Polihale Beach's sand dunes are legendary, and described in many traditional Hawaiian songs and stories.
Photo by Mike Coots

Polihale or bust: Camping on Kauai's west side

Planning a camping trip to Kauai's west side takes a bit of legwork, but the bumps in the road are worth it.

My four-wheel-drive Jeep is rattling hard as I drive the rental on the dry, dusty and very bumpy road that makes up the roughly 5-mile trek to Polihale Beach State Park off Route 50.

I’m headed to the end of the road on the westernmost point of Kauai to camp at the foot of where Kauai’s famed Napali Coast begins. This is what many Kauai residents do in the summertime, and I wanted to experience Polihale just as they do. I first fell in love with this beach when I was a teenager visiting from Oahu with my parents. I remember the large, secluded and peaceful white-sand beach well, with its blue-green waters set next to the high cliffs. Its beauty has been beckoning me to return since then. But, this time, I’m the one driving, with my 15-year-old niece in the passenger seat and my 9-year-old son in the back. And, while they’re hooting and hollering, excited by the “joy ride,” every shake of the Jeep and dip in the road is making me nervous.

A Kauai friend drives her truck on the road to the park.
Photo by Mike Coots

I had been warned many times about this pothole-ridden road: First, by a state of Hawaii website, which recommends a four-wheel-drive vehicle and warns of an “unimproved dirt road that may flood during rains and become impassible.” My friends offered some advice by recalling a few stories about cars getting stuck in the mud or sand. I was also told multiple times that car rental companies don’t allow you to go there. But, aside from those things, it’s beautiful, everyone says. They all left me with many more unanswered questions: How am I supposed to get there, and what happens if I get stuck and need help?

Polihale is a perfect plact to watch the sunset.
Photo by Mike Coots

Determined to make the trip back to Polihale, I spent some time calling all the local offices for the major car rental companies, and even called Kayak Kauai to learn about its $240 one-way shuttle to Polihale (with a four-person minimum). I confirmed, it’s true; car rental companies will restrict you from driving to Polihale, because the dirt road is considered “off-roading.” Doing so will void your contract, which means, should you get into trouble, you’re on your own.

Undeterred, and not wanting to spend hundreds for a shuttle, I called my personal car insurance company, to see if it would be willing to get me out of trouble if something were to happen to the rental. Initially, I was told no, until I dug deeper into the car insurance company’s definition of “off-roading.” Unlike the car rental companies, which define it as driving off any unpaved road, my national car insurance provider believes that, because I’m going on a public road that’s used for driving to a state park —no matter the surface—it was not considered off-roading by its definition, and I would be fully covered. (You’ll need to verify this with your own insurance company.) I asked them politely to note my file with our conversation, and made the final decision to go.

But, I wasn’t taking any chances.

On the road ahead of me is a pickup truck I’ve been following for about an hour. Inside of it are two friends, also from Oahu, who are familiar with the road and driving much faster than I. As we approach the park, we see other trucks and Jeeps along the way, and the occasional compact car (which I don’t recommend driving), but other than that, the area is mostly secluded.

The view from the campsite. Photo by Mike Coots

Polihale Beach is very large, roughly 300 feet wide and miles long, with the beachfront campsites spread along its length. We pull up to one we like in our vehicles around 3 p.m. without any problems. The spot is near a bathroom, has a picnic table and some shade; we get out and set up camp. The sun is peaking overhead and the sand is extremely hot, and it’s then that we realize maybe we should have arrived an hour later—or brought tennis shoes to aid our burning feet.

Our camping gear is from Kayak Kauai, which I picked up at the Wailua River Marina earlier in the day after reserving it online a few days prior. The kids and I put together our two-person tents ($15 each, per night), and unroll our three sleeping bags ($6 each, per night) and three sleeping pads ($4 each, per night) inside them. We are happy with everything we received.

As the sun’s heat begins to let up, we walk toward the ocean; my son digs a hole in the sand while my niece splashes around at the water’s edge. This isn’t a swimming beach. The waves are rough and the current is strong. The main draw to Polihale is its view: The Nāpali cliffs rising high above the shoreline coupled with the long expanse of sand is unlike any other in the Islands.

My niece and friend at Polihale Beach with the Napali Coast seen in the background.
Photo by Mike Coots

We finish the day with a barbecue, followed by s’mores over a campfire and watch as the sunset’s colors dance across the mountain and beach in various shades of red and orange. The light slowly disappears below the horizon, creating a pink glow over the island of Niihau in the distance, and some stars peek out from the sky above before we head to our tents to sleep.

Around 3 a.m., I wake up, anxious to look at the numerous stars shining bright overhead, now that the moon is hidden behind the mountains. I am able to pinpoint constellations; I see a shooting star flash by; and I watch a satellite orbiting far, far away. Then, dawn’s light approaches, distant roosters begin to crow and I watch the sun’s rays shine over the Nāpali Coast.

Later on, after more fun in the sand, we head back on that rocky road, which seems easier to drive the second time. I drive the vehicle safely back to the paved highway, without getting stuck and without needing help ... this time.