The Rambling Writer Visits Kauai: Hiking Waimea Canyon

Celebrating Thor’s retirement after 40 years as Professor of Paleontology and Geology, we visited the primeval island of Kauai, Hawai’i, and hiked into the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”

NOTE: For an overview and highlights of our island trip, see my post of June 30.

Beaches aren’t our only target when traveling in the tropics! Kauai is known for its ruggedly beautiful terrain and bounty of spectacular hikes, so we packed our hiking poles and boots along with our snorkeling gear. With impeccable timing, we had booked our trip the day before an historic storm hit the island, with disastrous flooding, and the islanders were still digging out from the damage when we arrived two months later. Much of the wildly gorgeous north shore was closed due to bridge and road damage, but we still had more to choose from than we had time. Waimea Canyon is a must-see destination, with viewpoints accessible by car, but the best experiences come from hiking down into the canyon.

We drove along the south shore to Waimea, where we turned inland toward the mountainous interior along the aptly-named Waimea Canyon Drive. Various viewpoints lured us into stopping to enjoy vistas of the canyon walls formed by successive eruptions and lava flows.

Below, we’re getting close to the trailhead for our chosen hike, with Waipo’o Falls in the background. Our hike will take us down and around part of the canyon rim to the top of that waterfall:

Naturally, the dramatic terrain interests Thor the geologist, although he explains that there isn’t much variety of rock in these islands: It’s all volcanic. What varies from island to island is the age, the volcanic features, and the weathering that creates beaches and hosts foliage. Kauai is the oldest of the major Hawai’ian islands, which have been created as the Pacific tectonic plate has passed over a “hot spot” where the earth’s crust has ruptured to allow magma to spurt upwards. Hawai’ian volcanoes are the shield type, low and broadly spreading in layers of lava, as opposed to the conical, more explosive volcanoes of our Pacific Northwest. Now that Kauai has moved past the hot spot, it has had the longest time to weather and to be cloaked in verdant green. The big island of Hawai’i is the youngest and directly over the hot spot, currently in the news as its active volcano is creating new land by spreading fresh lava over human developments. We humans and our works are like gnats in the time frame of Pele, the goddess of fiery volcanoes.

We hiked down a rutted, red-dirt road off Waimea Canyon Drive, which was not recommended for anything but heavy-duty 4WD vehicles, and then only if rain wasn’t in the offing. Since it looked like more rain was coming (rain storms were still hanging in over the island), we certainly weren’t going to chance getting stuck in gooey red mud. And that’s exactly what we ended up hiking back in, through a downpour in the dense jungle. (Thor informs me that the red soil is due to weathering of the volcanic rocks releasing iron.) Thankfully, on our way down into the canyon, we had only misty swirling clouds that added to the primeval feeling. It looked at any moment like a dinosaur might rear its head above the foliage, and I guess that’s why they filmed most of the “Jurassic Park” movies on this island.

Along the way, different warning signs kept hikers on their toes:

Near the bottom of our trail, we sat near (but not too near) the edge to watch beautiful white tropic-birds soar at our eye level. It appeared that they had nests in the rocky cliff to the right.

The serenity was marred only by a couple of sightseeing helicopters that buzzed around in the canyon, but quickly departed as the clouds started to close in. I feel the helicopters should not be allowed in such a wonderfully wild place, but of course it’s a big draw, and the islanders depend on tourism to keep their economy going.

The mists created more Shangri-La mystery in this amazing landscape.

My guidebook assured me that this stone arch is a natural feature:

Here’s a closer look:

The trail ends at a lovely pool and waterfall. If it had been sunny, we would have joined a couple of hardy teenagers for a swim, but the threatened rain was suddenly unleashed, cooling us sufficiently. I had read that it’s not wise to swim in the pools if they’ve been stirred up by recent rains releasing parasites, and of course those warning signs reminded us that the rains bring flash floods and tumbling rocks. So this once, I stayed out of the water.

The clouds literally tore open, like standing under a bucket, but I managed to snap one more damp photo at the top of Waipo’o Falls (photo near top of this post shows the falls from across the canyon). This is as close we dared to get, since the falls drops immediately 800 feet into the mist and a very rocky landing. You can see the red mud of the trail, which was slippery on the way down, but Really slippery now with the downpour. We were glad we had brought our hiking poles, as we saw several hikers take tumbles.

The trail became a rushing stream on the way up, and of course we were completely drenched (I was glad I had brought plastic bags for our phones and camera). Luckily, it wasn’t cold. When Thor asked if I was doing okay, I told him, “This is nothing.” I was remembering the time when I backpacked and camped in the cloud forest of Ecuador, and a hurricane hit on the coast. The trail out of that wilderness turned into a raging torrent twenty feet across, with boulders crashing around in it. But that’s a story for another day….

Near the top of our wet hike out of Waimea Canyon, we renewed acquaintance with these warning signs: “Hazardous cliff!” Check. “Flash Flood.” Not quite, but thanks for mentioning it. “Danger: No diving or jumping.” Check.

Next week: Beaches! Sunshine!


You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Chanticleer Global Thriller Grand Prize and the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at




The Rambling Writer Visits Kauai: Hiking Waimea Canyon — 8 Comments

  1. I learned the best way to prepare for rain on Kauai is to pack a plastic bag for your shirt. Stash your shirt when it rains, pull it out when the rain stops. Or just skip the shirt altogether.

  2. So beautiful! And you remind us that even in paradise you need to do your research first. (That red mud looks like icing, only stickier!)

    • Thanks, Kat! Yes, that mud was really gooey and slippery. Research not really necessary to enjoy Paradise, but it adds dimensions, and can save some unpleasant surprises….