At Waimea Canyon, hike trails that snake through forests rich with Kaua‘i’s flora and fauna, and amble across ridges with views of the famed Nā Pali Coast’s fluted peaks.
Text by Coco Zingaro
Images by Bryce Johnson
Adventure awaits among the red gorges and tumbling waterfalls of Waimea Canyon, a timeless geographic wonder on Kauaʻi’s west side. It is named after the elements that created it—wai-mea means “reddish-brown water” and references the hue of the river that carved the cavernous valley, fed by rainfall from Mount Waiʻaleʻale, the wettest spot on Earth. The canyon stretches an impressive 14 miles long, 1 mile wide, and 3,600 feet deep.
To see this incredible phenomenon, follow Waimea Canyon Drive, or Highway 550, from Waimea town through Waimea Canyon State Park and then Kokeʻe State Park. Along its 19 miles of road, which climb some nearly 4,000 feet, hikers of all levels can stop at numerous parking lots to access trails ranging from short, easily accessible nature walks to long treks covering arduous terrain that descend into the canyon’s depths. Hiking here affords the ultimate chance to be immersed in nature while wandering among ohia trees sprinkled with pops of cherry-colored flowers, and listen to the trills of native honeycreepers.
A nature trail perfect for cautious hikers sets out between mile markers 8 and 9, before the air gets crisp and mist hugs your car. Named Iliau Nature Loop, this roughly half-mile walk leads onlookers past native plants, and provides one of the first glimpses into the gorgeous gulch. The more adventurous trekkers may continue on Kukui Trail into the canyon, a journey measuring roughly two and a half miles long that descends more than 2,000 feet. The trail wraps up at the bottom, where it reaches Waimea River. Be warned, however: The return hike to the start of the loop presents little to no shade, and the ascension is steep, so apply sunscreen and bring water. Still, for those who prefer to avoid crowds, the nature encountered here is worth the effort.
Just a short drive up the road, between mile markers 13 and 14, you’ll find Canyon Trail, the most popular and hence crowded of all paths. There’s a reason it’s such a hit: Just one and a half miles in, you feel like you’re standing on top of the world, watching Waipo‘o Falls rush past you as it plummets 800 feet to the canyon floor below.
Two trails that challenge hikers, but reward their efforts with some of the most visually stunning landscapes that Kauaʻi’s wilderness has to offer, are the Nu‘alolo and the Awa‘awapuhi trails. The trailheads are located beyond Waimea Canyon State Park (though Waimea Canyon continues), in Koke‘e State Park. For Nu‘alolo Trail, you’ll find parking just before Koke‘e Museum, between mile markers 15 and 16. Awa‘awapuhi Trail sets out around mile marker 17. At the bottom of each 3-mile descent, trekkers are awarded with gorgeous views of the soaring Nā Pali Coast mountains. Be sure to catch your breath at this astonishing viewpoint, since the return trip is a strenuous ascent.
Waimea Canyon Road itself comes to a head at Pu‘u o Kila Overlook. Here, the Nā Pali Coast valley of Kalalau, where Hawaiians are said to have resided into the 20th century, can be viewed in all its glory—that is, as long as it isn’t shrouded in clouds. Two top-notch hikes venture out from here. One, the Pihea Trail, moves along the top of the valley and links to Alakai Swamp Trail, culminating in a splendid panorama of Hanalei. This is a long, strenuous hike, but passing through Hawaiʻi’s dense flora while listening to native birds warble away makes for a singular journey through place and time.
ON THE WAY TO WAIMEA CANYON
Where to sleep:
Camp at Wiliwili, located at the bottom of the Kukui Trail
Sleep under the stars, and wonder what it might have been like to live here hundreds of years ago, sans cell phones or televisions to distract you.
Stay at YMCA’s Camp Sloggett
This location offers cabins as well as places to pitch your tent, and is tucked away in the woods found across from Koke‘e Museum. Large parties are welcome.
Where to refuel:
Stop by G’s Juicebar in Waimea for an acai bowl
Before heading up the canyon, or after a long hike, treat yourself to one of the many refreshing and flavorful acai bowls here, like the “Rambla,” which features flavors of cacao, honey, and almond.
Stop by Ishihara Market in Waimea for a picnic to-go
This is a great place to pick up some local grinds, such as poke. Food is served deli-style, and is perfect for a picnic in the woods, or to enjoy as lunch midway through a hike.
Waimea canyon is often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” a title created through the coconut wireless that has been incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain. (The famous writer never visited the Garden Isle.)