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Kauai with Kids: Tips for a good family day trip to Waimea Canyon–even with a toddler in tow

If you’re like many travelers heading to Kauai for the first time, you’d probably like to work in a visit to scenic Waimea Canyon during your visit. But if you’re like many travelers heading to Kauai with kids–especially with a toddler in tow, you might be wondering if it’s worth the time spent in the rental car (and away from the beaches, coral reefs, salt water lagoon, and swimming pool) to go see the geologic landmark.

WAimea Canyon Overlook, Kauai

Waimea Canyon Overlook: “Yep, that sure is a beautiful canyon. Now what?”

I can tell you that I was glad to see the colorful canyon in person–and while I wouldn’t call it the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” as tour operators do, it did exceed my expectations and it was fun to see yet another side to the Garden Island’s personality. As for my children, however, calling on the canyon itself was clearly not a highlight of their Kauai vacation. So would I recommend you visit Waimea Canyon with your own kids?

If you’d like to see it, absolutely.

You should just be aware that for very young children, the number of minutes he or she will contentedly stare into the canyon is likely to correspond directly with their age in years. For my youngest, this meant 3.17 minutes. So you can see the importance of having a larger plan–in fact, an entire day trip–in place for a successful visit to Waimea Canyon during your vacation in Kauai with kids.

Fortunately, unlike Maui’s epic Road to Hana, you can reach the main overlook at Waimea Canyon in an hour traveling from Poipu, or in an hour and fifteen minutes traveling from the beach resorts along Lihue / Wailua / Kapaa. And with these rewards built-in along the way, your Kauai day trip east is sure to have something in it for everyone to enjoy.

Here’s how I recommend you plan your day trip to Waimea Canyon with young kids.

  1. Go in the morning, on a week day if possible. While you don’t have to be there at dawn, thank goodness, you will all be more comfortable visiting the canyon before the temperature reaches its high for the day. The parking and viewpoints will be less crowded as well. Not to mention, by visiting the canyon first, you’ll have the rest of the day to enjoy the stops along your return (rewards!).
  2. Bring an ice chest with plenty of water and snacks to help stay refreshed throughout your day trip. When touring Kauai, you can put in some distance before finding more shops and markets, and there are such lovely places to stop along the way for a picnic or snack.

    kids eating fresh sugarcane

    First fresh sugarcane: A favorite memory from Kauai (and yes, from the Waimea Canyon day trip, too).

  3. Don’t stop at every view point. With kids along for the ride, one will suffice. I suggest you make it the most established view point clearly labeled “Waimea Canyon Lookout,” which has large viewing areas and a wheelchair-accessible path your toddler can run up and down, or you can push a stroller up if need be. This is also where you are most likely to encounter people selling cold coconut, fresh pineapple, sugarcane, and with any luck… shave ice.
  4. After you get your photos at the overlook, treat the kids to cold coconut, fresh pineapple, or sugarcane (reward!). One of the happiest moments and memories for my kids from their visit to Waimea Canyon is that it’s the place where they first tried real sugarcane. That’s a fun memory.
  5. Let the kids climb the tree near the restrooms (after using them—reward!) and chase the chickens for a while before loading back into the car. As a flock of kids gravitated to each other around the easy-climb tree, an impromptu playdate ensued and was one of the unexpected highlights of our day trip.

    On the Iliau Nature Loop Trail, a short hike with kids at Waimeia Canyon.

    Hiking in Kauai with kids: On the Iliau Nature Loop Trail, a short hike with kids at Waimea Canyon.

  6. Do a short family hike on the Iliau Nature Loop Trail, but only if you are up for it and it’s not unbearably hot. Although it’s only 1/3 mile long, the sun and heat can make it feel much longer to young children or the parents carrying them. The trail begins near the mile 9 marker (about 3/4 mile past the mile 8 marker – watch for cars parked on the shoulder). While this is also the beginning of the 5-mile Kukui Trail, the direct tropical sun, heat, dry conditions and steep path is not a good combination for most families with young children. On the Iliau Nature Loop Trail, however, you’ll still enjoy a couple of nice views of the canyon, have a bench or two to rest on if needed, and if you’re like us, you’ll have the thrill of meeting an authentic Kauai wild pig hunter returning with his horse and hunting dogs along the way (another favorite memory my kids have from our canyon visit). Bring plenty of water, even for this short walk.

    Island Taco in kauai

    Dining in Kauai with kids at Island Taco: seriously good tacos for grown-ups, keiki menu for kids.

  7. Stop for lunch at Island Taco in Waimea (approx. 30 minutes from the Waimea Canyon Lookout). This small restaurant with outdoor seating is right on your path and has some of the best tacos you will find on Kauai, shaded outdoor tables, and even a kids menu. You’ll find it at 9643 Kaumualii Highway (a.k.a. 50), Waimea, 3 miles west of the turnoff for Waimea Canyon Drive). They’re open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

    Salt Pond Park, Kauai

    Low tide is best for younger kids visiting Salt Pond Park–see why?

  8. Hit the beach at Salt Pond Park (approx. 10 minutes from Island Taco). This is where you’ll be glad to have some good snacks and drinks with you as there are no markets or restaurants near this beach, but the swimming and tidepooling with kids can be fantastic, especially at low tide, and you may want to stay quite a while. Since Salt Pond Park is very popular with the locals, it can get very crowded on weekends—one more reason why I recommend you make this trip on a weekday if possible. You can read more about Salt Pond Park in this post.

Depending on the timing of the tides and your own family’s schedule (let jetlag work to your advantage here), you might want to mix up these points of interest and activities accordingly.

For more tips, advice, and recommendations for your vacation in Kauai with kids, take a look at these related posts.

The 411 on Kauai with Kids (written for our sister site Fmaily Travel 411)

Kauai’s Salt Pond Park: Beach Haven for Little Kids and Little Critters

Kauai’s best beach for babies and toddlers

Kauai’s best north shore beaches for kids

Kauai’s best playground (and off-airport waiting area for families)

Tips for visiting Kauai’s National Tropical Botanical Gardens at Poipu

Review of Castle Kaha Lani condominiums and resort

Review of Aqua Kauai Beach Resort

Juice truck at Hanalei

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Safe journeys,

Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning Travels with Baby guidebooks

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