The Waimea Canyon is one of the most glaring highlights on the island of Kauai in Hawaii and awaits with such an incredibly beautiful landscape that this canyon should not be missing on any Kauai vacation. The canyon is over 22 kilometers long and up to 1000 meters deep and offers wonderful nature, waterfalls and challenging hiking trails. One part of the canyon belongs to Waimea Canyon State Park and another part to Kokee State Park. However, both parks have no clear boundaries and almost merge into each other.
We will now tell you how to get to the canyon, what you can do there, what the highlights are and how much the entrance fee is.
We are Sabrina and Andreas, two adventurous travelers who never miss an opportunity to discover the world. Whether by plane to distant countries or with our campervan Bruno, we just love to travel. We hope to give you helpful tips for your next trip on our blog.
Sabrina & Andreas Globetrotters, Travelers, Adventurers
Waimea Canyon on Kauai
The Waimea Canyon on Kauai is one of the most spectacular natural spectacles on Hawaii. The name Waimea means reddish earth in Hawaiian and stands for the red earth colored by iron oxide that characterizes the landscape everywhere here. In the nearby village of Waimea you can also buy so-called dirt shirts, which were actually dyed with the red earth from the canyon.
The Waimea Canyon is not only characterized by the reddish-brown earth and the green overgrown hills but also by some waterfalls. The famous waterfall from the first Jurassic Park can also be found here and is the destination of numerous helicopter tours* on Kauai.
We can only recommend such a helicopter tour. The tours are quite expensive, but the experience is really unique. During our tour we were amazed when the helicopter flies deep through the narrow canyons. Simply WOW!
Spectacular Helicopter Tour on Kauai | Check Prices*
The red Waimea Canyon stands in a scenic contrast to the Na Pali Coast, which lies just on the other side of the Canyon Highway. Thus, the viewpoints on the right side of the highway (looking uphill) offer wonderful views of the canyon and some waterfalls.
The lookouts and hikes on the left side offer an often spectacular panorama of the ocean and the Na Pali Coast with its rugged cliffs.
Arrival Waimea Canyon
The canyon is located in the far northwest of Hawaii Island and is the most northwestern destination you can reach by car on Kauai. The road to Waimea Canyon State Park is a dead end, so you have to drive back the same way.
Since there is only one main road on Kauai and it doesn’t even go around the whole island, the journey to Waimea Canyon can take quite a long time. For example, if you live in Princeville in the north of the island, it will take you almost 2 hours to get to the canyon. Even from the capital Lihue you are on the road for about an hour.
To get to Waimea Canyon, drive to the town of Waimea and then either take the Waimea Canyon Highway up the mountain in numerous switchbacks or take the Kokee Road a few kilometers further west. Both routes are about the same length and both lead in many curves up to an altitude of more than 1000 meters.
The Waimea Canyon Highway is more heavily traveled and leads past the first small sight, the Red Dirt Waterfall. This is not a real waterfall, but still nice to look at. The Kokee Road does not pass any sights but is still nice to drive. Shortly after the Red Dirt Waterfall both roads meet and lead as one road further up the mountain.
If you want to save a few minutes of driving time, you should take the Waimea Canyon Highway on the way there and back. If you want a little variety, take one road on the way there and the other on the way back.
Things To Do at Waimea Canon
You have probably asked yourself what you can do when visiting Waimea Canyon. The answer is quite simple: You can go hiking and admire the spectacular nature from viewpoints.
There are really many hikes and they vary from a few kilometers up to 20 or more kilometers. Often you do not have to walk too far to enjoy great views. But more about that later.
The second big highlight are the numerous viewpoints, which let you look at the incredibly beautiful Napali Coast as well as into the gorge of the Waimea Valley. Often you only have to walk a few meters from the parking lot. Sometimes viewpoints are located right next to the road.
You will then have to park on the side of the road and walk to the guardrail. If you’re brave, climb over the guardrail and walk to the edge to get an unobstructed view of the canyon.
By the way, the road itself is not as worth seeing as we read before, or rather, you can’t really see much of it without getting out. The only exception is the descent over the serpentines of the Waimea Highway. If the weather is good, you have a great view over Kauai and the sea for several kilometers.
Accommodation Tip on Kauai
The Kauai Beach Resort is located in the capital Lihue near the airport directly on the beach. So you are not only quickly in the sea but also very quickly to all corners of the island. You get comfortably furnished double rooms and a super cool pool.
- perfectly conveniently located in Lihue
- super cool pool
- manageable, quiet hotel complex
- very good organic breakfast
Sights at Waimea Canyon
As already described, the sights at Waimea Canyon consist of the spectacular viewpoints and the challenging and very numerous hikes. We would like to introduce the most beautiful ones to you now.
The most beautiful hikes at Waimea Canyon
There really are almost infinite hiking possibilities at Waimea Canyon and it would go beyond the scope of this blog to present all of them. Nevertheless, we would like to give you a small overview and describe the most beautiful and popular hikes at Waimea Canyon.
For detailed information about the hikes we can recommend the app Alltrails. This is free in the basic version and super helpful when hiking on Kauai.
This Waimea hike starts at the popular Pu’u O Kila Lookout and leads you over several kilometers over slippery, clayey ground along many great viewpoints. The further you go the less other tourists you will meet.
In between there are always openings in the bushes, so you can enjoy the panorama of the sea and the Na Pali coast.
You don’t have to walk the whole way if you only want to see the most beautiful viewpoints. Already on the first hundred meters there are great viewpoints. Since it can be very slippery, good shoes and trekking poles are very helpful.
Short information about the hike:
- Length: 3.7 km
- Circular route: no
- Difference in altitude: 142 meters
- Difficulty: easy
Kalalau Lookout Hike
Right next to the official lookout starts the unofficial (but not forbidden) Kalalau Lookout hiking trail, which takes you along the cliff almost to the Na Pali coast. This hike has really impressed us extremely, because on the one hand the path is very demanding and on the other hand you have almost continuously spectacular views of the coast and the mountains.
Often you walk so close to the loamy quarry edge that you should be quite free from giddiness. But it is not really dangerous, although nothing is blocked or secured here. Again, you don’t have to walk all the way to the end to get wonderful views of the sea. If you have no more time or desire, then simply turn back.
How do I find the entrance to the trail?
You will find the access to the trail to the left of the official viewing platform. Go left past the fence and along the back side of the fence. Then follow the trail until you come to another fence. Here you have to climb through a small opening. Then the path continues downhill towards the cliff.
Short info about the hike:
- Length: 3.42 km
- Circular route: no
- Difference in altitude: 213 meters
- Difficulty: medium
The Awaʻawapuhi Trail is one of the most popular hikes at Waimea Canyon. There is an unofficial (and free) parking lot here from where the hike starts. The beautiful views you get unfortunately only at the end of the hike. The first 1.5 hours you hike through dense forest and have no view at all.
But then the view of the spectacular Na Pali Coast opens up and you won’t be able to get out of your amazement.
Short info about the hike:
- Length: 9,7 km
- Circular route: no
- Difference in altitude: 593 meters
- Difficulty: difficult
This hike starts very close to the Awaʻawapuhi Trail described above and is also one of the most popular hikes at Waimea Canyon. This one is a bit harder than the Awaʻawapuhi hike, though, as there are almost 800 meters of elevation to climb. But at the end you will be rewarded with a spectacular panorama of the mountains of the Na Pali Coast and the Pacific Ocean.
If you are very sporty, you can combine the Awaʻawapuhi hike and the Nu’alolo Trail. However, this will take you over 20 km. So do this only if you are really very fit.
Short information about the hike:
- Length: 12.1 km
- Circular route: no
- Difference in altitude: 786 meters
- Difficulty: difficult
The Best Viewpoints at Waimea Canyon
Here is a small overview of the most beautiful viewpoints at Waimea Canyon on Kauai.
Pu’u O Kila Lookout
This lookout is located at the very end of the road leading to the canyon. You get a wonderful view of the Na Pali coast and the reddish brown earth of the surrounding hills. You should not necessarily stop here, but go on behind the viewpoint. Here starts the Pihea Trail, which gives you many more views on its way.
This is one of the best and most beautiful views of the Na Pali Coast and the Pacific Ocean. In good weather you can see for miles and with luck even whales in the sea. In foggy or cloudy weather you often can’t even see the surrounding hills.
There is also an unofficial hiking trail that starts here in the brush next to the official lookout. More about this in the hiking section above.
Pu’u Hinahina Lookout
This is the highest lookout from which you can see into the canyon proper. There is an official parking lot (beware: parking fees) and after a short walk you can admire the whole splendor of Waimea Canyon.
Waimea Canyon Lookout
This lookout is another official viewpoint with parking and a great view of the reddish brown clay mountains of Waimea Canyon. You can stop here for a short time at the paid parking lot (more info below) and enjoy the great view.
The many other viewpoints on the way
The viewpoints mentioned so far were just the official ones that also have a proper parking lot. But there are so many more viewpoints on the way, which are marked on Google Maps, but which don’t have an official parking place. I can’t even list them all here. But there should also remain something to discover for you.
At these viewpoints you simply have to park next to the road and then stand in front of the guardrail and look into the stunningly beautiful valley. If you’re really brave, you can follow the beaten path, climb over the guardrail and get to points where you have the view all to yourself.
Just stop where you see other cars and walk to where other tourists are standing with cameras in their hands. There is probably something great to see.
Travel Tips for Waimea Canyon
Best Time to visit Waimea Canyon
Generally, the best time to visit Waimea Canyon is during the European summer months of June, July and August. This is when the temperature is highest and the chance of rain is lowest. But of course Kauai, as well as the rest of the Hawaiian islands, can be visited all year round. You just have to be prepared to get wet more often, especially in the European winter months.
In general, the weather in the canyon is quite unpredictable, since you are traveling at altitudes of 1000 to 1300 meters. So it can be warm and sunny down on the coast and foggy and rainy up on the mountain.
So it makes sense to watch the cloud cover and also the weather forecast closely. If it is sunny and warm in the northwest and north of the island (Waimea and Princeville), there is a good chance that the weather in the canyon will also be good.
Entrance Fees Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon State Park and also Kokee State Park both surprisingly do not charge an entrance fee. You can enter the parks completely free of charge or drive by car on the Waimea Canyon Highway without paying any fees. This is not what you read on many websites, so we were a bit surprised during our visit.
There is no gate or barrier where you have to buy a ticket. Practically, you can drive through the park completely free of charge. Theoretically, however, you still have to pay for parking. More about this in the next section.
Parking at Waimea Canyon
The only costs are if you want to park at the official lookouts. There are parking machines where you have to pay the official entrance fees of the park (only with credit card). The current cost (as of March 2023) is $10 per car and $5 per person. If there are two of you, you have to pay 20$. You have to put the ticket behind the windshield as usual and this is then valid on all parking lots and the whole day.
During our visit, however, we have seen far and wide no one who would have controlled this. At some parking lots there are small parking attendant houses, but they were not occupied.
Even funnier is that there are many more unofficial (gravel) parking lots, which are located at the starting points of various hikes. Parking there is definitely free.
So you see, the entrance fee situation at Waimea Canyon is a bit opaque. But even if it’s not controlled regularly, you should of course pull a ticket to ensure the preservation of the state park.
First drive all the way to the top
Especially if you don’t have super much time, it makes sense to drive all the way to the top first and then work your way down. The highest and furthest point is Pu’u O Kila Lookout and there you can start the first hike, the Pihea Trail.
On the way down you can then check out the individual lookouts and hikes and if necessary skip some if there is not enough time.
Drone flying at Waimea Canyon
Because Waimea Canyon is home to two state parks and is also intended to protect native wildlife, drone flying is prohibited everywhere. On the one hand understandable, but on the other hand a bit incomprehensible, because in good weather helicopters fly over and through the canyon all the time (even at low altitude), which causes quite a background noise.
Helicopter Flight over Waimea Canyon
So if you can’t fly over the canyon by drone, you should at least take the chance to get to know Waimea Canyon and the rest of the island’s highlights from a bird’s eye view during a helicopter tour over the island of Kauai.
We can recommend the following provider for a helicopter tour over Kauai: Helicopter tour over Waimea Canyon*