Waimea Canyon located on Kauai’s west and more arid side, is a spectacular, must-see destination while visitng the Garden Island. Mark Twain dubbed it “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific” during his 1866 visit, and it’s easy to appreciate the comparison. Waimea can’t equal Arizona’s Grand Canyon in sheer size, but it has many other winning attributes that make it a world class geological feature.
Stretching 13 miles long, 3,600 feet deep and a mile wide, Waimea is the largest canyon in the Pacific. Nature’s canvas is no less grand here in Kauai’s canyon. Wind and water have eroded the succeeding layers of volcanic deposits from Mount Waialeale over the millennia, leaving exposed a plethora of craggy pinnacles and buttes of vibrant orange and red, adorned with verdant flora and glistening waterfalls. Waimea Canyon is a wonder to behold as well as photograph.
Driving to Waimea Canyon makes for a delightful day trip. It is best to start early in the morning to beat the afternoon clouds that frequently gather at the ultimate lookout in the afternoon. From Hanapepe, head west on Route 50 toward Waimea. Turn right on Waimea Canyon Drive, just past mile marker 23. The road heads up the canyon, climbing and curving along some lofty ridgelines. As you ascend, the vegetation undergoes a dramatic transformation, while the beguiling canyon progressively reveals herself at successive scenic lookouts. Take noitice of 800 foot Waipo’o Falls, which adds stunning punctuation to the rich canyonscape.
Near the road’s terminus is 4,345 acre Kokee State Park. The park hosts the Ranger Station, a museum, and 45 miles of hiking trails. The Kokee Natural History Museum is open daily 10 am to 4 pm and is a great place to get a trails map, learn more about the park and peruse the gift store. A short nature walk starts at the museum, where you can see a rare Hawaiian Koa tree.
The zenith of your scenic drive awaits, just past the ranger station. You have climbed to 4,000 feet, where the climate and vegetation transform to better resemble the coast of Northern California or Seattle. It is typically 10-15 degrees cooler here than at the warm, arid bottom of the canyon at Waimea. In the cool, breezy altitude you may choose to crack out with your sweater or light jacket.
This is the Waialeale Summit area, which is populated by a well-watered cloud forest. A great diversity of native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants abound here, such as ohia lehua, mokihana berry, and iliau (similar to Maui’s silversword). Exotic import species also found in this area of rainforest bordering the Alakai Swamp include California redwoods, Australian eucalyptus, feral goats, pigs, black-tailed deer and the showy moa, or Polynesian jungle fowl.
There is lots to do in the state park, including fly fishing, tent camping, and if wanting a tad more comfort, some amazing and affordable cabins among the redwoods (Hale Koa Cabins, call 808-335-5290 for information and reservations). The restaurant at Kokee Lodge serves breakfast and lunch daily from 9am to 2:30pm. For weather information in the canyon, call 808-245-6001.
There is such a variety of trails around and within the canyon, hiking enthusiasts could literally spend a whole week here at Waimea Canyon. A popular hike is to Waipo’o Falls, 4.8 miles round trip. It starts at the Pu’u Hinahina lookout (between mile markers 13 and 14 coming up the canyon). The hike typically takes 2-3 hours.
Back at the summit, the crowning glory of your tour is just past the ranger station at the Kalalau Lookout. A grand panorama of the Kalalau Valley spreads out before you. Spectacular, eroded, orange and green ridges descend precipitously down to the vast blue of the Pacific Ocean below you. In your journey up the Waimea Canyon you have traversed nearly the full width of this western portion of Kaui, to arrive at a grand perch above the rugged, northwest Kauai coast.
Indeed, the color, the diversity and the scale of Waimea Canyon confirm the aptness of its title given by Mark Twain, “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific!“