Often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific—an analogy attributed to Mark Twain, although there’s no record he ever visited—Waimea Canyon is indeed spectacular, albeit on a smaller scale. A mile wide, 3,600 feet deep, and 14 miles long, depending on whom you ask, this counterpart to Arizona’s icon deserves accolades for its beauty alone. A jumble of red-orange pyramids, striped with gray bands of volcanic rock and stubbled with green and gold vegetation, Waimea Canyon was formed by a series of prehistoric lava flows, earthquakes, and erosion from wind and water, including the narrow Waimea River, still carving its way to the sea. You can stop by the road and look at the canyon, hike into it, admire it from a downhill bicycle tour, or swoop through it in a helicopter. (For more information, see “Organized Tours” and “Other Outdoor Activities”).
By car, there are two ways to visit Waimea Canyon and reach Kokee State Park, 15 miles up from Waimea. From the main road of Kaumualii Highway, it’s best to head up Waimea Canyon Drive (Hwy. 550) in Waimea town. You can also pass through Waimea and turn up Kokee Road (Hwy. 55) at Kekaha, but it’s steeper—one reason the twice-daily downhill bike tours prefer that route—and its vistas, though lovely, are not as eye-popping as those along Waimea Canyon Drive, the narrower rim road. The two routes merge about 7 miles up from the highway and continue as Kokee Road.
The first good vantage point is Waimea Canyon Lookout, between mile markers 10 and 11 on Kokee Road; there’s a long, gently graded, paved path for those who can’t handle the stairs to the observation area. Far across the canyon, two-tiered Waipoo (“why-poh-oh”) Falls cascades 800 feet; you might spot a nimble mountain goat clambering on the precipices just below. From here, it’s about another 5 miles to Kokee. A few more informal and formal lookout points along the way also offer noteworthy views. Puu Ka Pele Lookout, between mile markers 12 and 13, reveals the multiple ribbons of water coursing through Waipoo Falls. Puu Hinahina Lookout, between mile markers 13 and 14, actually has two different vista points, one with a sweeping view of the canyon down to the Pacific, and another of Niihau, lying 17 miles west.