Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park: The Complete Guide

Waimea Canyon in Hawaii.
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Waimea Canyon State Park

Address
Waimea Canyon Dr, Waimea, HI 96796, USA
Phone +1 808-274-3444

Mark Twain nicknamed Waimea Canyon on the Hawaiian island of Kauai "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific" because of its resemblance to the Southwest's most popular tourist attraction. While Waimea Canyon is a fraction of the size of the Grand Canyon, its red and tan rock layers, each created by a different volcanic flow, give it a much more colorful landscape than its North American cousin. Upon paying the park a visit, you can imagine a time when the mighty Waimea River carved its way through lava and basalt formations, creating the canyon that today is Waimea Canyon State Park, one of the public spaces that make up Hawaii's vast parks system. Neighboring Kokee State Park serves as an amenities hub for visitors to the rugged Waimea Canyon landscape, offering a campground, a lodge that serves food and sells gifts, and a museum.

Things to Do

Waimea Canyon is a majestic sight to see, and you don't even have to get out of your car to view it. Take a drive on Kokee Road (in Kokee State Park) and stop at one of the many overlooks, like Waimea Canyon Lookout, Puu Ka Pele lookout, or Puu Hinahina lookout. From these three vantage points, you can take in panoramic views of Waimea Canyon and the Kalalau Valley. The Waimea Canyon Lookout has a concrete viewing area that allows you to safely view the breathtaking drop into the valley below.

Both Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park are home to a plethora of hiking trails, some of which are extremely strenuous, taking you into the gorge below, and then back out again. Hikes meander past plunging waterfalls and some offer the refuge of a quick dip in frigid water.

While Hawaii is not known for its freshwater fishing, anglers can fish the creeks, streams, and waterfall pools on the Waimea Canyon floor for stocked rainbow trout. In fact, this is the only area in Kauai where you can catch trout. Many of the fishing holes are tough to get to and often require scrambling over steep, slippery rocks, making this a feat for the adventurous. Visitors can also enjoy Waimea State Park's few picnicking areas or hunt for pig and goat with a valid hunting license during hunting season.

After your day in the canyon is done, stop at the Kokee Museum to learn about the flora and fauna of the two parks, to see how hurricanes travel, and to discover Kauai's unique weather systems. If you feel inclined, leave a small donation in the box when you're done, or eat some delicious chili and cornbread at The Lodge at Kokee. There is also a gift shop on-site.

Best Hikes & Trails

Many hiking trails in both Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park take you around and down into the canyon. You can traverse the cliff's edge, scramble over lava rock, and view some amazing geologic formations and waterfalls along the way. Some trails are more strenuous than others, so choose wisely, depending on your fitness and energy level.

  • Iliau Nature Loop Trail: This 15-minute, quarter-mile roadside trail delivers interpretive signs highlighting the park's flora and fauna, as well as views of Waimea and Waialae Canyons. Learn about the iliau plant, an endangered flowering plant endemic to Kauai.
  • Cliff Trail: This popular 1.8-mile trail leads to an overlook of Waimea Canyon. Access this trail from the Halemanu trailhead off of Kokee Road. It's a one-hour round trip excursion, and well worth it for the rewarding views.
  • Canyon Trail to Waipoo Falls: This moderate hike starts on the Cliff Trail and takes you past the Cliff Overlook to Waipoo Falls on a 4-mile hike. The falls contain two levels, Upper and Lower Waipoo Falls, and the scramble to the pool at the bottom of the lower falls is difficult to navigate and not clearly marked. Once there, however, you can enjoy a dip in the freezing pool, especially on a hot day.
  • Kukui Trail: This 5-mile trail is rather strenuous, as it's a steep 2,000-foot hike to the bottom of Waimea Canyon. While going down may seem easy, coming back up on a hot day will test your endurance and fitness level. This hike ends at Wiliwili Backcountry Campsite on the canyon floor.
  • Waimea Canyon Trail: Adventure-seekers will enjoy the long trek on the 11.5-mile (one-way) Waimea Canyon Trail, which starts at the bottom of the canyon and takes you to coastal Waimea Town. This trail crosses the river several times and is often tackled as an overnight backpacking trip. Permits are required, and you can obtain them at the self-serve box at the Kukui trailhead.

Where to Camp

The only camping available in Waimea Canyon State Park is at the bottom of the canyon floor in one of four primitive campsites: Wiliwili, Kaluahaulu, Hipalau, and lonomea. Each site in the canyon includes a 10-foot by-10 foot sheltered picnic table area, a tent pad, and a composting toilet. Water is not provided at the canyon sites, so you need to bring along, or collect and purify, your own. Waimea Canyon campsites rarely fill up, as they are only used by backcountry travelers and hikers. Still, each site only allows for one or two parties. Obtain camping permits before you hike, and make sure to carry out what you carry in and leave no trace.

A developed campsite is located in Kokee State Park, complete with nine tent sites, restroom facilities, outdoor showers, potable water, picnic tables, and trash cans. Since this campground is so small, it's best to reserve your site several months ahead of time so you won't be disappointed upon arrival. Kokee State Park also offers 12 rental cabins with varying degrees of rusticity. The cabins are managed by the lodge and rented out to church groups, school groups, or other small organizations.

Where to Stay Nearby

The closest town to the parks, Waimea, is located about 10 miles down a winding road that leads to the coast. The drive takes about 20 minutes and will reward you with a typical, quaint Hawaiian town and several comfortable lodging options.

  • West Inn Kauai: This small hotel in Waimea offers cozy rooms, as well as suites with full kitchens, and satellite television. All rooms come equipped with free Wi-Fi, a coffee maker, and housekeeping services. The property also has coin-operated washers and dryers and a barbecue pavilion, complete with two Weber grills for cooking outside.
  • Waimea Plantation Cottages: Built between the 1880s and 1930s, 59 historic cottages on the Waimea Plantation are available to accommodate your vacation stay. The cottages range in size from one- to five-bedroom, and most come complete with a full kitchen. Choose from an ocean or garden view, and enjoy free Wi-Fi and satellite television throughout your stay.
  • Inn Waimea: The Inn Waimea offers king and queen suites in a classic Hawaiian style. The inn is located within walking distance to the town's restaurants and conveniences, and only blocks from the ocean. Enjoy free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, and a communal barbecue area during your stay.

How to Get There

The best way to get up to the canyon and parks is to take Waimea Canyon Road from the town of Waimea. Start this drive from the coast on Highway 50 in Kekaha (about 3 miles past the town of Waimea). The highway is clearly marked with signs that will take you straight into both parks, This road offers fabulous views, as it winds through abandoned cane fields which are now filled with trees that were introduced to control erosion caused by prior cattle grazing.

Accessibility

Waimea Canyon's rugged landscape makes it hard to access. However, visitors with all ability levels can enjoy the view of this majestic piece of nature via the handicap-accessible lookouts on Kokee Road. All of the lookouts offer accessible bathrooms. The lodge and museum in Kokee State Park are also ADA-compliant, complete with parking and restrooms for handicapped individuals.

Tips for Your Visit

  • There is no charge to visit Waimea Canyon and it is open year-round.
  • Helicopter tours of Kauai go right down into Waimea Canyon. If you are unable to hike into the canyon, it's worth the price to tour by air.
  • If you're visiting the overlooks, binoculars allow you to view certain features up-close for a fuller experience.
  • If you plan on hiking, don't forget a hat, sunscreen, and bug repellent. Bugs can be bad during certain times of the year.
  • If your journey will be mostly by car, bring a jacket or sweatshirt to the lookouts, as the elevation off of the canyon floor can make temperatures cool. Leave cool weather gear behind, however, if you are hiking down into the canyon. It can get very warm, especially on the canyon floor.
  • Much of Hawaii can be muddy after a rain shower, so make sure to pack waterproof hiking boots. Long pants may also be needed to protect your legs from getting wet, muddy, or bug-bitten. Pack a lightweight pair that can be easily laundered.
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Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park: The Complete Guide