We live for the untouched, hidden, secluded, end of the road type of places. Sometimes it’s not possible to find those places. Sometimes it’s too hard to get to them. Sometimes it’s just hard enough that it keeps people away and that’s the sweet spot. Polihale is one of those sweet spots. Located at the end of the road on the South coast, next to Na Pali coast, down a beat up road, Polihale State Park has 17 miles of beach, day use facilities, and camping. The water is typically a bit rougher here, although Queen’s Pond is a protected area that is more “docile” and many people swim there. Most people visiting Kauai want to be pampered and not deal with camping equipment (rental or other) so Polihale makes a great getaway spot for seclusion and reflection.
We had read and heard a lot of different things about Polihale State Park. For example, we read that it’s accessed down a dirt road that is sometimes maintained by the park service and sometimes left alone and unkempt. We read in some books that 4WD vehicles are a must, while others claim that any car can go. Through these varying recounts of Polihale, the one piece of information that did seem to be consistent was that many car rental companies will basically void insurance if you go out to Polihale and get stuck or need a tow. For this reason, we’re going to say check your rental agreements and if you really want to go out here, rent a 4WD vehicle.
To get there is fairly straightforward (that’s what you get on a small island with one main road)! To get there from Lihue Airport for example, you get onto Highway 50 and drive west. In about 34.5 miles (after you’ve passed Waimea Canyon turn-outs and signs for the Pacific Missile Range Facility) you curve right onto Kao Road which quickly turns into Kiko Road. After 0.2 miles, you’ll see Lower Saki Mana Road on your left (across from a gate with a graffiti sign and a Private Property sign). There’s also a sign a few feet before the road (on the right side) with an arrow just in case you can’t find it.
It’s at this point that the dirt road adventure begins. We drove out in the end of August and it was very dry, but I suspect that’s not always the case, so check your weather forecasts before you go. I’ve heard at times, it can flood over and make it a mucky, muddy, mess. The drive is about 4 miles out to the end of the dirt road… you basically end up on the beach. As an aside, while above we noted that 4WD is helpful, we will also backtrack here and say that there were all sorts of cars out there- jeeps, vans, trucks, mustangs even! Just be careful. After a couple miles of bouncing and trouncing you arrive at a giant Monkey Pod Tree in the middle of the road (picture below). The left “Y” will take you to Queen’s Pond, a supposedly docile and protected area for swimming in the Polihale State Park area. I say ‘supposedly’ because we didn’t really find a “docile” area… more of choppy, but not too choppy, all along the Polihale Coast. That didn’t stop us from swimming at Queen’s Pond, nor at Polihale proper. If you do decide to swim, be very careful, don’t go out too far, and assess before you go in. We went in because it didn’t look too bad. However, if the waves are big don’t risk it. This is a very unpopulated area so you’re on your own.
If you continue to the right of the Monkey Pod Tree, you enter the camping and day use area. Camping permits can be purchased online through the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. Permits cost $18 per tent (non-resident) and you may camp for up to 5 nights (nightly capacity is 60). Note that the link to the camping page (hyperlinked above) states $12/person. When you click on the box to be taken to the permit purchashing site, you will note that the actual cost is $18/non-resident tent. Anyway, after the Monkey Pod Tree, you will pass some picnic tables and then as you continue down the sand road, you will notice four “sand driveways” is what I’ll call them. Each one is a “camping area”. They each have a small sign that says “Camping Area XX” (1-4). There also some pull outs that don’t have camping signs. If you continue on to the end of the road, you’ll see a few pavilions and the beach. While we saw one truck drive onto the beach, no one else did. To make life easier, don’t drive on the beach. You’ll need an air pump and a pressure gauge at a minimum and don’t forget that if you get stuck you’re basically screwed.
Anyway, if you are camping, you can pull into any of the camping areas. You may be discouraged if you see a car parked and a tent out in front, but don’t be. The camping area is not just the area directly in front of the car parking. It is much larger. We stayed at camping area #3 (picture of parking above) and couldn’t be happier. We parked in the designated area (where there was a tent set up about 10 feet ahead of us). We saw a sort of opening to the left in the trees and walked that way only to wind around and find (in our opinion) the perfect camping spot. We were tucked away from the cars and other campers with our own beach entry point. We could literally see the ocean from our tent and yet we were protected within the trees. Awesome.
We ended up spending two nights in Polihale and in the end, I think we both would have spent 20 more there if we didn’t want to see the rest of the island! It was so relaxing. There was some cell service (in and out), no hustle and bustle… just mandatory relaxation. After the first night we picked up beach chairs so we could spend a few hours out on the beach the next afternoon. When we did, we saw two young friends (the ones with the truck) and some fishing poles… and maybe one other couple. As an aside, it’s important to note the size of the dunes here… easily 100 feet. There’s no easy way down or up– just you and your feet. Going down the dunes is fine, but back up is tiring- just be aware before you embark. Another note is that the sand gets really really hot (especially at mid-day). A few sites and guidebooks we read said that your best bet is to wear hiking sucks (no shoes) to walk on the beach… in fact some people even reported getting blisters from barefooting it. We went later in the day and without shoes and it was hot but manageable… but I’d heed the warnings- always better not to deal with foot blisters and put on some socks! The reason you don’t wear shoes is because you are likely to get sand stuck in your shoes which will be uncomfortable and hot.
We swam for a while in the water, just bobbing along and then eventually sat and dried out… at one point we heard a helicopter and figured it was a tour… Polihale is located at the start of the Na Pali coast, so many tours- boating, kayaking, helicopter, etc. go down this way. However, we noticed the bright red helicopter circling in and out of the same mountain– then it landed somewhere behind Polihale before taking off again, this time with a really long cord with some sort of windsock looking thing tied to the end. After disappearing into a canyon/mountain fold, the helicopter reappeared with a person(!) attached to the end of the long cord! They eventually landed again somewhere behind Polihale before taking off back down the coast the way the helicopter originally came. The verdict- must have been a practice rescue exercise. Still cool and interesting to watch!
Other things to note about Polihale: each camping area is a few feet to restrooms and an outdoor shower. The bathrooms are simple, but they’re bathrooms! Each has two stalls and toilet paper as well as a sink (but no soap). There is also a freshwater faucet by the restrooms to fill up on water. In addition, there is a trash can and recycling bin (the word “recycle” is painted on one of the two cans) by each camping area. Open fires are not allowed, but you can have a grill. We opted to lay out our tent rainfly on the beach and eat pineapple and guava rolls while watching the sunset. Now that’s living!
As another aside for this area, if you take the dirt road back out to the main paved road and turn left (not towards Lihue), you will eventually dead-end (whether you end up weaving left or right) at some giant security gates. What are they?! Oh they’re just gates blocking off mountains that have caves with ammunition and other military weapons hidden and guarded in them. Crazy, right? Seriously though, there are tons of signs and cameras and what not– so don’t go snooping, but you can drive up and turn around if you’re so inclined. You can’t see anything except the signs and gates by the way… unless you run into a raucous herd of goats running all of the place (as we did!).
Two thumbs up and 5-stars to Polihale State Park! If you get a chance to go camping out here, do it! If you don’t want to lug your camping stuff with you on the plane, there are a few rental places around the island such as Kayak Kauai or Kauai Camper Rental or really a whole slew of them… these two I have heard mention in books before for what it’s worth. That’s all for now- we’ll see you next time!