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Beyond the rim ... Waimea Canyon; exploring Kauai's big canyon by foot, tour, helicopter.

Beyond the rim ... Waimea Canyon Carved by six million years of stream erosion, Waimea Canyon cuts a crimson slice in Kauai's wester side. Most visitors only drive along the rim of this 14-mile-long, mile-wide chasm, climbing out of their cars for the requisite peek down into the 1/2-mile-deep gorge.

But you can get off the paved tourist track: trails skirt ridges and snake down canyon walls; guided four-wheel-drive tours explore side canyons; helicopters whirl above ribbons of waterfalls.

Wind along wester rim to views, trails

Rain clouds frequently drift across the canyon from 5,208-foot Mount Waialeale--one of the wettest spots on earth, with more than 450 inches of rainfall annually. Heavy rains may limit access to some areas; call (808) 335-5871.

From Lihue, follow U.S. 50 about 25 miles west to the town of Waimea. From the town center, look for Waimea Canyon Drive (State 550) heading inland. The dramatic route is rough and narrow, squiggling along the canyon's southwestern lip. (For a less scenic but smoother drive, bypass 550; in 3 miles you'll hit Kekaha and broad Kokee Road.)

You climb above coastal flatlands of haole koa, a head-high shrub introduced as cattle feed. Like many non-native plants and animals, it has gained a strong foot-hold here and crowds of native species.

From paved overlooks, gaze into the Waimea River valley. Look north to see the canyon's brilliant red, iron-rich soil capping sculpted buttes.

Note the gushing water channels flanking the road. Built in the 1920s, they lace the canyon area to siphon runoff from Mount Waialeale's catch basin, the Alakai Swamp (a broad, green plateau on the canyon's northeast rim). The water irrigates cane fields near the coast.

Take an easy loop trail,

or hike to the bottom

At about 7 miles, you join Kokee Road (traffic picks up here). A mile past the junction, look for a wooden trailhead sign for Kukui Trail. Park in the paved pullout, and stretch your legs on the easy 1/4-mile Iliau Nature Loop. A rare plant that grows only on Kauai, iliau is the one with the punk hairdo: its spray of spiky leaves tops a tall, skinny stalk. Other natives are labeled along the trail.

Midway along the loop begins the 2-1/2-mile plunge down the Kukui Trail to Waimea River. Sign in at the trailhead, even if you go only the sloping 1/2 mile to the first overlook, which is well worth it.

To do the whole route, hike down in the morning, then wait until late afternoon for the tough climb out. (Carry plenty of water.) Purple and orange non-native, musty-smelling lantana trims the trail. Listen for the vocal pyrotechnics of long-tailed, black-and-white shama thrush, a native of Asia; the staccato chipping of a cardinal's call; the bleat of feral goats (brought to Kauai in the 1700s).

You'll also hear the incessant buzz of helicopter and plane tours. New restrictions have been proposed to reduce the impact of flyovers.

Informal campsites dot the canyon floor (there's also a simple shelter called Wiliwili Camp). Stay high above the river to guard against flash floods. Pack mosquito repellent, and treat all water.

Road leads to views, museum, food

From signed turnouts, you can see how streams and the Waimea carved the canyon. Five miles beyond the Kukui trailhead, another trail network (Cliff, Canyon, Waipoo Falls, and Black Pipe) explores the northern rim. For details on all trails, write or call the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Box 1671, Lihue, Kauai 96766; 245-4444.

The road continues into 4,345-acre Kokee State Park and ends with Kalalau Lookout's view of the rugged Na Pali coast. A small museum has displays and a good book selection; hours are 10 to 4 daily. Serving meals and with a small store, adjacent Kokee Lodge is open 8 to 5:30 daily, and 6 to 9 PM. Fridays and Saturdays. Twelve popular (but rustic) cabins are nearby; cost is $35 or $45 a night. To reserve, write or call the lodge, Box 819, Waimea, Kauai 96796; 335-6061.

Guided tours

Several companies drive vans or cars along Kokee Road; check the yellow pages under Tours.

One standout is Kauai Mountain Tours, the only company licensed to use the dirt roads that skirt the canyon. Knowledgeable guides follow twisting routes along the northern rim in 11-person, four-wheeldrive vans; cost is $75 (6-1/2 hours, including light breakfast and lunch). Brief walks take you to waterfalls, streams, and views. To reserve, call 245-7224.

Aerial tours take off from various locations; most spend about 15 minutes (out of about 1 hour) over the canyon. Trips start at roughly $125. Check the yellow pages under Helicopter.
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Date:Feb 1, 1990
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