The wettest place on earth is Kauai and as you can see we didn’t mind sloshing through the many river crossings, creeks, swamps and bogs on Kauai.
Born of the sea five million years ago, Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands has changed little since the arrival of civilized man. It’s still a little wild and unrefined, with less infrastructure and more natural beauty than any of the others. This is why the Garden Isle attracts visitors looking for a glimpse of what paradise once was.
Kauai is home to some of Hawaii’s most spectacular natural landscapes. Thriving rainforests envelop waterfalls that seem to pour from the clouds, shrouding majestic mountains and breathtaking canyons formed under the most violent of volcanic conditions and molded over time into picturesque monuments. Kauai delivers more than the beachside Mojitos and spa treatments most associate with Hawaii. Being the closest thing to a tropical paradise an American can find without a passport, we go in for a firsthand look during a week of dual-sport riding on the original fantasy island.
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Touring Kauai can be budget-friendly depending on the approach. The first decision is whether to rent bikes or bring your own. We shipped a pair of Kawasaki KLX250S dual-sports round trip from the mainland for $800 apiece (prices vary depending on bike size and fuel prices). Our bikes arrived at Garden Island Motorsports in Kapaa where they were prepped and ready by the time we arrived. Our base is the township of Princeville on the North Shore – a 30-minute ride north from the shop along the coast.
Our first glimpse at one of the many hidden Kauai treasures is a dip in the swimming hole known as Queen’s Bath. The pool is surrounded by steep volcanic rock formations with unbelievable coastline pounded by the surf on the other side. Named after Hawaii’s Queen Emma, mother of Prince Albert from which Princeville gets its name, Queen’s Bath is worth the hike.
The morning brings rain and a wonderful breakfast at the Wake Up Cafe. Luckily, the rain subsides as we embark on day one of the mission – riding to the other side of the island. Swimming in a tide pool has its perks, like scantily clad vacationers and encounters with endangered sea turtles, but the first real adventure took place at Kipu Ranch. The 3000-acre jungle between the Huleia River and the peak of Mt. Haupu is the domain of Kipu Ranch Adventure ATV Tours (808-246-9288). Located at the base of the Haupu mountain range, guided Kipu Ranch eco-tours offer a glimpse into a lost world of dense jungle, rapidly growing vegetation and vast mountains which many recognize from feature films like Six Days Seven Nights, King Kong and Jurassic Park.
The wild beasts around Kipu Ranch might look scary but all they really want is a nice cold one to quench that terrible thirst.
The terrain varies from mild to wild depending on the destination. We opt for the unrated version of the tour, which includes dusty red-dirt roads through fields of green grass to overgrown, rocky, rutted jeep trails that cut through the verdant jungle foliage. The ground is rough in many spots and quite slippery when wet. And Kauai is the wettest place on earth, so immediately we acquaint ourselves with the mud and sticky clay. Improved dirt and gravel roads connect the trail systems, each with its own unique points of interest, from waterfalls to ancient ruins to a view of the nearly inaccessible Kipu Kai beach from high atop one of Haupu’s steep ridges. It’s some of Mother Nature’s greatest works, yet isn’t even the most spectacular view on the island.
The Kawasaki KLX20S handled everything the jungle threw at us on day one and the earlier choice to equip them with aggressive knobbies proved a good decision. We return to base that evening with another spectacular sunset to close out the first adventure of our journey.
Best of the Tourist Traps
After getting our tires dirty on day one it’s time to focus on street riding and exploring Kauai’s popular tourist destinations. With so many places to visit, two days were allocated for sightseeing. Head south along Highway 56 from Princeville to the Kilauea Lighthouse. The access road winds for a mile or so to the lookout where we are greeted with a view of the Pacific Ocean crashing against the walls of the stony cove 500 feet below. Built in 1913, the Kilauea Lighthouse is perched stoically on the northernmost point of the Hawaiian Islands. It served as a signpost for sailors navigating from the Orient in its heyday. Now it is the visitor center for the Kilauea Point Wildlife Refuge.
Kiluea Point Wildlife Refuge is a scenic overlook and viewing area on the Northeast side of Kauai. Here you can see an assortment of birds and sea-life playing along the cliffs and swimming in the surf off in the distance.
We continue south past an endless stretch of beaches. Depending on conditions, surfers are in abundance, as are kayakers and kiteboarders – all enjoying the tropical climate and surf the Coconut Coast is famous for. Opportunities to experience the local scene are abundant as well, with towns like Kapaa and Wailua catering to the needs of the vacationer. Join a kayak trip along the Wailua River or visit the Opaeka Falls – one of the more famous waterfalls on Kauai. The road to this landmark is nice and twisty and if you are looking to get away from the general public continue past Wailua Homestead to the untamed inner section of Kauai. There you’ll find Koloa Forest Reserve and the towering 5148-foot tall Mt. Waialeale off in the distance, but bring a GPS because signage is nonexistent and in the jungle no one can hear you scream… Cell phones don’t work either and the mosquitoes love fresh blood.
Next on our route is Lihue, home to the largest airport on Kauai. Shopping, dining and lodging opportunities are as modern as it gets on the island. Take Highway 50 south of Lihue and veer left on 520 through the mosquito-filled Tunnel of Trees towards Koloa and Poipu on the South Shore, home of the most popular food stops on Kauai. Puka Dog, a featured destination on many food TV shows, is a great lunch stop before heading to the South Shore for more tourist-friendly opportunities. Don’t be bashful, just order the fruitiest relish, spiciest mustard and grab a bib. The sauce will be dripping off your elbows by the second bite at this world-renowned dog stand. Once we wipe our faces clean, it’s off to Shipwreck to soak in some sun. What was once a secluded beach is now a busy shoreline at the base of one of Kauai’s few mega resorts. This is a great place to experience Hawaii’s monster waves without the reef dangers, so kids and grown-ups alike will get a kick out of it.
These kids could not hold back their enthusiasm for seeing the KLX on the beach. The lads spent an hour asking questions and trying to broker a deal to ride the KLX but as much as we would like to have let them, not a single one could provide proof of a valid MC endorsement so we had to decline.
These are just a few of the great stops along the coast. For the touring motorcyclist, just riding with the Pacific Ocean over one shoulder and the jungle on the other is a real treat. The ocean has never looked so blue and the white beaches are in stark contrast to the serrated black lava flows that frame them. Between Poipu and Kalaheo we see Spouting Horn in the middle of a particularly wicked-looking volcanic shelf. At this legendary lava formation waves swell and crash against the cliffs pushing water through tubes creating a howling prehistoric growl before exploding like a geyser that shoots foamy water high into the sky. Located between the Alberton and McBryde and National Tropical Botanical gardens, this is a nice mid-point to rest after a long day riding and sightseeing.
From Spouting Horn, it’s about 10 miles to arguably the most spectacular landmark on Kauai: Waimea Canyon. A miniature version of the Grand Canyon, this landmark is easily the most awe-inspiring location on the island. Highway 550 is a heck of a ride as it squirms north along the foothills of 2100-foot tall Puu Opae Mountain alongside the canyon. Lookouts are clearly marked but we didn’t stop for a single one on our first time on this sick stretch of road. Our guide Marci led us at a spirited pace to the end of what she describes as “the road of choice” for street bike riders on Kauai. There are plenty of dangers, including decreasing radius corners, switchbacks and tourists cutting corners, so carve at your own risk. The turnouts at the top offer two remarkable but decidedly different views. Kalalau looks to the west while Puu Ka Pele and Puu Hinahina Lookouts offer spectacular views of Waimea Canyon to the east.
Spouting Horn never stops spewing it salt water spray into the air. This lookout is easy to access by car or bike and is worth the short walk to get a good action shot.
The Kalalau lookout may be one of the most epic views on this planet – a 3000-foot canyon glazed in lush green vegetation, topped with Kauai’s jagged crimson rock peaks funneling out into the cerulean waters of the Pacific. Simply put, it’s the epitome of the term eye-candy. Photos are the best description. Ride another half mile up the road to the other lookouts for a glimpse of Waimea Canyon. This is the start of a 10-mile long, quarter-mile deep crevasse etched into the earth after centuries of erosion. Watershed from the peak of Mount Wai’ale’ale and Wainiha Ridge have cut a stunning ribbon through the base of the canyon before emptying into the sea below.
The ride back down the canyon goes by too quickly, so it is good to know you can loop around and hit Kokee Road to get more curves for your carving fix. The locals like Kokee because the curves are more consistent and repercussions of blowing a corner aren’t as bad as they are on the canyon-flanked 550. With Waimea Canyon etched in our psyche, the sun sinks low in the sky ahead on the ride back to Princeville. No matter what happens during daylight on Kauai, the sunsets are classic postcard material.
You know it’s going to be a long day when the guy who knows the route like the back of his hand gets his purpose-built 450 enduro stuck in the muck and you are riding a street-legal dual sport through the very same quagmire.
Our final mission on Kauai offers a taste of the truly challenging off-road scene. Jeff Guest, the founder of Moto-Hawaii Off-Road Motorcycle Tours, knows his way around the Kauai dirt and certainly has fun watching us flail through the island’s slimy soil. He chooses the iniquitous Powerline section of the Halelea Forest Reserve to test our mettle and see if the small-bore KLX250S can conquer this stretch of off-road anarchy. This stretch of jungle has panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, an array of tricky hillclimbs, challenging descents and almost impassable mud bogs. It’s an unbelievable ride complete with bumps, bruises and a few bent levers – a small price to pay considering the fulfilling views.
Deep, water-filled ruts dig into the rich black soil and churn into a nasty mud soup waiting around every turn. Each of us regularly tastes the stew with a gigantic slice of humble pie on a particularly grueling descent, a technically challenging ravine of slick white clay, bike-eating ruts and rocks galore. The steep angle of attack bends one set of stock bars and hurts our pride. In our defense, Guest confides these are the worst conditions he’s ever seen on the Powerline after fishing his bike out of one of the numerous bogs. Rain had filled every hole, the jungle was overgrown and the slipperiest place on earth was slimier than ever before.
Later we meet hunters roaming deep in the bush with their dogs in search of elusive wild boars. Baiting boars and killing them by hand is a tradition on Kauai, so don’t bother handing out PETA pamphlets when crossing their path – they’re probably meaner than you. As stunning as the scenery is, it is cruel too. The next few hours are spent exploring other roads within the reserve connected to the trailhead. The riding is some of the most epic on record and with off-road access dwindling everywhere in the mainland States, we are happy to say we had the opportunity to sample some of the best on earth in Kauai.
This second half of the ride is easily the most entertaining, rewarding and all-around most fun we had during our trip. But it is by no means easy. The route leads you through the jungle, plain and simple. There’s danger in the hills and it is certainly not recommended for riders without above-average off-road skills, so don’t try this if you are not prepared. When we wash the bikes down it looks as though we brought half the forest home with us. It takes some time to extract the weeds and clay from our tough little Kawasaki dual-sports and the new Thor gear is a lost cause thanks to the red muck soaked into its very core. There will be no watching the sunset on this night – we are wiped out and the beds are calling us.
We made the right choice bringing off-road capable dual-sports on the tour because as great as it is to check out the tourist traps, it is the road less travelled that put this ride over the top. For those who don’t live on the island an adventure like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Whether you prefer to cruise around on the highway, soaking in the sights on the beaten path or fancy the wild side of Kauai – there is simply nothing comparable to riding a motorcycle on the Garden Island. If you’re looking for moto-paradise, Kauai is it.
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