A hike to the bottom of the Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific
I’ve been to Kauai many times and have always wondered what backpacking there would be like. Ever since seeing an article in Backpacker Magazine about the Kukui trail to Lonomea Camp (issue Jan 2019, p. 24f, “Paradise Found”), I’ve had an overnight trek down to the floor of the Waimea Canyon on my bucket list. (One day, I’ll attempt the Kalalau trail, but I’m not quite there yet.)
Preparations and Planning
In early July of 2019, I finally had the chance to make this dream come true. I was hoping the time of year would not only give me longer days, but also reduce the chance of heavier rains. (On the flip side, the heat could obviously be a concern.) Since this was my first foray into the canyon and I initially planned on doing this hike solo, I selected Kaluahaula Camp as my destination. This would allow me to make it further in than Wiliwili Camp (the first camp at the bottom), avoid potential crowds, and be easier than going all the way to Lonomea Camp (by myself).
I got camp site permits for a Monday (eliminating weekend crowds) and made it to the island with all the requisite gear, so I wouldn’t have to purchase anything and waste time finding things on the island. With one exception: It is not allowed to bring fuel for a camping stove on a plane, so I had emailed a local outfitter ahead of time. However, just a few days before of my trip, they let me know it wasn’t worth their time to sell me just stove fuel (they usually make their money renting equipment), so they referred me to the ACE Hardware store in Lihue, which carried the fuel I needed.
As the day for the hike approached, a hurricane was headed for the islands, but luckily it dissipated without ever reaching land, so the weather turned out warm and dry – as expected.
Fortunately, I was able to convince my hiking buddy to join me for my trip and hike and we started our decent down the Kukui trail via the Iliau Nature Loop around noon. The views of the Waimea Canyon were amazing and even though it was warm, the heat was not really a problem.
Once we made it past the Martian landscape of red dirt, we descended into the forested part of the trail and the temperatures dropped some. (At the very beginning of the forest we encountered a girl and her family who had already been looking for one member of their hiking party for two hours and they didn’t know if he was further up on the trail or still somewhere further down – a good reminder for any hiker of proper planning, communication and navigation. Unfortunately we had not seen him.) Moving on, we saw goats on the way down and soon reached Wiliwili Camp. The site did not look overly inviting and apparently people had left trash and other gear at the site.
From the the camp we turned left and followed the sometimes dense and overgrown trail, crossing the river several times. The water level was low, so we managed to boulder-hop across without getting our feet wet.
Within about an hour we reached Kaluahaula Camp. However, the GPS coordinates didn’t match what I had gotten from topozone.com (maybe I got the conversion to Garmin’s coordinate format wrong?), so while my buddy stayed put, I left my pack and hiked further in to see if I would find the “correct” camp at the coordinates I had. Those coordinates turned out to be incorrect, so I ended up backtracking to the camp. As extra precaution, we also carried a Garmin inReach Mini to track our position, send messages to family, and in case we ran into a situation where we needed evacuation/SOS assistance. (The added peace of mind is worth it carrying this little extra device.)
Setting up Camp
Back at the camp site it got interesting: We soon realized how many mosquitos there were. Just putting our gear down on the bench resulted in hundreds of critters launching into the air and completely swarming us. In short-sleeve shirts and shorts, it quickly became apparent how uncomfortable the camp site was going to be as we started getting bitten, despite insect repellent. It didn’t help that previous camp site guests had left garbage in the area, which probably attracted more critters.
We looked around and climbed down the embankment towards the river to look for alternatives. It appeared as though by the river not only were there – surprisingly – fewer mosquitos, but also a little bit of a cooler breeze, and easy access to water. We weighed the risks including – and most importantly – the chance of a flash flood. Considering we were still several feet up from the river, the fact that it had been dry on the island, no rain was in the forecast, and that – from what we could tell – the water had never made it as high as our hammocks were going to be, we took the gamble and decided set up our hammocks between the trees lining the river. (I had previously considered bringing a tent or bivvy sack, but now I was elated to have shelter off the ground, away from the creepy crawlies.) We also made sure to hang our packs and various stuff sacks from the trees, to make sure they didn’t touch the ground.
We quickly changed into long pants and long-sleeved shirts to reduce exposure to the hungry airborne attackers. Soon, we realized that even by the stream, the ground and all rocks, including many in the water, were crawling with red ants. So much for sitting down and resting.
We put on our Keen water sandals and waded into the river, which was refreshing and provided some relief from the heat and mosquitos. We found some big rocks void of any pests and relaxed. The views from here were quite stunning and we really learned to appreciate the river.
Before it got too dark, we started filtering water via Grayl Geopress devices we had brought and which were easy to operate. Due to the risk of Leptospirosis, we took extra precautions and also used a Steripen to treat drinking water with UV light to kill off any potential remaining bacteria (even though Grayl had told me their devices were effective protecting against Leptospirosis). Based on my research, I didn’t want to take any chances with the nasty effects this bacteria could have and rather went with an extra safety net. As an unexpected surprise, insects ended up being very attracted to the UV light of the Steripen and I could barely prevent them from crawling over and into the Nalgene bottle I was using since it acted like a lantern in the dark. Water we used for our dehydrated meal and coffee (Starbucks instant coffee packs!) we chose not to treat with the Steripen but made sure to boil it for several minutes.
As night set, we admired the stars from the middle of the stream. The night sky is truly magnificent in Kauai, especially in this place without any light pollution. We also discovered that, as it got dark, large cockroaches started emerging and appeared on rocks and various surfaces, which made for just another critter to avoid.
Before long we retired into our hammocks which turned out to be harder than expected as various insects loved to follow our headlamps and it was not quite possible to make it into our shelters without any light. However, once we were in our mosquito net-equipped hammocks, they turned out to be cocoons of comfort and peace. It was so great to be off the ground, away from anything that moved and safe from flying blood suckers.
Lying/hanging there between the trees was a great relief and quite relaxing, also because of the steady swooshing and gargling of the river nearby. Nonetheless, at first it was still warm and sweaty in our hammocks even without any added insulation. Just to be on the safe side, I had brought my sleeping bag liner, which I had planned to use for insulation, into the hammock with, but it was way too warm to use it. When we finally fell asleep, the temperatures slowly started to drop and got comfortable. (There was never much of any wind, however.)
While we had seen big frogs in the water earlier, they stayed very quiet and strangely never made any noises for some reason. (Maybe they were busy chewing all those mosquitos.)
As the night progressed, a few things happened:
Some animal in the middle of the river gave off a very loud, distinct, and otherworldly noise which I can’t even begin to describe. To this day I still don’t know what it was. My buddy shone his light, but didn’t see anything. This sound repeated 3-4 times, hours apart. My best theory is that it was some kind of really large bird, but I really don’t know for sure.
Then we heard something big in the perimeter of the river. We saw the next morning that boars had been quite active in the area over night, so maybe that’s what that was – or a goat.
A few drops of rain also fell during the night. Fortunately, we were prepared with rain tarps over our hammocks, so this was not a problem. The sound of the river also slightly changed. Based on our observation the next morning, it appeared as though the water had temporarily risen by maybe half a foot during the night.
Later in the middle of night it actually got a little chilly! Although I at first thought having the rolled up bag liner bouncing around inside my hammock was a little bit of a nuisance, it turned out that it was a welcome source of warmth for the last few hours of the night.
A New Day
As the first light appeared around 5:30 AM or so, we were both awake. Still relaxing in my hammock, I listed to my favorite music for some time while seeing the river and its surroundings lighten up and slowly come to life. Hearing the sound of the river throughout the night was certainly soothing and probably drowned out other sounds which would otherwise have awakened me – or even freaked me out.
As we crawled out of our hammocks, the temperatures were still pleasant and the mosquitos were less active. Time for a quick breakfast and cup of coffee. Then we tore down our hammocks (the Hennessy snake skins came in handy to quickly cover and roll up my hammock and prevent it from touching the ground) and packed everything up.
The Long Way Home
I started the day with long sleeves and long pants. In order to make it through the river crossings faster, I wore my Keen CNX sandals instead of my regular hiking shoes, so I could quickly wade through the water instead of having to search for well-spaced boulders to hop over. That approach worked out pretty well.
As we began our ascent out of the canyon – after refilling our water supply one more time close to Wiliwili Camp – temperatures started to rise even under the tree cover. I was glad to have protection from insects, tall grass, and brush. When we finally emerged out of the forest and back onto the ”Martian hill”, we stopped and reconfigured: we zipped off pant legs, switched to t-shirts and regular hiking shoes, and applied sun screen. As expected, as we exited “Endor” and ascended ”Tatooine”, mosquitos disappeared and gave way to hot temperatures.
The relatively steep ascent was not easy with our big packs and the sun was beating down on us, but we had prepared and conditioned ourselves well ahead of the trip. On occasion a slightly cooler breeze made our trek back more bearable.
Enjoying some final views of the magnificent Waimea Canyon, we finished our 2,290 ft ascent, roughly 3:45 hrs after starting. Hikers coming down the trail and exploring the Iliau Nature loop gave us curious looks and asked us about our adventures.
Overall, the hike went well and as planned, despite the initial hurricane threat. It was well within our physical limits and the only real surprise were – the BUGS! The heat was manageable and we encountered only a few families and recreational hikers on the first part of the trail, so “crowds” turned out to not be a real concern.
With this experience under my belt, I’m looking forward to other over-night adventures in Kauai and – one day – the Kalalau trail!
Addendum: I have since been able to complete the Kalalau Trail – see the full story here!
Here is some of the gear that was key to making this hike successful:
Garmin inReach Mini – Our safety net and emergency device for when things go really wrong.
Garmin Oregon 750 GPS – On-trail navigation and route planning (I used rechargeable batteries and recharged over night)
Grayl Geopress – Easy and fun to use and much easier than pumps. Good all-around protection.
Steripen – Our redundant – better safe than sorry – method to protect against Leptospirosis
Nalgene bottles – Super lightweight and with wide opening suitable for using the Steripen
Hennessy Ultralite Hammock – This backpacking hammock is very light and includes bug net and rain tarp.
Hennessy Snake Skins (XXL) – Hammock accessories for quick disassembly and protection.
Sea to Summit Sleeping Bag Liner – Good enough for quick warmth in the tropics; easy to pack and light.
Osprey Atmos AG 65 backpack – My trusted backpacking pack with tons of storage, good organization, and reasonable weight.
Primus Stove – Very light and gets the job done
Keen Clearwater CNX sandals – Light and easy to transport; not as much support as the H2’s but good enough to hike in for an hour or two, even with a pack.
Salomon Men’s X Ultra 2 GTX shoes – Waterproof, yet breathable with great traction, light and comfortable.
Darn Tough socks – Thin, yet supportive, smooth, quick-drying. Very comfy.
ExOfficio BugsAway Breez’r Shirt – A life saver from all to the critters.
As I said, getting the right GPS coordinates for some of the key way points was a little challenging. Here is what I have:
|Wiliwili Camp||N22° 03.787′ W159° 38.546′|
|Kaluahaula Camp||N22° 04.187′ W159° 38.695′|
|Hipalau Camp||N22° 04.879′ W159° 38.297′ (per map triangulation)|
|Lonomea Camp||N22° 05.524′ W159° 37.289′ (per map triangulation)|
Distance to from Iliau Nature Loop trail head to Kaluahaula Camp: 4.3 miles.
Elevation profile and temperature (on the way back):