Waimea Canyon is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” a nickname long credited to beloved American author Mark Twain. But after a bit of research, you and your spouse discover that it was NOT, in fact, Twain who dubbed it such after all! This myth was debunked by scholars who show that not only did Twain never actually set foot on the island of Kauai (he spent time on Maui), but the Grand Canyon itself wasn’t even given its moniker until American explorer John Wesley Powell arrived there in 1869 — nearly three years after Twain left Hawaii. You are impressed with your sleuthing but decide that no matter who called it what, when or why, Waimea Canyon is quite simply one of the most magnificent natural gems on the planet. Mother Nature was showing off with this one.
Hiking that Canyon
You and your family have just arrived back on the Garden Isle of Kauai for some much-needed R&R, and hiking Waimea Canyon trails is pretty much at the top of everyone’s wish list (right after hitting Waikomo Shave Ice for passion fruit-mango bowls doused in coconut cream) (but hey, you have priorities). For this visit, your extended family is staying in two huge Poipu Beach villas at Koloa Landing Resort near Poipu, and you all love being on the sunny South Shore. From here, it’s a quick drive up Highway 50 to Highway 550, where you can access some pretty darn good views from Waimea Canyon lookouts along the way. But you all know that hiking into the Canyon is the only way to get up close and personal with its cavernous green-and-pink walls, wild foliage, random rainbows and spectacular waterfalls.
When hike day arrives, all is in order: Jeeps are fueled, phones are charged, proper footwear is donned, sunscreen is in tow, hats are secured, and everyone has plenty of water (and then some) and pockets full of protein bars. Though most of your gang loves to hike, you and your spouse are especially experienced and can tackle just about any hiking trail in the Canyon. Still, with your extended family’s varying ages and skill levels, you’re wondering how to choose the right path for all. And there are many! A few are long treks into the heart of Waimea, offering great views of Waimea Canyon and plenty of adventure along the way. Others are moderate and take hikers around the rims or toward Na Pali Coast’s tropical cliffs. Yet others are short and easy — and just as satisfying.
Note that Waimea Canyon State Park charges a fee for non-residents of Hawaii. This fee helps maintain the park’s pristine natural beauty and ensures that future generations can continue to enjoy this remarkable wilderness.
Here are eight of the best and most popular hiking trails in Waimea Canyon State Park for varying skill levels.
Ideal for first-time trailblazers! A dirt road appears off Highway 550 between mile markers 14 and 15. You’ll also see a small gravel-filled parking area at the head of this road. At only about a tenth of a mile, Cliff Trail can quickly be completed in about 30 minutes. Staying along a top ridge and providing panoramic, beautiful views across the Canyon, Cliff Trail gives you a good bang for your buck. And if you like goats, you are in for a treat because they love this trail, too!
Note: For a longer but just as easy trek, park at Koke’e State Park’s entrance off of Koke’e Road and start by walking the rustic dirt Halemanu Road for about a mile. This leads to the beginning of Cliff Trail, and if taken to the overlook, hikers going round trip can enjoy one and a half to two hours of outdoor adventure.
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Waimea Canyon Trail
Using the same dirt road entrance of the gravel parking lot you’d take to Cliff Trail, you simply follow the sign toward Canyon Trail for this popular and slightly more challenging trip. A long green drape of trees welcomes you into the Canyon Trail (sometimes called the “Waipo’o Falls Trail” because it eventually leads to the falls). Follow the challenging yet rewarding 25.3-kilometer out-and-back Waimea Canyon Trail to experience the heart of Waimea Canyon, often called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific. ” This strenuous trek is not for the faint of heart, but for those who seek a true wilderness experience, it offers an unparalleled opportunity to immerse yourself in the Canyon’s breathtaking beauty.
Prepare for an average hiking time of approximately 9 hours and 29 minutes as the trail navigates through a diverse landscape of lush rainforests, cascading waterfalls, and steep ravines. The journey demands physical exertion and endurance, but the rewards are plentiful. Take a load off, drink in the surroundings and enjoy your picnic. If you continue to the end of the Canyon Trail, you will be rewarded by the Kumuwela Lookout with its seemingly endless gorgeous views of the Canyon out to the sparkling ocean beyond. You will, quite simply, run out of adjectives.
Backpacking, camping, and hiking are popular activities along the Waimea Canyon Trail, allowing you to embrace the canyon’s serenity and grandeur fully. As you venture deeper into the wilderness, be prepared to encounter a variety of terrain, including sections of narrow, winding paths, steep climbs, and river crossings.
Remember to come prepared with the proper gear, including sturdy hiking shoes, ample water and snacks, a first aid kit, and appropriate clothing for unpredictable weather conditions. With careful planning, physical fitness, and a sense of adventure, the Waimea Canyon Trail promises an unforgettable journey into the heart of one of Hawaii’s most captivating natural wonders.
Black Pipe Trail
Wildflowers, waterfalls . . . and a huge black pipe? Black Pipe Trail (which intersects the Canyon Trail) features an actual solid black pipe that runs along the trail and is about three feet in diameter. This moderate 3.8-kilometer loop trail seamlessly merges with the Canyon Trail, offering an enriching blend of natural wonders. This delightful hike, typically completed within 2 hours and 11 minutes, is perfect for those seeking a balance between challenge and reward.
Uncover the enigmatic black pipe, a lingering relic from a bygone era, adding a touch of historical intrigue to your journey. As you navigate the trail, immerse yourself in the vibrant tapestry of lush flora that adorns the landscape, including native Hawaiian plants, cascading waterfalls, and vibrant wildflowers.
Embrace the refreshing allure of two captivating waterfalls along the trail – Waipoo Falls and Kolo Falls. Waipoo Falls, a cascading masterpiece, beckons with its inviting pool, providing a delightful opportunity to cool off and rejuvenate amidst the verdant surroundings.
Venture onto the challenging Kohua Ridge Trail, a 9.8-kilometer out-and-back trail that rewards intrepid hikers with breathtaking panoramic Waimea Canyon vistas, often called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” This strenuous trek is not for the faint of heart. Still, for those who seek an unparalleled wilderness experience, the Kohua Ridge Trail offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse yourself in the canyon’s awe-inspiring beauty.
To access the Kohua Ridge Trail, you’ll need to navigate the Mohihi Camp 10 Road, a rugged 4×4-only road that starts near Kokee Lodge. This unpaved road, often used by wild pig hunters seeking out the area’s hunting grounds, adds an element of adventure to the journey. The trail stretches approximately 4.9 kilometers (round trip) and demands physical exertion and endurance.
Once on the trail, you will cross the Mohihi Stream before ascending a small gorge. The trail continues along a high ridge. This ridge is long, narrow, and not for the faint of heart. You will eventually arrive at the end of this ridge at the Kohua Trail Vista, which is little more than a rickety railing holding you in from the cavernous valley of paradise below! Do not step past this railing, of course — unless you are equipped with wings. You will be amazed by the vast views of Po’omau Canyon with its pink, green and red striations, all gorgeous and shadowy under the enormous puffs of white clouds. Waimea Canyon Lookout is directly across; you can see waterfalls in the distance. The Kohua Ridge Trail is about 3 hours round trip and potentially treacherous. Those with the skills and stamina to complete it are well rewarded, indeed.
Iliau Nature Loop Trail
Nestled near Kekaha, Kaua’i, the Iliau Nature Loop offers an enchanting hiking experience that combines ease of access with the natural splendor of Waimea Canyon. This moderate 0.6-kilometer loop trail, typically completed within 14 minutes, is a haven for nature enthusiasts and birdwatchers alike.
The beauty of the Iliau Nature Loop lies in its compactness, typically requiring only about 14 minutes to complete. This brief duration, however, does not detract from the richness of the experience. The trail winds through a picturesque landscape, showcasing the diverse flora and fauna of Kaua’i. It’s a particularly popular spot for bird watching, where enthusiasts and casual observers can spot various local bird species in their natural habitat. The presence of these birds adds a melodious backdrop to the hike, enhancing the sensory experience.
Moreover, the Iliau Nature Loop is more than just a bird watcher’s paradise. It serves as a living showcase of Kaua’i’s unique ecology. Named after the endemic Iliau plant, the trail provides an educational journey through the island’s native vegetation. Little signs dot the path, offering insights into the various Hawaiian plants and flowers you’ll encounter, making the hike both an enjoyable and informative experience.
The Kukui Trail, stretching 7.2 kilometers near Wainiha, Kaua’i, presents a remarkable adventure for those looking to delve deeper into the heart of Waimea Canyon. Generally considered a challenging route, this trail is a testament to the rugged beauty of Kaua’i, offering a thrilling experience for experienced hikers and nature enthusiasts.
Taking an average of about 3 hours and 39 minutes to complete, the Kukui Trail descends 2,000 feet into the Canyon, providing a unique perspective of the area’s dramatic topography. As you journey through this trail, you’ll traverse a diverse landscape featuring a lush forest of Kukui trees and other native flora. The path is lined with various viewpoints that offer awe-inspiring vistas of the Canyon and distant waterfalls, making every step a visual treat.
One of the Kukui Trail’s most rewarding aspects is the beautiful river at the bottom of the canyon. After the descent, hikers can relax by the river, basking in the tranquility of this secluded spot. Camping options are available for those looking to extend their adventure, but planning and securing permits are essential. Spending a night in the canyon is an unforgettable experience, immersing yourself fully in Kaua’i’s natural splendor.
Waimea Canyon Lookout
For those seeking a less strenuous yet equally rewarding experience, the Waimea Canyon Lookout offers an easy and accessible option. This 0.2-kilometer loop trail is perfect for all ages and skill levels, allowing everyone to witness the grandeur of Waimea Canyon, often referred to as “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” The journey, about 2 minutes, reveals the stunning interplay of light and shadows across the Canyon’s red and green walls.
Visitors should note the unique “red dirt” trails, characteristic of Waimea Canyon. This complex iron-rich soil can stain, so wearing older clothing and sturdy shoes is advisable. Weather conditions here can vary, with misty rains often adding to the location’s mystique, so a light jacket is recommended.
This lookout is an ideal stop for anyone staying at Koloa Landing Resort, offering an unforgettable glimpse into the natural beauty of Kaua’i, suitable for all ages and fitness levels.
Waimea Canyon River Trail
The Waimea Canyon River Trail, spanning 16.7 kilometers near Kekaha, Kaua’i, presents a rewarding challenge for avid hikers. With an average completion time of around 7 hours and 8 minutes, this trail offers an immersive experience into the heart of the Canyon. The initial section of the trail is notably steep, demanding caution and stamina, but it eventually flattens out as it approaches the Waimea River, unveiling the Canyon’s hidden beauty.
Throughout this journey, hikers are treated to various landscapes, from rugged terrains to tranquil riverside views. It’s an ideal trail for activities like backpacking and birding, with opportunities for camping along the way. The trail’s solitude and natural beauty make it a unique adventure for those seeking to explore the depths of Waimea Canyon. Prepare for a day filled with breathtaking scenery and the serene ambiance of Kaua’i’s wilderness.
There are plenty of Waimea Canyon hikes beyond this short list of eight; for more information about Kauai hiking tours, Koloa Landing Resort’s concierge team is here to help. Remember that one person’s adventure is another’s treacherous climb, so always consult a trail map, read plenty of reviews, check the weather conditions and get a local’s take before heading out on any hike. Sometimes, hiking with an experienced guide can prove even more satisfying. By choosing an appropriate trail for your skill level, you will maximize your enjoyment of all the natural splendor of Kauai. Ready to book a Kauai villa for a week or three? Click here! Aloha and happy trails!
— Erica Karlin, Koloa Landing Resort