You can’t miss the lookout as you drive north on Highway 550 (Waimea Canyon Road) into Waimea Canyon State Park. It’s just past mile marker 10, with an ample parking lot that does nicely accommodate the heavy visitation here. It’s usually fairly crowded, but given most people don’t spend very long at the lookout there’s pretty fast turnover when it comes to parking spaces. You’ll find restrooms here as well.
The Waimea Canyon Lookout consists of a two-level viewing platform, with the lower pad protected by a metal fence. It faces eastward across the red-and-green abyss, providing an expansive vista that never fails to impress.
Waimea Canyon marks where the Waimea River and its major tributaries have carved into the piled-up lava flows of what geologists called the Waimea Canyon Basalt. The roughly 13-mile-long canyon reaches some 2.5 miles across from rim to rim and at its deepest plunges 2,500 feet down.
The Waimea Canyon Lookout stands at about 3,320 feet on the western rim of the canyon, built by a group of Waimea Canyon Basalt flows called the Napali Member. Much of the scenery you see from the lookout is built from younger lavas of the Olokele Member.
The far eastern horizon marks the Olokele Plateau, where the famous Alakai Swamp sits. That high cloud forest and bogland runs up against the flanks of Mount Waialeale, the roof of Kauai. Waialeale and the Alakai receive some of the heaviest annual rainfall anywhere in the world. The Alakai Swamp mostly drains out through the Waimea Canyon system. Its mud-colored outflow, stained by botanical acids, gives the Waimea River its name: Waimea means “reddish-brown river.”
You can also see some of the great tributary gulches that help make the larger Waimea Canyon system, including Poomau and Koaie canyons. The lava-banded sidewalls of the canyons and ravines rise up to narrow divides such as the Kaluahaula Ridge. Look for the prominent knob of Puu Ka Pele farther north along the western rim of the canyon. Another landmark, though distant, is the great plunge of Waipoo Falls.
Be sure to stop at some of the other Waimea Canyon observation points along Highway 550, including the Puu Ka Pele and Puu Hinahina lookouts to the near north. Taking in multiple vantages gives you the fullest sense of Waimea Canyon’s geography—and grandeur.
-Bring binoculars if you have them to the Waimea Canyon Lookout. Besides scanning the terrain, you can look for the beautiful white-tailed tropicbirds that often sail over the chasm, plus the feral goats that clamber around the walls.
-You won’t find gas available along Highway 550, so fill up in Waimea (or Kekaha, if you’re coming from that way) before starting your explorations of Waimea Canyon and Kokee state parks.