Kauai is Hawaii’s Garden Island. You can get warm tropical water, relaxing beaches, and delicious seafood. But you also get a little something else–lush vegetation, beautiful waterfalls, and even a verdant canyon. In this series of posts, I’ll share my favorite spots in Kauai!
Speaking of canyons…
On the west side of Kauai, about an hour’s drive away from Lihue, is Waimea Canyon. Like the Grand Canyon, we have a river to thank for it–the Waimea River. Waimea in Hawaiian means “red water,” and it’s easy to see why: the earth all around Waimea is red, and water runs a reddish brown thanks to it.
Combined with the vegetation, Waimea Canyon is a beautiful place, all reds and greens in various shades.
Getting to Waimea Canyon
This is the easy part: just follow highway 50 from the east side until you reach Waimea town. Stop at Ishihara Market for water and amazing poke (bring a cooler!) for a picnic up at the canyon.
From Waimea town, there are two ways to get to Waimea Canyon State Park. Just as you enter the town, you can follow Highway 550 – Waimea Canyon Road. However, signs will point you through the town to Kokee Road at the border of Waimea and Kekaha towns.
Though both roads will lead to the same places, ignore the signs and take 550 up. This is a prettier ascent and you’ll start to see glimpses of the canyon on your right as you drive up. Plus, you might spot this interesting little stream and mini waterfall–it’s not visible from the other direction. It’s how I imagine walking on Mars might be like!
Waimea Canyon State Park
Once you reach the Canyon, you’ll be following a single road. There are several viewpoint spots, all of them with parking lots. The main one has really impressive views. Take your time here, breathe in, try to find the river snaking waaay down below you. Sometimes a keen eye can spot mountain goats along the closer ridges.
Now follow along the road, going deeper into the canyon and merging into Kokee State Park. Each lookout has a unique angle on the canyon, so it’s worth stopping at all of them. Note that you’re attaining some elevation here (the main lookout is 3400 feet above sea level) so stopping at each lookout point lets you acclimate, too.
Na Pali Coast
Some people may turn back after seeing the main lookout point, but I urge you to continue. You see, this state park doesn’t just give you amazing views of Waimea Canyon.
If you follow the road all the way to the end, you will reach the Kalalau Lookout and the Puu o Kila Lookout. These don’t look inward to the Canyon… they look out toward the sea. Unless you hike the Kalalu Trail from the north side of the island at Ke’e Beach, this is the closest you will get to the Kalalau Valley and the Na Pali Coast.
Hiking the Waimea Canyon Trail
There’s a lot of hiking in Waimea Canyon, for all kinds of skill levels. I’m an occasional hiker and I’m usually only in it for the view. The Canyon Trail is the most popular hike in Waimea. It was a moderately difficult hike with some good payoffs though. It took us about 4-5 hours roundtrip, but we stopped a lot and took tons of photos, plus David took a dip in the little pool at the end. I’ve seen families with small kids do it, so anyone who’s reasonably fit can manage.
You can access the trail either from Pu’u o Hinahina Lookout, or where Highway 550 meets Halemamanu Road. Both trails go downhill a ways, but soon you’ll break out onto a ridge. See the photo with the waterfall above? That waterfall is Waipo’o; above and to the left of it is the ridge you’ll end up on. Really cool to be on this side of the canyon!
Follow the ridge down and you’ll end up right above the waterfall… some people don’t think it’s worth continuing on, but it really is, because here are the views you get with lots of care and a little creative footwork.
We strongly recommend only going down if you are an experienced hiker (that’s why I stayed above) and if the stream isn’t running too strongly. Right below David, Waipo’o Falls flows in earnest, hundreds of feet down, so this isn’t a scramble worth your life!
You can continue on a little ways through some brush to a small pool with a little waterfall. You can swim in the pool, or even stand under the falls, but the water is quite cold! It might be refreshing after a strenuous hike, though.
After exploring the beauty of Waimea, whether from the lookouts or from the Canyon Trail, it’s time to head back down. This time, take Kokee Road back to Waimea for a view of the coast. Sunset was a particularly lovely time, and there are plenty of spots to pull off and enjoy the view.
I hope you take the time to enjoy Waimea Canyon. It’s just one of the reasons Kauai is rapidly becoming my favorite Hawaiian island!