Day 2: Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park
The second of your 5 days in Kauai will be the most dramatic and awe-inspiring. We’ll focus on the Waimea Canyon area – the Grand Canyon of the Pacific and hardly what you expect to find on a remote tropical island. Get your hiking shoes ready!
this will be a very action-packed day. I recommend hitting the road by 8 am or earlier so you’ll have enough time for everything while not having to rush or deal with the crowds.
Start your day bright and early with a quick visit to historic Waimea, a former sugar plantation town whose location at the mouth of the Waimea River positioned it as a strategic stronghold. Waimea means ‘reddish-brown water’ in Hawaiian and it’s easy to understand how this town got its name, with the river carrying the famous red soil from the canyon upstream as it flows to the Pacific.
Waimea has a few interesting buildings to check out from an architectural perspective, primarily the First Hawaiian Bank which is built in Neoclassical fashion (for some reason). Make another quick stop at the Captain Cook statue, commemorating the British explorer’s landing in Waimea in 1778. If you didn’t bring a packed lunch with you, do not miss the highly acclaimed Ishihara Market, where you can stock up on groceries for the day but more importantly – awesome packed lunches, sandwiches and even poke bowls.
we’re about to cover Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park. Usually, visitors simply drive the scenic Waimea Canyon Drive from south to north and make short stops for vistas or hikes until they reach the Kalalau Lookout. However, since this itinerary includes the option of two hikes in this region, we will head nearly all the way to the end of the scenic drive, hike, and work our way back down. If you do not wish to hike, you can simply take the usual route.
Koke’e State Park
Squeezed between the signature peaks of the Na Pali coast and the bizarre wonder that is Waimea Canyon, Koke’e State Park offers the most stunning land-based views in Kauai. The park covers a vast expanse of high elevation terrain and offers optimal temperatures for exploring the outdoors. Delicate ecosystems home to endemic plants and animals cover large parts of the park, so don’t forget your binoculars if you’re into bird watching. Note that camping in Koke’e State Park is possible with a permit and advanced reservations.
As far as the weather goes, the Na Pali-facing sections can be very dry (as you’ll soon see), while the eastern-facing Alaka’i Swamp is usually cloudy and of course – wet! It is best to get here by 9:30 am during the wet season when you are likely to have relatively cloud-free weather.
To get here, pick up Waimea Canyon Drive from just outside the town of Waimea and keep driving north. Don’t be tempted to stop at all the overlooks as we’ll drive back down this way. If you’re concerned about not having optimal photography conditions on the way back, make a quick stop at Waimea Canyon Lookout.
I recommend making this your first stop. Why? Because the museum sells a useful map of all the park’s hiking trails. When I visited, staff were not that helpful nor knowledgeable but all I wanted was the map ($3). If the museum is not open, it’s not a huge deal as the upcoming hike is well marked. The museum is also next to a beautiful picnic spot but we’ll come back later.
This was by far the best hike I did in all of Hawaii! It offers million-dollar views of the Na Pali cliffs from a very unique angle. The hike was recommended to me by my Airbnb host as I was contemplating a few options. She was right on the money and my timing was absolutely perfect (see logistics section).
The moderately challenging Awa’awapuhi Trail begins with a descent through the forest with nothing too fancy to report aside from a beautiful melody of songbirds. From time to time, clearings in the forest reveal severe landslides which this area is prone to – the reason why at the present time the more challenging Nu’alolo Trail is closed.
After about 1 hour of easy hiking, the forest gives way to barren cliffs. This is the Awa’awapuhi Overlook but don’t stop here. If you feel confident enough, keep walking down and carefully scramble over a few boulders until reaching a perfectly positioned ledge. This is by far the best seat in Kauai.
You’ll feel like the ‘master of the universe’ sitting up here with the entire valley beneath your feet. It really doesn’t get any better than this, however, you’ll have the share the airspace not only with birds catching the thermals but also with a never-ending barrage of helicopter scenic tours entering and exiting the majestic Awa’awapuhi Valley amphitheater.
You’ll want to stay here for a while and if you arrived early enough, the ledge will be all yours. The views will keep getting better and better as the sun fully rises over the valley, revealing its beautiful colors and the unique contours of the eroded Na Pali cliffs. Take note of the incredible acoustics of this spot. You can clearly hear people chatting on the boats nearing the cliffs and even animals in the valley below.
This is a unique view that can only be experienced from here. Even hikers on the Kalalau Trail are not as spoiled as hikers on the Awa’awapuhi Trail, perhaps only those on scenic helicopter rides or Na Pali coast cruises.
Logistics: to beat the crowds and the clouds, aim to start hiking by no later than 9 am. The trailhead is clearly marked and there’s a small parking lot (just don’t leave anything in the car). Wear sturdy hiking shoes, sun protection (the trail is mostly exposed), sweat repelling clothing, walking poles (if you struggle uphill). Bring food, water and a full change of clothes. The hike is about 3 miles each way (4.8km) and takes 3-4 hours to complete.
One of the finest panoramic overlooks in Hawaii, this is where you’ll get the ‘money shot’ of the famous Na Pali cliffs – eroded and sculpted over millennia by the forces of wind and water. Oftentimes, the overlook gets covered with clouds in late mornings during the wet season so getting here early (but not too early) is a good idea. Even if conditions are cloudy, things can quickly change so don’t give up hope. The Kalalau Valley that is seen from up here marks the end of the famous Kalalau Trail and you might be surprised to hear that there are still a few dwellers in the valley who choose to continue living life off the grid.
Pu’u o Kila Lookout
Offering slightly better views of the Kalalau Valley than the previous stop, the Pu’u o Kila Lookout is also the starting point for the Pihea & Alaka’i Swamp trail. This is another awesome hike that traverses a boggy swamp to spectacular viewing areas towards Hanalei Bay (Kilohana Lookout) and even to the interior peaks of Kauai which are usually eternally wet (7 miles return hike to the swamp). In this wet area of the park, you must come prepared for rain and expect cloudy conditions.
Even if you won’t be hiking, it’s worth walking down from the main viewing area via the packed-dirt path to enjoy more secluded views of the Na Pali cliffs on one side and over-the-canopy views from the other. On a clear day, you might even see Mount Waiʻaleʻale.
If you haven’t done so already, stop for a picnic lunch on the grounds of the campsite. The large grassy area is also right next to the museum and restaurant so you can enjoy a sit-down meal or just treat yourself to a well-deserved post-hike dessert.
Words cannot describe the beauty and grandeur of Waimea Canyon. Known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, it’s hard to believe such a place exists on Earth, let alone on a small tropical island like Kauai. I thought I had already visited such wonders when exploring the remote island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia, but Waimea Canyon is on a whole other level and the best part is that it is very accessible to visitors of all physical abilities and time constraints.
Waimea Canyon was formed over the course of millennia, thanks to the combination of a catastrophic collapse of the island’s massive shield volcano, the enormous amounts of rain that eroded what was left, and the Waimea River which continues to sculpt the deep and elongated chasm (over 10m/16km long and over 3500ft/1066m deep). Waimea Canyon is best enjoyed on the scenic Waimea Canyon Drive and through hikes in various levels.
Cliff & Canyon Trails
If you’re up for another hike after the morning’s Awa’awapuhi Trail, the Cliff and Canyon Trails are a good choice. Technically still within Koke’e State Park, these two moderately challenging and connected trails lead you through the forest for about 1.5km before descending rapidly 400ft into the canyon.
The trail ends in an exposed red-soil hill where you’re once again treated to awesome views of the canyon. What makes this hike even more special is that you get to see the canyon walls opposite to those seen from the scenic drive. It’s a lot quieter here and you’ll likely see birds scavenging and having the time of their life before the rotors of yet another annoying scenic helicopter tour break the silence. Another bonus is the visit to the top of Waipo’o Falls. You’ll see the falls from afar when stopping at one of the overlooks we’ll shortly visit, but on the hike, you get to witness the waterfall’s splash from up close.
Logistics: to pick up the trailhead, drive south from the museum and look for the Koke’e State Park sign. This is where you’ll park (leave nothing inside). Locate the 4WD trail on the opposite side of the road and pick up the signs for both trails. The ‘cliff’ portion of the hike is just 0.1miles (160m) and the ‘canyon’ portion of the hike is 1.7miles (2.7 km) for a total hiking time of max 3 hours return. The trail might be a bit muddy and slippery but not overly challenging. If you struggle with uphill portions, walking poles will do the trick.
Waimea Canyon Drive
Rivaled only by the Road to Hana on Maui, this 19-mile journey is one of the best scenic drives in the United States. Waimea Canyon Drive more or less follows the contours of the Waimea River from just above Waimea town north to the highest lookout in Koke’e State Park.
The scenic drive offers an overlook after overlook for you to pause, reflect and admire the immense beauty of the canyon (some are official overlooks and some not). Naturally, you won’t be the only ones on the road but as you can see in this itinerary, we’re working our way from north to south as opposed to the natural south-to-north (and then back south) route. Another plus of following this ‘opposite route is that the views really keep getting better and better as you ascend northbound. Usually what happens is that you ‘waste’ a lot of time on the less impressive lookouts down south since those are the first ones you come across.
I’ll list a few of the more worthy lookouts along the drive, noting that we’ve already covered two overlooks in Koke’e State Park (Kalalau and Pu’u o Kila).
Pu’u Hinahina Lookout
An organized lookout with parking also doubles as the starting point for a number of hikes. What I loved about this lookout is the interesting angle it offers, as if opening up the entire canyon in front of your eyes. You’ll enjoy a unique downstream view of the Waimea River, Waipo’o Falls, and the Pacific Ocean in the distance on a clear day.
Waipo’o Falls Lookout
This unofficial lookout is essentially a small clearing between mile markers 12 and 13. This angle offers dead straight views of Waipo’o Falls – incredible!
Waimea Canyon Lookout
This is the main viewing area and not one you want to miss though you certainly won’t be the only ones here. The beauty in this lookout is the wide-angle it offers. You can simply see a lot of the canyon from here, including Waipo’o Falls. This is also a good place to stretch your legs and visit the bathroom before the drive back to civilization.
Back in Waimea Town after what should be a very fulfilling day, treat yourself to some shave ice or a bite to eat before grabbing a few hours of rest ahead of tonight’s luau extravaganza.
Traditional Polynesian Luau Dance Show
You cannot visit Hawaii without attending at least one luau. I’m not a huge fan of the buffet dinner portion and its huge price tag but what is nice in Kauai is that you can simply attend the dance portion of the award-winning Luau Kalamaku. Considered to currently possess the most impressive dance show of all Kauai luaus, advanced reservations are required but even last-minute tickets can be bought since this place is huge (housed in a large tent that can comfortably seat over 1,000 people). You can purchase tickets just for the show, dinner plus show, and for a special VIP experience.
I skipped dinner and came just for the show (admission included soft drinks and a Mai Tai) and it did not disappoint. Dozens (and I mean dozens) of professional dancers take you back in time, sharing a beautiful love story that takes place at a time when the first Polynesians arrived on the island and when the gods ruled this virgin land.
Liked: it focused on Tahitian dancing which is a lot more exotic and fast pace than the normal (sorry to say) boring hula, lots of dancers who seem to take their job very seriously, there’s time for photos and chit chat with the dancers after the show.
Disliked: it was only 45 minutes long which might be the norm for Hawaiian luaus but it left me with a taste of wanting more, the fire dancing number was incredible but (as you would expect in lawsuit-capital America) mesh nets were raised to avoid anyone getting injured.