Highway 550 runs north from Waimea to access some of Kauai’s most-visited destinations: Waimea Canyon State Park and Koke’e State Park, which adjoin one another. Covering thousands of acres in western Kauai—and bordering additional amazing acreage in the Na Pali Coast State Park and Alakai Wilderness Preserve—these parks offer some of the most incredible scenery on the planet as well as fantastic hiking.
One thing you won’t find in the Waimea Canyon/Koke’e complex is beaches, but it’s almost impossible to imagine even a sand-and-surf obsessive being disappointed by these out-of-this-world places.
Close to 2,000 acres, Waimea Canyon State Park shoulders Highway 550, which runs along the rim of the namesake landform. Waimea Canyon is an utterly stupendous sight: a huge, colorful basalt chasm reaching more than two miles across and 2,500 feet deep.
The Waimea River and its tributaries—especially the east-side Koaie, Poomau, and Waialae streams—have carved this incredible canyonland out of the old landmass of Kauai’s shield volcano.
Waimea Canyon’s scale and grandeur earns it the nickname of the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Back in the early 20th century, in fact, it was under consideration for becoming a national park.
Waimea means “reddish-brown river,” a reference to the muddy-looking waters the canyon system drains seaward from the extremely wet, jungly heights of the Alakai Swamp. The Alakai sits on top of the Olokele Plateau, the thick lava flows of which form the eastern side of Waimea Canyon. The western side is built from thinner, older lava flows.
Because Waimea Canyon lies on the western, drier side of Kauai, the vegetation is less dense and extensive. That means more exposed stone and soil, presenting vibrant hues and clear looks at the layered basalt flows.
The Waimea Canyon Lookout along Highway 550, perched at more than 3,000 feet high on the western rim, provides an awesome overview. You can see not only the main stem of the chasm but also the great Poomau, Koaie, and Waialae canyons feeding it.
The views are fantastic from the lookout and from other highway pull-offs, but it’s also a thrill to take a hike in Waimea Canyon State Park. Options range from easy strolls such as the Iliau Nature Loop (which interprets native plants of the area) to more challenging routes such as the Kukui Trail, which drops down to the floor of the canyon.
Northward, 4,345-acre Koke’e State Park encompasses the end of the road in northwestern Kauai. The Kokee highlands provide some head-spinning views of their own, most spectacularly of the plunging oceanfront ridges and valleys of the Na Pali Coast. The Kalalau and Puu o Kila lookouts provide road-accessible looks at this ravishing, roadless, cliff-fortressed coastline. You can also hike to Na Pali vantages via a number of trails that head in Kokee State Park, including the Awaawapuhi and Nualolo trails.
The Pihea Trail that begins at the Puu o Kila Lookout also serves up views of the Kalalau Valley and other Na Pali scenery. It also intersects with the Alakai Swamp Trail, a great option for safely hoofing it through the otherwise difficult-to-access bogs and jungles of the Alakai. The Alakai Swamp is one of the best destinations for anybody interested in native Kauai plants and birdlife, not to mention a taste of true Garden Isle wilderness.
Before hitting the trails of the park, consider a visit to the fine Koke’e Natural History Museum, which includes exhibits on local ecosystems and history as well as maps, books, and other resources.
No visit to Kauai is complete without some quality time spent in Waimea Canyon and Kokee state parks. The landscapes they encompass are big —and amazing—enough that repeated visits are definitely called for!
The Puu o Kila Lookout at the road’s end in Kokee State Park is one of Kauai’s scenic highlights, but also famously fickle: Clouds often obscure its Na Pali and Alakai vistas. Because morning often provides clearer conditions, consider heading straight for Puu o Kila on a full-day visit to the area, then work your way southward. Waimea Canyon will look especially splendid in afternoon light.