Waimea Canyon / Kōkee State Park

WaimeaCanyon/ Kōke‘e State Park

Mark Twain called Waimea Canyon the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” and it lives up to the comparison.

About 10 miles (16 km) long and more than 3,500 feet (1,067 m) deep, Waimea Canyon is up to 2 miles (3.2 km) wide with red canyon walls that shimmer in the changing light. Amidst the buttes and gorges at the bottom of the canyon is the Waimea River and its tributaries carving a course toward the ocean.

Waimea Canyon Drive (Hwy. 550) begins near the town of Waimea and follows the western ridgeline of Waimea Canyon north to Kōke‘e State Park.

Waimea Canyon Lookout is located just north of Mile Marker 10 at an elevation of about 3,400 feet (1,036 m). Visible from this spot is Koai‘e Canyon, which runs to the east off Waimea Canyon. Also along the route are spectacular views into Waimea Canyon at Pu‘u-ka-Pele Lookout and Pu‘u-hinahina Lookout. At the top of the road is Kōke‘e State Park and the Alaka‘i Swamp.

Kōke‘e State Park and Waimea Canyon may also be reached from Kekaha by taking Kōke‘e Road (Hwy. 552), which joins Waimea Canyon Drive (Hwy. 550) about 7 miles (11 km) up from Kaumuali‘i Highway (Hwy. 50). Along Kōke‘e Road are great views of the island of Ni‘ihau as well as Kaua‘i’s Mānā Plain.

The Alaka‘i Swamp is located at an elevation of about 4,000 feet (1,220 m) in an ancient crater that is now a soggy marsh where the acidic soil produces a variety of strange, stunted vegetation, such as mature ‘ōhi‘a lehua (Metrosideros species) that are less than 2 feet (61 cm) tall. In normal soil these trees would be about 40 feet (12 m) tall.

The Alaka‘i is the world’s highest elevation swamp, and supports a rich wonderland of rare and often strange-looking native species, some endemic (unique) to the Alaka‘i Swamp. The Alaka‘i totals about 20 square miles (52 sq. km) in size.

Kōke‘e State Park has about 45 miles (72 km) of hiking trails. Also in the park is the Kōke‘e Natural History Museum, which provides numerous exhibits on the region’s native flora and fauna as well as a great display on hurricanes. The Museum also has a gift shop that sells books and maps.

After passing the Kōke‘e Lodge and Natural History Museum, Waimea Canyon Drive (Hwy. 550) climbs up through native forest, past the round dome of the Kōke‘e Air Force Station to the Kalalau Lookout (at Mile Marker 18).

Perched atop Kōke‘e’s coastal cliffs, the Kalalau Lookout provides stunning views of Kaua‘i’s hidden treasure, the western shore’s fabled Nāpali Coast, where steep green ramparts laced with waterfalls rise up from the ocean into steep spires and castle-like turrets standing watch over the remote Nāpali valley of Kalalau.

Kalalau Valley is accessible only by boat or by the 11-mile (18-km) trail that begins at the western end of Kūhiō Highway (Route 560) on Kaua‘i’s northern shore.

About 1 mile (1.6 km) past the Kalalau Lookout is Pu‘u-o-Kila Lookout, at an elevation of 4,176 feet (1,273 m) above sea level. Pu‘u-o-Kila (“Kila’s Hill”[i]) provides stunning views of Kalalau Valley and the Nāpali Coast.

Place Names of Hawaii (1974) states that, “Kila, the favorite son of Moikeha, a ruling chief of O‘ahu and direct descendant of Wākea, the first man, is the hero of many legends, most of which recount a journey to Kahiki; in some versions he was a chief of Kaua‘i.”[ii]

Pu‘u o Kila Lookout is also the beginning of the Pihea Trail, which follows the valley rim for about 1 mile (1.6 km) and then heads into the Alaka‘i Swamp. The beginning of the trail follows the scar of a 1954 attempt by Hawai‘i’s Territorial Government (using prison labor) to build a road along the valley rim and then down to Hā‘ena on Kaua‘i’s north shore.

Two popular festivals take place each year at Kōke‘e. The Banana Poka Festival takes place each May and is dedicated to raising awareness about aggressive, non-native species that threaten the native ecosystems in the Hawaiian Islands.

One of these invasive species is the Banana Poka vine (Passiflora mollissima), which produces edible fruits that are eaten by wild pigs. The pigs then spread the seeds of the non-native vine, which now blankets large areas of native forest and strangles native trees.

Another popular annual event at Kōke‘e is the Eō E Emmalani I Alaka‘i Festival, which takes place each October and includes a hula program commemorating the 1870 journey of Queen Emma [Emma Na‘ea Rooke; Kalanikaumakeamano; Kaleleonālani] up to the highlands forests of the Alaka‘i Swamp and Kōke‘e.

Accompanying Queen Emma was her sizable retinue including hula dancers and musicians. Guided by an elderly Hawaiian named Kaluahi, the group stopped at the edge of a valley known as Kauaikananā, (“The rain defied.”[iii])

The group rested while music and hula dancing entertained the Queen, who also recited chants.[iv] At this point the horses had to be left behind and the group descended on foot into the valley toward the Alaka‘i.

The first night was spent at Waineki (“Bulrush water”[v]) in the Aiponui forest, where a platform made from branches of ‘ōhi‘a lehua (Metrosideros species) was built for the Queen.[vi]

The royal party, including Queen Emma’s retinue of hula dancers and musicians, eventually reached the end of the trail where the Kilohana Overlook provided spectacular views of Wainiha Valley and Kaua‘i’s north shore. Kilohana means “Lookout Point.”[vii]

In honor of the mountain journey the queen’s Lāwa‘i, Kaua‘i estate was renamed Mauna Kilohana. (See National Tropical Botanical Garden above).

After Queen Emma returned from her mountain journey, a large lū‘au (Hawaiian feast) was held for her in Waimea.

The lū‘au took place on January 29, 1871 at the Kapuniai residence of Kaikio‘ewa, the former Governor of Kaua‘i.[viii] This house was built in 1830 above the old Waimea dispensary, and today serves as the home of the pastor of the Waimea United Church of Christ.

[Kōke‘e State Park / Alaka‘i Swamp, 808-335-9975, Waimea Canyon Drive (Highway 550), open 10-4 daily.]

[Kōke‘e Natural History Museum, 808-335-9975, Kōke‘e State Park, Waimea Canyon Drive (Hwy. 550) from Kekaha, open 10-4 daily, www.aloha.net/c.kokee/]

Awa‘awapuhi Trail

One of the most awesome views on Kaua‘i is seen from atop the narrow ridge at the end of Kōke‘e’s Awa‘awapuhi Trail. At the end of the trail is a narrow ridge just a couple of feet wide that provides dizzying views on both sides where the cliffs drop straight down for thousands of feet.

On the right side is Awa‘awapuhi Valley, and on the left side is Nu‘alolo Valley. Both of these verdant valleys wind their way down to the cobalt blue Pacific Ocean.

Nu‘alolo Trail

Nu‘alolo Trail winds its way through native forest and along the canyon edge overlooking the Nāpali Coast. The trailhead begins off Kōke‘e Road just before the turnoff to the Park headquarters.

The first ¼-mile (.4 km) of the Nu‘alolo trail is relatively steep, and enters into the Ku‘ia National Area Reserve. The trail then begins a steady descent, entering a wetter forest area and traveling along a ridge. This part of the trail is known as Nu‘alolo Bench Trail.

Around the 3-mile (4.8-km) mark, the trail intersects with Nu‘alolo Cliff Trail, which connects with Awa‘awapuhi Trail (see above). Following further along the Nu‘alolo Trail leads to Lolo Vista Point, which provides great views of Nu‘alolo Valley.

County of Kaua‘i Parks and Recreation Office

4444 Rice Street, Suite 150

Līhu‘e, Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i, 96766

808-241-6670

State Department of Land and Natural Resources

3060 ‘Eiwa Street, Suite 306

Līhu‘e, Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i, 96766

808-274-3444

www.kauaigov.org/parks.htm, www.hawaii.gov/dlnr.



[i] Pukui, Mary Kawena, Elbert, Samuel H., and Mookini, Esther T. Mookini. Place Names of Hawaii: Revised & Expanded Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.

[ii] p. 204, Pukui, Mary Kawena, Elbert, Samuel H., and Mookini, Esther T. Mookini. Place Names of Hawaii: Revised & Expanded Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.

[iii] Pukui, Mary Kawena, Elbert, Samuel H., and Mookini, Esther T. Place Names of Hawaii: Revised and Expanded Edition. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1974.

[iv] Soboleski, Hank. History makers of Kaua‘i: Queen Emma. The Garden Island, 3/17/2002.

[v] Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Elbert, Samuel H. & Mookini, Esther T. Place Names of Hawaii: Revised & Expanded Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.

[vi] Soboleski, Hank. History makers of Kaua‘i: Queen Emma. The Garden Island, 3/17/2002.

[vii] Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Elbert, Samuel H. & Mookini, Esther T. Place Names of Hawaii: Revised & Expanded Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.

[viii] Soboleski, Hank. History makers of Kaua‘i: Queen Emma. The Garden Island, 3/17/2002.