If you only had one day on Kauai's South Shore, what could you do?
As it turns out, you could to go on a scenic drive, visit three state parks, and take in an early evening swim at one of the South Shore's best beaches - all without any rushing or hurrying around.
On our visit, we planned three full days based out of Kekaha and took off early on the first day, planning to make the drive all the way up to Koke'e State Park to explore some trails. Unfortunately for our plans, we visited in February during the rainy season - so our ridge line hiking plans were out. Instead, we opted for a day of sight seeing which even at our leisurely pace, led us on a beautiful tour around the South Shore.
Waimea Canyon Drive
From Kekaha, there are two ways to drive the main route up Waimea Canyon (Route 550) - either via Kokee Road or Waimea Canyon Drive. For a slight change of scenery, I'd recommend driving Waimea Canyon Drive on the way up and Kokee Road on the way back. This order will also set you up well for the third and final state park of the day.
The drive up Waimea Canyon is filled with places to pull off and wonder at views leading up the mountains and behind you to the ocean. The Lonely Planet Guide for Kauai has a great accounting of the mile markers to keep your eyes peeled for. One of my favorite sights was this small cascade of water flowing over the red soil for which Waimea Canyon is named for.
Waimea Canyon State Park
There are two view points on the way up Waimea Canyon Drive and I'd recommend stopping at both. You'll come across Waimea Canyon Lookout just after the 10-mile marker and the Pu'u Hinahina Lookout between the 13-mile and 14-mile markers.
If you're interested in more than just a look at the canyon there are a few short loop trails and hikes to explore the flora around the area. Other than that, most day hikes will take you down into the canyon - meaning you'll need to trek your way back up!
Koke'e State Park
Most folks stop at the first lookout for Waimea Canyon and turn around, some go on to the second, but only an intrepid few visitors continue up higher to Koke'e State Park. The hikes in Koke'e are some of the most dramatic on the island and sure look to be worth the drive - especially the Awa'awapuhi and Nu'alolo trails. Although, as previously mentioned, the weather was not in our favor and Koke'e happened to be rainy and entirely enveloped in clouds.
That being said, even though we didn't get to hike, it was still worth the visit. From the Kalalau Lookout, we waited patiently for the clouds to thin just a bit and caught this cliff outline along with waves on the beach below.
Polihale State Park
After being weathered out of all our other plans before lunch, the next logical step seemed to be to continue the state park adventure and journey to Polihale State Park. The thing to know before heading to Polihale is that the road is rough and much longer than I anticipated. It's all dirt and if you're attempting the drive in the rainy season, there's no way you're getting out with a clean vehicle. I also wouldn't advise making the drive in anything other than a 4WD vehicle unless you're quite comfortable with off road driving. Fortunately, my husband finds ever so much joy in driving off road and we managed to make it all the way to the end of the road with our little rental car. It was an entirely different color when we arrived, but it was perfectly intact.
The beach and waves at Polihale are empty and rough, its a great place to find some solitude on an island where many of the beaches can be quite crowded. The cliffs at the end of Polihale are considered sacred as the place where souls depart for the underworld.
By far my favorite swimming beach on the South Shore, Po'ipu Beach sits right in front of the Sheraton Hotel but is easily accessible by the public. It may seem a little funny driving into the hotel area but there is parking on the side of the alley as well as a pay lot right in front of the beach. The sand is soft and the water is great for strong swimmers since it's protected (a bit) by a reef. An extra plus, the Living Foods Market is just a short drive away.