Story by Andrew Collins
Often called the Garden Island, Kauai conjures images of impossibly lush rainforests and emerald valleys. But there’ s more to the island than just green. Its drier west side is home to a spectacular 3,600-foot-deep canyon characterized by burnt-red soil, craggy basalt bluffs and promontories, and upcountry woodland: Waimea Canyon.
Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” this otherworldly eden, reached via a twisting (but well-maintained) two-lane road from the bustling town of Waimea, abounds with scenic overlooks and splendid hikes.
The approximately 4-mile round trip Canyon Trail hike, which leads to a stunning view of Waimea Canyon from a rim situated above 800-foot Waipoo Falls, is one of the area’s best treks if you only have a day to explore. The trek is moderately challenging, with an elevation change of a few hundred feet, but most hikers will be able to complete the trail in two hours. (Allow more time if you want to picnic along the way.) The panoramic vistas, especially during the final stretch of the Canyon Trail, are among the most breathtaking on the island.
From sea level Waimea town, follow Route 550 (Waimea Canyon Drive/Kokee Road), which climbs about 18 miles upslope through Waimea Canyon State Park to Kokee State Park. At the latter, visit the small, though very informative Kokee Museum, a good place to pick up trail maps and check out extensive exhibits on the park’s flora and fauna. Next door, The Lodge at Kokee has a sitting area warmed by a large fireplace – it can get chilly up at this elevation – and a casual restaurant and bar. The lodge also rents out several rustic cabins, all of which recently underwent complete refurbishments.
To find the trailhead for the Canyon Trail – and several other hikes in the park – backtrack Route 550 to mile marker 14. Near it, you’ll find a small parking area across from the route’s junction with unpaved Halemanu Road. Park here. Halemanu Road is quite rough and accessible only with four-wheel-drive so I recommend walking the road as part of the hike.
After walking through the leafy forest along Halemanu Road for just under a mile, turn right and follow the well-marked signs to the Cliff Trail and Canyon Trail. If you’re not rushed for time, detour down the short and easy Cliff Trail – it’s a 0.4-mile spur – which will take you onto a sheer bluff with expansive views. Here, you’ll also get a good look at a bit of the ridge you’ll soon be hiking via the Canyon Trail.
From its junction with the Cliff Trail, the Canyon Trail drops through dense rainforest before emerging onto a red-rock ridge with a steep drop-off on one side. Watch your footing and maintain a prudent distance from the edge here. The trail continues down a gradually descending, boulder-strewn ridge, fringed by trees on the left. From the canyon rim, you’ll see clear across and down Waimea Canyon to Waimea town and the ocean beyond. In the near distance, look for an amazing volcanic-rock arch on the next ridge over.
As the trail descends another 200 feet, you’ll reach Kokee Stream, which eventually meanders to the edge of the canyon rim and feeds the cascade of Waipoo Falls. You won’t see the waterfall from here, but you may be able to hear it in the distance. If Kokee Stream is calm, you can scramble across it. From the stream bank, fringed by dense bushes, shrubs and boulders, keep an eye out for crayfish swimming beneath the rippling surface.
If you’re up for a slightly longer adventure, you can lengthen the hike by taking the Black Pipe Trail. This trail cuts east off of the Canyon Trail and eventually rejoins Halemanu Road, which will take you back to the parking area on Route 550.
NOTE: Before you set out on the Canyon Trail, or any Kokee State Park or Waimea Canyon State Park trails, be sure to check with the staff at Kokee Lodge for detailed directions, trail maps, and information on trail and stream conditions and weather. Do not cross Kokee Stream during rainy weather due to the possibility of flash flooding.
About Andrew Collins: Oregon-based writer and editor Andrew Collins has written extensively about Hawaii over the past 20 years for a variety of publications, including Fodor’s, Four Seasons Magazine, About.com, and Out Magazine. You can view his most recent stories about Hawaii at About.com – Hawaii Gay Travel.