The great gaping gulch known as Waimea Canyon is quite a sight. This valley, known for its reddish lava beds, reminds everyone who sees it of the Grand Canyon. Kauai's version is bursting with ever-changing color, just like its namesake, but it's smaller -- only a mile wide, 3,567 feet deep, and 12 miles long. A massive earthquake sent a number of streams into the single river that ultimately carved this picturesque canyon. Today, the Waimea River -- a silver thread of water in the gorge that's sometimes a trickle, often a torrent, but always there -- keeps cutting the canyon deeper and wider, and nobody can say what the result will be 100 million years from now.
You can stop by the road and look at the canyon, hike down into it, or swoop through it in a helicopter.
The Drive Through Waimea Canyon & Up to Kokee
By car, there are two ways to visit Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park, 20 miles from Waimea. From the coastal road (Hwy. 50), you can turn up Waimea Canyon Drive (Hwy. 550) at Waimea town; or you can pass through Waimea and turn up Kokee Road (Hwy. 55) at Kekaha. The climb is very steep from Kekaha, but Waimea Canyon Drive, the rim road, is narrower and rougher. A few miles up, the two merge into Kokee Road.
The first good vantage point is Waimea Canyon Lookout, located between mile markers 10 and 11 on Waimea Canyon Road. From here, it's another 6 miles to Kokee. There are a few more lookout points along the way that also offer spectacular views, such as Puu Hina Hina Lookout, between mile markers 13 and 14, at 3,336 feet; be sure to pull over and spend a few minutes pondering this natural wonder. (The giant white object that looks like a golf ball and defaces the natural landscape is a radar station left over from the Cold War.)
Kokee State Park
It's only 16 miles from Waimea to Kokee, but the park is a whole different world because it is 4,345 acres of rainforest. You'll enter a new climate zone, where the breeze has a bite and trees look quite continental. You're in 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 digits Celsius].)
The forest is full of native plants, such as mokihana berry, ohia lehua, and iliau (similar to Maui's silversword), as well as imports like Australia's eucalyptus and California's redwood. Pigs, goats, and black-tailed deer thrive in the forest, but the moa, or Polynesian jungle fowl, is the cock of the walk.
Right next to Kokee Lodge (which lies on the only road through the park, about a mile before it ends) is the Kokee Natural History Museum (tel. 808/335-9975; www.kokee.org), open daily from 10am to 4pm (free admission). This is the best place to learn about the forest and Alakai Swamp before you set off hiking in the wild. The museum shop has great trail information and local books and maps, including the official park trail map. We recommend getting the Pocket Guide on Native Plants on the Nature Trail for Kokee State Park and the Road Guide to Kokee and Waimea Canyon State Park.
A nature walk is the best introduction to this rainforest; it starts behind the museum at the rare Hawaiian koa tree. This easy, self-guided walk of about a quarter mile takes about 20 minutes if you stop and look at all the plants identified along the way.
Two miles above Kokee Lodge is Kalalau Lookout, the spectacular climax of your drive through Waimea Canyon and Kokee. When you stand at the lookout, below you is a work in progress that began at least 5 million years ago. It's hard to stop looking; the view is breathtaking, especially when light and cloud shadows play across the red-and-orange cliffs.
There's lots more to see and do up here. Anglers fly-fish for rainbow trout and hikers tackle the 45 trails that lace the Alakai Swamp. That's a lot of ground to cover, so you might want to plan on staying over. If pitching a tent is too rustic for you, the wonderful cabins set in a grove of redwoods are one of the best lodging bargains in the islands. The restaurant at Kokee Lodge is open for breakfast and lunch daily from 9am to 2:30pm.
For advance information, contact the State Division of Parks, 3060 Eiwa St., Room 306, Lihue, HI 96766 (tel. 808/274-3444); and the Kokee Lodge Manager, P.O. Box 819, Waimea, HI 96796 (tel. 808/335-6061). The park is open daily year-round. The best time to go is early in the morning, to see the panoramic view of Kalalau Valley from the lookout at 4,000 feet, before clouds obscure the valley and peaks.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.