3 Day Kauai Itinerary: A Whirlwind Tour of the Best the Island Has to Offer

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I don’t usually recommend such a short trip to any Hawaiian Island, but if you’re a hard core island hopper determined to see the best of all of the islands, you can cover a lot of Kauai in three days.  

I’ve put together a 3 day itinerary for Kauai that covers the absolute do not miss sites and experiences on Kauai. We’re not talking general Hawaii goodness, these are the things that make a trip to Kauai unique from a trip to any other Hawaiian Island. 

The details…this is three full days not including travel days (so perfect for a four night trip) and unlike my other itineraries where they’re tailored to staying on a specific part of the island, this one should work wherever you’re staying because it’s just GO GO GO. 

But, if you’ve only got three days on the island and you’re trying to pack in as much sightseeing as possible, I would recommend staying somewhere on the east side (Lihue, Kapaa, Wailua) so you’ll be centrally located. 

*If three days doesn’t work for you, check out my 5 day itinerary or my 4 day itinerary.

3 Day Kauai Itinerary

I’m going to assume that if you’ve only got 3 days on Kauai that means you’re island hopping from another Hawaiian island so you could be arriving early morning or anytime throughout the day. If you’re coming in super early and will have almost an entire extra day, check out my 4 day and 5 day Kauai itineraries for some ideas on what to do with your extra day. 

If you’re coming in the afternoon (or it is a four night quick trip from the mainland), I’d plan to take most of your arrival day to just get acclimated, hang around the resort pool and beach, and have a sunset dinner before early to bed. 

Day 1: Napali Coast

Three days is a quick trip, but even if you’ve only got one day, seeing Kauai’s famed Napali Coast has to be your top priority. 

The most impressive, and also best bang for your buck way to see the Napali is on a boat and there are a couple of different ways you can do this. 

If you’re visiting during the summer months (mid April to mid October), my favorite way to see the Napali is via Zodiac ocean raft tour that leaves from Hanalei on the north shore. 

The Zodiacs are small enough to zip in and out of the caves along the coast, they get way closer to the coast, plus they just offer a more all around adventurous and immersive experience. And the huge perk…the tours that leave from Hanalei are basically already on the Napali Coast when they start so you’ve got non stop breathtaking views for your entire trip. 

Read more about Napali tours from the north shore here

Your other option is a catamaran tour that leaves from Port Allen on the south side of Kauai. If you’re traveling during the winter months (mid October to mid April), boat tours don’t leave from the north shore because of high surf so the south side tours are your only option (but when the surf is super high these tours will get canceled as well). 

The catamarans are large boats (40+ people) but they’re more of a fun, casual atmosphere (snorkeling stop, music playing, lunch included, drinks served, time for jumping off the boat, bouncing on the trampoline, etc.). 

The downside of the catamaran tours are 1) they’re too big to go inside the caves, and 2) leaving from Port Allen it takes them almost 1.5 hours of cruising before they even get to the Napali Coast. So on a 5.5 hour tour, that’s almost 3 hours of sailing past *not the Napali Coast* on a Napali Coast tour. It’s not a bad view, but it’s not the view you came for. 

Read more about the Napali catamaran snorkel tours from the south side here

Which option you choose will determine the rest of your day:

If you go with the south side/Port Allen cruise, you’ll have half a day to spend on the south side of Kauai. 

If you go with the north shore/Hanalei tour, you’ll have half a day to spend on the north shore of Kauai. 

Things to Do in Poipu (South Side)

I’ve got a whole post about 21 things to do in Poipu that will more than fill your day. 

Some of my favorites: 

Spouting Horn Blowhole

Warehouse 3540 

Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail

Shopping at the Shops at Kukui’ula

Sunset Mai Tais & Dinner at the Beach House

Things to Do in Hanalei (North Shore)

I’ve got a whole post about things to do in Hanalei and the north shore to dig through as well. 

Some of my favorites:

Snorkeling at Tunnels

Finding the Secret Hideaways Beach

Shopping in Hanalei

Mai Tais at Tahiti Nui

Dinner at the Dolphin

***Want to save major $$$ on your trip to Hawaii? I get asked ALL the time how I’m able to travel so often to Hawaii and stay at really nice resorts. Well, my favorite travel hack is cashing in points to score free airfare and free nights at some of Hawaii’s most high end resorts. Read my full guide on the exact system I use to max out credit card rewards here. Seriously, it’s going to save you soooo much money. 

Day 2: Waimea Canyon + the West Side

Waimea Canyon is really something to see. Mark Twain famously called it the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and it’s easy to see why. 

It sits on Kauai’s west side and it’s easy to spend a full day over there, but if you picked the north shore option on day 1 then you could combine a day at Waimea Canyon with some sightseeing around Poipu. 

Wherever you’re staying on the island, it’s a hike out to Waimea, but it’s a beautiful drive. Plan to stop in Hanapepe on the way over for breakfast at either Midnight Bear Bread or Three Little Fish Coffee. It’s a cute historic town that’s said to be the inspiration behind Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. Don’t miss the wooden swinging bridge. 

Head on up to Waimea Canyon. There are at least four overlooks at the top of the canyon and you’ll want to see all of them. Each one offers a different vantage point, and one even has a lookout over Kalalau and the Napali Coast.

Want to extend the day? If you’re making a full day out of it, Waimea State Park and Koke’e State Park both have some excellent hiking trails. If you want a moderate hike, try the Canyon Trail. At 3.4 miles round trip, it’s the most popular hike in the area and will give you a great view of Waipoo Falls. It takes about 2.5 hours to complete. Park at the Puu Hinahina Lookout (around mile marker 13.5) and pick up the trailhead there. For a more challenging hike, try the Awaawapuhi Trail, which has spectacular cliff and ocean views. It’s 6.2 miles round trip (3 hours) and the trail head can be found near mile marker 17.

If you’re coming back through Waimea around lunchtime, check out Puka Dogs or Jo Jo’s for shave ice. 

If it’s still early afternoon when you’re done at the canyon, head back towards Poipu and fill up your day with some things you haven’t gotten to yet. 

21 Things to Do in Poipu 

Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.

Day 3: Hike the Kalalau Trail

You can’t come to Kauai without doing at least one hike and this is the grandaddy of them all. 

This famous hike along the Napali Coast which regularly lands on “world’s best hikes” lists is 22 miles round trip (with overnight camping permits required), but as a day hiker you can do the first two miles (four miles roundtrip) and it’s AMAZING. 

Plan 3 hours for this hike if you’re pretty fit and moving pretty steady…and longer if you’re planning to spend time at Hanakapiai Beach (the turn around point). 

If you’re up for a longer hike, once you reach Hanakapiai beach (the point where you have to turn around), hike two miles up through a bamboo forest to reach Hanakapiai falls. This will double your hike time and distance (5-6 hours and 8 miles). Also, do NOT get in the water at Hanakapiai beach! It’s pretty dangerous and many deaths have occurred there. Just admire from a distance.

The trailhead is located at Ke’e Beach in Ha’ena State Park, which is as far as you can go on the north shore (heading west). It’s about 30 minutes past Hanalei and one of my favorite drives in Hawaii. 

Here’s what you need to know before you go: In an effort to control crowds at Haena State Park (Ke’e Beach and the Kalalau Trailhead) after the historic flooding of April 2018, parking reservations are now required. You can make them online 30 days in advance, or you can pay for a reservation on the shuttle leaving from Princeville. 

Read everything you need to know about hiking the Kalalau Trail (including tips for getting reservations)  here

Ke’e Beach (where you parked) is the perfect place for a swim, some snorkeling, and picnic lunch. I suggest grabbing a lunch to go at Hanalei Gourmet when you’re in Hanalei  (they open at 8) and throwing it in a cooler for after (or during) your hike. Ke’e is very protected and one of the few good swimming spots on the north shore. It’s also an excellent snorkeling spot for beginners. It’s practically a swimming pool.

Depending on how much of the hike you do and when you get started, it could be noon or it could be later. 

If you did the south side option of day 1, save some time to explore more of the north shore today. 

Here’s a full post of everything to do in Hanalei and along the north shore

Top of the day with mai tais at Tahiti Nui and dinner at the Dolphin (their teriyaki ahi is my favorite in Hawaii). 

Want to read more posts about Kauai? I’ve got plenty!

Things You Can ONLY Do on Kauai // Things to Do in Poipu (South Side) // 5 Day Kauai Itinerary // 4 Day Kauai Itinerary (North Shore) // 3 Day Kauai Itinerary //

Where to Stay on Kauai: Princeville vs Poipu // Grand Hyatt Kauai Review // My Favorite Restaurants in Poipu

Kauai Travel Tips (Things to Know Before You Go) // Napali Coast: Boat Tour vs Helicopter // Kauai Helicopter Tour FAQs

Maui vs Kauai

Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…

Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip

You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!

Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.

That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.

I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )

But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.

Haleakala National Park (Maui)

To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).

Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).

The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.

You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).

If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.

I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.

Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)

To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).

It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Iao Valley State Park (Maui)

To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Diamond Head (Oahu)

To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.

Hanauma Bay (Oahu)

To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.

Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.

Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).

If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.

There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.

It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).

The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.

Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.

USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)

If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.

Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.

Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???

They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.

The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.

They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.

Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)

If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:

1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.

2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.

3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.

The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.

There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.

Other Things to Book in Advance

Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):

Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and dinner reservations usually start filling up about 6 months in advance (they open up bookings 18 months in advance). Make reservations through their website and if the dates you want are already booked, you can join a waitlist. Most people have pretty good success getting in on the waitlist (even if it’s for lunch).

Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.

Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.

Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.

Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.

Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.