The first trail you should hike in Kokee State Park and Waimea Canyon is the beautiful, short, and challenging 5-mile round trip Kukui Trail to the canyon floor. The hiking trail is found at the beginning of the Lilau nature trail on Kokee Rd/Hwy 550/Waimea Canyon Dr just after mile marker 8. Highway 550 is off Kaumualii/Hwy 50, a simple drive up for only 8.7 miles.
The Kukui Trail is on your right side, where all Canyon view trails are and the Napali coast view trails are on the left. There is no parking lot but plenty of room for visitors to park along the highway on both sides.
Length + Elevation of Kukui Trail
The Kukui Trail might be short, but in the first 2 miles, the elevation drops to 2000 ft. This is about 1000 ft in each mile, which also means it’s steep, and it’s pretty much straight down and up in the middle with no shade.
The beginning descent is switchbacks till you hit the area straight down to the forest, which gives you shade and many different trees and plants to enjoy that take you to the Waimea River.
Kukui Trail Overview
The first mile features colorful views of the Waimea Canyon and several waterfalls in the distance, including the Waialae Falls that cascade into the river.
I recommend bringing good traction hiking boots, and those who may need extra help should bring hiking poles. During the switchbacks, there are rocks and tree roots to maneuver and shale rock that crumble and loose red dirt that is slippery wet, or dry.
The best time to hike the Kukui Trail is as early as possible in the morning. This area in Kauai gets really hot, especially when you come back up the 2 miles against 2000 feet of elevation gain.
You may either see or definitely hear mountain goats along this trail, or both if lucky. Once down at the valley floor by the river, there is a picnic table to relax at or sit on the easily accessible river boulders. Enjoy the view of looking up or down the river and the very colorful canyon wall scurrying high above.
On the valley floor, there are multiple campsites. With a permit, you can camp overnight at either Wiliwili camp or in another 4 miles at the Lonomea campsite.
If you’re not camping and want more hiking, you can continue another half mile in Koaie Canyon. Many also have a car waiting in Waimea, and you can actually follow the Waimea River to Waimea or even float the irrigation canal if you bring a floatation device and a dry bag.
What To Bring/Know
- One thing to plan for is dealing with mosquitos. They’re not always there, but when they are there it’s bad down by the picnic table. Bring mosquito repellent to deal with them.
- Bring water and a lot. You’ll regret not bringing enough.
- Leave your pets at home since no dogs are allowed.
- There is a fee for non-Hawaii residents per car for parking and per person for entrance.
- Plan on spending 3 to 4 hours hiking. It’s a challenging trail, especially going back up. There are plenty of spots to stop and rest while enjoying the Waimea Canyon surrounding you.
- It’s a great cardio workout, including a glute, quad, and calf workout. So skip leg day at the gym since this is a way better way to work out and much more beautiful than a gym.
The Kukui Trail is the only Kauai hike that gets you to the canyon valley floor, it’s so worth it to be fully rested. Please time it for a morning hike to avoid the blistering heat. Again have plenty of water with you and a waiting cooler in your car with something cold to refresh yourself after the challenging hike.
Waimea and Hanapepe are close back on Hwy 50, with plenty of restaurants. I go to Salt Pond Beach to swim and relax before heading home. Your legs will thank you for the recovery period from just relaxing or the salty water that cools your muscles from the most scenic workout you’ve ever had.