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First Timers Guide to Visiting Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon is a geological gem of the most unexpected kind on the otherwise lush, green “Garden Island” of Kauai. It's tall, red, and orange canyon walls are a remarkable contrast to Kauai’s other crown jewel, the Na Pali Coast, and every trip to the island should include a journey to its rim. Below, we provide everything you need to know for a visit.

The Drive

From the town of Waimea, there are two ways to access Waimea Canyon—Waimea Canyon Drive or Kokee Road. Both wind their way from sea level up to the canyon, which on average sits at about 3,600 feet. The two roads meet before you reach the canyon, so it doesn’t matter which one you choose. Both offer similar views of the coastline and neither is significantly faster or more scenic. Try one on the way up and the other on the way down.

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The Lookouts

There are several lookouts on the rim of the canyon that provide different views:

Waimea Canyon Lookout (mile marker 10): This is the main viewing area for the canyon, not only because it’s the first one you get to with the most parking, but because of its wonderful panoramic views that look out over the rim of the canyon.

Puu Hinahina Lookout (mile marker 13): While the Waimea Canyon Lookout peers perpendicular over the rim of the canyon, the Puu Hinahina offers another perspective, looking down into the canyon parallel to its rims. From here, you can get a sense of how the river winds its way through the canyon down towards the sea.

Kalalau Lookout (mile marker 18): The infamous Kalalau Valley, reached by many on foot (via the 11-mile Kalalau Trail that begins at Kee Beach), can be looked down upon here. The view showcases the tall cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, as well as the deep blue sea that stretches on beyond.

Puu o Kila (mile marker 19): For those that want a deeper interaction with the Kalalau Valley, continue on to Puu o Kila, where you can hike down a small ridge for more vantage points.

The Geology

Waimea Canyon is a mile wide, more than 3,600-feet deep and 14 miles long. Although small in comparison to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, which is 277 miles long and 6,000 feet deep, Waimea Canyon is one of the most unique geological finds in Hawaii. Carved by the Waimea River over millions of years, the deep gorge’s name translates to “Reddish Waters,” which describes the color of the river’s water as it collects and erodes the canyon’s red, volcanic walls.

waterfall and river-Waimea Canyon, Kauai, Hawaii
PHOTO: Waterfall and river finding its way through red rocks, Waimea Canyon, Kauai, Hawaii. (Photo via Getty Images Plus / iStock / The World Traveller)

Hikes

When it comes to recreating in this area, hiking is by far the most bountiful activity, as there are endless hiking trails in Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park. Here are a few of our favorites to get you started:

Awaawapuhi Trail: This moderate-level trail takes you three miles downhill through a green, lush rainforest to a series of steep valleys that capture the essence of the Na Pali Coast. From the rim of the Awaawapuhi Valley at 2,500 feet, you can look down the coast at the different valleys, the ocean and the sharp, jagged, green vistas that rise up above the Pacific. It is from here, looking at the combination of forest and rocky cliffs, that you will begin to understand why so much of Kauai’s terrain—about 90 percent—is inaccessible by car.

Pihea Trail: Beginning at Puu o Kila, the Pihea Trail is a good introduction to the Alakai Swamp—and most of it is covered with boardwalk, making it an easy walk. Keep an eye out for native birds and soak in the views of Kalalau Valley.

Cliff Canyon and Black Pipe Trail: This one is great for families because it combines the expansive views of Waimea Canyon with a refreshing dip in Waipoo Falls. Walk along the trail and notice the many shades of brown and red, the steep, knee-buckling drop-off of the ridge and the crumbling, erosive nature of the canyon walls. When you reach the falls, continue past it upstream where you will find a small pool that’s nice for a swim before starting your return.

Top of Waipoo Falls, Kauai, Hawaii
PHOTO: Top of Waipoo Falls, Kauai, Hawaii. (Photo via Getty Images Plus / iStock / PictureLake)

Other Attractions and Services

Kokee State Park: Though just a short drive from Waimea Canyon, the terrain is a world away, transitioning from a dry canyon to a rainforest. There are more than 45 miles of hiking trails in Kokee State Park in addition to a lodge and restaurant (see below). Some hikes enter Waimea Canyon; others take you to the Na Pali Coast.

Kokee Natural History Museum: Make a quick stop at this small museum to get an overview of the history and settlement of Waimea Canyon, its geological features and nearby areas.

Kokee Lodge Cabins and Campground: Set in a grove of redwood trees, the charming cabins are heated with a wood-burning stove, allowing you to experience a side of Hawaii far removed from beaches and bikinis. Be sure to take a walk at night for incredible stargazing, and plan an early-morning hike, where you can beat the crowds on even the most popular trails. Aside from small vendors at the lookouts, the Kokee Lodge is the only restaurant in the area.

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