building for/enticing more, more, and endlessly more people. A major part of this vision is developing a network of shuttles and other alternative transportation methods to move people efficiently around the island. Unfortunately, the way everything is set up now—you’re pretty much going to need a car when you visit Kauai. Our public transportation system, the Kauai Bus, can only take you so far, taxis are extremely limited and expensive, and while rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft technically exist here, they are so random and unreliable that they practically don’t. That said, peer-to-peer carsharing service Turo is thriving here– so there’s at least one alternative to the traditional rental car companies. A great resource to view all your options now exists at GetAroundKauai.com
- You’re going to encounter traffic. Traffic congestion has become a way of life on Kauai, and that’s exactly why we’re looking to build effective public transportation systems—to improve both the visitor and the resident experience. But again, for now, unfortunately, we’re all stuck on the “one road around the island” together. The most notorious area for Kauai traffic is without a doubt on the island’s east side, where the daily jam is known un-affectionately as the “Kapaa Crawl.” Naturally, your best bet is to pass through Kapaa town as early or as late as possible, but it’s inevitable—we all get stuck in “the Crawl” from time to time. Another area to avoid if possible is late afternoons going southbound, in front of Kauai Community College. These are two consistent problem areas, but the truth is that traffic delays can happen anytime and anywhere for any reason, so give yourself plenty of time to get everywhere– especially if you have a reservation or a check-in to make.
- One main road and often no alternatives. Technically we have more than one highway, but in reality, it is just one main road that services the entire island (but the name/number of the highway changes). For large portions of that road, there are no alternate routes, so things literally come to a complete stop at times. In the unfortunate situation where there is a serious accident on the road, or other unexpected issue (landslide, flooding, etc.), traffic stops and could be stopped for hours (or days in the event of landslides). Your best bet is to turn around and find something else to do while waiting for the road to reopen. When preparing for your departing flight, head to Lihue early to minimize any extra stress of missing your flight due to traffic or temporary road closures.
- Plan your days intelligently. To minimize frustrating traffic situations, be intentional in your vacation itinerary. If you’re going to be up north for the day, stay up north for the day—if you’re going south for the day, stay south. If you’re planning to hit up Costco (good idea!), may we suggest doing that first thing when you get off the plane, because it’s close to the airport. Don’t be fooled by mileage! The forty-five miles between Poipu and Hanalei, for example, can easily take two hours at certain times of the day.
- Be aware of changing contra flow lanes and crews. Kauai uses a contraflow system to alleviate daily morning traffic on the three-lane road between Kapaa and the Lihue Airport. In the mornings, there are two lanes heading south, and in the afternoon, there are two lanes heading north. In between those times (roughly 11:00 am and 1:30 pm), there are contra flow crews working on the road to pick up cones and reestablish traffic patterns. Give ‘em room and give ‘em a brake!
- Be aware of one-lane bridges. There are a handful of one-lane bridges on Kauai but the one you’ll almost surely encounter spans the Hanalei River, between Princeville and Hanalei. This is your heads up! Local protocol is to proceed across the bridge 5-7 cars at a time. Five to seven cars at a time.
- You can’t drive all the way around the island. There are no roads in the northwest quadrant of Kauai– this area is designated as the Napali Coast State Wilderness Area. What the Napali Coast lacks in roads, she makes up for a million times over in 4,000’ cliffs, secluded beaches, steep, emerald valleys brimming with native tropical plants and birds, dazzling waterfalls, abundant rainbows, and more. Yes, the Napali Coast is without a doubt the most dramatic and breathtaking landscape on the island, and no proper Kauai vacation itinerary is complete without witnessing this geographically stunning and culturally historic coast. The best way to do that is on any of our six unique Holo Holo Charters Napali Coast boat tours. Whether you’re seeking a wet and wild snorkeling adventure or more of an evening dinner/drinks/sunset experience, our Captains will “do the driving” and our crew will take care of absolutely everything else– so you can truly relax and enjoy the beauty of Kauai from the beauty of the water.
- Cruising up Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park. Similar to a Napali Coast boat tour, a day trip up Waimea Canyon (the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”) and into Kokee State Park is practically required for a “complete” Kauai itinerary. While the two adjacent parks offer lots of hiking and camping opportunities, many people go just for the driving experience and the many scenic pullouts. Just know that the 26-mile road is winding, and even some of us “boat people” experience motion sickness on Waimea Canyon Drive and Kokee Road. If you’re prone to carsickness, take some motion sickness medicine a few hours before you go and if it’s too late for that—roll down the windows! You can always take refuge at Mile 15—where you’ll see Kokee Lodge– a wonderful place to stop, have a bite, and relax in the grassy meadow. Because Waimea Canyon and Kokee are park of Hawaii’s State Park System, there is an entrance fee ($5 per person) and a vehicle fee ($10 per vehicle, up to 7 passengers) for non-residents that is collected and provides funding for the protection, restoration, and care of the parks. Those fees are collected at kiosks in the park, no need for prior reservations.
- Consider taking the shuttle into Ha’ena State Park. Located at the “end of the road” on Kauai’s north shore, Ha’ena State Park is adjacent to the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park. This area of Kauai is so incredibly amazing and in demand that in 2021, limits were placed on the number of people allowed to access the park every day. Since then, day-use passes ($5) and parking passes ($10) must be reserved online, in advance. Parking is extremely limited, and there are more day-use passes available than there are parking passes, so a good number of people inevitably end up on the shuttle—which is a great option! Choosing the shuttle will open up more day pass availability, allow you to spend more hours in the park, and it spares you from having to mess with the parking situation at all! The reservation system at Ha’ena State Park is an experiment in Kauai’s “less is more” approach to tourism. Prior to 2021, the parking situation (or lack thereof) and overcrowding at the park were completely out of control and were leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. As a community, Kauai decided it was better to have a limited number of people having a marvelous time in the park, rather than an unlimited number of people having a miserable time. With the new system, visiting Ha’ena takes some pre-planning, but those who are organized enough to do it are rewarded with a pleasant and fulfilling experience. If you’re reading this blog post, you can totally handle making a Ha’ena reservation– and that state park is remarkable, you should do it. The only thing is, you can’t make your rez more than 30 days in advance, so set a reminder on your calendar if anything.
- Designate a driver. For reasons aforementioned, namely the combination of limited taxi and/or ridesharing services and dark, narrow roads, please make a plan if and when you’re having some adult beverages. Someone in the group needs to keep it mellow because chances are, nobody is coming to get you and impaired people on unfamiliar roads are the last thing anybody wants or needs.
- Just look at our graduates! Okay so there are no billboards on Kauai, but we do have graduation season! It’s local custom to recognize our island’s high school graduates by hanging roadside banners with their names, often their pictures, and words of encouragement. If you’re here April-June, we hope you delight in this community tradition that gives applause to our bright and beautiful Kauai high school graduates.
- When it rains, it pours. Kauai is notorious for being perfectly sunny one minute and torrentially raining the next—it’s why we have so many rainbows! Just make sure you’re familiar with how to turn on the windshield wipers in your rental car and especially—how to put the top up on that sweet convertible. Because of theft (which isn’t common, but does happen) and unexpected rain squalls, we recommend always rolling the windows up when you’re away from the car.
- WHY did the chicken cross the road? Kauai is known for our roosters and chickens, ranging from scraggly birds to majestic jungle fowl. Either way, if there are chickens on the road—it’s probably best we don’t swerve to miss them. On our narrow, two-load roads, that might end up doing more harm than good. Not to sound heartless (because we cherish our chickens!) — we just love our people and property more. Chicken fatalities happen, don’t beat yourself up about it!
- Pull over and score some fresh food! Driving around Kauai, you’ll see many roadside vendors selling all sorts of fresh, local-kind foods: akule (a reef fish that’s great for grilling), tako (octopus), ahi tuna, smoked marlin, tamales, flowers, tropical fruits, fresh vegetables, etc. By all means, stop and get yourself some deliciousness! Honor auntie and uncle selling the goods by asking them, what’s their story?
- Give a little wave. We’re big on waving here. Did someone let you merge into the lane? Give ‘em a little wave. Did they let you go first on the one-lane bridge? Give ‘em a little wave. Spread the aloha with a little wave!
photography by Kauai Photographer
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