Kokee and Waimea state parks are adjacent to each other and together form a brilliant duo attracting a lot of tourists to the western part of the island. One of the Top 3 Things do in Kauai is to explore the Waimea Canyon – Koke’e State Park.
Up the road from the town of Waimea is an explorer’s dream. Nearly 4,400 acres large, Koke’e has so much to explore that even the most seasoned locals still have more to discover. Taking you through varying elevations that go up to 4200 ft, Koke’e feels like a different world than what you see and feel at sea level.
The high elevation gives access to many plant species that you do not see in lower elevations.If you want to spend time amidst the sweet smell of the tropical Green forests, hearing the birds singing, gushing waterfalls and streams, and Rainbows gifted by the moist-sunny climate, visiting Waimea Canyon- Koke’e State Park ought to be on the top of your list.
Let us dive into the individual aspects of Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park for better understanding of this wonderful part of the island:
Waimea Canyon is a geological wonder located on the western side of kauai. The beauty to this canyon was imparted by years of weathering and erosion by the Waimea river, and the volcanic activity that lead to the formation kauai island.
The Waimea Canyon is also called ‘The Grand Canyon of the Pacific’. Apart from the bright red contrast that leads to its beauty, the waimea canyon is also home to waterfalls and hiking trails that lead to some of the best available views on the island.
Although not up to the magnitude of its Arizona counterpart, the grand canyon of kauai is magnanimous as the canyon range is over 14 miles long, 1 mile wide and more than 3500 ft in depth.
You can either witness the beauty of Waimea Canyon by stopping on the lookouts along the Kokee Road or choose to hike the numerous trails and become one with nature.
Waimea Canyon Drive
Driving up the Koke’e road will prove to be one of your best road trip experiences. You can savour plenty by driving up the roads and stopping at the lookouts as they offer breathtaking panoramic views of the Waimea canyon and Kalalau valley.
Waimea Canyon Lookout– This is the first lookout you come across when you drive to kokee state park and is located just past mile marker #10. The official waimea canyon lookout has a safe concrete viewing area which provides a view into the heart of what you’ve come searching for- The Grand Canyon of the Pacific. With a wide panoramic view of the canyon, it is a picture-perfect spot though the camera might not do justice to the real beauty of the waimea valley.
Puu ka pele lookout– This is a small lookout located just past mile marker #13. It offers a narrow restricted view of the canyon and the Waipo’o falls.
Puu Hinahina lookout- This is located between mile marker #13 and #14. From the top, you can see the entire canyon in its glory as its majestic breadth and depth will exhilarate you. From this lookout you can also get a view of the Forbidden Island of Niihau provided the clouds don’t interfere with the view.
Koke’e State Park
For those who’ve savoured the Waimea Canyon, the adventure doesn’t end here. Located on the western side of kauai, to the north of Waimea Canyon, Kokee state park is spread across a massive area of 4400 acres.
Kokee state park is every nature lover’s paradise as it enthralls tourists with it’s abundant varieties of birds, vegetation and numerous hiking trails that lead to spectacular views.
Koke’e State Park Drive
The additional 10 miles along the kokee road after the waimea canyon, are filled with lookouts and trails which are a part of kokee state park. These lookouts offer magnificent views of the Kalalau valley and is the only possible way to see the popular Napali Coast by car. (Learn more about our Napali coast boat tours here!)
Kalalau Lookout- it is easy to identify as you will be greeted with a large sign board. It offers a view of the Kalalau valley and the Napali coast which is absolutely stunning!
Arrive early, preferably before mid-noon, so that you get a clear view without any obstruction from the clouds. When you visit early, there is also a lesser chance of you having to swiggle through a flock of tourists to catch the view. Rainbow. The place offers a safe watching area for children as it is well guarded by railings and is also a good spot for picnics.
Puu O Kila Lookout- Having driven the long kokee road, this is the last stop. The view gets even better here. This is only a short distance from the Kalalau lookout. When compared to the former one, you need to be extra careful here as the ridge down the cliff can be slippery even during dry weather. After completing a short walk down to the edge of the cliff, you can savour the spectacular beauty of the Kalalau valley in its entirety, which is otherwise only available through the Kalalau Trail or via boat/air.
Kokee State Park- Waimea Canyon Trails
Waimea Canyon- Koke’e State Parks have numerous scenic trails that start from the beginning to the end of the highway. Just about 4 miles up you’ll see the start of some very short trails. Each trail is unique and thus, it is ideal to choose a trail that suits your needs.
There are variations of trails from a very short walk to very long hike. Most of the trails branch out from highway 550 where you can find a parking spot close to the trail head.
There are countless roads and trails that take you through the Kauai highlands, giving you amazing exposure to the natural wonders that exist everywhere you go.You will be passing through varying elevations as you follow the trail and thus will be experiencing a mix of different weather conditions and landscapes. Be prepared to get really tired, muddy and wet by the time you complete the trail!
The following are some of the highly recommended trails in the region;
- Cliff trail– This is an an easy hike. You can park your vehicle close to the trailhead and start the hike or you can stop at the Kokee state park entrance off kokee road and take the Halemanu road to the beginning of cliff trail which ends at cliff trail lookout. The trail takes 30 mins or 2 hours depending on your choice on your choice.
- Canyon trail– The Canyon Trail is a moderate hike which will take around 3 to 4 hrs. It branches from cliff trail. This is a good picnic spot for families as it allows you to get close and personal with the beautiful Waipoo falls. Do not miss the Kumuwela lookout as it offers a splendid view of the island.
- Kukui trail- The Kukui trail starts somewhere between mile marker #8 and #9. This trail is for experienced hikers and for people who are prepared to take up the challenge. It leads all the way down to the canyon and the Waimea river.
- Pihea trail and Alakai swamp trail- This trail starts from the Puu O Kila lookout at the end of highway 550. The highlight of the trail is the boardwalk experience through the forests and also that you will be hiking over the highest swamp in the world, the Alakai swamp. The kilohana lookout towards the end offers splendid views of the Wainiha valley, Hanalei bay and other prominent sites along the north coast, provided the weather is conducive for hiking.
- Awa’awapuhi trail- The view from the edge of the cliff towards the end of the Awa awapuhi trail is absolutely stunning. You will be overlooking the Nualolo valley and the Awa awapuhi valley. The round trip is nearly 6 miles. The hike takes you down a steep elevation change and the return hike is challenging as its mostly uphill. Take caution as eroded soil might lead to a fall if not careful.
- Nualolo Trail- The trail starts near the kokee state park ranger quarters and serves as an alternate route to nualolo cliff trail and the Awa awapuhi trail. The trail is approximately 3.8 miles one way and is a challenging one based on the terrain. Though the trail-heads start wet, eventually the trails will lead to a dry spot with ample sunshine.
Before you go on a hike, it is ideal to visit Kokee Natural History Museum for information on hiking trails and the park. Pick the right trails for a family friendly activity. It’s always better to know where you are going before you get your feet wet and muddy!
Koke’e Natural History Museum
This place provides history of Kokee and Waimea state parks and forests. Also, it is a treasure house of information about the birds, animals and local vegetation. You will also find souvenirs and interesting books about Kauai.
The museum offers a map with all the hiking trails in the Kokee and Waimea state park which is nothing less than a treasure map for hiking enthusiasts. So, it is ideal to first visit the museum before you proceed further. It’s a nice diversion on the road to the Kalalau lookout, located right beside the Kokee lodge. The employees are very knowledgeable about the hikes in the region and it helps immensely to take their advice before you go on hike.
Kokee State Park Camping
This is the best way to disconnect from the rest of the world. It’s a shame that many people pass through Koke’e without camping out. The stars you find at night feel so close that you can touch them. In fact, NASA has a station here, so there’s got to be something to that theory.
If camping is not for you, you can always stay at the Koke’e Lodge, which has comfortable cabins at a reasonable price but consider it as a camping treat.
You can also choose to spend a few nights in one of the rustic cabins for a complete and fulfilling experience of Koke’e.