Backpacking Waimea Canyon Kauai
This adventure began as a dream to spend valentines day adventuring in Kauai’s spectacular ‘grand canyon of the south pacific’ and ended as a potent and diverse journey that still floats through my mind’s eye daily.
I look forward to returning.
My girlfriend Lara and I had been dreaming for awhile about our Hawaiian destination. Where could we get away from the traffic and crowds? Where could we satisfy our need for wilderness adventure in this lush tropical paradise? The kalalau trail (access to the legendary napali coast, now washed out from the storms that happened later in 2018) was full, with no permits available, and inclement weather was moving in, so we decided to instead book a permit at one of the several campgrounds in the bottom of waimea canyon.
Hundreds of people visit the scenic view points offered by this jaw dropping canyon everyday but few venture down into it, which is no wonder; with the trail loosing nearly 2,200 feet of elevation in just over 2 miles of trail, this hike is not for everyone.
But for the die-hard adventurist, hiking to the bottom of waimea canyon is a true paradise of diverse explorations with epic sights, waterfalls, rich history, and the lush beauty of Kauai everywhere you look. This adventure also holds a real chance for solitude on this incredible and popular island.
We arrived with our rental car at the trail head with tourists bustling by, stopping for a few moments to take in the scene before driving onward.
The small but sweet nature loop trail offers picnicking and the first expansive panorama to any passerby eager to catch a glimpse of this immense example of nature on their way toward the top of kokee state park. We finished the loop quickly and turned onto the kukui trail which began to drop steeply towards the canyon floor.
The kukui trail is straightforward, and relatively direct in it’s decent to the canyon floor.
The sun was bright but seasonal showers and passing clouds brought incredible depth and made for a dynamic hike. The surrounding forest changed as we descended down the tiers of the canyon, until finally we made it to an amazing traverse of grey and golden earth which lead out to a finger of deep red earth where the foliage edged away. Here, the staggering walls of the canyon could be appreciated for their size. We had to stop for a moment on this magical red hill for a snack and some yoga.
Beyond the red hill the forest changed its character with more kukui trees, mud and goats. Every twenty minutes or so we would hear a disturbance in the brush and with a little looking see a few goats staring secretively back. Beautiful large leafy plants echoed the desert yucca plant of my native new mexican high desert, but with a tropical flare and size. After wading through some mud and human-height grasses we found ourselves suddenly looking at the first camp shelter, wiliwili, and the river just beyond. We had made it to the bottom!
From wiliwili camp we made our way upstream, past where most travelers would venture. (Those seeking a solid day hike generally only go to the red hill or down to the river and seldom venture farther.) It wasn’t long before a gentle curtain of rain heralded our first stream crossing.
The banks of the river told stories of just how much water comes through this canyon in times of flashflood or runoff. We had gotten lucky and found the river low enough to easily cross.
We carried onward through lush open forest, catching mesmerizing glimpses of the epic canyon walls through the foliage and passing clouds.
There are four designated campgrounds at the bottom of waimea canyon, wiliwili, kaluahaulu, hipalau, and lonomea. Our destination this time was kaluahaulu. After two more refreshing stream crossings (three crossings total) we reached kaluahaulu, a modest overhang in the forest, not far from the river, with a pit toilet nearby. The solitude of the canyon was magical as the last helicopter tours of the day made their way back to the airport and we set up our tent.
The air and surroundings were so beautiful and our shoulders so happy to be without the weight of the backpacks that we decided to keep hiking. After our camp was established we carried on up the trail for another two miles or so before turning back due to low light. This beautiful trail enchanted us and pulled us onward, dropping lilikoi at our feet for quick snacks and revealing awesome views through the canopy from time to time. We walked past the next campsite, hipalau, which was near a helicopter landing pad and boasted a little more space and impressive ‘bench tree’. I would recommend this site for a larger group or for folks who are interested in a great solid hike. Unfortunately, the light began to fade when we were just a few tenths of a mile from camp lonomea. The rumors of fantastic swimming holes will remain, for us, only rumors until we can next return. Remarking to ourselves that is always good to leave something unseen for next time, we reluctantly turned back to make dinner.
Dinner was a delectable stir fry made possible by the brevity of our stay; we had brought fresh produce with us since a one-night stay made the extra weight justifiable.
We slept amidst mild rain showers while the abundant sounds of frogs and the gurgling river lulled us into dreamland. Much to our surprise, the signature rooster sounds of Kauai were not absent even here in the depths of the canyon. We heard their calling long before dawn, a reminder that we were still nestled into this particular paradise.
Not a bad valentines day; not by a long shot.
Our second day began with a beautiful clear sunrise that was quickly followed by the familiar disturbance of sight-seeing helicopters and gentle passing rain showers.
We spent the morning basking along the river, filtering water and making breakfast before breaking camp down. Much to our dismay, sanitizing water in the morning proved to be more difficult than anticipated, as our Steripen had run out of batteries, and we had forgotten our extras! Luckily, we still had fuel for our camp stove, so we boiled multiple pots full of water to fill our bottles for our ascent. We also had iodine tablets with us, which we didn’t need to use, but were relieved to have as backup. We never go into the back country without at least two backup water sanitation methods. Sterilizing water is absolutely essential here; do not neglect this step in waimea canyon.
Our 2-person sleep system worked well. Our marmot limelight 2 tent, klymit double-v pad and unzipped single person sleeping bag used as a quilt over a two-person liner kept us very cozy during the night’s mild temperatures, and we awoke refreshed.
We began a slow and meandering ascent mid-morning. Retracing our steps through the canyon floor, we felt closer to the land, the trees and the river.
We wondered at the seemingly man-made rock walls that appeared sometimes suddenly, as their mossy covering camouflaged them perfectly against the trees. Most seemed to be no younger than 100 years, and many looked like they had been there much much longer, at least to our untrained eyes. Later in the day I met a local on the trail and asked her about these mysterious rock walls. She did not know their origin or original purpose, only that “they’ve always been there.” If you know more, please comment below, as we are still curious about them!
We forded the river for our third time and rounded the turn, finding the wiliwili camp again and our pathway back up out of the canyon. We paused, adjusted and secured our packs for the steep walk upwards out of the shade, and we thanked the canyon for all her gifts.
As we foraged forward up the steep trail, small passing rain storms, which seemed intimidating at first, turned out to be a welcome relief which buffered and comforted us on the long slog up the first leg towards “red hill.” We paused again to take some photos of our stunning surroundings, to snack, stretch, and rest.
The knowledge of the trail, the warmth of the day and softness of the earth begged for the shoes to come off. They stayed off.
The rest of the hike out, despite its ruggedness my boots remained slung around my backpack and my toes happily covered in mud. (Lara spent a portion of our ascent barefoot as well, and enjoyed it more than she thought she would. Barefoot backpacking is intense, and deserves its own blog post.) The mud cooled our feet as we continued up through red hill and the second leg of the trail towards the car, pausing from time to time to soak in the incredible views and take more than a few photos and videos.
We returned to the trail head feeling ecstatic, empowered, blessed, and on top of the world, until low and behold we discovered that our rental car’s window had been smashed, its doors were wide open; we had been robbed!
After collecting and taking stock of what we could and finding a bar of service to call for the appropriate help, we waited, and slowly our hunger caught up with us. The most apparent (at that moment) missing item was our precious cooler, full of snacks and goodies that we had been so anticipating. Thankfully we were lucky once again and while some very important and sentimental things were missing most irreplaceable and absolutely crucial items were not stolen.
From what we have since been told, our very obvious rental car sitting on the side of the trail head on a holiday was a sitting target, especially on a holiday. We live and we learn. However, given that Kauai is home to such a close-kint community, and the prevalence of the aloha spirit here, many locals that we later met were shocked and dismayed to hear that this happened to us, and an inordinate amount of apology and practical assistance was offered to us. We were truly humbled and amazed. Alamo rental car on Kauai was even kind enough set us up with an upgraded ride free of charge; a Jeep! Thanks to that upgrade, we got were granted access to whole other adventure at polihale state park whose power we could neither have planned for nor imagined. Those stories are for another post. Truly, this theft was a good reminder to plan to have no plan sometimes, and to carry a “good or bad fortune; who can say?” mindset as part of every adventure.
Even though we experienced theft at waimea canyon, it ultimately wouldn’t put us off another adventure to this remarkable place. We would advise to plan for a pick up and a drop off, or to rent a local car that does not stick out. Having smart safety logistics in place is an important part of any trip, and allows for a longer, more confident and peaceful stay.
Even for such a short backpack excursion, this one has left an indelible mark in our memories. This was a rich and successful pilot mission for the recommended multi-day journey I will outline below. I can’t say enough praise about the magic of full submersion into waimea canyon; the grand canyon of the south pacific. If you are planning a venture there, prepare yourself for a transformative experience.
Preparing and things to know if you go:
Hiking to the bottom of waimea canyon is an intense journey, regardless of your point of entry. One should have appropriate experience and knowledge before attempting this feat, and even then accidents happen, so always be prepared. Weather is a definite concern, with rain storms seeming to be a daily occurrence ranging anywhere from the most pleasant welcome mist to flash floods. Always check the weather and come prepared for it all rain or shine.
Bring plenty of water with you, and multiple ways to treat and filter water (I generally carry at least two ways to purify water, even on a day hike!)
As always in any back country context, “pack it in, pack it out.” Please help keep this magical place clean and don’t leave anything behind.
Temperatures at the top and bottom of the canyon will always be cooler than temperatures at the coast.
Below is what we took down into the canyon, allowing us to have a perfectly comfortable and safe time, including being able to take photos and videos, staying dry and sleeping like a dream-for-two:
marmot limelight 2 person
rei siesta sleeping bag
black diamond cosmos headlamp
Clothing was basically dressing for rain in tropical conditions, with multiple layer options for a rapidly-changing climate.
Long pants were nice for sun- and pricker-protection down in the canyon and the thicker parts of the trail, but were not necessary for most of the hike.
A good wide-brimmed sun hat is crucial, as is making sure the clothing you are bringing down has good uv protection.
Solid footwear is recommended. I would recommend light but strong hikers that give good traction in mud as well as a pair of sandals for strolling, the river-crossings, and to wear around camp.
Polarized sunglasses allowed us to see the depths of the colors around us.
go pro hero 3 and 4
filters, cleaning, batteries, memory cards etc.
We managed to find some lovely fresh produce at a farmers market before our adventure, which of course is not ideal for weight but was worth the gourmet calories and experience. Freeze dried backpacking foods like mountain house didn’t seem to be easy to find on kauai. However, if you didn’t know already, dehydrators are a backpacker’s best friend, and with one it is easy to craft affordable, nutritious, and delicious dehydrated backpacking meals at home. (Look for future posts on dehydrating backpacking meals.) For a stay any longer than one night I highly recommend bring all dried food.
Permits are required for camping in the canyon and at all non-private campgrounds in Hawaii.
Permitng in Hawaii is a little complicated. There is the state parks and campgrounds, which has its own reservation system, and then there are the local or county campgrounds that have totally different reservation systems and vary from island to island: Kauai county, Oahu county, Maui county, Hawaii county.
The campgrounds in waimea canyon are part of Kokee state park, sothe reservations are made through the state site. Like most things on Hawaii, booking as far in advance as you can is a good idea.
The cost of camping permits for state parks in the sate of Hawaii (for all islands) is $12 per night (up to 6 people) for HI residents, or $18 per night (up to 6 people) for non residents. This can be, in my opinion, by far the best deal in Hawaii as far as places to rest your head at night. (Check the permitting website for up-to-date fees for whichever park you are intending to visit.)
Kauai is considered to be one of the wettest places in the world. Waimea canyon is considered to be on the dry side of the island, and while that does make it a safer bet sometimes when the weather on the other side of the island is too oppressively wet, the elevation and landmass of waimea guarantees that it will constantly acrew clouds and weather. Of course, anytime one is hiking in a canyon one must be critically aware of the weather upstream and the effects that has on the river in the bottom of the canyon. I often promote spontaneity, but I would be very cautious with this particular journey and be sure to do your due diligence with planning and looking into weather conditions before setting off to a campsite that is a large canyon and several stream-crossings away.
The hike, elevation etc.
The hike follows the kukui trail from the trailhead down 2,163ft into the canyon to the junction of the waimea canyon trail at camp Wiliwili, 2.5 miles in. Waimea canyon trail then follows the river both upstream and downstream from wiliwili. To find the camps follow waimea canyon trail to the left, or upstream, which includes crossing the river 3 times before reaching the second camp: kaluahaulu. At this point the trail turns to follow a tributary canyon, becoming koaie canyon trail.
Koaie canyon trail is lush, small and stunning. It stays largely a little ways up the hillside from the river as it meanders along towards hipalau camp (about 2 miles from wiliwili; allow extra time for stream crossings). Hipalau looked great and the trail only got prettier as it continued on towards lonomea camp (another 1.6 miles or so past hipalau).
Be sure to bring plenty of water. Whether you’re attempting this trail as a day trip or as a backpacker make sure you have plenty of treated water for the walk as well as water waiting for you in the car, as there is no water at the kukui trailhead.
Pig hunting is common in this part of Kauai, so be sure to keep this in mind and wear bright clothing. Should you encounter a large specimen of wild hog, keep your distance and do not be aggressive but they will frighten easily, often by barking like a dog which they have learned to associate with hunters.
There are 4 seperate campgrounds at the bottom of waimea canyon:
Wiliwili aproximately 2.5 miles
Kaluahaulu approximately 3.25
Hipalau approximately 4.5 miles
Lonomea approximately 6 miles
All mileage estimates are from the kukui trail head.
Each of these sites has similar amenities and can hold a few tents. Visit the state parks permitting site for reservation information and somewhat detailed descriptions.
Not able to do the hike in but still wanting to spend a night or two in this incredible place? There is fantastic drive up camping available at kokee state park with staggering view points of both waimea canyon and Napali valley and access to wonderful day hike trails.
We only spent one night at the bottom on this pilot mission. What follows is the possible extended itinerary:
Day one: Hike in with an early start. Eat lunch and swim at the bottom. Hike onward to lonomea to camp.
Day two: Swim, nap and explore.
Day three: Continue to explore and swim, break camp and hike back to wiliwili.
Day four: Early morning hike out.
This could be easily shortened by a day. I would recommend making any scheduling allotments so that one is not climbing in or out of the canyon in the full heat of the day.
The best thing about backpacking trips that start with a lot of downhill is the pack will be much lighter on the way out!
Mahalo and safe travels!