5 Days In Kauai itinerary

Day 2: Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park

The second day of this Kauai itinerary focuses on the Waimea Canyon region. It might be your most dramatic and awe-inspiring day on the island. Waimea Canyon is known as ‘the Grand Canyon of the Pacific‘, but it’s hardly what you expect to find on a remote tropical island. This day combines scenic drives with hiking. You can dial up or down any of these two ingredients as you wish.

Pro Tips

(1) 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. (2) Non-Hawaii residents must pay entrance and parking fees in Waimea Canyon State Park.


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 from an architectural perspective, primarily the First Hawaiian Bank, built in Neoclassical fashion. 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, do not miss the highly acclaimed Ishihara Market, where you can stock up on groceries for the day but, more importantly – excellent packed lunches, sandwiches, and even poke bowls.  

Captain Cook statue - Waimea Kauai - Hawaii
Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park

We’re about to visit 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 Na Pali coast’s signature peaks and the bizarre wonder of 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 provides 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. Camping in Koke’e State Park is possible with a permit and advanced reservations.

Koke'e State Park - Kauai

Planning your day

As far as the weather goes, the Na Pali-facing sections can be arid (as you’ll soon see), while the eastern-facing Alaka’i Swamp is usually cloudy and wet. It is best to arrive by 9:30 am during the wet season when you will likely 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.

Koke’e Museum

I recommend first visiting the Koke’e Museum as it sells a helpful map of all the park’s hiking trails. When I visited, the staff was not helpful or knowledgeable, but I only wanted the map. If the museum is not open, it’s not a huge deal, as most worthwhile trails are marked. The museum is next to a beautiful picnic spot, but we’ll return later.  

Awa’awapuhi Trail

The moderately challenging Awa’awapuhi Trail offers million-dollar views of the Na Pali cliffs from a unique angle. The optional hike will take up your entire morning, leaving the rest of the day for driving down to the coastline via the scenic stops along Waimea Canyon Drive. It’s one of the best hikes in Hawaii, a worthwhile effort if the weather is fair and you’re physically fit.

Pro Tip

For even more thrills, consider the challenging and slightly longer Nu’alolo Trail instead.

The Awa’awapuhi Trail begins with a descent through a forest with nothing too fancy to report, apart from a beautiful melody of songbirds. From time to time, clearings in the forest reveal severe landslides, which this area is prone to. After about an 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, keep walking down and carefully scramble over a few boulders until you reach a perfectly positioned ledge. This is by far the best seat in Kauai.


It really doesn’t get any better than this. However, you’ll have to share the airspace with birds catching thermals and a never-ending barrage of helicopter scenic tours entering and exiting the majestic Awa’awapuhi Valley amphitheater. The views keep improving as the sun fully rises over the valley, revealing its beautiful colors and the unique contours of the eroded Na Pali cliffs. Also, pay attention to the acoustics. You can clearly hear people chatting on the boats nearing the cliffs and even animals in the valley below.

Na Pali Cliffs Canyon - Awa'awapuhi Hiking Trail - Kauai, Hawaii
Na Pali Cliffs from Awa'awapuhi Hiking Trail - Kauai, Hawaii
Na Pali Cliffs closeup - Awa'awapuhi Hiking Trail - Kauai, Hawaii
Logistics for hiking the Awa’awapuhi Trail

Aim to start hiking by no later than 9 am to beat the crowds and the clouds. 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, and walking poles (if you struggle uphill). Bring food, water, and a full change of clothes.

Kalalau Lookout

The Kalalau Lookout is 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. Often, the overlook gets covered with clouds in late mornings during the wet season, so try getting here early. 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.

Kalalau Lookout - Na Pali Cliffs - Kauai Hawaii

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 fantastic 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. In this wet park area, you must come prepared for rain and expect cloudy conditions.

Pu’u o Kila Lookout - Na Pali Cliffs - Kauai Hawaii
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Even if you‘re not 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.

Picnic Lunch

If you haven’t done so already, stop for a picnic lunch on the campsite grounds. The large grassy area is also right next to the Koke’e Museum and restaurant, so you can enjoy a sit-down meal or just treat yourself to a well-deserved post-hike dessert.  

Picnic lunch in Kokee State Park - Kauai

Waimea Canyon

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.

Waimea Canyon panoramic view - Kauai Hawaii

Waimea Canyon was formed throughout 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 on various levels.

Cliff & Canyon Trails

If you opted out of hiking the Awa’awapuhi Trail, or if you’re up for more hiking, 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.

Cliff and canyon hiking trail sign - Waimea Canyon - Kauai Hawaii

The trail ends in an exposed red-soil hill where you’re again treated to incredible canyon views. This hike is even more special because you can see the canyon walls opposite 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.

Waimea Canyon from Cliff and canyon hiking trail - Kauai Hawaii
Waipo’o Falls - Cliff and Canyon hiking trail - Waimea Canyon - Kauai Hawaii

Logistics: pick up the trailhead 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 0.1 miles (160m), and the ‘canyon’ portion is 1.7 miles (2.7 km) for a total hiking time of a maximum of 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

Back in Waimea State Park, we’ll now turn our attention to the 19-mile Waimea Canyon Drive. Rivaled only by the Road to Hana on Maui, it’s one of the best scenic drives in Hawaii. 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 overlook after overlook for you to pause, reflect, and admire the immense beauty of the canyon (some are official overlooks, and some are 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 keep improving 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 now list a few of the most worthy lookouts along Waimea Canyon Drive, noting that we’ve already covered two overlooks in Koke’e State Park (Kalalau and Pu’u o Kila).

Pu’u Hinahina Lookout

The Pu’u Hinahina Lookout is an official scenic overlook with parking doubling as the starting point for several hikes. What I loved about this lookout is its unique vantage point, 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.

Pu’u Hinahina Lookout - Waimea Canyon - Kauai

Waipo’o Falls Lookout

This unofficial lookout is basically a small clearing between mile markers 12 and 13. This angle offers dead straight views of Waipo’o Falls – incredible!

Waipo’o Falls Lookout - Kauai - Hawaii

Waimea Canyon Lookout

Waimea Canyon Lookout is the park’s main viewing area. You don’t want to miss the views from here, but, at the same time, you won’t be the only one here. The beauty of this lookout is the wide angle it offers. You can see a lot of the canyon from here, including Waipo’o Falls. This is also an excellent place to stretch your legs and visit the bathroom before returning to civilization.

Waimea Canyon Lookout - Kauai - Hawaii

Back in Waimea Town after what should be a very fulfilling day, treat yourself to shave ice or a bite to eat before grabbing a few hours of rest ahead of tonight’s luau extravaganza.

Luau Kalamaku

You cannot visit Hawaii without attending at least one luau, so it might as well be the award-winning Luau Kalamaku. Considered the most impressive Polynesian dance show in Kauai, dozens of professional dancers take you back in time, sharing a beautiful love story that takes place after Polynesian discovery when the gods ruled this virgin land.

Luau Kalamaku - Kauai - Hawaii - evening show
Luau Kalamaku - Kauai - Hawaii - female dancers
Luau Kalamaku - Kauai - Hawaii - male dancers
Luau Kalamaku - Kauai - Hawaii - Tahitian dancing

I’ve seen my fair share of ‘luau shows’ in French Polynesia and the Cook Islands. What I especially liked about Luau Kalamaku was the focus on Tahitian dancing. Compared to Hawaii’s hula, Tahitian dancing is fast-paced and much more thrilling to watch.