One of our favorite drives in the Hawaiian Islands is up to Waimea Canyon, Hawaii’s glorious version of the Grand Canyon. There are a couple of drives in the Islands that come to mind when the goal is one of extremes. One is the drive from Kawaihae to yet another Waimea, on the Big Island of Hawaii, from the hot, sunny western coastline to the lush, cool pastures upland. But the drive up to Kauai’s Waimea remains at the top of our list because the end of the drive has so many rewarding views, climaxing with the amazing panorama from the Kalalau Lookout.
But don’t take our word for it. “Absolutely astounding!” is the sort of response people have. “Do not miss this magnificent landmark,” recommend others. People are often blown away by the extremes because one minute they are on a sunny Hawaiian beach and the next moment they are in a land they never expected, a cool forest with views that are more typical of America’s wide-open West than an island in the Pacific.
We recommend an early-morning start, taking Waimea Canyon Drive (Highway 550) up from Waimea Town and then returning via Kokee Road (Highway 552), which descends into Kekaha, home to remarkably sunny beaches, where you can thaw out from the drive’s cooler heights. It’s about 18 miles, a leisurely 45-minute drive, inland to the heights of Kokee State Park and the Kalalau Lookout.
There is ample parking at the popular Waimea Canyon Lookout, located just past the 10-mile marker. The vista seems to go on forever, even though the canyon is only roughly 10 miles long, a mile wide and 3,500 feet deep. From the safety of the lookout, you can shoot endless photos, witnessing the ever-changing kaleidoscope of colors. The canyon walls are remarkable for their red volcanic strata, indicating various periods of eruptions, punctuated by forest-green foliage.
Waimea means “reddish water,” probably so named because of the erosion caused by the Waimea River, the natural force that ultimately carved out the canyon. On a separate trip, adventurers can explore the bottom of the canyon, along the 2.5-mile-long Kukui Trail, which follows the river. The river’s waters can range from a trickle in the summer months to a raging torrent in the wetter winter months, and the State Division of Parks rates the hike “difficult.”
With a good eye you might spot some of the mountain goats that make these treacherous cliff sides their home. Another favorite turnout is at the Puu Hinahina. A pair of binoculars come in handy, as well as telephoto lenses for photographic enthusiasts.
The Lodge at Kokee marks the entrance to the 4,345-acre Kokee State Park and is a good spot to have lunch, dinner or just some refreshment. Nearby is the Kokee Natural History Museum, the ideal spot to bone up on the area’s natural history, including background on the nearby Alakai Swamp and Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest places on Earth. A self-guided hike begins just behind the museum, where a short nature walk will introduce you to some of the plants and trees that grow throughout the park. The museum also offers detailed maps for the serious hiker. Donations are welcome. Learn more.
The pinnacle of the drive to Waimea and Kokee, literally and figuratively, is the breathtaking view from Kalalau Lookout, at the 18-mile marker. The weather is tricky up here. You can be immersed in thick cloud cover, thinking you’ll never see the view, when suddenly the clouds part and the most amazing view is revealed, with fluted cliffs that drop down 4,000 feet to Kalalau Valley and the Na Pali Coast. It’s a view you will never forget, especially when it appears out of a sea of clouds. This is not a good moment for your camera to lose power!
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