Waimea Canyon is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, a nickname long credited to beloved American author Mark Twain. But after a little 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 own 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 really 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 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, but 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.
Here are five of the best trails in Waimea Canyon State Park for varying skill levels.
Cliff Trail: Easy
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 easily be completed in about 30 minutes. Staying along a top ridge and providing panoramic, beautiful views across the canyon, Cliff Trail gives you 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 all the way to the overlook, hikers going round trip can enjoy one and a half to two hours of outdoor adventure.
Canyon Trail: Moderate
Using the same dirt road entrance off the gravel parking lot you’d take to Cliff Trail, you simply follow the sign in the direction of 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). Sprays of tropical wildflowers appear along the path and birdsong twitters in the trees above. At about the midway point you come upon a stunning 800-foot thundering waterfall called Waipo’o Falls. Take a load off, drink in the surroundings and enjoy your picnic. If you continue all the way to the end of the Canyon Trail, you will be rewarded by the Kumuwela Lookout with its seemingly endless gorgeous views of the canyon all the way out to the sparkling ocean beyond. You will, quite simply, run out of adjectives.
Black Pipe Trail: Moderate
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. The hiking trail is almost a mile long and takes about an hour round trip of fairly steep, rocky terrain, meandering through the lush Koa Forest studded by native Hibiscus bushes. The hibiscus flowers are often a creamy white with furry, brilliant pink pistils. Endemic iliau bushes are bursting with fuzzy white puffs and appear to be straight outta Dr. Seuss. The Black Pipe Trail is a pretty strenuous hike in places but experienced trekkers with good hiking shoes can get to two waterfalls and back in about two hours. The return trip is hardest, as it is uphill most of the way with a few surprisingly muddy sections depending on the rains. The waterfalls are truly awe inspiring and the surrounding areas offer pools to swim in! Cool off, float a bit and rejuvenate before your return. Nature’s spa treatment.
Kohua Ridge: Difficult
Thrill seekers will appreciate this challenging trail with unparalleled views that will put you in awe of Mother Nature’s handiwork. Often used by wild pig hunters seeking out the area’s hunting grounds, this neck of the woods can only be accessed in a 4×4 vehicle by way of unpaved Mohihi Camp 10 Road. The trail head is about two miles past the entrance sign for the Na Pali-Koa Forest Reserve and on to a little parking lot.
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 and narrow and is 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 huge puffs of white clouds. Waimea Canyon Lookout is directly across and you can see waterfalls in the distance. The Kohua Ridge Trail is about 3 hours round trip and is a potentially treacherous undertaking. Those with the skills and stamina to complete it are well rewarded, indeed.
Iliau Nature Loop: Easy
For a leisurely but oh-so satisfying getaway, Iliau Nature Loop may be just the ticket. Found off Koke’e Road between mile markers 8 and 9 near the Kukui Trail, this 20-minute stroll packs a lot of beauty into its quarter mile loop. Wildflowers? Check. Breathtaking canyon views? Check. Visible waterfalls? Check. Rainbows? Often! Bird watchers love it here, too, and not just for the chickens who may join you along the way. Named after the endemic Iliau flower with its fuzzy clustered white blooms, the hike features little signs along the way identifying the various Hawaiian plants and flowers. Of all the Waimea Canyon hikes on your list, this one is the easiest — and the most quaint.
Plenty of Waimea Canyon trails are out there to enjoy well beyond this short list of five. For more information about hiking Kauai, Koloa Landing Resort’s concierge team at the ready. 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 villa for a week or three? Click here! Aloha and happy trails!
— Erica Karlin, Koloa Landing Resort