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Waimea Canyon - Koke‛e Kauai Sights

Kauai's only accessible upcountry region is simply referred to locally as Koke‘e, although it is comprised of several areas: Waimea Canyon State Park, Koke‘e State Park and lands within Ku‘ia Natural Area Reserve, Pu‘u Ka Pele and Na Pali Kona forest reserves, and Alaka‘i Wilderness Preserve.  All of these jurisdictions are on state land and protect important watershed and habitat critical to rare plants and animals.  Balanced with the ecological considerations of the Waimea watershed, are the extensive recreational opportunities Koke‘e provides.  Hiking, mountain biking, birding, hunting, camping and fishing are all pursued vigorously in the upcountry region.


Waimea Canyon is also a great place for sightseeing.  Even on an island rife with scenic views, Waimea Canyon offers astonishing panoramas.  Vistas along the paved road rimming the western wall of the canyon present streams shimmering on valley floors bounded by precipitous walls, arid cliffs built of rock and soil in a rainbow of hues that rivals the Grand Canyon and sweeping views clear to the ocean.  Mark Twain noticed the similarities when he visited Kauai and coined Waimea Canyon the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific."


The Waimea River and its tributaries have cut a gorge nearly 3,000 feet deep, a mile and a half wide, and ten miles long.  Feeding the waters is the Alaka‘i Swamp, which acts as a giant sponge, soaking up the copious amounts of rainfall on Wai‘ale‘ale and releasing it in uniform flows.  Smaller canyons branch to the east of Waimea Canyon, while its western flank is a singular, steep cliff.  It seems incredible that such an immense natural feature could be tucked into a corner of a small island.


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Waimea Canyon and Koke‘e State Park deserve a full day to visit, especially if you tackle one of the hiking trails.  The return drive from Waimea is 38 miles.  The gas stations at Waimea are the last ones on the west side.  Bringing food and drink is a good idea although there is a lunch wagon at the Waimea Canyon Lookout and a small restaurant at Koke‘e Lodge.  Morning is often the best time to view the canyon—before the clouds roll down from Wai‘ale‘ale.  Highway 550, Waimea Canyon Drive and then Koke‘e Road, is the steep route that takes 19 miles to wind from sea level to the Pu‘u o Kila lookout, 4,176 feet above the Na Pali's Kalalau Valley.  Waimea Canyon Drive originates in the town of Waimea.  Another route begins in Kekaha as Koke‘e Road and is joined by Waimea Canyon Drive seven miles uphill.  Waimea Canyon Drive offers views of the lower canyon while Koke‘e Road presents views of the Mana Plain and the island of Ni‘ihau in the downhill direction.


The first viewpoint on Waimea Canyon Drive is at the one-mile-marker.  Here the view is to the southwest, looking over Waimea to the agricultural crops of the Mana Plain and the island of Ni‘ihau.  Ni‘ihau is the west flank remnant of a shield volcano older than Kauai.  Secondary volcanic activity created Kawaihoa Hill on the southern tip and the islet of Lehua in the water to the north of Ni‘ihau when blocks of older basalt and reef limestone blasted out during eruptions.  On a clear day the islet of Ka‘ula is visible, 19 miles southwest of Ni‘ihau.


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Waimea Canyon Drive is very steep in places.  Roadside turnouts allow for views of the lower canyon on the right side and glimpses of sugar cane planted on the steep hillside to the left.  The older Koke‘e Road joins with Waimea Canyon Drive just before mile marker seven.  If you choose Koke‘e Road for your descent, watch for a growth of wiliwili trees at the hairpin curve, three miles above Kekaha.  Wiliwili is a native tree that flourishes on hot, dry slopes below 1,500 feet.  From March to May its flattened canopy and trios of round leaves blossom into clusters of yellow and peach-colored flowers.


Below mile marker nine is the sign marking the Kukui Trail.  A paved apron across from the sign is the parking area.  At the head of the Kukui Trail, which leads down into the canyon and eventually to the ocean, is the Iliau Nature Loop Trail.  The loop leads a quarter of mile through flat land cleared by the Division of Forestry and Wildlife to allow native plants to grow naturally.  Name tags identify plants and trees.  Here grows the world's largest community of the rare and striking relative of the silversword plant of Maui, the Iliau.  Birds may have carried the barbed fruit of this descendent of the sunflower family on their feathers as they migrated from California.  The iliau grows on slender stems that reach up to 12 feet high.  In June and July it blooms spectacularly.  After several years, a towering head emerges from the iliau's top, extending in great drooping tiers.  Starting at the bottom, each tier opens to expose wheels of golden blossoms.  Each plant blooms once in its lifetime, then dies.  Along the trail you can also enjoy the deep red blossoms of the ohi‘a lehua tree, the orange blossoms of the ‘ilima, yellow blossoms of the koa and the red, white or pink berries of the pukiawe shrub.  A picnic shelter looks over the trail and the canyon.


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Australian silky oak, paperbark and eucalyptus trees grow along the road above the Iliau Nature Loop as a result of reforestation efforts in the 1930s to control erosion.  An irrigation ditch flows next to the road through unbelievably red soil.  To feed the need for water in the sugar fields, water destined to cascade the 800 feet of Waipo‘o Falls on the east side of the canyon is now diverted through 13 miles of ditches and 11 miles of tunnels to fill several reservoirs on the canyon's west side.


After mile marker 10 a large sign points the way to the Waimea Canyon Lookout.  The lookout has a parking area, restrooms, a lunch wagon and pathways leading to terraces overlooking the canyon.  This lookout has the widest and grandest view of Waimea Canyon.  As the sun moves over the gorge, its light changes the hues of the red, ochre and gray earth, softened by green and gold vegetation.  Clouds drift by, changing patterns that crawl across canyon walls.  Your viewpoint stands beyond the western edge of a great caldera that spewed out much of the lava that built Kauai's original shield volcano.  The peak to the left is Pu‘u Ka Pele, a vent of the original shield.  Its height gives an indication of the elevation of the shield before it succumbed to erosion.  From this vantage point you can see three side canyons that drain Alaka‘i Swamp and helped carve away the layer upon layer of lava flows that built the original volcano.  Directly in front is Koai‘e, Po‘omau is to the left and Wai‘alae is behind the ridge to your right.  At one time these valleys emptied their waters straight out to the sea behind you.  A huge part of Kauai's west side collapsed along a fault line forming a wedge-shaped depression fanning out to the south.  The streams from these side canyons diverted to the south and formed the Waimea River.  Called the Makaweli Depression, it is clearly visible as you drive down Waimea Canyon Drive.  


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A few sandalwood trees grow in the parking lot of the lookout, next to the bus parking area.  They are scarce vestiges of a large sandalwood forest decimated in the early 1800s.  Hawaiian chiefs ordered sandalwood trees cut down so they could trade them for ships and luxuries and to pay off debts.  The fragrant wood of the trees was prized in China for ornamental carving and cabinetry, incense and as an insect repellent.


The peak that dominates the canyon's west side, Pu‘u Ka Pele, means "Pele's Hill."  Coinciding with geological evidence, Pele, the goddess that legend says created each of the Hawaiian Islands lived first on Kauai then journeyed down the chain, creating a birth by fire on each stop.  Pu‘u Ka Pele is said to be the point where the fire goddess left Kauai for Oahu.  The pit at the top of the hill was supposedly made as she stamped her foot for the leap across the channel.  Pele is said to now live in Kilauea, the erupting volcano on Hawaii, the chain's newest island.


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As the road curves around Pu‘u Ka Pele several roadside viewpoints appear, followed by another lookout just shy of mile marker 13.  This lookout is simply a railing at the roadside with parking on the opposite side of the road at the Ka‘ana picnic area.  From Pu‘u Ka Pele Lookout you will have your closest opportunity to view Waipo‘o Falls—if they are flowing.  So much of its flow has been diverted for irrigation that it runs dry much of the time.  After a heavy rain above the falls the flow is too much for the Koke‘e Ditch and a cascade returns to the falls.  Ka‘ana Picnic Area is a shaded clearing with picnic shelters, barbeque pits, bathrooms and a pay telephone.


A large sign identifies Pu‘u Hinahina Lookout, the last view of the canyon from this road.  The view from Pu‘u Hinahina looks south over the upper canyon.  Watch for white-tailed tropicbirds catching air currents rising from the canyon.  The fish-eating seabirds with long, twin-pointed tails nest in the steep cliffs.


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At mile marker 14, a paved road, called Makaha Ridge Road, heads to the sea cliffs.  You can follow the road for four miles where it ends at the restricted Pacific Missile Range Facility's tracking station.  The only view near the road is over the red dirt mound to the north of the road just before the tracking station.  Climb over the mound for a view of Makaha Valley.  Two picnic areas are situated along Makaha Ridge Road.


The cluster of buildings that make up Koke‘e State Park's headquarters sits in a beautiful meadow rimmed by California redwood trees and centered by a giant Monterey cypress.  At an elevation of 3,750 feet, the air at the meadow can be brisk.  The Koke‘e Lodge has a dining room and gift shop.  Next to the lodge is the Koke‘e Natural History Museum.  There are interactive displays on Kauai's weather and geology and an excellent selection of natural history books for sale.  An attendant is on duty daily to offer trail and wildlife information.  The museum's exhibits include mounted taxidermy displays, botanical illustrations and cultural artifacts.  Sure to catch your eye is the mounted head of a truly ugly wild boar.  The museum is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  There is no admission but donations are accepted.  Bathrooms are in the picnic pavilion and picnic tables sit in the meadow.  Wild chickens cluck and scratch throughout the parking lot and meadow.  They keep a close eye on every visitor that chooses to dine outdoors.  The bright red birds are moa or descendents of the jungle fowl that Polynesians settlers brought with them.  They and the escaped domestic chickens that roam Kauai flourish because the island luckily escaped the introduction of mongooses, which feed on bird eggs.  


From the park headquarters Highway 550 winds through ohi‘a forest and around the Koke‘e Air Force Station with its dome that looks like a giant golf ball.  At mile marker 18 a turnout to the left will take you to the Kalalau Lookout, the penultimate roadside vista along Highway 550.  The view down the Kalalau Valley is breathtaking but it gets even better at the last lookout.  This is the last lookout where bathrooms are available.


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The road ends in one mile at the Pu‘u o Kila Lookout.  In the bracing air of the lookout all but the sky is below you; the Kalalau Valley, birds in flight, vertical cliff walls, tour helicopters, even the clouds.  Your vantage point is at the head of the valley's amphitheater.  Knife-edged lava walls plummet to the sea, 4,176 feet below.  The blue ocean, speckled in the shade of clouds, extends to an indistinguishable horizon.  Warm air rising from the lower valley cools and often condenses into clouds at your feet.  Be patient as winds eventually push the clouds away to again reveal the vista.  The official viewpoint is paved and protected with a guardrail.  Past the viewpoint is the start of the Pihea Trail, which follows the rim of the valley for a mile before traversing the Alaka‘i Swamp.  Follow the trail for a short distance and different views of the valley unfold before you.  Stay away from the edge.  The dirt is usually slippery from rain and the drop is sheer.  Plants and stunted trees growing at the rim take root on the cliff wall many feet below.  The trail to Pihea follows a badly eroded scar left by an ill-advised 1954 attempt to continue the road from Koke‘e, skirt Na Pali and plunge to Ha‘ena on the north shore.    After eight months of labor, much of it done by prisoners, the Territorial Government abandoned the project.  Determined hikers can reach the base of Kalalau Valley only by following the Kalalau Trail for 11 miles from its start at Ke‘e Beach.  The trail ends at Kalalau Beach, hidden from view by a cliff at the left side of the valley floor.  


Behind the viewpoint is the Alaka‘i Swamp—the highest altitude swamp in the world.  The crater atop the volcano that once belched fire and spewed lava is now a soggy marsh.  Lava flowed into this natural reservoir in thick layers that resisted erosion.  Trees grow slowly in the swamp's 30 square miles, stunted by rain that falls 350 days per year.  It is a place of clouds and mist, mud, ferns, moss and birds.  Listen and you will hear calls of endangered birds that survive only here.  From Kauai's rooftop streams radiate like spokes of a wheel.  These streams burdened with crumbling lava and silt join to form rivers that score valleys and gouge canyons.  From the swamp's southwest edges the Po‘omau, Koai‘e and Wai‘alae streams cut through strata of lava to join with the Waimea River.  Flowing south from Alaka‘i, the Makaweli and Olokele streams also form confluences with the Waimea River near its mouth.  The Hanapepe River to the south, the Wailua River to the east and the Wainiha to the north all originate at Alaka‘i and the ridge of Wai‘ale‘ale.     


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