#Kauai: Waimea Canyon

Kalalau Viewpoint, overlooking the Kalalau Valley and Napali Coast of Kaua'i

This is the reward at the end of the road: the Kalalau Viewpoint, overlooking the Kalalau Valley and Napali Coast of Kaua’i. Even with rain threatening all day, we kept seeing a slice of sunshine ahead, and we made it here in time to enjoy the view.

The weekend before last, when YaYu was over on Oahu for an overnight Key Club meeting, Brett and I decided to head out to Waimea Canyon on the west side of Kaua’i. Although the end of the road through the Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Parks is only 50 miles from our house, the trip out and back takes several hours and we just had never had the time to make the trip. We had taken the girls to see the canyon right after we arrived in 2014, but the winding road up through the canyon made Meiling feel car sick, so we headed back down after only getting to the first viewpoint.

Red dirt waterfall beside the road on the way to the canyon

Red dirt waterfall beside the road on the way to the canyon. This water feeds into an irrigation stream.

The entrance to the canyon starts in the town of Waimea on Kauai’s west side. The Hawaiian word Waimea means ‘reddish water,’ and the first thing that catches your eye as you start up the road into the canyon is that the deep, rust red color of the soil seems much more intense in the canyon than it does elsewhere on the island, maybe just because of the vast amounts of it all layered in one place.

The day we visited was heavily overcast - we were outrunning the rain the whole way up the canyon.

The day we visited was heavily overcast – we were outrunning the rain the whole way up the canyon.

The view from the Waimea Canyon viewpoint. We were running a few minutes ahead of the rain all day, so not the best lighting, but the views were still spectaular.

Another view from the Waimea Canyon lookout. We  didn’t have the best light for photos the day we visited, but the views were still spectaular.

Another look into the canyon, further up the road at the xxs viewpoint.

Another look into the canyon, further up the road at the Pu’u Hinahina Lookout.

A closer look at the waterfall from the xx viewpoint. The falls can be seen in the distance from the Waimea Canyon viewpoint.

A closer look at the waterfall from the Pu’ukapele Lookout. The fall is the one that can be seen in the distance from the Waimea Canyon viewpoint.

Mark Twain called Waimea Canyon “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Located on the west side of Kaua’i, the canyon is a geological wonder. The canyon’s deep walls, ridges and gorges were created by erosion, both from the Waimea River and rainfall from the slopes of Mt. Wai’ale’ale. The catastrophic collapse of the volcano that formed the island over four million years ago also contributed to the canyon’s formation. The trip up through the canyon is only 19.2 miles long, and but in that distance you travel from a dry, almost desert-like climate all the way up into forests of eucalyptus and other trees, and you can find pine, fir and cypress trees at the top. The variety of plants and flowers we observed kept our jaws open in wonder. The temperature drops the higher you go as well; the day we visited there was a full 20° difference in the temperature between Waimea town and the end of the road at the Kalalau viewpoint.

Taken at the xx viewpoint, the gray smudge on the horizon is the "Forbidden Island," Niihau, being overtaken by rain clouds.

Taken from the Niihau lookout at the Pu’u Hinahina Viewpoint stop, the gray smudge on the horizon is the “Forbidden Island,” Niihau (which is being overtaken by rain clouds).

We did not think hydrangeas grew on Kaua'i, but spotted them several times as we approached the Kalalau Viewpoint.

We had no idea hydrangeas grew on Kaua’i, but spotted them several times as we approached the Kalalau Viewpoint at the top.

There is plenty to do in the canyon besides stopping along the way to gape and take pictures. The two State Parks contain numerous hiking trails, from easy to challenging and trout fishing in the reservoir (our girls have done this each year with Big Brother/Big Sister) among other activities. At Koke’e State Park headquarters you can have breakfast or lunch in the lodge, set up your tent and camp, or even rent a cabin for an overnight stay, something Brett and I are planning to do once we’re officially on our own. Every overlook and viewpoint as you drive up through the canyon is worth a stop, with each offering something unique, from breathtaking canyon views to looking out over the ocean to Niihau, the “Forbidden Island,” so called as it’s privately owned by the Robinson family, and no visitors are allowed. The spectacular view of the NaPali Coast and the Kalalau Valley from the Koke’e Viewpoint is the ultimate reward for completing the journey on the canyon’s winding and twisty roads. There is one slightly further viewpoint, but the rain had finally caught up with us and we decided to save that as a goal for our next trip.

Even as the rain rolled in, the view from the Kalalau Viewpoint was breathtaking.

Even as the rain rolled in, the view from the Kalalau Viewpoint remained breathtaking.

Although it’s just 50 miles from our home to the Koke’e viewpoint, our visit to the Canyon took around five hours, including a stop for lunch at Island Taco in Waimea before heading back home. If you’re visiting Kaua’i, I can’t recommend enough giving yourself a day to explore this amazing scenic wonder – it is not to be missed!

To visit Waimea Canyon, take the Kaumualii Highway (Hwy 50) west to Waimea, and either turn on Route 550 (Waimea Canyon Road) in town, or go all the way through town to Koke’e Road, which eventually joins 550 further up (I personally think taking 550 all the way gives you more and better scenery). The speed limit is 25 mph, which you’ll probably want to follow fairly closely in order to enjoy the scenery and not get thrown by the curves. If you or anyone in your party suffers from car sickness, medicating yourself or them before you go is a good idea – the road up through the canyon is that twisty. The Koke’e Lodge restaurant is open daily from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.; cabins and campsites need to be booked in advance. Hunting is also allowed in the state parks, for wild pig or seasonal feral goats, but permits are required in advance, and bringing guns into Hawai’i requires advance planning as well. The parks are open daily during daylight hours.

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6 thoughts on “#Kauai: Waimea Canyon

  1. UnwrittenLifeBlog says:

    We made the mistake of stopping at one of the earlier viewpoints and *just* missed the view of the NaPali coast before the clouds rolled in. We’d like to go again, and also take a boat cruise out that way some day!

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  2. Laura says:

    As we drove up through the canyon, we kept seeing this slice of sunshine and blue sky up ahead, so kept going and made it in time to catch the view at the Kalalau Viewpoint. It started raining though within 10 minutes of our arrival there, and rained most of the way down. It was hot and dry though by the time we got back into Waimea.

    There’s one more viewpoint beyond the Kalalau – we saved that for another trip! We definitely want to go back again.

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  3. JJ says:

    I was there in August and the weather was similar to what you experienced, except when we got to the Waimea Canyon lookout (where the big parking lot is), it was a steady rain. Thankfully that didn’t last long and the overcast skies didn’t diminish the experience. There were these teenage girls that hopped over the fence there and were balancing themselves on a narrow ridge. It was very dangerous and they were lucky they didn’t fall. They were only wearing flip flops and the ground was slick from the rain. Crazy!

    We took Route 550 on the way up and I agree it is the best way to go. We had read that in a guide book and it was good advice. There were so many amazing lookout points along the way. Driving up (and down) is a challenge and you really need to pay attention because of all the twists and turns. It was fun though! Also be sure you gas up your car before you go because it takes awhile to get there and back and there are no gas stations.

    I didn’t know you can camp there so that would be a good thing to try next time. It definitely was one of the most beautiful natural views I’ve ever seen. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon and that is also amazing, but there was just something about Waimea Canyon that made me like it even more.

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    • Laura says:

      Brett and I want to stay overnight in one of the cabins, but that’s going to have to wait until YaYu is off to college. We did see a few tents pitched on the other side of the lodge, so that must be the camping area.

      The views there are breathtaking. Even with all the overcast it was still spectacular. The view from the Kalalau Viewpoint was perhaps the most gorgeous natural site I’ve ever seen. I too think the Grand Canyon is amazing, but Waimea Canyon is in a class by itself.

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