Waimea Canyon State Park definitely deserves a top spot on any first-time Kauai itinerary. It protects the namesake Waimea Canyon, known as “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”
Located along the somewhat arid west coast of Kauai, Waimea Canyon State Park is usually visited in conjunction with adjacent Koke’e State Park. They are two of the top state parks in Kauai, known for their beautiful landscapes and epic hiking.
Admiring the rugged beauty of Waimea Canyon is one of the best things to do in Kauai.
The canyon is around 14 miles long, about a mile wide, and about 3,600 feet deep. It was created by the erosional action of the Waimea River and by a giant collapse of the volcano that formed Kauai.
Waimea means “reddish water” in Hawaiian, and the river water derives its color from the red soils for which Kauai is famous. The rich red soil on the canyon walls contrasts with bright green vegetation to provide a picture-perfect landscape.
Waimea Canyon State Park offers a number of drive-up lookouts from which to appreciate the grandeur of Waimea Canyon, as well as hiking trails and the opportunity to observe local flora and fauna. Waipo’o Falls is another star attraction here.
In this Waimea Canyon guide, we break down all the exciting things to do in Waimea Canyon State Park and provide helpful tips for a productive and enjoyable visit.
Planning a trip to Kauai? We also have an article on the best things to do in Kokee State Park, the complete guide to visiting Hā’ena State Park, an article on visiting Polihale State Park, and one on the best things to do in Wailua River State Park!
And now, let’s get started discovering how to visit Waimea Canyon State Park, Kauai!
Hey, by the way! Visiting Kauai? The only way to get a real feel for the rugged beauty of this incredible island is through a helicopter tour! Check out the five highest rated Kauai Helicopter tours for 2023!
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Want to visit Waimea Canyon State Park on a guided tour?
This highly-rated tour combines Waimea Canyon State Park with Koke’e State Park and includes lunch. With several pick-up locations, the tour allows everyone in your party to sit back and enjoy the views.
Things to Do in Waimea Canyon State Park
Drive through the scenic park
The Waimea Canyon drive is one of the most scenic driving routes in Kauai.
Two roads lead into the park from the south, and we suggest taking one route in and the other out, so you can experience both routes on your visit!
Both roads eventually merge at the park.
We found Waimea Canyon Road Highway 550) a little more scenic and a tad easier to drive. You’ll also find lookout points along this drive that you will not on Highway 552, so definitely drive Highway 550 either in or out.
The vegetation along the roads is lush!
Along Highway 550, you’ll get occasional views of the coast at first, and then glimpses of Waimea Canyon as you drive.
There are a few unmarked pullouts along the drive if you want to park (safely!) and look into the canyon or view Waipo’o Falls. Note that the rim is fenced in some portions.
Take in the views from the Waimea Canyon Lookout
The first of the “official” lookouts over the canyon, the Waimea Canyon Lookout offers spectacular panoramas of the canyon’s colorful landscape.
This was the lookout where we spent the most time on our visit to Waimea Canyon State Park. The weather was clear when we arrived (it had been cloudy and rainy for much of our visit!), and we got great photos.
From the large parking lot, a ramp (or steps) lead up to the first large viewing gallery. Another flight of steps leads to a second higher viewing area.
The views as you walk up the ramp are gorgeous, and the views from the gallery even more so. The pink and red hues of the canyon walls contrast beautifully with the various shades of green.
The Waimea Canyon Lookout comes up at mile marker #10 on Highway 550. The parking lot is large, and there are restrooms here.
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Look for Waipo’o Falls!
One of the most beautiful waterfalls in Kauai, Waipo’o Falls plunges down the far wall of Waimea Canyon.
The double-tiered waterfall tumbles 800 feet into the canyon below, making for a striking sight.
While a Kauai helicopter tour is the only way to see the famous falls up close, you can still see the waterfall as a thin ribbon from the Waimea Canyon Lookout. It is visible a little closer from the Pu’u Ka Pele Lookout, although the view is partial.
Waipo’o Falls makes for a fabulous photo op if you visit in the winter, when it is likely to have great flow. Bring a zoom lens!
Sadly, Waipo’o Falls can run dry in the summer, when dry spells are common in this more dry part of the island. It was not visible at all when we visited Waimea Canyon at the end of September.
Enjoy the views from the Puu Ka Pele Lookout
Around mile marker #13 on Highway 550, you will come to the small Pu’u Ka Pele Lookout. If you have the time, this is another lookout worth the stop in the park!
The Pu’u Ka Pele Lookout offers perhaps the best views of Waipo’o Falls. Even though the view is partial, this is the closest view of the falls you have from the canyon rim.
Views into the canyon are also great, although you can get more expansive views of the canyon from the Waimea Canyon Lookout or the Pu’u Hinahina Lookout.
There is a picnic area at this pullout, and the overlook to the falls is across the street. Parking is limited.
>> Book these 5 star rated, highly popular, Kauai Tours now!
Admire Waimea Canyon from the Puu Hinahina Lookout
The Pu’u Hinahina Lookout can be found a little past mile marker #13 along Highway 550, and offers views of Waimea Canyon from another perspective.
The lookout is at the far end of the canyon as you drive up from the south, just before you enter Koke’e State Park. It also offers access to the Cliff Trail and the Canyon Trail via a short spur trail.
There is a large parking lot, and you get expansive views of Waimea Canyon, with its red and green hues. You may be able to see the Waimea River winding its way through the canyon from the viewing angle here.
On clear days, you can see all the way to the Pacific Ocean!
Views here can be obscured by clouds, which usually (but not always) tend to roll in as the morning wears on, so we suggest stopping here early. Light for photography tends to be better later in the day, though!
If it is cloudy when you arrive, be patient and wait a little (15-20 minutes) and they may dissipate.
There are restrooms at this lookout.
Check out the Ni’ihau Lookout
You will find the Ni’ihau Lookout at the same parking area as Pu’u Hinahina, towards the right of the parking lot.
The island of Ni’ihau is not always visible, because it is flat and usually shrouded by clouds. We couldn’t see it when we visited!
But if you are lucky enough to be here on a really clear day, look for the long flat island that lies about 15 miles west from Kauai. Right next to it is the tiny island of Lehua.
Ni’ihau, also known as The Forbidden Isle, is owned by the Robinson family and is off-limits to most people, with limited guided tours.
Stroll the Short Iliau Nature Loop: Easy Waimea Canyon Trail
The Iliau Nature Loop is a 0.3-mile roadside trail at the start of the Kukui Trail.
The elevation gain is negligible so it’s doable for most visitors to the park, and offers you the opportunity to learn about local flora.
The Iliau Nature Loop is named for the iliau plant, a rare and endangered species that grows only on Kauai. It’s also known as the Kaua’i Greensword, and bears flowers on a tall spike, somewhat like the silversword at Haleakala National Park in Maui.
This short and easy trail also offers beautiful views of Waimea and Wai’alae Canyons.
You may even be able to see Wai’alae Falls, another waterfall in Waimea Canyon. From the road, you can only see the top of the falls: a helicopter tour offers the best shot at more complete views of these multi-tiered falls.
You’ll find the trailhead for the Iliau Loop along Highway 550, about 0.75 mile past mile marker #8.
>> Book these 5-star rated, highly popular, Kauai tours now!
Hiking in Waimea Canyon: The Kukui Trail
You will find more hiking trails in Koke’e State Park, but if you are up for a challenge, the Kukui Trail in Waimea Canyon State Park takes you all the way down to the river at the bottom of the canyon!
The Kukui Trail is strenuous, with an elevation change of 2,240 feet and a total length of 4.5 miles round trip.
The views along the trail are beautiful, and the river at the bottom refreshing!
You’ll start by hiking down, and the path can be slippery, with loose rocks and dirt, so you’ll need good hiking shoes. The way back is relentlessly uphill, so allow plenty of time.
Much of the trail is exposed so wear sun protection and bring adequate drinking water. Start the hike early to avoid having to deal with the mid-day heat.
Also bring bug spray, you may run into mosquitoes by the river.
The trailhead for the Kukui Trail is along Highway 550, about 0.75 mile past mile marker #8.
Continue on to Kokee State Park
Most first-time visitors to Kauai combine a visit to Waimea Canyon State Park with a visit to neighboring Koke’e State Park.
Koke’e State Park offers a couple of lookouts that feature stunning views of the Kalalau Valley and the Na Pali Coast.
Clouds sometimes obscure the views so you need a little bit of luck, but when it’s clear the views are amazing.
This park also features several trails: the moderate Pihea Trail, or the Canyon Trail to the top of Waipo’o Falls, are easily doable on a day trip to the parks.
The Awa’awapuhi Trail is one of the iconic trails in Koke’e State Park and offers stunning views of the Na Pali Coast. Similar to the Kukui Trail, it involves a descent to the viewpoint followed by a steep climb back.
Kokee State Park offers campsites and rustic cabins if you wish to spend 2 or 3 days soaking in the scenery at the two parks.
Stop by Red Dirt Falls
Identified simply as “Red Dirt Falls,” this little waterfall along Highway 550 is well worth the stop, for its spectacular setting.
The red rock and soil in the midst of which you’ll find this little waterfall will make you think you’ve landed on Mars. It looks surreal!
The Red Dirt Waterfall is visible from the road, around mile marker #23: it’s marked on Google Maps.
There is no parking lot, so you’ll have to pull over onto the shoulder on the right of the road where it’s wide enough. There’s only room for one or two cars.
From the road, it’s a short walk to the waterfall, where you can snap photos. Take care as you cross the road to get to the falls.
Kids will enjoy jumping over the stream when conditions permit.
We do not recommend getting into the water. Just enjoy the pretty-as-a-picture landscape!
And be warned: the red soil can stain clothes and shoes, so wear something appropriate when you visit.
Getting to Waimea Canyon State Park
Waimea Canyon State Park is located along the west coast of Kauai, Hawaii, south of Koke’e State Park and the Na Pali Coast. It is accessible by road.
Take Highway 50 West to Highway 550 or Highway 552.
Highway 550, also called the Waimea Canyon Road, leads into the park from the small town of Waimea. The distance from the town to the park is about 10.5 miles each way (see map).
We took this route into Waimea Canyon State Park.
Highway 552, also called Kōkeʻe Road, leads into the park from the community of Kekaha. The distance from Kekaha to the park is about 11.3 miles each way (see map).
The tow highways are generally well-maintained and in decent shape. We came across just a few bad spots when we drove them.
Here are the driving distances to Waimea Canyon State Park from various parts of the island, assuming you take Highway 550 into the park:
Koloa (or Poipu) — 29.3 miles, 55 minutes
Lihue — 33.9 miles, one hour and 2 minutes
Hanalei (or Princeville) — 65.3 miles, 1 hour and 55 minutes
As you can see, it’s easiest to visit Waimea Canyon State Park (and Koke’e State Park) while you are staying in Koloa or Poipu, on the sunny south shore of Kauai.
The parks and lookouts are well signposted.
If you do not want to drive yourself, consider this highly-rated guided tour of Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Parks! There are multiple pick-up locations, and lunch is included.
Waimea Canyon State Park Hours and Admission Fees
Waimea Canyon State Park is open daily during daylight hours.
The park charges an entry fee and parking fee for visitors that are not residents of Hawaii.
The entry fee is $5.00 per person. Kids 3 and under are free.
The parking fee is $10.00 per standard vehicle for non-residents.
The fee, paid once, is valid for all parking lots within the park, and the entry fee and parking fee are valid also for adjoining Koke’e State Park, if you visit both parks on the same day.
Residents of Hawaii enter free and park free with a valid Hawaii license or state ID.
You can get your Waimea Canyon tickets at the machines at the lookouts, where you can pay with a credit card.
Are Waimea Canyon State Park reservations required?
Reservations are currently not required to visit Waimea Canyon State Park (or adjoining Koke’e State Park).
The only state park on Kauai that requires reservations is Haena State Park, which also provides access to Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park.
The Best Time to Visit Waimea Canyon State Park
You can visit Waimea Canyon State Park year round, but ideally you will want to avoid rainy days, when views of the canyon may be obscured.
Check the weather forecast for the area, and pick a bright clear sunny day for your visit, for the best chance of clear views!
Of course, the canyon walls tend to be much greener in the winter months, when it rains more, and waterfalls are likely to be in better flow then as well. But in the winter, you run the risk of poor visibility and slick hiking trails.
Our recommendation is late spring to early fall for the best shot at a clear sunny day!
Tips for Visiting Waimea Canyon State Park
Visit in the morning for better visibility (and lower crowds)!
The views are one of the biggest reasons to make the long drive to Waimea Canyon State Park, so you’ll ideally want to visit when the visibility is good.
Usually, mornings offer better visibility. Clouds usually roll in later in the morning or in the early afternoon.
But, weather will be weather and sometimes that’s not the case. When we visited in late September, the canyon was shrouded in clouds as we drove in at around 9 a.m., but when we returned from Koke’e State Park later in the day, it was quite sunny at the Waimea Canyon Lookout.
So prepare the best you can but expect the weather to be unpredictable!
Also, if it is cloudy, hang around for a few minutes if time allows. The clouds may blow away and your patience rewarded.
The lookouts are definitely less crowded earlier in the day, so arrive early for a more secluded experience.
Pick a bright clear day
Although Waimea Canyon is on the more arid side of Kauai, some days can still be misty and rainy.
Check the weather forecast and pick a clear day for the drive to the canyon for the best chance of spectacular views from the lookouts.
Wear layers and bring a rain jacket
Waimea Canyon State Park is at quite an elevation above sea level, so the temperature in the park may be a bit cooler than at sea level. It can also be quite windy.
Year round, a light warm jacket is a great idea when visiting Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Parks. If you don’t need it, you can tie it around your waist or leave it in your car.
Also, showers are frequent, so bring a rain jacket to stay dry as you hike or explore.
Secure your hat!
A sun hat is great for added sun protection, but be sure it’s one that can be strapped firmly under your chin.
It can be very breezy at the lookouts! The day we visited, the wind was whipping our hair and dresses around.
Allow plenty of time to enjoy the scenic drive
The drive up Kauai’s west coast, through Waimea Canyon State Park and Kokee State Park, is very scenic.
Give yourself enough time to enjoy the views and the flora en route!
There are unmarked lookouts where you can stop to take photos if there is an available parking spot off the road.
Know that the road to the park is winding
The road to Waimea Canyon State park, and within Waimea Canyon State Park, climbs from sea level to about 3,500 feet.
It is a winding road, and if you are prone to motion sickness, you’ll want to bring some dramamine for the drive.
Wear proper shoes if you plan to hike!
The Kukui Trail in Waimea Canyon State Park and most hikes in Kokee State Park are moderate to challenging, and you’ll want to come prepared if you plan to hike.
Make sure to wear closed-toed hiking shoes with good grip, because trails can be slippery, with loose dirt when dry and slick when it has rained.
Wait a day to visit Waimea Canyon if you’ve gone scuba diving!
If you go scuba diving in Kauai, wait at least 24 hours after your dive to visit Waimea Canyon State Park.
Since Waimea Canyon State Park and Kokee State Park are at an elevation, waiting a day minimizes the potential for decompression sickness.
Don’t expect cell service in the park!
Cell reception may be an issue in Waimea Canyon State Park, especially as you get higher up and further in, so be sure to download or print any trail maps or brochures you need prior to heading out.
Bring a zoom lens
If you enjoy landscape photography, you’ll want to bring a zoom lens to capture the textures and colors in the canyon walls.
You may also get clearer photos of Waipo’o Falls and Wai’alae Falls with a telephoto lens.
Stop in Waimea
The little town of Waimea makes a great pit stop en route to Waimea Canyon State Park, if you need gas or picnic fixings.
But it’s also a great place to get a refreshing serving of shave ice at JoJo’s, after your visit to the parks. The Waimea location of JoJo’s is open daily from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m.
The Best Kauai Tours
Have you booked these top Kauai guided adventures yet?
Sunset catamaran tour of the Na Pali Coast (relatively more stable ride, insane views on good weather days!)
Doors-off helicopter tour of Kauai (unobstructed views, chance to see more of the island than you can by land, no middle seats!)
Kayak on the Wailua River plus hike to a waterfall (a super fun activity for active travelers, albeit a little muddy sometimes!)
Raft trip to the Na Pali Coast plus snorkeling (prepare to get wet on this exhilarating adventure!)
Eurocopter ECO-Star helicopter tour over Kauai (the most booked Kauai helicopter tour on Viator with close to 2K reviews and a 5-star rating!)
Renting a Car in Kauai
The best things to do in Kauai are scattered all over the island.
Public transport options on Kauai aren’t great, so if you want to explore the island beyond your base, you’ll want to book a rental car for your Kauai trip.
We always use Discover Cars to book Kauai car rentals. They search across a variety of rental car companies, both budget and brand, to offer you the best deals, AND they offer free cancellations. Plus, there are no hidden fees.
Lihue Airport-Hotel Shuttle
Not planning to pick up a rental car at Lihue airport? Pre-arrange round trip transfer from the airport to your hotel and back!
This shared shuttle serves hotels or vacation rentals in Princeville, Kahala, Poipu, Kapaa, or Lihue, and then back again. It’s convenient and inexpensive, and saves time and hassle!
Where to Stay in Kauai
Depending on whether you want a vacation rental with more room and the option to cook some of your meals, or you want a resort or hotel experience, and depending on which part of Kauai you want to choose as your base, you have a variety of options.
Since you’ll likely want to base in a couple places on your trip to Kauai, we suggest starting your search for Kauai accommodations by browsing vacation rentals on VRBO.
We have stayed in VRBO rentals in both Poipu and Princeville and find that the choice and quality are generally great.
Want detailed recommendations for accommodations in Kauai? Check out our comprehensive guide to the best places to stay in Kauai!
More Kauai Travel Inspiration
Considering a trip to the Garden Isle in Hawaii? You’ll definitely want to check out some of our other comprehensive Kauai travel and attraction guides!
If you are a first-time visitor to Kauai, start by discovering the best things to do in Kauai! From beaches and botanical gardens to cliffs, canyons, and waterfalls, Kauai has it all, and our round-up lists all of Kauai’s must-experience activities and attractions.
Read our in-depth guide to visiting the Na Pali Coast of Kauai. We give you the full scoop on the best ways to visit this stunning coast in the remote northwest of the island.
Discover our round-up of the nine spectacular state parks in Kauai, which house some of Kauai’s most treasured natural wonders.
Check out our round-up of the most beautiful waterfalls in Kauai, from waterfalls you can view from the road to falls that require hiking and falls that are best seen from a helicopter or sightseeing flight.
Read our guide to Wailua River State Park to discover two easy-to-access Kauai waterfalls, and our trail guide for the easy hike to Ho’opi’i Falls. We also have an article on the best Kauai waterfall hikes.
And if a helicopter tour is part of your plans for Kauai, read our article on the top-rated helicopter tours in Kauai!
We also have a trail guide for the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail on Kauai’s scenic south shore, an article on how to hike the Sleeping Giant Trail, and a guide to the Kuilau Ridge Trail, one of the easy hikes on Kauai.
Get the scoop on the best botanical gardens in Kauai, from Limahuli Garden on the north shore to McBryde and Allerton Gardens on the south shore.
Learn about the best things to do in Hanalei, the charming town that sits in the middle of Kauai’s scenic north shore.
Read our guide to the best swimming beaches on Kauai, from Hanalei Bay on the north shore to Poipu Beach on the south shore! We also have a guide to the best snorkeling beaches on Kauai, and a round-up of the best Kauai north shore beaches.
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