One glimpse of Waimea Canyon and you get why it’s called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.
Fourteen miles long, two-thirds of a mile deep, and immeasurable in beauty, Waimea Canyon is a kind of mirror: It gapes before you, and you gape back. Its rough-cut, red rock features would be striking anywhere. But here, on the western shoulder of the lushly carpeted Hawaiian island of Kauai, its rust-colored cliffs and spires are all the more arresting. One glimpse and you get why it's called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific—a wonder of the tropics, painted in the hues of the American Southwest.
Starting in the waterfront town of Waimea, on the southwestern edge of the island, the trip along the canyon rim doubles as a journey through geologic time. Some 4 million years ago, when the undersea volcano that birthed Kauai was still erupting, a portion of the island collapsed like a soufflé, creating a depression that filled with lava flows, each adding a layer of rock as it hardened. Erosion also left its etchings, work that carries on today with every rainfall and the coursing of the Waimea River.
The best approach is on Waimea Canyon Drive, rising up, up, up to 4,000 feet in elevation. (Yes, it's Hawaii, but it's not a bad idea to bring a sweater here, where the temperature is often 10 degrees cooler than at the island's lower elevations.) The winding route opens to postcard vistas of Waipoo Falls, which flow after heavy rainfall, and out to Niihau, the "forbidden" island reserved as a residence for native Hawaiians.
A web of hiking trails extends through the canyon, but only one—the Kukui Trail—reaches the river. It's a scenic if strenuous journey, memorable for its solitude. In ancient times, the kua 'aina, or "backlanders," lived in the canyon's deepest recesses, but today the area is reclaimed by nature.
"That's a big part of its beauty," says Galen Kawakami, with Hawaii's Division of Forestry and Wildlife. "You feel like you're seeing the island as it once was."
The Koke'e Museum delivers insights into the canyon's origins and native wildlife. Consider it a background briefing for run-ins with the local Hawaiian geese. You're asked not to feed them, but visitors are free to feed themselves at the rustic Koke'e Lodge, where the specialty is Portuguese bean soup.
The road ends at an overlook of the Technicolor-green Kalalau Valley to the north. Its image lingers in the mind during the return trip to the town of Waimea, where the weather is balmy and the salted plum shave ice at Jo-Jo's Shave Ice provides welcome refreshment. Just up the highway, Chicken in a Barrell BBQ offers beer on tap and barbecue that's been voted best on Kauai four years running.
This article was first published in January/February 2013 and updated in February 2019. Some facts may have aged gracefully. Please call ahead to verify information.