Waimea Canyon Trail Guide: All You Need to Know

It was in 1866 that Mark Twain first ventured to Hawaii and gave the isolated paradise a paragraph in geography books. The institution that sponsored his travels was the Sacramento Union.

He wrote 25 letters documenting his journey, which have become a rich part of Hawaii’s heritage.

waimea canyon trail kauai

While he never quite made it to Kauai on his journey, local residents are still eager to write him into their history, and legend has it that when Twain visited the Waimea Canyon he called it the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.

Is the story true? Nope. Yet a dramatic folk hero is not required to see that the name was well ascribed.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS


Where does Waimea Canyon trail start?

Hikes start at various locations along Highway 550 and Halemanu Road, though Kokee Lodge (near the Kokee Natural History Museum) is a good place to start.


For the main Canyon trail, start at the Halemanu Road trailhead.


Where to park in Waimea Canyon trail

Parking is available near the Kokee Natural History Museum, and most trailheads have their own dedicated parking lots.


How to get to Waimea Canyon Trail?

The most popular hike, the Waimea Canyon Trail, starts at the Halemanu Road trailhead. This trailhead services as the starting point for multiple hikes, and can be reached simply by driving down Kokee Road and looking for the exit.


If you have a 4x4, it’s possible to drive all the way down Halemanu to the trailhead. Otherwise, you’ll have to park at the turnoff from Kokee Road.


How long is the Waimea Canyon hike?

The main hike (the Canyon Trail/Waipoo Falls) is about 4 miles, and should take you anywhere from 2-4 hours to complete.


Do you need a permit to hike Waimea Canyon?

Most hikes require no permit simply to walk, though camping generally will cost you. Some trails, such as the one to Waimea Town, cross private land and thus require you fill out a form from the self-service box at the trailhead.


If in doubt, ask at the closest ranger station.


What should I wear to Waimea Canyon?

Bring light clothing appropriate for a tropical climate, ideally with a light rain shell. Be prepared for mud, and a pair of gaiters won’t go astray.


How do I get to Waimea Canyon?

The easiest way is from Waimea Town, taking either Kokee Road or Waimea Canyon Drive. Either way, the two roads meet just before the canyon, before leading into the park.


Consider taking one route on the drive up, and the othe ron the way back.


Are there bathrooms at Waimea Canyon?

Bathrooms are available at the museum, and near most of the ranger stations and Waimea Canyon hiking trails.


How long does it take to drive from Princeville to Waimea Canyon?

This somewhat round-about route will take you roughly two hours – more if you hit the afternoon traffic.


Who called Waimea Canyon the Grand Canyon of the Pacific?

Mark Twain is often credited with describing Waimea Canyon as “ the Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.


Is the Poomau Canyon Lookout Trail still possible to hike?

This short but once-popular hike from Mohihi-Camp 10 Road is no longer open to the public. Don’t use it until further notice, and consider other canyon trails.

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waimea canyon trail
waimea canyon trail guide

The Waimea Canyon

Of course the Grand Canyon is massive – hence the name, but Waimea Canyon measures up entirely in both history and beauty. There is a combination of natural processes that have formed the canyon over the past 5 million years.

First, natural rainfall from the wettest peaks on the earth and second, the islands’ most important volcano collapsed. Millenniums of calamitous events and steady corrosion have formed a canyon that rivals any in the world.

From top to bottom, the canyon measures 10 miles long, 1 mile wide and 3,600 ft deep. A mixture of red rock and green foliage makes the canyon uniquely tropical.

When you total up these facts, the canyon becomes a must see destination while in Hawaii.

If you're an adventurous hiker, you can make the canyon your primary destination for an entire week. Otherwise a day trip should suffice.

waimea canyon

Either way, you should be aware that the temperature at the top of the canyon is usually 10-15 degrees colder than sea level.

If you decide on the day trip be sure to go on a small hike to experience the canyon first hand.

There are a variety of hikes to choose from.

A personal favorite is the hike to Waipoo Falls. The trail measures 4.8 miles round trip. It starts right by the Pu’u Hinahina lookout, which is between mile markers 13 and 14 on your way up the canyon. Normally the hike takes around 2-3 hours.

If you’re not up for any of the hiking trails through mud and rain forest, consider bee-lining for the Waimea Canyon Lookout on Highway 550, near mile marker 10.

You’ll come back telling stories that will make Mark Twain jealous. He will turn over in his grave knowing that he did not visit the most stunning canyon in Hawaii – The Grand Canyon of the Pacific!

Waimea Canyon Hikes

Take note that Waimea Canyon weather conditions can change suddenly. Be prepared for wind and rain, especially near the viewpoints. To plan your trip, use the official Waimea Canyon trail map here.

Hard copies of the Waimea Canyon map can be found at some ranger stations.

The following is far from an exhaustive list of hikes – the canyon and surrounding state park are bursting with walking opportunities and small trails.

These, however, are among the most popular:

Waimea Canyon Waterfall Trail / Waipoo Falls

The most popular canyon hike starts at the end of Halemanu Road, and takes visitors on one of the most scenic routes through the heart of the Waimea Canyon State Park, ending at the Kumuwela Lookout.

It’s around 3.4 miles for the round trip, and will take a moderate hiker 2-3 hours to complete. For a longer trail, take Black Pipe, which is a solid 8 mile trip that leads into the main Canyon Trail.

Whatever you'd like to call it, start by taking the dirt road entrance from the parking lot, and follow the signs into the trees. The undergrowth here can be thick, and makes for an exciting hike. After around 800 meters, you'll run into the trail's namesake, Waipo'o Falls.

waimea canyon lookout

This is a good spot for a water break, before continuing to the Kumuwela Lookout, which has incredible views of the canyon below.

Overall, it's one of the best Waimea Canyon hikes.

Poomau Canyon Lookout Trail

Occasionally labeled on some maps as the Poomau Canyon Vista Trail, this trail starts around 1.5 miles past the Forest Reserve entrance sign on Mohihi-Camp 10 Road.

waimea canyon trails

 From the trailhead, it's only a few hundred meters to the Poomau Lookout, which has some decent views of the canyon. This is definitely one of the easiest and shortest trails on offer, and can be attempted by almost all visitors. 

Take care near the lookout in wet weather, and in general while hiking Waimea Canyon.

Kukui Trail

Starting on the western side, the Kukui Trail begins with a steep descent into the canyon. From the top, you'll plunge 2,000 feet through thick foilage into the heart of Waimea.

Take your time on the damp trail, and be prepared for some serious mud as you approach the canyon floor.

There's a river at the bottom, and camping is possible with a permit.

Iliau Nature Loop

Just near the Kukui Trail start, you’ll see another path heading to the Iliau Nature Loop. This 0.3 mile loop is an easy appetizer for anyone looking to stretch their legs without breaking a sweat.

Pleasant, and suitable for everyone.

Overall, a great Hawaii travel experience.

Awaawapuhi Trail

One of the most rewarding hikes in Waimea Canyon, Awaawapuhi Trail should definately be attempted by anyone visiting the park for the first time. The hike itself is of moderate difficulty, and expect a round trip of at least 6.5 miles – almost double that if you add the optional Nualolo Cliff Trail.

Awaawapuhi Trail starts at an elevation of around 4,120 feet, but descends moderately down to a rewarding overlook with great views of the canyon below.

The trail starts in rainforest, but leads hikers through dry, high desert-like terrain, before arriving at the open grasslands overlooking the valley. If you're following the mile markers, you should see one just near a trail junction beside the overlook.

From this junction, you can either double back to the trailhead and enjoy the nature loop, or continue down the Nualolo Cliff Trail.

Bear in mind that if you double back, you will be spending a lot of time going uphill.

Nualolo Cliff Trail

The quintessential Pali Coast experience, the Nualolo Cliff Trail is usually only attempted by serious hikers. For one, the trail itself can only be reached via either the afore-mentioned Awaawapuhi Trail, or via the Nualolo Trail.

The Nualolo Cliff Trail connects the two other hikes with a scenic route offering stunning views of the cliffs below.

waimea canyon waipoo trail

If you're coming from Awaawapuhi, start the Nualolo Cliff Trail simply by following the marker at the trail junction near the final overlook. Otherwise, if you're coming from Nualolo, keep an eye out for the small trail about a quarter of a mile back from Lolo Vista Point.

It doesn't look like much, but this humble trail through the undergrowth actually leads you out to an equally slim track along the cliffsides. Watch your step: if you thought the canyon state was precarious, you'll want to really take it easy on the sections of this trail that hug the very edge of the cliffs.

If you're planning on doing the Nualolo Cliff Trail, bear in mind you'll inevitably have to cover both the connecting Nualolo Trail and the Awaawapuhi.

Expect to spend the better part of the day doing this epic loop. It's lengthy, but also perhaps the best hiking experience in Hawaii.

If you plan on doing the full Nualolo Cliff Trail, then you may want to consider parking your car at the Awaawapuhi trailhead, then walking down Highway 550 to the Kokee Ranger Station.

waimea canyon

From there, you can do the loop and arrive in the afternoon back at the Awaawapuhi car park.

This saves walking down the highway in the afternoon, when traffic can be intense.

Nualolo Trail

Not to be confused with the more ambitious Nualolo Cliff Trail, the Nualolo Trail starts at the Kokee Ranger Station. Behind the station you should see the trail weaving uphill in a series of switchbacks.

Once you reach the top, you'll immediately plunge back downwards into the thick foilage, before the trail eventually flattens out into a more pleasant stroll. After about a mile, you'll begin to get some great views of Niihau Island.

This small island is one of the last remaining eclaves of Old Hawaii. The inhabitants speak Hawaiian, and entry is on approval by the local community only.

In other words, the views from Nualolo are as close as you'll probably ever get to this unique island.

Once you start seeing those lovely sea views, brace yourself for the mud. The trail at some points is a dirt road, though its interrupted occasionally by boggy pits of gluggy clay.

waimea canyon view

If it hasn't rained recently, then count your blessings; if it's wet though, then be prepared for some serious suction. This mud can suck your boots straight off, and will stain your clothes like nothing else.

After around 3 miles, you should see the Nualolo Trail forking off to your side. Even if you’re planning the big loop, consider continuing onward to Lolo Vista Point, which is less than 2 miles ahead.

 It’ll probably be windy at the point, but the views are worth it.

After the point, you can either double back to the ranger station, or take the Nualolo Cliff Trail. Bear in mind that if you parked at the Nualolo trailhead, then after the cliff hike you’ll end up at the  Awaawapuhi entrance.

From there, you’ll have to hike about 1.5 miles downhill along Highway 550 back to the Kokee Ranger Station’s parking lot.

Kawaikoi Stream Trail

A little under a mile past the park entrance on Mohihi-Camp 10 Road, you’ll find the trailhead to this short 1.8 mile loop that follows a trickling stream.

Plan Your Kauai Trip

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Leave a Reply 6 comments

Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa in Hawaii - September 9, 2020 Reply

[…] This hotel is right on top of an incredibly beautiful beach and a stone’s throw from Maha’ulepu Heritage Ridge Trail and only around one hour from the Waimea Canyon trail. […]

Its a Jungle Out There - March 4, 2011 Reply

Wow, that is stunning, Hawaii looks like a great location for some adventurous hiking in beautiful scenery

    maitravelsite - March 6, 2011 Reply

    You bet! Not only is the sea there most inviting, but the islands as well!

Notebooks Acer - July 7, 2010 Reply

Hello perceiro , was doing activity to facultadade , and was depending on some info , I just found here in your post, thank you.

Laura - April 10, 2010 Reply

I love Waimea Canyon. I was there about 4 years ago and thought it was so great to see this huge canyon and then turn in the other direction to see the beach.

    maitravelsite - April 10, 2010 Reply

    Unlike that of the Colorado river where you’ll see the desert!

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