It’s only 16 miles from Waimea to Kokee, but the two feel worlds apart: With 4,345 acres of rainforest, Kokee is another climate zone altogether, where the breeze has a bite and trees look quite continental. This is a cloud forest on the edge of the Alakai Swamp, the largest swamp in Hawaii, on the summit plateau of Kauai. Days are cool and wet, with intermittent bright sunshine, not unlike Seattle on a good day. Bring your sweater, and, if you’re staying over, be sure you know how to light a fire (overnight lows dip into the 40s/single-digit Celsius).
Although invasive foreign plants such as strawberry guava, kahili ginger, and Australian tree ferns have crowded out native plants, the forest still holds many treasures, including several species that only grow on Kauai: mokihana trees, whose anise-scented green berries adorn the island’s signature lei; iliau, a spiky plant similar to Maui’s silversword; and the endangered white hibiscus, one of the few with a fragrance.
Before exploring the area, though, be sure to stop by the Kokee Natural History Museum ★★ (www.kokee.org; 808/335-9975; daily 9am–4:30pm). It’s right next to the restaurant/gift shop of the Lodge at Kokee, in the meadow off Kokee Road (Hwy. 550), 5 miles past the first official Waimea Canyon lookout. Admission is free, but it deserves at least the $1 donation requested per person. The museum shop has great trail information as well as local books and maps, including the official park trail map. A .1-mile nature walk with labeled plants starts just behind the museum.
Another 2.7 miles up the road from Kokee Lodge is Kalalau Overlook ★★★, the spectacular climax of your drive through Waimea Canyon and Kokee—unless the gate is open to the Puu O Kila Lookout 1 mile farther, the true end of the road. The latter lookout is usually closed in inclement weather, which is frequent: Nearby Waialeale is playing catch for clouds that have crossed thousands of miles of ocean. The view from Kalalau Overlook can be Brigadoon-like, too, but when the mists part, it’s breathtaking. Shadows dance cross the green cliffs dappled with red and orange, white tropicbirds soar over a valley almost 4,000 feet below, and the turquoise sea sparkles on the horizon. Just below the railing, look for the fluffy red honeycreepers (‘apapane) darting among the scarlet-tufted ohia lehua trees. Mornings tend to offer the clearest views.
With so many trails to hike up here, including the boardwalk through the Alakai Swamp, some choose to stay overnight, either by pitching a tent in one of several campsites (by permit only) or opting for one of the cabins run by West Kauai Lodging or the YWCA’s Camp Sloggett (see “Where to Stay”). You’ll need to plan carefully, though, when it comes to food and drink: The Kokee Lodge Restaurant (see “Where to Eat”) is the only game in town, does not serve dinner, and may close early when business is slow. After 4pm, your best hope may be a snack vendor at a Waimea Canyon overlook; otherwise, it’s a slow, 15-mile drive down to Waimea.