Camping in Kauai is scenic, cheap, easy and fun. Known as the ‘Garden Isle’, Kauai is perfect for camping as it’s small, warm year-round and has heaps of campsites dotted around the coast set amongst lush tropical landscape.
It’s amazing falling asleep to the sound of the waves on the beach-side campsites of Kauai. But, beware of the roosters! Bring earplugs if you’re a light sleeper. They roam freely and noisily in all the campsites bar one – my favourite and the most remote – wild and beautiful Polihale.
The state-owned campsites are very cheap ($3) have all basic amenities and are generally small, pretty and set in nature.
I’d always wanted to go to Hawaii, so when my American travel-blogger friend Lindsay found super-cheap flights I jumped at the chance and booked for $400 return Sydney to Honolulu. Lindsay is great at planning trips especially when outdoor adventures are involved, so I knew we’d have fun exploring waterfalls and beaches.
I was apprehensive about camping on Kauai at first. I enjoy camping but hadn’t done it for years. I had no idea what the campsites would be like. As a light sleeper I have to be a bit more considerate of my accommodation than most. But I loved the idea of being immersed in nature, right next to the ocean.
First stop: Honolulu
The flight from Sydney to Honolulu takes ten hours. We arrived early and stayed up the whole day. There were Christmas decorations everywhere!
We explored Honolulu for a few days before flying out to Kauai. A highlight of Honolulu was doing Yoga Floats – yoga on stand up paddle boards – perfect for stretching our limbs after the 9 hour flight.
Tip: don’t watch an episode of “Murder Detectives” about someone being shot and killed in a tent the night before going camping in a country where you can buy guns in Walmart…
Scenic flight from Honolulu to Kauai
A little plane flew us from Honolulu to Kauai – the views were pretty magical as you can imagine. We arrived to 70s decor, drizzle and roosters wandering around outside the tiny airport. Trundling through the beige little airport with Hawaiian music and tacky Christmas decorations the likes of which I hadn’t seen for decades, I felt like I’d been transported to a 70s Hawaiian Christmas film.
We hired a little car near the airport. It’s easy to drive around and explore the whole island as Kauai is so small, and the landscape and weather actually varies a lot from south to north – the south being dryer and the north more lush and green with dramatic cliffs. I was glad to have Lindsay drive, as I’m not used to driving on the right side of the road.
Winter weather in Kauai
We visited in December which is Hawaiian winter. Kauai is known for being rainy generally, which is why it’s so lush and green. We had mixed weather but overall it was warm but not too hot, so I think December is a great time to visit to avoid crowds and heat. I’d have preferred more clear sunny days, but actually the days it drizzled gave it a misty tropical atmosphere, and we saw loads of rainbows.
Camping permit for Kauai
First stop was to get our camping permit from an office not far from the airport, which we’d pre-arranged. The government camp sites are super cheap – a few US dollars with a permit.
The camp permit guy told us each site closes once a week for maintenance, which was a real pain as the dates meant we couldn’t stay more than one night at the first site (we’d matched each site to the day’s activities) so we ended up planning each night in a different place. Which was good in terms of variety, but not great in terms of time spent putting up and packing up tents.
He said the reason for the sites closing periodically was to prevent people from staying there long term. Something in his tone and the way he described this gave me the impression the sites attracted vagrants and dodgy characters who had to be moved on, but I brushed it aside…he also told us there were sometimes break-ins at camp sites particularly those near popular hikes like Haena Beach camp site near the Kalalau Trail.
Guns and camp gear in Walmart
Everything had that easy convenient feel I always get in the U.S. We drove to Walmart in town where we spent AGES getting supplies, novelties and stuff thats far cheaper than in Australia. I was alarmed to see a row of rifles and guns for sale in one aisle, reminding me how freely available they are in America. Living in Australia and being from England I am not accustomed to guns and nor do I want to be. After the murder in a tent documentary we’d watched, seeing the guns openly for sale for any loon to buy put me on edge. Walmart didn’t sell foot pumps (only electric), and I assumed there would be no power at the camp sites so I wasn’t looking forward to blowing up my airbed by mouth!
The sun started setting surprisingly early as winter means short days, contrasting with the long days of Australian summer in December.
How long to spend camping in Kauai
We had five days on Kauai staying in four sites with one night at the St Regis in Princeville to shake things up. I would have liked a lot longer to explore, and would love to do the Kalalau Trail. So a week or more is ideal to see the island properly, but five days was also a good amount and seemed to last ages.
Best camp sites in Kauai
Below is a run-down of all four camp sites we stayed on Kauai and our experiences there. I’d recommend this route if you’ll be there between five and ten days as it explores each side of the island in turn and each site is set amongst nature. I waffle on about my experience in some parts so feel free to scan!
1. Salt Lake Park
This campground on the south side of Kauai was our first stop. We rocked up at 11pm the first night so it was pretty dark besides the moon and stars.
The site is an incredible setting right on a palm fringed beach. We tried to survey the area with our torches, and went over to a group of guys who were at the communal BBQ area to ask where to camp and whether they had an air bed pump. As soon as I started talking to them I regretted it. I suddenly realised we were drawing attention to the fact we were two foreign females camping alone. Also the knowledge there are known break-ins at some camp sites put me on edge.
We pitched our tents way over the other side, right on the beach between some palm trees. After spending ages assembling my new head torch and tent, and blowing up my air mattress by mouth, we were finally ready to sleep. Exhausted and jet lagged, I thought I’d sleep easily with the gentle sound of the ocean.
Not long after zipping up and beginning to drift off, I could hear a shuffling noise like someone right outside my tent. A combination of things had put me on edge: the murder detectives episode we’d watched, the guns we’d seen in WalMart, what the permit warden had told us, and the potentially feral locals who were hanging round drinking at midnight. A few times I got out of the tent and shone my torch around.
By around 3am I finally calmed a bit and decided I was being irrational. But then every time I started drifting off, my head kept rolling off the ludicrous cat cushion Id bought to use as my pillow.
After finally getting comfortable and beginning to drift off around 5am, the roosters started cock-a-doodle-dooing…
By around 7am, after some earplug re-arrangement, they faded enough to let me begin falling asleep again. But then suddenly the roosters became SUPER loud. I stuck my head outside my tent and it was literally surrounded with roosters of all shapes and sizes. Lindsay was amusedly taking photos. WHAT’S GOING ON?!?!
I think they came over hoping to be fed as soon as Lindsay had emerged from her tent, after she was woken by the camp site warden telling her we were camping on the wrong part of the beach and had to pack up our stuff by 8am. After no sleep. GREAT.
Once I properly emerged from my tent grumpy and bleary eyed due to lack of sleep, I was instantly cheered by clear blue skies, palm trees and crystal clear water! Its hard to stay grumpy for long when you feel like you’ve been transported to a tropical paradise!
Anyway after packing up our tents we ended up having a great morning swimming in the ocean in the little tide pool at one end of the beach, and trying out Lindsay’s special new underwater Go-Pro dome. I somehow felt fine despite the sleep deprivation. One of the guys from the previous night came over and seemed super-friendly and was just interested in meeting new people. So, not a murderer after all! My over-tired mind had just mis-interpreted the situation the previous night.
Salt Lake Park camp site is right on a picturesque beach with palm trees and a tide pool at one end. The south side of the Island rarely gets rain so it’s ideal for swimming as the sea is calm in winter. I would have certainly enjoyed a few more days camped here.
2. Polihale State Park
To access Polihale State Park camp site, beware of the long bumpy mud track with rocks and pot holes. If the weather isn’t wet you should be fine if you’re careful and go slow. We had the literal crappest smallest hire car and had no issues when going slow. But we heard tales of people getting stuck in the sand when it rains.
Polihale camp site sits atop sand dunes overlooking a beautiful rugged, vast white sand beach with strong currents and crashing waves. Four wheel drives can even drive along the beach here. It’s stunning!
The sun was setting as we arrived on the beach to see a few happy campers sitting quietly chatting and watching the sun set.
We sat up watching the stars appear, drinking red wine and chatting about how little we really need in life, how we want to one day live closer to nature and become self sufficient. It was so great to be out in nature and offline. The stars at night are incredible as it’s so isolated.
Polihale camp site has a lovely chilled vibe and was super quiet. The best night’s sleep I got on the island. And no roosters, yay!!
3. Haena State Park
Haena State Park camp site is on the wetter lush green north side of Kauai right on a beach set against dramatic mountains, with caves below it.
The weather was cloudy when we were there but I imagine it’d be great for swimming in summer, and there’s a lifeguard hut. Apparently it’s good for surfing in winter although there weren’t many surfers when we were there. Again we rocked up at night.
There were huge puddles in the car park near the caves. It’s close to the beginning of the Kalalau trail and apparently there are sometimes break-ins in the car park but we were fine.
The weather was a bit drizzly when we rocked up so after pitching our tents we sat in the lifeguard hut watching the waves and chatting and I drank some leftover red wine we had.
After making some salad wraps which fell to pieces Lindsay went to bed, and I stayed up reading Russell Brand’s Revolution and polished off the rest of the wine. A friendly surfer came and chatted to me and said he’s been surfing all day. I got to bed pretty late and after telling some stoned teenagers to be quiet I finally started drifting off in the early hours.
But I was woken not long later by loud shouting echoing through the toilet block. It sounded like somebody drunk having an argument. I didn’t think that much of it and got up to use the bathroom, still with earplugs in… as I came out of the toilet a bedraggled-looking man appeared. He looked crazed and drunk and / or on drugs, and had a large LED flashlight round his neck.
He started ranting to a horrified-looking couple who happened to be at the sinks too. I didn’t hear what he said as my earplugs muffled his ranting. I went back to my tent. But I couldn’t sleep after that. He looked so wild-eyed he could be a lunatic about to shoot up the campsite.
Again, the guns and murder detectives episode played on my mind, and I imagined some awful incident unfolding. Then he started shouting again, really bellowing. Mostly indistinguishable, but I made out “I WILL FIND YOUUUUUUU” I was really terrified by this stage. I didn’t know what to do.
By emerging from my tent or calling the police I would only draw attention to myself. So I just lay there scared stiff. Then I saw super a bright torch light near my tent. He must be stalking round the campsite looking for victims! I felt like a kid hiding from the bone cruncher in the BFG. (I had once watched it while camping as a kid and been terrified at night!)
After two hours, still alive, I emerged from the tent and saw a guy walking to the toilet block. It wasn’t the loony, so I went and asked if he heard the ruckus. He said the cops had arrived and shone their torches round the site, and that it seemed like all was ok. I was still pretty scared though…I was so glad we were staying at the St Regis that night!
St Regis Hotel Princeville
I would highly recommend sticking a luxury hotel stay in between camping as we really appreciated the contrast and luxury, and it gave us a good chance to get properly cleaned up. I was especially glad to have a night somewhere I felt safe and secure after the trauma of two of the nights camping. The St Regis is amazing!!
Rocking up in our mud-covered little hire car blasting out cheesy Christmas music was pretty hilarious. The St Regis is a very fancy hotel, and the staff greeted us as we pulled up to take our luggage and a valet took our keys like something from a film! The guy who greeted us looked a bit bemused at our camp gear, clothing and bikinis strewn around the car, and a wine bottle in the door. Probably not quite the usual clientele!
4. Anahola Beach Retreat
The Kumu Camp at Anahola Beach Retreat (you have to check out the website with it’s cute Hawaiian music!) campground is a bit hard to find at night along winding little residential coastal roads. It’s a private one that we found by mistake when looking for the state one we’d booked.
We spoke to a guy who seemed to be staying long term in an awesome yurt with fairy lights and Christmas decorations, and a machine projecting colourful dots of light all over the trees and campsite which just looked magical. He said it was safer than the state owned campsite. After the incident at our Haena state camp site, I believed him! So we decided to stay there for our final night.
It was really quaint, set amongst trees right on the beach. There were very cute little huts to stay in as well as big yurts. We could only find one shower but it was hot. We saw a police car driving on the beach at night, I think headed for the state camp park, so I was glad we weren’t staying there.
We found the cutest friendliest cat there! The beastly camp dog kept chasing it though. I hope he never caught it. Yet again though there was a ruckus in the night with the dog barking, motorbikes and cars going by, drunken teenagers and people shouting well into the early hours. Probably because it was a Friday night.
We had such a special memorable time in Kauai, despite the crazy incidents!! The exotic vibe leading up to Christmas was like movie-magic! See the day trips we did in Highlights of Kauai.
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