Backpacking Waimea Canyon | Hiking the Kukui Trail | August 2018
My biggest concern with choosing to visit Kauai over the Big Island was that it would be too much like Oahu. Sure, it has higher mountains, no major city, and way less people; the mountain ridges would be unique and some much more dramatic than what we’re used to. But it would still have plenty of tourists, and the hiking still looks largely similar to that on Oahu. The best part about our Maui trip was exploring Haleakala, which is far and away nothing like the scenery on Oahu — not to mention basically anywhere else we’ve ever hiked.
Enjoying the overlook before beginning our hike
However, all my concerns melted away in the afternoon sun as we arrived at Waimea Canyon. Visiting Waimea Canyon was very much like our trip to the Grand Canyon and hiking it down and back in a day in 2015, and all the similarities had us feeling nostalgic for Arizona throughout the rest of our trip. We drove up to the first canyon overlook and walked along the rim, surrounded by people yet in awe of the vastness. Then we drove back to the Kukui Trailhead, strapped on our giant backpacks and began the trek down.
We had reserved a campsite at the bottom of the canyon in advance and were excited to have plenty of time to explore. The site was at the end of the Kukui Trail, right next to the river. Today’s hike would be easy and all downhill, which was good considering how hot it was. Despite the hike being easier, our backpacks were very heavy and I felt like I was burning energy far quicker than I should have been.
The Kukui Trail is 2.5 miles long (one way) and has almost 2200 feet of elevation difference from the rim to the river. Compared to hiking the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail down to the Colorado River, (which is just over 7 miles one way with ~4380 elevation change) this hike was definitely shorter, but much steeper. The first mile had a few switchbacks but was nothing like the well maintained and much busier trails of the national park. After that, the trail descended straight down. I’m not sure how much rain this area gets and how muddy it could be, but I wouldn’t want to hike down this trail if it were anything like the mud on Oahu’s eroded slopes.
Despite the challenges presented, we absolutely loved the scenery. Everything reminded us of our time in the Southwest. The steep trail was reminiscent of the Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park, or Badlands National Park. The colors were bright and vibrant in the sunlight. Another pleasant surprise was the complete lack of crowds. We only saw 3 other people on our hike down, all on their way back up. The canyon was quiet and peaceful, except for the helicopter tours that flew through every 5 minutes.
After about 2 miles, we left behind the expansive views and entered a forested area. The path was narrow and there were several downed trees, but it was easy to navigate. We saw a group of wild goats running across the trail ahead of us, which brought to mind the time that we crossed paths with a bighorn at the bottom of Havasu canyon.
Hiking down the Kukui Trail
We finally made it to our campsite, which included a pavilion with tables and benches, an outhouse, and trail junction along the river. The people camping here from the night before were packing up their things, so we decided to keep following the trail to the left just to see where it went. We found a place to stash our heavy packs and continued walking.
This part of the hike reminded us of backpacking Aravaipa Canyon. The trails here were more established, but we still had to cross the river multiple times. The canyon walls around us were less dramatic than the grand view we had enjoyed at the top and the way down, but they still towered over us and made for a pretty backdrop. The crossings were never too deep and felt refreshing in the heat, though the state park website warns that heavy rains could cause flash flooding. We know just from the flooding Kauai has experienced this year that those warnings are to be taken seriously.
Walking along the river at the bottom of the canyon
We hiked about a mile and a half away from our campsite until we came to an interesting spot. There was a giant dam and tunnels near a cabin, and we hung out around here for a while — Curtis checking out the different tunnels while I sat and enjoyed the waterfalls the dam created.
Exploring the dam and tunnels at the bottom of Waimea Canyon
Finally we headed back to the campsite and sent up our tent. Curtis filtered water from the stream and we enjoyed hot soup over his little camp stove. There’s only one campsite in this area so we had it all to ourselves. It was quiet and peaceful, with only the sound of the rushing river. Our one complaint about this spot was that it was completely trashed. Until we reached the campsite, we hadn’t seen any litter all day, but here there were not only bottles and cans but also leftover food and packaging, clothing, and more. We aren’t sure exactly who is to blame, but it’s likely leftover from hunters. Wild goat and pig hunting is legal and common here, and we understand that it is necessary since these animals aren’t native to Hawaii and are invasive species. But all the leftover trash was just gross. We packed out as much as we could from our campsite, but it didn’t really make a difference.
Hiking up Waimea Canyon at sunrise
We slept so well through the night, and as a result got started a little later than we would’ve liked. We were back on the trail just after sunrise, all packed up and ready to hike up the canyon. It took just under 2 hours to make it back to the rim. The hike back up was just a reminder that we just aren’t as fit as we were 3 years ago when we hiked the Grand Canyon in a day…18 miles in 8 hours? How on earth?! We discussed all the differences in our life between then and now and decided to cut ourselves some slack. At that time Curtis had 12 college credits and only had classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we had all the time in the world to hike, and friends that often joined us and kept us accoutable. Our lives are much different now, and we’re doing good considering the time we have!
By 8:00 we were back at our car and ready to go take on another hike. Backpacking Waimea Canyon was a challenge, but I’m so glad we did it — not only did it spark so many happy memories, but it also reminded us to continue working hard and persevering. Someday we’ll be back in the place we love with a fresh perspective, having overcome these challenges and experiencing life in other places, and that will make it all the better.
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If you’re interested in seeing Curtis’ AllTrails report for backpacking Waimea Canyon, click here — note that it only includes the hike down and along the river; his phone died and he wasn’t able to record the hike back up.