Day one of my Hawaii/New Zealand power tour brought me to Kauai's Waimea Canyon State Park, the commodious landmark that Mark Twain dubbed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific when he visited in the 1860s (although some dismiss this as an urban legend, saying Twain never made it to Kauai on his travels in Hawaii). I had originally planned to hit the ground running and hike the Kalalau trail out of the gate and do Waimea the following day as a recovery day of sorts, but I was battling jet lag and migraines and in the end decided to flip the days. In retrospect, it was a good decision.
Waimea (in traditional Grand Canyon fashion) is littered with park-and-walk overlooks which require about as much physical effort as going to the movies or riding a hover board to get your mail. In other words, you can get a lot of great views of the canyon without having to suffer for them, making the park ideal for the lazy, afflicted and those suffering from migraines, which I am at least one, if not all three at times.
I took off for the park Saturday afternoon armed with a jug of water in my trunk and similarly sized bottle of sunscreen at my side. The park was about an hour's drive from where I was staying in Lihue, but the commute was pleasantly scenic. Even the blistering headaches did little to distract from the natural beauty of Kauai. Views of the endless ocean off the coast soon cede a climb into the hills, where a few spindly circuitous roads give you your first glimpse of the park.
There is no shortage of places to stop and admire the vast canyon as you enter the park, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't stop at one or all the viewpoints you encounter. I would often see locals pulled over on the shoulder of the road, eating lunch in their cars and taking in the view, impressing upon me that the grandeur of the park had not grown any less impressive to them. It really is an extraordinary landmark. Around ten miles long, three thousand feet deep and just under two thousand acres, pictures will never do this Kauai staple any sort of justice.
The main viewpoint for the park, simply called the Waimea Canyon Lookout, is a tourist heavy stop with concessions, bathrooms and guardrails blanketing every conceivable canyon ledge. Despite the glut of tourists and the honor guard of selfie sticks that comes with it, it is still worth a visit. It gives you what is arguably the best panoramic view of the park. While some of the alternative viewpoints offer you some unique views of the park, many of them are limited to narrow vistas and peripheral glances into the heart of the canyon. But the Canyon Lookout is your standard, vast, Grand Canyon photo opp. So, it's worth the stop if you can find parking in the lot. After you have sifted through the crowds and gotten your pictures though, I would advise pushing on down Kokee road (Hwy 550), where crowds lessen and your first opportunity to do some real hiking in the park becomes available.
One such hike is the Canyon Trail, a (relatively) leisurely 3.6 mile trip to the crest of the Waipoo falls, a grand 800 foot waterfall that spills into the valley below. There is a little bit of elevation gain and loss on the trail, but nothing too extreme. Just grab some water and a good walking stick and you'll be good to go. I would highly recommend any park visitors give this trail a shot as it really presses into the valley and gives you some wonderful views of the canyon (below is a quick bit of video I shot while on the trail).
I didn’t make it to the back of the park where Waimea Canyon State Park turns into Koke'e State Park, but tucked into the northwest side of the island is the Awaʻawapuhi Trail, a three mile (six roundtrip) hike that provides some dangerous and dizzying views for the those who brave its narrow ledges. Also in the vicinity is the Kalalau Lookout which gifts visitors stunning vistas of the Na Pali Coast and allows Kalalau trampers to visualize a sliver of their ultimate goal, the famous Kalalau beach.
All in all, Waimea Canyon is alone worth the trip to Kauai, but as I quickly learned, it's just one of the many gems Hawaii's less packed 'Garden isle' contains. And another one of those gems was next on my list. On to the scenically dangerous Kalalau Trail!
Stray observations from Waimea Canyon Park:
I hope you like windy roads, because you’re going to get some windy roads.
Best way to explore the park: by helicopter
Second best way to explore the park if you can't afford a helicopter (like me): by car while singing the Jurassic Park theme.
My memory from this day is a little fuzzy, but was there a hot dog stand at the Waimea Canyon Lookout? If so, I endorse this despite its unabashed Americaness. It might have been a fruit stand or a migraine produced mirage though, so if you get up there with hotdogs on your mind and it's not there, I'm sorry.
I have not spent enough time on the other Hawaiian islands for proper comparison, but Kauai is an embarrassment of scenic riches.
WCSP is a helluva of a lunch spot, too. I am jealous.
Kauai is overrun with tourists from Chicago. I remember Chicago in February. I completely understand why they are here.
Despite being a fairly low stress park, there are still plenty of places to fall to your death. So, you know, no fancy footwork or questionable selfies around those ledges. The Canyon Trail is especially light on guard rails as you approach the Waipoo falls.