A strenuous day hike to the Waimea River at the bottom of the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Backcountry camping and additional explorations are possible in Waimea Canyon.
Kukui Trail Guide
PERMITS: $5 fee to enter State Park, permits required for camping
DESIGNATION: Waimea Canyon State Park / Koke’e State Park
BEST SEASONS: year-round, though winter and spring can be rainy
DISTANCE: 4.6 miles to the river and back, additional mileage possible
WATER: available from Waimea River and Koaie Stream, must be treated
ELEVATION: trailhead ~2,900ft / Waimea river 650ft / difference 2,250ft
ACCESS: paved roads
DIRECTIONS: From the town of Waimea, drive about 9 miles up Highway 550 to the trailhead, located at the Iliau Nature Loop. From Kekaha, drive about 7 miles up the Koke’e Road, turn left on Highway 550, continue about 2 miles to the trailhead, located between mile markers 8 and 9.
Iliau Nature Loop & Kukui Trail registers on Google Maps
ROUTE: steep, eroded, sometimes muddy trail – Koaie Canyon can be thick with brush.
GUIDEBOOK: The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook
Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park are home to some of the best hikes in Kauai. Koke’e has the majority of trails, but most of these simply follow the rim of the canyons. The Kukui Trail (technically in Waimea Canyon State Park) is more difficult than the others, but offers exploration within the canyon.
Kukui Trail vs. Canyon Trail
Hikers are often torn between hiking the Kukui Trail or the “Canyon Trail” in Koke’e State Park (not to be confused with the Waimea Canyon Trail deep within the canyon).
The Canyon Trail is easier by all measures. It’s a mile shorter (4 mile round trip) and has less elevation change. It has wonderful views and ends at the top of Waipoo Falls, but lacks close-up views of the waterfall itself.
The Kukui trail, by comparison, is very steep and more utilitarian, providing access to the bottom of the canyon. The views from this one are great too, but not necessarily worth the effort when you get similar, broader views from the Iliau Loop at the trailhead.
Can I get to the bottom of the Waipoo Waterfall?
There’s effectively no way to hike to the bottom of Waipoo Falls, though I suspect if there were, the best way to get there would begin via the Kukui Trail. The trouble with attempting to get there is that State Park Management requires you to stay on officially marked trails. See their following statement.
Do not use any trail or access road that is not delineated by name … The marked features are managed for public recreational use. Other trails or roads that branch off from the public features may be on private property, and are not managed for any public recreational use. Access is subject to adjacent landowner approval, and if used without authorization, you will be trespassing and possibly putting yourself at risk.
How about hiking from Waimea Canyon through to the Napali Coast?
There’s no known way to access the Kalalau Trail from Koke’e State Park. From the north end of the park you can reportedly descend about 1,000 feet down some of the ridges, but you’re ultimately doomed to get cliffed out. Ancient Hawaiians supposedly had trails from the Koke’e area to Hanalei and Wailua, but changing conditions and the absence of fixed ropes and ladders have reclaimed these routes to the jungle.
Here’s a couple of maps that show the hiking trails in Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Parks. Right-click on either of these to view a larger version.
The above maps show the trails in Waimea Canyon, including the Kukui Trail, Iliau Nature Loop, Waimea Canyon Trail, and Koai’e Canyon Trail.
Below is the old handout that shows the trails in Koke’e state park.
Warnings & Weather
Hiking along the Waimea River involves multiple stream crossings. Expect at the very least to get your feet wet. Flash flooding is always a possibility here, with rapidly rising water levels that could leave you stranded. Under no circumstances should you try to cross when the water is high!
When wading into freshwater streams and or dipping your water bottle into them, be aware that contracting leptospirosis is a rare but valid concern in Kauai. Traditional methods of treatment (chemical, filter), are okay for drinking water.
The trail up Koaie Stream to Lonomea is often overgrown, to the extent that it can appear non-existent to some hikers. Long sleeves and pants are recommended despite the hot, humid temperatures.
Using bug spray is a great idea.
Hunters frequent the bottom of the canyon on weekends.
Temperatures on Kauai tend are fairly consistent year-round, but winter and early spring tend to be rainier than the rest of the year.
Look here to see the current weather conditions, forecast, and monthly trends.
The hike begins on the Iliau Nature Loop, a 0.3 mile trail with spectacular views of Waimea Canyon. From here the steep and strenous Kukui Trail follows a series of ridges and slopes for 2.3 miles (one-way) to the bottom of the canyon. Footing is often muddy, loose, and occasionally treacherous, particularly in the section dubbed as Red Hill.
After Red Hill, the trail enters dense forest for the rest of the way to the river. Here at the bottom of the hill is the first camp to be found along the hike, called Wiliwili.
Permits are required to stay at the camping areas. Each has a rain shelter, picnic table, composting toilet, and open areas for your tent. These camp shelters are popular with hunters on weekends.
Waimea Canyon Trail
From the bottom of the Kukui Trail, it’s possible to hike downstream along the Waimea River, all the way to the town of Waimea. The trail is approximately 8 miles and follows an old 4×4 road. You’ll have to ford the river about a dozen times. A fun adventure is to bring an inner tube or packraft and float to town!
Most hikers want to hike upstream along the Waimea River. The trail upstream begins on the left (west) bank of the river, and will ultimately cross the river at least 3 times. The final destination of the upstream hike is at Lonomea Camp, about 3 additional miles from the bottom the Kukui Trail.
Kaluahaulu Camp is located about 3/4 of a mile upstream of the bottom of the Kukui Trail.
The Koai’e Trail
Soon the route will bend to the right, northeast up a side canyon. The side canyon is carved by the Koaie Stream. Most sources call this The Koaie Trail, but others consider it a continuation of the Waimea Canyon Trail.
Semantics aside, the route becomes more overgrown and frustrating here. Generally it should be on the right side of the water as you go upstream, but I wouldn’t recommend spending too much time trying to locate the so-called trail.
Hipalau Camp is less than a mile up the Koaie canyon.
Lonomea Camp is about two miles up the canyon, and considered the end of the trail. This area reportedly has some flowing cascades of water and good swimming holes.
Permits are required for backcountry camping. Reservations are made for the specific individual camping areas (Wiliwili, Kaluahaulu, Hipalau, and Lonomea).
Go here to reserve a permit, following these steps:
- Check the box next to “View the Division of Forestry and Wildlife Only”
- Select the island of Kauai
- Highlight your preferred camping area
- Review the information under each tab
- Click “Reservation”
- Create an account
- Select you desired dates (availability is shown on the bottom of the page), number of people, and Site ID (usually intuitive)
- Fill out your personal information and proceed.
Cost for non-residents is $18 per site per night, allowing up to 6 people. Additional people are $3 per person, per night.
Cost for residents of Hawaii is $12 per site per night (up to 6 people). Additional people are $2 per person, per night.
Parking for the Kukui Trail is located across the street from the trailhead, on the west (downhill) side of the road. There’s a wide shoulder here where most hikers park.
Sporadic reports of overnight break-ins occur here, so take necessary precautions! Don’t leave anything valuable in your vehicle. Some people go so far as to recommend leaving the doors unlocked.
For peace of mind on overnight hikes, the best policy is not to have anything in your vehicle that you don’t want to lose (including the trunk). If someone breaks into the vehicle anyway, rental insurance should cover it.
A good strategy would be to stay at the same hotel immediately before and after your backpacking trip, and inquire if they’re willing to hold your luggage for the duration.
My Photos and Trip Notes
I day-hiked the Kukui Trail to the river and back in February of 2014.
It was rainy, humid, and buggy, but the misty views were outstanding!
The Waimea River
Be sure to check out The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook for the best information about all the hikes (and everything else you’ll want to know) in Kauai.