Five Fascinating Facts About the Waimea Canyon

Posted in: Environment, Kauai 2021, Things to Do

Most first time visitors to Kauai read up on the island and Waimea Canyon, nicknamed “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” by none other than Mark Twain, and wonder if the moniker is an overstatement. How can a canyon on the fourth largest Hawaiian island match up to the behemoth that is the actual Grand Canyon?

In some ways, specifically in regards to its size, it can’t. The length of the Grand Canyon, at 277 miles, is two and half times longer than the distance between Kauai and the neighboring island of Oahu. The Grand Canyon is more than half as wide as the entire island of Kauai at certain points (the Grand Canyon is 18 miles wide at its extreme while Kauai measures 25-33 miles in width). The Grand Canyon is also deeper, measuring over 6,093 feet at its most cavernous versus the relatively consistent 3,000 foot depth of Waimea.

Beyond those initial comparisons, however, Waimea Canyon stands up to or surpasses its big brother in other ways- the comparatively magnificent flora, the color contrast between the greenery and Kauai’s red dirt and the waterfalls. 

Waimea Canyon

Here are five interesting facts about Waimea Canyon to enhance your viewing experience:

1. It is, in fact, enormous.

At 14 miles long, 3,000 feet in depth and one mile wide Waimea Canyon is an awesome sight to behold. The first view one gets from the rim of the canyon is nothing short of awesome. It somehow feels even larger when your vantage point is from a relatively small island in the middle of the Pacific. It almost feels out of place. It is by far the largest Canyon in the Pacific.

2. “Waimea” is Hawaiian for “reddish water”.

The name comes from the erosion of the red soil that works its way into the river at the bottom of the canyon. The red soil comes from the weathering of the canyon basalt, an extrusive igneous rock formed from the rapid cooling of lava. Over millions of years the color has changed from black to an almost bright red.

3. The canyon was formed in part by a natural catastrophe.

The canyon has a unique geologic history as it was formed in part by a catastrophic collapse of the volcano that created Kauaʻi. Like the other Hawaiian islands, Kauaʻi is the top of an enormous volcano rising from the ocean floor. With lava flows dated to about 5 million years ago, Kauaʻi is the oldest of the large Hawaiian islands. Roughly 4 million years ago, while Kauaʻi was still erupting almost continuously, a portion of the island collapsed. This collapse formed a depression which then filled with lava flows.

4. Further erosion of the canyon starts at one of the wettest spots on Earth.

Kauai’s central peak, Mount Waialeale, gets approximately 400 inches of rain per year. The Waimea River’s headwaters originate in a wet plateau of the island’s central highlands, in the Alakai  Swamp, the largest high-elevation swamp in the world.

5. At 12.1 miles long, the Waimea River is one of the longest rivers in Hawaii.

Hawaii isn’t known for its rivers, primarily because their headwaters are always close to the ocean. The Waimea River is the fourth longest in the entire state, and three of the four longest Hawaiian rivers are located on Kauai. The Hanalei and Wailua Rivers are the second and third longest rivers, and the Wailua River is the only navigable river in the state. The longest river, the Wailuku, is 28 miles long and is located on Hawaii Island.

The Waimea Canyon, while not as long, deep or wide as the Grand Canyon, is every bit as magnificent and is a must see when you’re visiting Kauai.

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