Last updated: 03:00 AM ET, Thu December 24 2015

5 Ways to Experience Kauai’s ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’

Destination & Tourism | Will McGough | December 24, 2015

5 Ways to Experience Kauai’s ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Hawaii's coastline and waterfalls get all the attention, but visitors will soon realize that the volcanic interiors of the islands are a large part of the outdoor scene, especially on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.

One of Hawaii’s best kept secrets is Kauai’s "Grand Canyon of the Pacific," a huge gorge named Waimea Canyon that's 14 miles long and 3,000 feet deep. Although small in comparison to the real Grand Canyon, which is 277 miles long and 6,000 feet deep, Waimea Canyon is a geological gem of the most unexpected kind on the otherwise lush, green “Garden Island” of Kauai. Below, we take you through a variety of ways in which you can experience it.

Waimea Canyon Drive

"Waimea" is Hawaiian for "reddish water," no doubt referencing the color of the canyon and the tint the water takes on as it runs through. Time your visit with the winter rainy season, and those red walls will be green with new growth and provide a beautiful contrast.

One of the first things a first-time visitor to the canyon should do is take a drive through it. Waimea Canyon Drive begins in the small town of Waimea and goes north, merging with Kokee Road as it enters Waimea Canyon State Park and the Puu Ka Pele Forest Reserve.

There are several overlook points perfect for stopping and taking in the jaw-dropping views of the sprawling canyon, so be sure to bring your camera. Two additional spots to check out are the Kalalau Lookout and the Puu O Kila Lookout for vantage points out over the Kalalau coast and its tall, green ridges.

For a break and some perspective, check out the Kokee Natural History Museum and get an overview on Waimea Canyon and its geological features. Up until the entrance to the State Park, Waimea Canyon Drive and Kokee Road are separate, and you should take one going up and one going down for slightly different perspectives. Kokee Road is much steeper, but both are winding, rolling roads that provide expanding views of the coast.

Cliff Canyon and Black Pipe Trail

North of Waimea Canyon on Kauai's West Side is Kokee State Park. It is packed full of more than 45 miles of hiking trails, some that provide views of Waimea Canyon, such as the Cliff Canyon and Black Pipe Trail, and others that take you through wet forests to the north coast of the island and the infamous Na Pali Coast (see below).

At less than four miles round-trip, the Cliff Canyon and Black Pipe Trail is great for families because it combines the expansive views of Waimea Canyon with a refreshing dip in Waipo’o Falls. Walk along the trail and notice the many shades of brown and red, the steep, knee-buckling drop-off of the ridge and the crumbling, erosive nature of the canyon walls. When you reach the falls, continue past it upstream, where you will find a small pool that’s nice for a swim before starting your return.

Awaawapuhi Trail

Another gem of Kokee State Park is the Awaawapuhi Trail. It is a great change of pace from the red, rocky Waimea Canyon. This moderate-level trail takes you three miles downhill through a green, lush rainforest to a series of steep valleys that capture the essence of the Na Pali Coast. Keep in mind that the trail ends at the coast, not on it.

From the rim of the Awa’awapuhi Valley at 2,500 feet, you can look down the coast at the different valleys, the ocean and the sharp, jagged, green vistas that rise up above the Pacific. It is from here, looking at the combination of forest and rocky cliffs that you will begin understand why so much of Kauai’s terrain — about 90 percent — is inaccessible by car. Bring a lunch, which is a great way to honor this place of serenity.

Spend the Night

Day trip options in Waimea Canyon are a dime a dozen, from hikes to fly-fishing to scenic drives. But the icing on the cake, and something you’re sure to remember for a long time, is the time you stayed put while everyone else fled the park for the night. The Cabins at Kokee Park is without phone reception, Internet, and television, ensuring all focus is on the incredible landscape.

Set in a grove of redwood trees, the charming cabins are heated with a wood-burning stove, allowing you to experience a side of Hawaii far removed from beaches and bikinis. Be sure to take a walk at night for incredible stargazing, and plan an early-morning hike, where you can beat the crowds on even the most popular trails.

Helicopter Fly Over

This is one of the coolest ways to check out the canyon. Nowhere can you get a more comprehensive understanding of its massive size than from above, seeing the way the side canyons split off and the amount of space it occupies.

And with that comes the adventure of being in a helicopter, zipping over the forests and the canyon and gaining access to remote areas that would otherwise be unreachable by car or on foot.

There are a number of companies that do heli-rides in Waimea Canyon, so feel free to window shop for the best price. I recommend going on a tour that combines a flyover of Waimea Canyon with the nearby, world famous Na Pali Coast to get the most bang for your buck. 

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