Maha'ulepu Beach & Makauwahi Cave | Kauai, Hawaii: Full-Day Itinerary by a Local Mom (kid friendly!)
Updated: Jul 24
The Maha'ulepu coastline is breathtaking, but the beaches and what lies just beyond the shores are the real gems. Getting there is a bit of an adventure—but nothing you can't handle. Prepare for epic views, rough terrain, an ancient open roof cave, tortoises, and secluded beaches, with delicious local food!
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
• winter: beach towel
• all seasons: bug spray, SPF, water, backpack, packed lunch*
*LUNCH you can opt to pick-up lunch at the breakfast spot (but it has a very limited menu) or try one of the following:
upscale health food cafe/grocery store/restaurant with great grab-and-go options
local juice bar with healthy grab-and-go salad options. local tip: bring in your empty kauai juice co glass jars/bottles to receive a discount off your purchase.
WHAT TO WEAR
• bathing-suit*, hiking shoes, t-shirt & shorts
*best time to attempt swimming is in the winter months.
STEP 1: BREAKFAST
Location: Little Fish Coffee @littlefishcoffee
Distance: Your first stop is in Poipu across from the Marriot Waiohai Beach Club entrance.
Why you need to visit: This is a locally owned and operated coffee shop with a great selection of organic fair-trade coffee, açaí bowls, smoothies and bagel sandwiches. My go-to order is the Hippie Bagel with mustard on an everything bagel and a Chai Latte with oat milk. My kids love the Banana Colada Smoothie. This is a casual order at the counter and eat at the picnic tables kinda place. Local tips: skip the CRAZY long line and order online—you will need to wait for an email confirmation and then a second letting you know it is ready for pick-up. Put any modifications in the notes (want oat milk? select almond, but then write oat milk). Also, don't feed the chickens. They are aggressive and will take a bagel right out of your hands—ask my 3 year old!
How to get there: GOOGLE MAP
STEP 2: PARK THE CAR
Location: CJM Stables
Distance: 10-15mins from Little Fish Coffee
What to expect: the road is for the more adventurous or if you have 4WD, but with that being said I do not have 4WD and always make it. Drive past the Grand Hyatt and Ainako St. / Poipu Bay Golf Course. From here it will turn into a dirt road. Make a right where you see signs for CJM Stables. There will be a fork in the road about 30 seconds in—turn left. Drive as far down the "road" as your car and/or your comfort level will allow and park on the right side of the road.
(prior to COVID the closed gate directly to the left of the CJM Stables sign was open and took you to a parking lot right next to the cave—no one is sure when/if they will ever open it again).
STEP 3: HIKE TO THE CAVE
Location: Makauwahi Cave Reserve
Hours: 10am - 2pm daily, with extended hours until 4pm on weekends. Be sure to check out the cave reserve website to confirm.
Distance: From parking area to cave is 15 mins / 0.5 miles
What to expect: The Makauwahi Cave is the largest limestone cave in Hawaii that took over 400,000 years to form. On the way to the cave you will see native Hawaiian plants and a spectacular overhead view of the Makauwahi Sinkhole. After parking, change into your hiking gear and pack your lunch, snacks, water and beach items—don't forget your reef friendly SPF. There is a self-guided trail with clearly marked signs directing you to the cave, but what I outline below in option 2 and recommend is the trail that they use for horses—it is easier, quicker and has opportunities to walk down to a secluded section of the beach.
A note about Maha'ulepu: there are a ton of meandering false paths—pay attention to landmarks mentioned below.
HIKE Option 1 – Self-guided Trail
1: Walk down the road until you see a sign pointing left to the Makauwahi Cave. Follow the path up and down to the rim of the cave where you will see a sign with pictures about the cave. It is a spectacular view!
2: From here walk right, down the path that hugs the cave rim. There is a little path to the left that keeps hugging the rim, but stay on the main path. You know you're on track if you see a wooden marker #13.
3: The path will curve down and into a little tree tunnel. After passing through the trees the path comes to a fork. Turn LEFT so that the stream is on your right.
4: Walk past the bridge on your right and continue down the path for another minute. The path then opens up to reveal the very small triangular shaped opening of the cave. You've made it!
HIKE Option 2 – Horse Trail
1: Walk down the road until it meets the ocean and turn left. Proceed into the tree lined "tunnel" and walk for a few minutes.
BONUS: there is a little path to the right of the tree tunnel entrance that takes you down to a little secluded beach.
2: You will see a sign that says FOOT TRAIL and HORSE TRAIL—make a slight left back onto the official foot trail and walk up to the rim of the cave where there is a sign with pictures about the cave. It is a spectacular view!
3: Follow steps 2-4 from Option 1/Self-guided Trail
ENTERING THE CAVE
The entrance is small at only 3 feet and requires you to basically crawl in. Watch your head! There should be a volunteer at the main cave opening (just inside and across the lawn) who has some interesting facts and stories about the cave. Walk around and check out this ancient site, but trust me do not take any "souvenirs" home with you. Travelers have anonymously sent back rocks they have taken from the cave due to the bad luck they brought.
STEP 4: CHECK OUT SOME TURTLES 🐢
Location: Tortoise Sanctuary
Distance: short walk from Cave entrance
What to expect: after exploring the cave, head back the way you came and make a left to walk over the bridge (generously built by Pirates of the Caribbean 4). Just to the left you will see a gated off area with a stair entrance right over the gate. Here you will find 20 tortoises in the various sections. My kids love to collect and feed the tortoises bread fruit, but not sure if that is allowed 🤫
STEP 5: HIKE
Location: Maha'ulepu Beach
Difficulty: kids and/or beginner
Distance: 20-30 minute walk on the beach
What to expect: Maha'ulepu Beach is actually made up of three beaches: Gillin's, Kawailoa Bay, and Ha'ula. The beaches are not easily accessible and therefore you won't see too many people. Although it is a favorite resting place for Monk Seals! You have the option to hike all the way to Ha'ula—which I highly recommend, but only if you do not have any littles with you.
From the tortoise area/parking lot, walk towards the ocean and make a left. The stream running onto the beach changes direction with rainfall so you may need to walk through some brush to get around. Due to the high levels of bacteria found in the stream from Grove Farm it is not recommended to walk in the stream or swim at Gillin's Beach (NO MOO POO IN MAHA'ULEPU is the local slogan in protest). This is a beautiful stretch of coastline with lots to explore. Keep going until you curve around the bend and the magnificent Kawailoa Bay Beach reveals itself.
BONUS HIKE: if you're feeling adventurous and want to continue past Kawailoa Bay and onto Ha'ula Beach you will be rewarded with amazing views and most likely a secluded beach. PSAs: lithified sand dunes along the cliff are brittle; the landowner is no longer granting access along the cliffs trail so technically in Hawaiian style you are trespassing.
STEP 6: BEACH PICNIC & SWIM
Location: Kawailoa Bay Beach
What to expect: there is a little beach cove on the far right side (looking towards land) that is just magical. Set-up right on the beach and enjoy your homemade or grab-and-go lunch. The beach is not protected by a reef, can be rough with strong currents and does not have a lifeguard on duty. If you are traveling during the summer months its best to enjoy dipping in your toes. During the winter months the swell heads North and this beach is more swimmable. Always sit and observe the ocean for at least 20 mins before entering—especially when the nearest help is miles away.
STEP 5: HIKE BACK TO CAR
Location: Maha'ulepu Beach
Distance: 35-45 mins
What to expect: after enjoying lunch and cooling down in the water, head back down the beach, past the cave and back to your car. LOCAL TIP: if you aren't feeling walking back on the beach, you can take the dirt road right behind Kawailoa Bay. It meanders and forks a lot, but if you stay parallel to the ocean it will pop you right out by the tortoise enclosures.
STEP 6: Pick-up Dinner
Location: Poipu / Koloa
Distance: 15 mins from parking area
Why you need to visit: keep the adventures going and pick-up some Thai or sushi to-go from the food trucks in downtown Koloa and take it to Poipu Beach to enjoy the sunset.
Feeling like you need to be taken care of a little bit after a long day, but still want to keep it casual? Try one of my favorite local restaurants listed at the end of this article.
STEP 7: Eat Dinner & Watch the Sunset
Distance: 10 mins from food trucks
Why you need to visit: my go-to move is to pull off onto the side of the road, take a few beach chairs & drinks, and post-up at one of the many amazing spots along the coast. I have a few that I might share with you if you DM me ;) but here are a few of my top locations:
• Brennecke's Beach: on the rocks to the left of the beach (looking at the ocean)
• The Wall: on the cement wall that runs alongside Hoonani Rd. between Koloa Landing and the Sheraton.
recently the property owners have shut off most access to these beaches so locals bend over backwards to keep the beach accessible. Please pack out what you pack in.
always sit and observe the ocean for at least 20 mins before entering—especially when there isn't a lifeguard present.
take care of the ʻaina (land) and stay on the trails, pack-out what you pack-in, and use reef safe sunscreen 🐠 🧴 🐟—see some of my favorites below👇
LOCAL CASUAL RESTAURANT RECS:
For Casual Dining
• The Tasting Room, located in DT Koloa, but you feel like you're in LA. Live music, amazing wine list, delicious food and cool outdoor seating. I love the Cheese Board, French Onion Soup, Fresh Burrata, Smoked Beet Salad, and their House Salad. You can also do a flight of wines! GOOGLE MAPS | @thetastingroomkauai
• Pacos Tacos Cantina, very unassuming spot on a golf course with ocean views in the distance. It is a pretty open-air feel. They have live music—its hit or miss, but nice vibe. I usually get the Shrimp Tacos and a Spicy Skinny Marg. HH 2-5pm daily. GOOGLE MAPS | @pacos_tacos_hawaii
• The Cabana Bar & Grill, live music and outdoor bar. This is a local pool & fitness club (Poipu Beach Athletic Club) that also caters to tourists whose hotel doesn't offer a pool. Really good pool side style food and drinks. I either get the Soba Noodles (+shrimp and avocado) or the Summer Rolls. HH 4-6pm daily. GOOGLE MAPS | @thecabanakauai
• Brennecke's Beach Boiler, this is an iconic restaurant located right across the street from Poipu Beach. The second floor location allows for epic views of the ocean. That is really the only reason to go—unfortunately, their food is not good. Wish they just served fried fish items and called it a day. Still a great place to get cocktails and an app. I would recommend: Crispy Poke Tacos or Coconut Shrimp. HH 3-5pm daily. GOOGLE MAPS | @brenneckes
PRODUCT SHOTS TAKEN ALONG MAHA'ULEPU BEACH