Located on the south shore of Kauaʻi, Waimea Canyon is a spectacular destination for its scenic beauty. Known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, it offers multiple drive-up lookouts, vantage points, hikes, and waterfalls. Waimea Canyon is one of Hawaiʻi’s most remarkable geological formations. Below, we provide everything you need to know about visiting and experiencing this incredible place.
About Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon is a spectacular gorge on the island of Kaua‘i with an unique geologic history. It was formed not only by the steady process of erosion by the Waimea river which, fueled by prodigious annual rainfall, deeply cut into the island’s extensive lava and basalt fields, but also by a catastrophic collapse of the volcano that created Kaua‘i.
Waimea, which translates from Hawaiian to English to mean “reddish waters,” gets its moniker because when it rains, the red rock runs off into the water, turning it slightly red as it flows down and out of the canyon towards the sea. Waimea Canyon is about 14 miles long, a mile wide, and more than 3,600 ft (1,097 m) deep, and is enclosed within the Waimea Canyon State Park (website).
A popular tourist attraction on the island and a must-do for your Kauaʻi itinerary, Waimea Canyon provides a wilderness area with numerous hiking trails. and other things to do (see the next section). In the following video by Chris Biela you can see a preview of Waimea Canyon:
Things to do in Waimea Canyon
The road winding through Waimea Canyon is one of the most scenic roads on the island making a visit to the park in a 26 miles (return trip) scenic drive. There are plenty of other things to do other than sitting in your car tough. Here are the main activities to enjoy while visiting Waimea Canyon:
- Scenic drive
- Kōkeʻe State Park
- Lookouts and Viewpoints
- Other points of Interest
There are two highways you can take into the park – The Waimea Canyon Road (Highway 550) that starts from Waimea Town and Kōkeʻe Road (Highway 552) departing from Kekaha a few miles to the west. Both roads merge just a few miles into the park.
The Waimea Canyon road is comparatively easier to drive and is more scenic. If you’re a first timer, we suggest that you take Highway 550 on your way to the canyon and head back via Highway 552 for a different view.
Kōkeʻe State Park
Kōkeʻe State Park is adjacent to Waimea Canyon State Park, the two running together to essentially form one big park. Kōkeʻe is blessed with a myriad of hiking trails to explore as well as a natural history museum, a restaurant/lodge, and a campground. Entrance and parking fees are included in the Waimea Canyon fees – no additional payment is needed.
Lookouts and Viewpoints in Waimea and Kōkeʻe
On your visit, we recommend driving around to the different lookouts that offer different perspectives of the canyon. Here are the main places to visit:
- Waimea Canyon Lookout (mile marker 10): This is the main viewing area for the canyon and it offers panoramic views, allowing you to go right up to the rim. This should be the first lookout you visit not only because it’s the first one you come to, but because it gives you the most expansive view of the canyon.
- Puʻu Hinahina Lookout (mile marker 13.5): A few miles down the road is the Puʻu Hinahina overlook. It peers down into the canyon from a parallel perspective (whereas the Waimea Canyon lookout gives you a perpendicular view of the canyon). From Puʻu Hinahina, you can see how the Waimea River winds its way through the canyon. You’ll be surprised to see how different the canyon looks from this angle, and it will give you a good sense of the height and steepness of its walls.
- Kalalau Lookout (mile marker 18): The view at the Kalalau Lookout showcases the tall cliffs of the Nāpali Coast and the ocean along the northwest coast of Kauaʻi. Kalalau Valley is the infamous destination of the 11-mile Kalalau Trail which begins on the north shore at Keʻe Beach.
- Puʻu o Kila (mile marker 19): At the end of the road is Puʻu o Kila, which provides another vantage point of the Nāpali Coast and Kalalau Valley.
Hikes in Waimea and Kōkeʻe
Waimea Canyon State Park and Kōkeʻe are very visitor friendly, offering a variety of lookouts and hiking trails through which to explore the area. Here are a few to consider:
Cliff Canyon and Black Pipe Trail
This trail is fit for families because it offers great views of the canyon as well as a dip in a pool at Waipoʻo Falls. In total, the loop is a little less than four miles and is a classic Waimea Canyon hike, sure to impress both first-time and return visitors.
If you want to go all the way to the bottom of the canyon, the Kūkui Trail will take you there, descending about 2.5 miles down the steep cliffs to the river below. Don’t be fooled by the short distance – the climb back up from the bottom requires a gain of more than 2,200 vertical feet. In this sense, it is for experts only.
This moderate-intensity trail doesn’t visit the canyon itself, but it showcases the extremity of Kauaʻi’s terrain surrounding it, both in its beauty and its rugged, marvelous nature. The trail travels three miles downhill through a green, lush rainforest to a series of steep valleys along the Nāpali Coast, giving you an overlook of the jagged cliffs and vistas that hover above the ocean. While the walk there is easy, remember that you have to climb back up on the return trip.
The Pihea Trail takes you into the Alakai Swamp that surrounds the canyon, home to many native birds, and ends at the Pihea Overlook, which provides views of Kalalau Valley. It’s a relatively easy walk with virtually no elevation gain, but it is long, nearly 4 miles each way, and the trail can be muddy, so be prepared. A similar but alternative trail is the Alakai Swamp Trail.
Kōkeʻe Lodge Cabins and Campground: There is no camping in Waimea Canyon State Park, but you can tent camp or rent a cabin in Kōkeʻe. The nights offer incredible stargazing, and those who spend the night can get a head start on the day trippers visiting the canyon.
For experienced hikers and campers who want to get off the grid for a few days, Waimea Canyon has a series of backcountry campsites down at the bottom of the canyon, along the river. For more information and permits, see the DLNR reservation site.
Next to planning a visit yourself there are several arranged tours to Waimea Canyon that take all planning out of your hands:
Guided hiking tours are offered of Waimea Canyon, such as this one from Kauai Hiking Tours. You can also request a private tour to explore other trails of your choosing. Going with a guide is helpful because you don’t have to navigate, and you will get expert narration of everything you are seeing, including the geology of the canyon.
Taking a helicopter ride over Waimea Canyon is one of the most epic (and breathtaking) ways to experience Waimea Canyon – the ultimate vantage point, if you will, that allows you to see it from above in all its glory. Many helicopter companies offer tours that include a flyover of Waimea Canyon. We recommend Blue Hawaiian.
If you’re an avid biker and are interested in riding around Waimea Canyon, check out this guided adventure that begins at the canyon rim and then cruises down to the coast.
Other Points of Interest
Kōkeʻe Natural History Museum
This small museum adjacent to the Kōkeʻe Lodge provides an overview of the history and settlement of Waimea Canyon, as well as its geological features. There is also a gift shop attached for small souvenirs.
Here are some practical things you need to know when visiting Waimea Canyon:
- Entrance and Parking Fees: As of April 2021, all non-Hawaii resident visitors must pay both an entrance ($5 per person) and a parking fee ($10 per vehicle). These fees are paid upon arrival, when parking, at a kiosk. No prior reservation is required.
- Food & Drink: There are typically various food carts at the main Waimea Canyon Lookout, serving small snacks, cut fruit, and water/soft drinks. In adjacent Kōkeʻe State Park (see below), the Kōkeʻe Lodge is a full-service restaurant with a bar.
- Services: At each main lookout, there are public restrooms that are managed by the State Parks.
- What to Wear/Bring: Because it is located at elevation (an average of 3,500 feet above sea level), it can be colder at the canyon rim than it is at the coast. It is wise to bring layers, a wind break, and a rain jacket to ensure you are comfortable. We also recommend bringing plenty of water and snacks. Typically, you can purchase these from the vendors at the lookouts, but in the event they are not open, you’ll want to have your own supply.
- Best Times to Visit: During the winter rainy months, Waimea Canyon’s walls are much greener than they are in the hotter, drier summer months. The waterfalls are also flowing stronger during the winter. That said, a visit any time of year is sure to be impressive given the grandeur of the canyon. During summer, the trails within the Park are drier and less muddy.
- Where to stay nearby: There are plenty of cozy places to stay in Waimea, just down the road of the park entrance.