April 4, 2011
Location: Kauai, HI
Length: 5 miles (up to 11.6 miles with side trips)
Recommended Hiking Time: 4-6 hours (overnight with side trips)
Rating: Moderately Difficult
Waimea Canyon is one of the things that sets Kauai apart from the other Hawaiian islands. This geological anomaly was formed over thousands of years by volcanic lava flows and erosion from the heavy rains pouring down from Wai’ale’ale Crater — the wettest place on earth. The result is a 10 mile long canyon that is well over a half mile deep (3600 feet). Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea has layered, red walls similar to Arizona’s marvel, but is obviously much smaller and also much greener at the base. Almost every visitor makes a trip to the lookouts above the canyon. However, for any reasonably fit and adventurous traveler, hiking down to the base is a phenomenal and very secluded experience. Before you head out, though, be sure to read the permissions and precautions at the bottom of this post.
Routes Into Waimea Canyon
There are two paths to enter the canyon. The 11.5-mile Waimea Canyon Trail starts in Waimea Town and follows the river for several dusty miles through unexceptional terrain with numerous river crossings. This route is not recommended. The Kukui Trail is a much shorter and more interesting entry point. It begins at the quarter mile Illiau Nature Loop accessible from Route 550. Check out the native illiau plants here, which stand 4-12 feet tall and only flower once in their lifetime in an explosion of yellow blossoms. The path then descends 2200 feet to the bottom of the canyon in only 2.5 miles. The way is dusty, steep, and very exposed to the sun, but the views of Wai’ale’ale Falls and the canyon are amazing.
While the canyon is typically very dry and sunny, it does occasionally experience heavy, flash flooding. These rains have shaped the trail and in some sections I felt a bit like I was walking on Mars since the path is so smooth, red, and dusty. About a quarter mile before the base, we entered tree cover and eventually found the toilet and shelter at Wiliwili Camp. It is really buggy here so make sure you have repellent or long sleeves to protect yourself!
Exploring the Canyon Base
Since we were pretty hot at this point in our hike, we made our base camp at Wiliwili then hiked along the Koaie Canyon Trail to find a good swimming hole. This 3-mile trail crosses the river twice pretty quickly after heading north from Wiliwili. The fords can be tricky so do not attempt them if the water level is too high. The trail then continues passed rock spires, tree-covered bluffs, two other camping areas, and numerous spots to picnic or swim before ending at the shelter and large, natural swimming pool at Lonomea Camp. Along the way I saw several wild goats scampering just off the rocky trail. They were very skittish since hunting is common here. I also saw evidence of old, abandoned terraces. This area is surprisingly fertile and at one time agriculture was extensive in the canyon. We didn’t quite make it all the way to Lonomea since the path gets a bit difficult to follow, but instead relaxed next to the river near Hipalau Camp. We enjoyed our lunch under a shady tree then played in the pools of flowing water and ventured a bit deeper to cool off.
From Wiliwili you can also head south on the short (0.6 mile round trip) Wai’ale’ale Canyon Trail. The unmaintained trail almost immediately has a major river crossing then continues a short distance to a small hunting camp. If you don’t plan on staying overnight in the canyon, I would recommend taking a rough side trail off to the right of the main path just before the river crossing. It follows closely along the canyon walls and shoreline and leads out to a large open rock with nice views and a small overhang above a deeper section of the river. It is a great place for doing quick, short jumps into the water and then drying off in the hot sun. I felt pretty silly having walked a few hours looking for a good swimming hole on the Koaie Trail, when such a great spot was just minutes from our camp. We spend a long time here watching the clouds float over the narrow canyon opening above us.
That night we enjoyed a fire by the river after our dinner and relaxed. I got really spooked, though, when I kept hearing sporadic “footsteps” and noises in the brush. It was pitch black except for the fire so I couldn’t see a thing. I was hoping I was just being paranoid, but my boyfriend told me he heard the noises too. It couldn’t be goats or pigs because the sounds weren’t very loud and they were so close, so random, and coming from multiple directions. I started thinking it might be a rodent of some type when a frog nearly jumped into our fire pit. Frogs! They were tons of them and really big ones down at the river’s edge.
The next morning we saw a few hunters drive in on ATV’s from the Waimea Canyon Trail. They were the first people we’d seen the entire time we were out here. After breakfast and packing, though, it was time to get moving. The hike back up the Kukui Trail from camp was just as dusty and hot as we remembered, but a lot more difficult since we were now climbing 2200 feet instead of descending. If you are in good shape, it can be done in 2 hours or less. No matter what, though, you’ll be hot and sweaty once you reach the top, especially if you hike out during the heat of the day.
Permissions and Precautions
Overnight permits are required in Waimea Canyon, but are available online from the Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
There are also a few things to be aware of before you head out anywhere in Hawaii. While the obvious inclination at fresh water streams is to jump in and play, you need to exercise some caution. When swimming in fresh water, there is always a remote risk of contracting a bacterial infection known as Leptospirosis. While this infection is rare and its symptoms are similar to the flu, it can be fatal and the microbes that cause it are present in nearly all surface water sources on the Hawaiian Islands. To reduce your risk of being exposed, avoid swimming if you have any open wounds and NEVER drink untreated stream water.
Hunting is also popular so bright clothing is recommended to avoid being mistaken for a goat or pig. Another more common sense thing to be aware of is that while the islands’ wilderness is very beautiful and inviting, it is still wilderness. You shouldn’t forget all about the typical safety precautions you would take back home just because the dangers don’t seem as high at face value. Wear appropriate clothing and take adequate water, food, and supplies. Do not attempt to cross streams with overpowering currents. Also because it rains so often, there is a heightened risk of flash flooding and trails are not in as good of shape due to frequent washouts. In general, if something seems risky or sort of stupid (even if you see a local doing it!), use your better judgment and avoid it.