The Ultimate Guide to Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Parks, Kaua’i

So you want to hike. You want to see beauty. You want to get away from the heat at sea level. Kaua’i is the place for you! Both Waimea Canyon State Park and Koke’e State Park are full of gorgeous hikes, beautiful scenery, and far cooler temps than the rest of the island. These State Parks are adjacent to each other, so you’ll definitely want to see them both at the same time–in fact, you have to go through Waimea Canyon State Park to get to Koke’e State Park! Here is everything you need to know to plan a day (or two!) in these Parks.

The Basics

First things first! Here are a few things to know before you go. Get ready!

How to Get There

There is exactly one way to get to either park! You’ll take Route 550, or Waimea Canyon Road. There is another access road, Route 552 called Koke’e Road, but it also meets up with Waimea Canyon road to lead you into both parks.

Waimea is the closest town to Waimea Canyon Road, so we chose to stay there for a few days. If you’re staying anywhere else on the island, you’ll simply follow Route 50 (the one main road on the island) to Waimea and head up into the mountains from there!

There are many pull-off points along the road, so plan to pull over as often as the mood strikes for stunning views! Just be aware that there is little to no cell service the farther up you go!

Morning sun on the Waimea River
More here: The Ultimate Kaua’i Bucket List

The Cost

There is no guard or ticket taker at the entrance to the park, but there are kiosks in the parking lots of several of the lookout sites. The kiosks take a credit card, and the receipt you’ll receive as your ticket will go on your dashboard. Here are the specifics:

  • Your ticket is good for both parks.
  • Your ticket is good for one calendar day (as opposed to 24 hours).
  • You will have to pay $10 for parking and $5 per person for entry. For the two of us, we paid $20.
  • Note: The pay system is credit card only!
The gray and blue column in the middle is the type of pay station you’ll see throughout the park.
Read next: How to Save BIG on Your Trip to Hawaii

What to Bring

My #1 tip for you is to bring a jacket, even in summer! It’s chilly way up there. You’ll also want to bring water, sunscreen, and bug repellent, especially if you plan on hiking. But even if you don’t like to hike, you might want to bring a picnic with you anyway. There are several picnic areas in scenic spots all along the road. Don’t want to bring food along? No worries! They serve delicious breakfast, lunch, and early dinner options at Koke’e Lodge just up the road!

Light Jacket

This one includes UPF technology, which is always advisable in Hawaii.

Snacks

Day Bag

Water

At 5,000 feet up, the air is a bit chillier!
One of my most-read posts ever: 5 Things You Forgot to Pack for Hawaii

Waimea Canyon State Park

We didn’t do every hike (there are far too many for just a couple of days!), but we did stop at most, if not all, of the lookout points or scenic areas. Here is the info about where we stopped, so you’ll have an idea of what to expect!

Waimea Canyon Lookout

This is the first large lookout you’ll come to, and the first opportunity you’ll have to pay for your time in the park. (If you skip this one, you’ll still have opportunities to pay elsewhere.) This lookout point gives you sweeping views of the colorful Canyon itself, as well as Waipo’o Falls in the distance, off to the left.

There is another viewing area that’s been roped off due to erosion, which has rendered it unsafe. This is why the Hawaii State Park system has started charging for the parks, and why it’s important to pay, even on the honor system. The money goes toward maintenance of the park, to keep it beautiful and safe for as long as possible. Hawaii residents with valid ID may visit free of charge. Again, the receipt serves as your ticket to both State Parks for the day of your visit, you do not have to pay at every paystation!

Quick Facts

  • Pay Station Available
  • Restrooms Available
  • Parking Available
  • Canyon Views
  • Waipo’o Falls Views
The colors of the canyon are beautiful!
First things first: How to Sign Up for Hawaii’s Safe Travels Program

Pu’u Ka Pele

While the Waimea Canyon Lookout gives striking views of the 13-mile long canyon, Pu’u Ka Pele just down the road gives better views of the Waipo’o Waterfall. You can park at the picnic area and walk across the road to the lookout point for the view in the photo below.

Quick Facts

  • FREE (no pay station)
  • Restrooms Available
  • Parking Available
  • Picnic Tables Available
  • Canyon and Waterfall Views
Waipo’o Falls can be seen from here in the distance.
Helpful info: 5 Things I Learned on My First Trip Back to Hawaii

Pu’u Hinahina Lookout

If you only make one stop on your visit to Waimea Canyon State Park, make it this one. It gives you the most bang for your buck! There are three things to do here, including the popular Canyon Trail hike.

Quick Facts

  • Pay Station Available
  • Restrooms Available
  • Canyon View
  • Ni’ihau View
  • Canyon Trail

Ni’ihau Viewpoint

I’ll be honest, I was not impressed with this view! It’s semi-obscured by trees, and it wasn’t even all that overcast the day we stopped here, but the island was barely visible. You’ll get a much better view about a mile up into Waimea Canyon Road, or Route 550. Take a look at the comparison shots below.

Ni’ihau is only visible on a very clear day from the Ni’ihau Viewpoint at Pu’u Hinahina.
Ni’ihau at sunrise from Route 550 is much clearer!
More here: How YOU Can Visit Ni’ihau, Hawaii’s Forbidden Island

Canyon Viewpoint

This view is a bit of a different perspective than the others up to this point, so it’s worth taking a look! It’s breezy here, however. This is the best time to use that jacket I recommended you bring with you!

Canyon View

Canyon Trail

We hiked part of the Canyon Trail in 2016, on our first trip to Kaua’i. It was very memorable, so we knew we wanted to go back and hike it again this time, and we’re glad we did. It’s about four miles round-trip, and it leads to a small waterfall above Waipo’o Falls.

The trail used to continue for another mile and a half (adding three miles for the round-trip) to get views of Waipo’o Falls. But again, due to erosion, hikers can only go to the top of the falls now. Don’t despair, though! It’s still a beautiful hike with striking views of the colorful Canyon, a waterfall, and a sense of accomplishment when you finish!

The trail gives you up-close views of this beautiful canyon.
You will definitely see helicopter tours while you’re here!
We had fun finding this little waterfall on the Canyon Trail!
More here: The Most Helpful Hawaii Posts You’ll Ever Find

Kukui Trail

We returned the next day for this trail. It’s located between mile markers eight and nine on Route 550, and you’ll likely see cars parked on the side of the road here, since there is no designated parking. There is a 0.3-mile hike called the Iliau Nature Loop, which meets up with the Kukui Trail. Take the Iliau Nature Loop to the right. The Kukui Trail takes you to the Canyon floor and the Waimea River, but remember: What goes down must hike back up! This is a relatively easy trail on the way down, but a difficult trail with a steep grade on the way up, and it’s five miles round-trip.

We saw several people hiking without water and without reasonable footwear (this is not one for sandals). Know what you’re getting into, know your hiking abilities, and bring the basics with you. That means plenty of water and some snacks. The hike is worth it, as long as you’re prepared!

Quick Facts

  • FREE (no pay station)
  • No Restrooms Available at Trailhead; Composting Toilet Available at Campsite on Canyon Floor
  • Iliau Nature Loop (0.3 mile loop)
  • Kukui Trail (five miles round-trip)

Pro tip: Pay attention to the trail markers. Many people have tried to create shortcuts, which cause damaging erosion, and are quite unsafe on such a steep hike. We found these signs to be extremely helpful!

Definitely pay attention to the designated trail signs!
The Canyon seems even bigger when you’re in the middle of it!
Take a rest at the river and have some water and food. You’ll want to have plenty of energy for the upward hike!
Also fun: The Best Hikes on Kaua’i

Koke’e State Park

Follow Waimea Canyon Drive long enough, and you’ll find yourself in Koke’e State Park! Route 550 also changes names here to become Koke’e Road. This park goes beyond the Canyon and has entirely different scenery. One special treat you’ll find here will be stunning views of Kalalau Valley and Kalalau Beach! Whether or not you hike the Kalalau Trail, this will give you an entirely different perspective on this incredibly remote location.

Koke’e Lodge

First things first: Food! There is no food available in Waimea Canyon State Park, but Koke’e has a great restaurant at Koke’e Lodge. Here, you’ll find coffee and espresso, baked goods, breakfast, lunch, fun beverages, and more! Just make sure you come before 4:00pm! You’ll also find a great gift shop here, where you can purchase Hawaiian-made items like books, greeting cards, soaps and lotions, dried fruit, and more.

Quick Facts

  • Hours: 9:00am-4:00pm daily
  • FREE (no pay station)
  • Restroom Available
  • Parking Available
  • Gift Shop Available
  • Koke’e Museum
Dragonfruit Lemonade? Yes, it’s really that color!
Loco Moco
Take a look at their main menu!
Keep eating: The Best Places to Eat in Waimea

Koke’e Museum

Unfortunately for us, we did not visit the museum while we were here (COVID has reduced their normal business hours), but they have a website where you can learn more about what they have. What was helpful for us, however, was the information posted outside the Museum. We never saw a brochure or map available (also perhaps because of COVID), so we took some pictures of the information here for reference.

  • Suggested Donation $3 per person
  • Hours: 9:00am-4:00pm daily (11:00am-4:00pm COVID Hours)
  • Restroom Available
  • Parking Available
  • Restaurant Available
  • Gift Shop Available
Koke’e Museum
Map of Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Parks
Trail Hikes 1
Trail Hikes 2
More here: The Best Pro Tips for Your Trip to Hawaii

Kalalau Lookout

That’s right–THE Kalalau! This particular location can only be accessed by hiking or boat, and can only be seen from hiking, the ocean, helicopter, or Koke’e State Park. The view from the Kalalau Lookout is often cloudy, due to the mountains and its proximity to Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest spots on Earth! If it’s foggy or drizzly when you arrive, just wait a few minutes. It will probabaly pass!

Quick Facts

  • Pay Station Available
  • Parking Available
  • Restrooms Available
  • Kalalau Valley Views
Kalalau Lookout
Read next: The Ultimate Guide to the Kalalau Trail

Pu’u O Kila Lookout

Honestly, the views from Pu’u O Kila Lookout are at least as good, or better, than at the Kalalau Lookout. Another bonus? It’s less crowded! It can be quite rainy here, as Mount Waialeale is here, but we caught it on a remarkably beautiful afternoon. This is the end of Koke’e Road, or Route 550, but there are some trails here that will take you farther.

Quick Facts

  • Pay Station Available
  • Parking Available
  • No Restroom (Use the Restroom at Kalalau Lookout)
  • Kalalau Valley Views
  • Mount Waialeale Views
  • Terminus of Route 550 (Koke’e Road)
  • Pihea Hike Trailhead
Kalalau Valley
Mount Waialeale; One of the Wettest Spots on Eat; Elevation 5,143 Feet
Keep reading: The Ultimate List of Hawaii Questions You’re Too Embarrassed to Ask

Pihea Trail

This trail is eight miles round-trip and is marked as “difficult,” but the first mile is notable for its sweeping views of the Kalalau Valley and Beach. Many people (including us!) choose to hike the first mile and then call it a day. It was well worth it to us. The trail is always exceptionally muddy (even on a lovely day like we had), so be prepared for a bit of a mess!

Kalalau Valley from the Pihea Trail
Read next: Everything You Need to Know Before You Visit the Hawaiian Islands

Want more? Take a look at my Hawaiian Islands Page for everything you need to plan a trip to Kaua’i and beyond!

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Published by quickwhittravel

Hey there! I am an avid traveller and adventurer, and you're always welcome to join me! The things I love most are God, my husband Steve, and seeing new places! My favorite places include Sydney, Australia; Ise City, Japan; and Bergen, Norway--but there's always room for more favorite places!

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