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.
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.
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.
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.
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.