Kauai’s North Shore,
Approximately 5-10 minute drive from Hanalei
The post-card perfect scenery of Tunnels Beach on the North Shore of Kauai offers visitors looking for things to do in Kauai a great option–a wide, golden sand beach, shady palms and ironwood trees and views of the fabled Bali Ha’i (made famous by the musical South Pacific). Tunnels Beach is also a premier swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving and surfing spot. (Never been surfing? Check out my post on Learning to Surf in Hawaii).
The scenic spot, located just North of Hanalei, is a 2-mile stretch of beach perfection. The center portion of beach has a huge, half moon shaped reef about 1/8 mile off shore. This reef not only provides excellent snorkeling and diving, it also creates a barrier from the rough surf conditions and strong currents characteristic of Kauai’s North Shore. The shallow, sandy bottom in front of the reef remains calm even in the rough winter months and the waves breaking beyond the reef makes for an an excellent surfing spot.
Premier Dive and Snorkel Spot
Tunnels is renowned as not only one of the best dive spots in Hawaii, but also as one of the premier dive sites in the world. Composed of an inner and outer reef with a wide channel in between, Tunnels is a maze of coral formations, lave tubes, tunnels and arches and is home to thousands of different species of marine life.
Divers tend to favor the outer reef, which offers more lava tubes and arches. Snorklers should NEVER attempt to swim into one of the lava tunnels–as getting stuck in a lava tube is one of the most effective ways of becoming a permanent part of the reef (which would definitely put a damper on most peoples’ vacations). It should go without saying that no one should attempt Kauai scuba diving without proper instruction and scuba certification
If you aren’t scuba certified, but still want to check out some of the amazing coral and marine life at this beach, Tunnels is a perfect place to strap on a mask and fins. While you may not get to explore some of the underwater tunnels without a tank on, you’ll still be able to take in the underwater beauty of this reef.
Enter the water at the sandy spot on the northern part of the reef. Don’t try to snorkel over areas where the reef extends all the way to the shore: that’s a good way to get cut up by coral, sharp rocks and sea urchin spines (this hurts a lot). Instead, snorkel along the inner reef close to the channel separating it from the outer reef.
Out on reef you’ll see a wide variety of fishes and invertebrates. Parrot fish, bird wrasse, filefish and moray eels are all common sights, as are large schools of Manini.
Sea turtles, or honu as they are known in Hawaiian, are common sights at Tunnels as well. If you do see one, keep your distance and remember these endangered reptiles need to reach the surface to breath. It’s not uncommon to see several turtles while snorkeling Tunnels.
Surfing at Tunnels
Past the outer reef the surf kicks up, making Tunnels popular with both surfers and kite boarders. In fact, the beach partly gets its name from the tunnel like waves that form here. These waves are not for beginners, however. There are better (and safer) spots on Kauai for novice surfers.
Check out my posts on Beginner Surf Spots in Hawaii
- Learning How to Surf in Hawaii
- Best Beginner Surf Spots: Part 1
- Best Beginner Surf Spots: Part 2
- Best Beginner Surf Spots: Part 3
BEWARE: Kauai’s north shore is hit by massive swells during the winter, and on most days the surf will rush right over the reef to the shore. When this happens Tunnels is dangerous and should be avoided. There are occasional calm days on the north shore during the winter, but remember that winter waves on the north shore can kick up quickly
Hanging out at Tunnels
In addition to great snorkeling, diving and surfing, the beach is an idyllic spot with a grove of ironwood trees providing comfortable shade for your visit, golden, soft sand and spectacular views at the edge of the Na Pali coast. Also, while a popular spot with both tourists and locals, the beach is not overly crowded and you can always find a spot distanced from other beach goers.
You also can’t miss the sun setting behind backdrop Bali Ha’i and dropping below horizon. Take a bottle of wine and a blanket and enjoy the picture-perfect sunset. Tunnels beach really is a little piece of paradise and one of my favorite beaches in the islands.
There are no facilities or lifeguards at Tunnels. There are, however, picnic tables, restrooms, showers and about 100 campsites at Haena State Park about a half mile from the beach. Campsites go fast at Haena State Park, so if you want to stay there make reservations or arrive early!
During my trip to Kauai, we were lucky to get a rental house tucked in the ironwood grove about 100 yards from the beach. Every day we would roll out of bed and walk the few steps to the beach and spend the day snorkeling and lounging. After dinner, we would walk back down to the beach to enjoy the spectacular sunset.
If you want to stay close to tunnels, but don’t have the cash to rent a house, Tunnels is super close to one of the best camping spots in Kauai and you can pitch a tent at nearby Haena State Beach Park
Directions to Tunnels
Take Highway 560 east from Hanalei toward Ha’ena. Two short dirt roads, just past Mile Marker #8, lead to the parking area for the beach.
While there are a couple of turn-offs through the beach houses where you can park to reach Tunnels, it’s usually better to drive up to the Haena Beach parking and walk the quarter mile down the shore to Tunnels.
Parking at Haena also lets you check ocean conditions with the lifeguard before heading for Tunnels. Haena also has washrooms and showers, while Tunnels has no such facilities.