Doing a doors-off helicopter tour in Kauai is a must for many visitors to the island.
Kauai is the most beautiful Hawaiian island to many people and every inch of it seems to be filled with lush landscapes, towering mountains, and dramatic canyons.
Perhaps the best way to admire all of the stunning scenery is from a helicopter.
In this article, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about booking a doors-off helicopter in Kauai.
I’ll give you specific tips for how to prepare for the doors-off helicopter ride in this unique location and also give you some insight to think about when it comes to things like photography and scheduling.
Preparing for your doors-off helicopter in Kauai, Hawaii
The most important advice I could give to someone is to schedule their doors-off helicopter tour in Kauai at the earliest part of their trip to Kauai.
The reason? Weather.
Kauai is one of the wettest places on the planet and rain showers can arrive in a hurry.
It’s not uncommon for helicopter rides to be canceled because of the weather.
In fact, this actually happened to us.
But if you plan your helicopter tour at the beginning of your time in Kauai (like we did) that will give you more time to re-schedule.
Be sure to talk to your tour company about how the re-booking process might work.
Looking to book the ultimate doors-off helicopter tour in Kauai? Click here to book a tour today!
This relates to the first tip but try to be as flexible as possible with your overall travel schedule in Kauai.
If you are putting your helicopter tour towards the beginning of your stay in Kauai then consider staying near the airport for those days so that you can quickly get there.
In our case, we were staying in Princeville on the north side so it was a bit of a drive but it’s not that bad if you have to do it.
Just keep this in mind: you may not know for sure that your helicopter ride has the green light until a few hours before your scheduled departure so flexibility really is key.
The helicopter tours usually last about 50 to 60 minutes and they will probably ask you to be there about 20 to 30 minutes prior. Therefore, you can expect the total experience to last about 90 minutes.
Shoot for the afternoon or late afternoon
Everybody has their own personal preference on what type of lighting they prefer when getting photographs and video.
Personally, I would prefer to do this helicopter tour in the mid or late afternoon as the sun is shining on the Nepali coast.
Initially, we had booked a helicopter tour for the late afternoon but because of the storm mentioned above we had to reschedule it for the next morning.
While the sites were still absolutely stunning, the morning light on the Nepali coast is not ideal and can be pretty difficult to photograph due to the extreme dynamic range, which brings me to my next point.
I’ve now done a handful of helicopter tours with the primary focus of getting great photographs. Sometimes I’ve been successful, other times… not so much.
One thing I will say is that getting good photographs from a helicopter is not easy.
A lot of it has to do with the lighting (dynamic range) and topography.
I once did a doors off helicopter tour in Cape Town, South Africa around the middle of the afternoon.
It was a clear day and the lighting was optimal for pretty much all of the terrain which included ocean, mountains and cities. Getting quality photographs on that tour felt like a walk in the park.
On another helicopter tour we flew at sunset around Chicago and with all of the skyscrapers and the sun sitting so low on the horizon, it was a major challenge to get properly exposed to shots. I got some good photos but lots of bad ones.
So how does Kauai compare?
I would say that the terrain around Kauai is so dramatic that mid-day or late afternoon lighting would probably be optimal.
If you have a fast lens and/or are a skilled photographer you can probably deal with a sun closer to the horizon but for an average photographer like myself, dealing with the morning lighting conditions and dramatic topography at the same time was quite difficult.
It was actually much easier to get photographs with my iPhone than it was with my DSLR because I was having to change settings so often and so quickly.
By the time I would get my settings right, we would be moving on and it was time to change the settings once again.
I tried to shoot bracketed exposures which helped some but overall I really struggled to get properly exposed photos with my Canon 6D.
However, with the iPhone or another smart phone with a great camera, you don’t have to worry about constantly changing your settings.
So while you might think you’d be crazy to use a smart phone on a photography tour over your DSLR, your lighting circumstances might dictate otherwise.
Also, you might want to focus more on getting video.
With a smart phone, it will be very easy to get high quality video and the footage you’ll get from the helicopter with the doors off will be absolutely stunning.
This is often the case even if you’re dealing with tricky morning light.
The videos I took turned out better than many/most of my photographs and required virtually no effort to shoot. Take a look yourself:
Prepare to work with your pilot
A good helicopter tour will allow you to speak to the pilot while in the air via a head set.
And on a photography tour, a pilot should be more than willing to help get you the shots you want which sometimes means circling back for better angles.
Try to make sure that you will have communication with the pilot and don’t be shy about making requests.
Pilots have some limitations with altitude and with urban areas they can fly over but if they can comply with your request they usually will happily do so.
Looking to book the ultimate doors-off helicopter tour in Kauai? Click here to book a tour today!
What to wear
When you’re a few thousand feet up in the air, the temperature will drop several degrees. Often, the temperature drops about 3° for every 1,000 feet.
And more importantly, winds can kick up and the cabin of the helicopter can get very chilly even in a warm place like Hawaii.
For that reason, I would recommend you to wear some type of windbreaker jacket. We brought our Patagonia Jackets which were perfect.
We still wore shorts and while it got a little bit chilly up there we were never extremely uncomfortable or anything.
Although you might think sunglasses and hats are off-limits, you should have a tight headset on which will keep those items secure as long as you don’t stick your head out of the helicopter.
Sunglasses can be iffy though for a couple of reasons.
First, they can make it harder to get photographs due to the different exposure you’re seeing. Second, in some cases, if there are a lot of shadows you’ll be missing out on some of the finer details.
For those reasons, I usually don’t wear sunglasses on doors-off helicopter tours.
Stay safe (aka don’t be stupid)
Before you board the doors-off helicopter tour you’ll have to go through some type of safety briefing. This could take place at the airport or at another remote location.
It’s usually pretty short and goes over some pretty basic stuff like “Rule #1: don’t jump out the chopper.”
At some point you’ll also be issued a snazzy belt containing a life jacket since you’ll be flying over water.
Something that no safety video can really prepare you for is how strong the wind can be when you are flying around in the sky.
Sticking something out of the doorway on a doors off helicopter can be a very bad idea because the winds can be fierce. Something could easily fly out of your hand even if you have a good grip on it.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when doing the doors-off helicopter tour is that if something falls out it could potentially fall on somebody from great heights and inflict serious harm.
Moreover, if something falls off it could potentially cause damage to the helicopter which could put your own life in danger.
So be sure to follow all of the rules about not bringing loose items up there with you. Hopefully, you’ll be issued some type of device to secure your smart phone so that you don’t have to worry about losing it.
Different types of doors-off tours
I’ve done doors off helicopter tours configured in a few different ways.
Sometimes the front doors are removed, sometimes only one door is removed, and other times it’s both back doors that are removed.
In Hawaii, it seems customary to just remove the back doors for these type of helicopter rides, which means that you’ll be seated in the back.
Personally, I enjoy sitting in front the most but you can still get plenty of great unobstructed views from the backseat.
Dealing with heights
If you have a true fear of heights you might want to think twice about a doors-off helicopter.
Consider that you’ll be flying thousands of feet above the ground with only something like a car seat belt holding you in. Sometimes you might also encounter some turbulence especially in a mountainous place like Hawaii.
(Some doors off helicopters offer more restrictive harnesses to keep you in but most of the ones I have done simply provide a basic seatbelt.)
Personally, I love the thrill of the doors-off helicopter and once we get going up in the air in the heights don’t really bother me but on occasion I look down and have a “Holy S***!” moment.
The doors-off experience in Kauai, Hawaii
Most of the helicopter tours on Kauai follow the same general route of going clockwise around the island.
From the airport, you head west towards Waimea Canyon, then make your way to the beautiful Nepali coast.
From there you’ll hit some spots along the north side of the island and then you might cruise around the middle of the island before ultimately heading back to the airport.
Each specific route will likely be a little bit different depending on the requests you put in.
Also, the weather will likely dictate where exactly you can go.
With that said, here are some of the amazing sites that we saw on our doors-off helicopter tour.
We started off flying over the Marriott Kauai Beach Club which is actually one of the hotels that we stayed at during our trip to Hawaii.
This particular hotel was used by the Jurassic Park filming crew in 1993 and it is where they hunkered down when the big hurricane hit.
The jetty extending out in front of the hotel was actually used in one of the scenes in the movie, too.
From there, we traveled over the Huleia National Wildlife Refuge and southwest towards Kipu Kai Beach.
We then flew over the Kipu Ranch — a site that’s been used in many movies like The Descendants, Hook, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s also well known for its adventurous ATV tours.
We then did a flyover near Jurassic Falls which was cool but we did not get as close as we did the day prior whenever we did the Jurassic Falls helicopter tour that actually lands at the base of the falls.
Getting that close to Jurassic Falls is a truly exciting moment and bucket list worthy.
However, that tour is NOT a doors off tour and the standard tour stuffs six people inside so if you get one of the interior seats or even one of the seats in the back you might not find the ride as enjoyable due to obstructed views.
We passed up other waterfalls but it’s almost impossible to keep track with all of them on this type of helicopter tour!
Once you start entering the Waimea Canyon territory it’s really exciting how quickly the transition happens and how vast the canyons appear.
They don’t call it the Grand Canyon of the Pacific for nothing.
One specific spot we went over was Olokele Canyon which is actually where they shot the scene from Jurassic Park where the kid, “Timmy,” gets electrocuted by the fence.
You can book a helicopter tour that lands at that spot but once again that is NOT a doors-off experience and we truly wanted to have a doors-off experience in Hawaii.
The morning lighting in the Waimea Canyon helicopter tour was pretty good although I think I would’ve preferred it at around noon to reduce some of the shadows.
This is a 3,000 foot deep canyon though so it’s pretty hard to eliminate all of the shadows.
After you get blown away by Waimea Canyon scenery it’s time to head to the famous Nepali coast.
Like I mentioned above, I think it would be much better to visit this area later on in the day. Also, I think the coastline is probably best appreciated from a boat ride.
But don’t get it twisted — seeing this coastline from an aerial view is still jaw-dropping.
We had just flown over the same stretch of coastline the day before with a doors on helicopter and I have to say that it was a much better experience doors off.
There’s just something special about looking directly out at this beautiful, carved-up terrain with no glare or windows in the way that feels much more enthralling.
if you’re lucky, you might be able to spot some wildlife in the ocean such as whales.
Eventually, we started to round the corner and come up on the north side of the island.
We got to admire some beautiful reef scenery from above Haena Beach, which is found on the north side.
Our pilot then decided to turn inland towards Mount Waialeale also known as the Weeping Wall (elevation 5,148 feet). It’s one of the wettest spots in the world. In fact, in 1982, 666 inches (16,916 mm) of rain were recorded on the peak!
The summit of this area is usually covered in clouds and our pilot said it was a pretty rare occasion for it to be so clear which was kind of cool.
It was really cool to see this spot because only a few hours later we would be off-roading down in this valley to check out the Jurassic Park Gates & T-Rex Paddock.
I have to admit that looking straight down was pretty dizzying in the spot; I could only imagine how beautiful the valley is when the waterfalls are running from a recent rain.
Also, because it was clear we were able to go on top of the summit which they call the “Top of the World.”
This area is also home to Alakai Swamp — the highest “swamp” in the world which I would say is something that you don’t come across every day.
After exploring the top of the world we descended and started to make our way back towards the airport.
But before calling it quits we had one more amazing site to see which is Wailua Falls.
We just visited the falls on the ground the day before so it was really cool to get a new perspective of it from above (which offered a much better view).
It probably does not take much convincing from me to realize that a doors-off helicopter tour in Kauai is an absolute bucket list experience.
To me, the highlights were flying over Waimea Canyon, soaring over the jagged coastline of the Nepali coast, and elevating above the highest point on the island.
Although the lighting conditions were not optimal for much of the ride, at the end of the day this was still one of the most memorable helicopter rides I’ve ever taken.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.