Polihale State Park is a wild and remote stretch of coastline on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Technically, the small private island of Niihau is further west, but for public access, Polihale is as far west as you can go in Hawaii and its twelve plus miles of beach makes it among the longest beaches on all the islands. When we got there, sea foam rolled across the beach like tumbleweed. We felt as though we were at the end of the earth.
If you’re interested in exploring the area, here are some tips.
1. Rent an 4 x 4.
Polihale, beyond the highway’s end, is miles from the nearest town. Car rental agreements forbid driving on the pot-holed dirt road that is the only access route — where the eight-mile road is not rutted, it’s soft sand, and impassable without a 4 x 4 once it rains. We rented a large 4 x 4 Jeep Wrangler. Research your personal auto insurance policy as well as credit card car rental insurance, and AAA Roadside Assistance Plans.
2. Get a camping permit from the state park website.
The $18 nightly fee covers up to six people. Availability is displayed by date — our Monday in January was wide open. I saved our permit to my phone in case a ranger required it.
3. Gear up.
We found Bob and Cheryl at Kauai Camper Rental and arranged to rent a tent, chairs, an air mattress, bedding, and a lantern for $25. We packed layers for the chilly evening. I brought toilet paper in case there wasn’t any at the park.
4. Check the weather forecast and road conditions.
If it rains, the road floods and you’ll risk getting stranded. If rain is predicted, find another place to stay. Follow The Kauai Visitors’ Bureau on Twitter. They’ll tweet advisories and closures.
5. Once you are on the island, tell residents your plan.
They might know road conditions and give advice. A valet told us to deflate the tires if we got stuck in the sand. No one looked at us as though we were crazy for taking our rental car. A few people even said the road should not be too bad.
6. Think about food.
The town of ‘Ele ‘ele on Highway 50 is your last stop for services. Get ice and firewood at Big Save. We lunched at Brick Oven Pizza in Kalaheo on the way and planned to eat the leftovers for dinner that night since we did not rent a stove. You could bring provisions to grill but there’s no guarantee you’ll get one. Fires are officially against the rules, although our campsite had a fire ring made by a previous occupant. And, as our waitress at breakfast the next morning told us, “To make friends at Polihale, bring extra ice and beer”.
7. Drive Slowly.
The sign at the end of the highway reads: “UNIMPROVED NARROW DIRT ROAD. DRIVE AT YOUR OWN RISK.” We averaged ten bone-jarring miles an hour. At one point, I considered walking, but we passed some Jeeps and even a few compact cars returning from the park. Three miles from the sign we saw the huge monkeypod tree at the park’s entrance. Queen’s Pond, to the left, has a beach swimmable in the summer. Turn right, toward the campground, four and a half miles away. Stay right at the fork in the road. The drive is easier and it brings you directly to the sites closest to the beach.
8. Weekends are busy, especially in summer.
There are only a few campsites with shade, a grill, a table, and a pavilion. Campsites are not assigned — competition can be strong for the best. We arrived after 3:00 PM to discover that choice sites were occupied. We found a great location, close to the beach and not far from the bathroom, but we had no table or grill. I’d recommend arriving earlier.
9. Respect the ocean.
My husband suggested we sleep on the beach. I looked at the tide line in the sand and disagreed. We were under a high surf advisory. The waves were 200 feet from us, but I did not know how close the water would get. Three warning signs proclaimed HIGH SURF, STRONG CURRENT, AND DANGEROUS SHOREBREAK. We pitched our tent on the hill.
10. Enjoy the beauty.
Waves pounded the shore as we walked to the end of the beach, where we could almost touch the back side of the Napali Cliffs. I imagined how hot the sand would be in summer. Salt spray filtered the sunset to a pale gold. I counted seven people, all dots from afar. The private island Ni’hau appeared closer than its seventeen mile distance. There was beauty all around us.
11. Store food in your car.
We walked to our home for the evening. There were holes in our tent’s screen and damage to the styrofoam cooler we had left inside. I presumed some birds were hungry and tried to peck their way into our cooler.
12. Be prepared for unexpected visitors.
The glow of our neighbor’s campfire cast shadows on the cliffs. The sun set below the moonrise. We were eating our pizza in the dark when I looked up and saw animal eyes fixed on me. We turned on the lantern. Wild cats had surrounded us. My husband chased them off and we took the trash away.
13. Learn from the locals.
The rumors about the stars turned out to be no exaggeration. I had never seen so many. We took the top off the tent to see them during the night. Every time I woke and looked up, the stars seemed to have multiplied. When we woke the next morning we saw some locals had driven their pickup onto the beach and slept on the soft sand. That’s how we will do it next time.