Kauai is known as the garden island of Hawaii for good reason – it has a great climate, and it receives a great deal of rain. While rainfall amounts on the island vary, the island is home to the wettest spot on Earth – Mount Waiʻaleʻale, which receives over 450 inches of rain annually. All of that rain has to go somewhere, and over thousands of years, that water has carved out the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon. As I mentioned previously, Waimea Canyon is a site that is most definitely one of the “must-view” locations on Kauai, and in the world; and as I also mentioned, the best way to experience it is to hike it. While there are many great hikes through the canyon, the best hike in my book is the Canyon Trail to Waipoo Falls. It is the best hike to me because at four miles roundtrip, it is accessible, it has stunning views of the canyon from inside the canyon, and it ends at the top Waipoo Falls. It also allows the hiker the chance to swim in a waterfall, which is a once in a lifetime experience.
Directions: This hike is located in Koke’e State Park, which is located adjacent to Waimea Canyon State Park. In my opinion, the hardest part of this hike is finding the trailhead. While both parks are well signed, finding the trailhead in this case is a little difficult. From the Waimea Canyon Lookout, aspiring hikers will want to follow the 550 North for 4.2 miles. At 4.3 miles, the 550 curves to the Northeast, and on the immediate right (West) side of the road, a dirt road descends down into Waimea Canyon. On the left hand side of the road, there is a dirt parking area. This is where the trailhead is located. The right hand side dirt road is Halemanu Road. While it does have a trailhead sign, this sign is located slightly below the road and is not visible. Other than the directions above, I would advise any potential hikers to watch for turnouts to several NASA/Government installations that are located on the left (east) side of the 550 slightly before the dirt lot.
The Trail: From Halemanu Road, the trail descends into the jungle gradually; and provides great views of the lush plant life found on Kauai. After .8 miles, Halemanu Road intersects with the Canyon Trail; and this junction is well signed. From the junction, the trail heads deeper into Waimea Canyon. Prior to this point, there are no views of Waimea Canyon itself from the trail, but plenty of views of the jungle present in the canyon. At two-tenths (.2) of a mile past the Halemanu-Canyon junction, the trail again splits; with the main trail continuing on toward Waipoo Falls, and the side trail which dead-ends at the Cliff Viewpoint.
As the distance to the Cliff Viewpoint is minimal (.2 miles roundtrip), I am not sure why you wouldn’t want to head out to the viewpoint to see a great view of Waimea Canyon. If you have time constraints, or are worried about the additional mileage, do not fret, the main trail will also provide you with stunning views of the canyon. Alternatively, if you find yourself already tired, this is a great spot to turn around for a 2.2 mile roundtrip hike after seeing taking in the spectacular views at the viewpoint. From the Cliff Viewpoint-Canyon Trail junction, the main trail descends into Waimea Canyon for .4 miles. During this stretch, the hiker will pass through the jungle, and alongside seasonal – and non-seasonal streams.
At .4 miles from the Cliff Viewpoint-Canyon Trail junction, the trail again splits, but the route to Waipoo Falls is well signed. From this point, the terrain of the hike changes dramatically from jungle, to exposed ridgeline, and after a short uphill climb, you will find yourself atop a ridgeline in Waimea Canyon. As you can see from the photos above, this is a stunning spot with fantastic views that are simply breathtaking; and as a matter of fact, it’s an open question in my book whether this spot is the highlight of the trail, or if Waipoo Falls is the highlight of the trail. From the ridgeline, it is a short walk (.2 miles) down to Waipoo Falls. Waipoo Falls is the waterfall that can be seen from the Waimea Canyon Lookout, and from many other areas along the 550.
Waipoo Falls is over 800 feet tall, and is a spectacular island waterfall. But from the trail, it appears small. As a matter of fact, the only fall that can be viewed from the trail is the initial fall, which appears to be only twenty-five feet tall. The reason for this is that the trail ends at the top portion of the falls. While this may be disappointing for those who want to be at the base of an 800 foot waterfall; it is pretty amazing in my opinion to be at the top to see the views, the initial fall – and the pool it falls into. If you are daring, you can enter into the pool at the top, and swim over – and under the initial waterfall. Irrespective of whether you enter the water, once you are done, you will return the way you came for a four (4) mile roundtrip hike.
Tips: Although you can enter the initial pool/fall at Waipoo Falls, it is an area that may be contaminated with leptospirosis. While I would assume the risk of infection is fairly low, I am not a trained Doctor; and each party visiting Waipoo Falls should judge for themselves whether they wish to take this risk. In terms of full disclosure, I entered the pool, swam under the falls, and so did the rest of my group – and all of us were fine. However, everyone should adventure to their comfort level with full knowledge of the facts. Finally, many sections of this hike are slippery/can be slippery due to the rain and mud that exists, and any potential hiker should be sure to have proper footwear, and have an open mind about at least one minor slip into the red mud that is present everywhere along the trail.