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Waimea Canyon, Kauai: The Grand Canyon of the tropics and then some

A hike to Waipoo Falls in Kauai's Waimea Canyon is filled with dazzling colors and exotic foliage.

By Ken Van Vechten

Special to the Los Angeles Times

April 17, 2011

Reporting from Waimea Canyon, Kauai

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"Is this the trail? This can't be right," a couple asks as my wife, Terri, and I walk by, and though it's unclear whether we're nosing in on a dialogue a deux or responding to a legit request for assistance, we stop. The first part of the hike to Waipoo Falls, I explain, is along unimproved Halemanu Road, leading to several homesteads and, I assure them, silently praying, the trailhead.

"And the waterfall is after that?"

I nod assent.

Not realizing that I'm also a newbie, off they stride, as confident as Columbus into the unknown. Hey, I read a couple of guidebooks on our flight over in March.

The hike to Waipoo Falls, in Waimea Canyon on Kauai, crashes ever-downward to an edge-of-the-world climax through plantscape that always seems to bring movie producers to this island to film backgrounds for the latest dino flick.

"Wild ginger," Terri advises, her botanical street cred bolstered by native-flora artwork she'd seen on Maui. Man-high curtains of green with fiery red spires choke both sides of the road. My savvy stops at the eucalyptus and raspberry brambles, stuff I know from home. Hawaii is thick with exotic, invasive species like these berries and gum trees, and some are true banes. A vine noses out, studded with gorgeous purple-blue flowers, and I capture it in 15-megapixel mega-glory. I rue that it's probably one of those unwanted invaders from elsewhere. (Sadly, it is.) Forty-five minutes later, we've not even reached the trail proper as we gape and guess at all the chlorophyllery.

The road flattens, and short of a mile out it forks. A sign directs us off to the right, and we reach Canyon Trail in a few minutes. The sign is almost shocking, because Hawaiians are so casual — "Over there, brah, you'll find it" — about direction-giving. In a quarter-mile we hit Cliff Lookout over Waimea Canyon. Clearing the forest I grab the camera and drop the backpack.

"So do you want me to bring the gear?" Terri asks, her voice trailing off. "It's fine there," I half-reply, intent on chasing the good light as the afternoon sun plays tag with the clouds. As Terri catches up, she sees Kauai's great incised canyon — carved sides pulled back again and again, heading to the Pacific. A railing ensures that we and other gapers don't follow the watershed.

Waimea Canyon — about 3,500 feet deep, 10 miles long, a mile across and dolled up in enough shades of green, red, orange, yellow, purple and brown to render inadequate every paint swatch at Home Depot — is the type of spectacle Vegas would announce in 100-foot-tall neon.

I'd guess we're about halfway between Waimea's unseen bottom and rainforest-clad top. "It's sooooo beautiful," Terri says of the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. "It's unreal. Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon all mushed together in the tropics." Then we are silent.

Collecting our tongues and camera bag, we backtrack to the Canyon Trail and for a mile tumble, rise and mostly tumble through a jungle that breaks before a rock ridge.

Across the ridge — the path is broad and safe though steep and slick in places — and another quick dash through the greenery, we reach one of Mother Nature's spigots that slowly, over immense time, have carved the canyon. The waterfall drops about 20 feet, and Terri's expression tells me she's thinking this was a long walk for a short fall. Other explorers nosh by the pool at its base, feet cooling in the refreshing waters, while others scramble over the boulders to reach the far side of the pool. A few stare curiously at the riot of growth.

"Wild ginger," I say with authority, ever the botanist.

Waipoo Falls, our goal, is close, I assure Terri. We amble a little way below the pool, and the stream splits and rebraids over a series of cobbled stair steps as it strives for the canyon rim. It makes a leap of faith into the unknown, a two-tier, one-way ride on the Gravitycoaster to its destination 800 or 900 feet below.

Terri and I settle in to watch Waipoo Falls. "Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon in one helping?" I think.

Good stuff. And the mai tais are way better here than in the red-rock Southwest.

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