Hiking the Kuli‘ou‘ou Ridge Trail

Aloha!

What with all the (mostly) city exploring we’ve been doing, despite our desire to get out for a hike, we had somehow neglected to go on one during the past two and a half months here. I’m happy to report now that this is no longer the case! John suggested we needed to just get out and do one, so we scheduled an outing for last Wednesday. The only question was ‘where?’.

As you can probably imagine, there are plenty of amazing hiking options here on Oahu, about 15 well-known hikes in the Honolulu area alone. However, we were reluctant to hit the more popular tourist hikes, Diamond Head and Koko Head, since we didn’t want to contend with crowds during our first time out. We both love to hike and, in our limited experience, have found that we’re able to do trails rated as ‘moderate’ fairly well, so we were looking for something at that level that was low key and near to where we are staying. After a little research, we settled on the Kuli’ou’ou Ridge Trail.

We arrived at the trail head after a short twenty minute drive, excited to finally be getting out for some land-based exercise that promised amazing views as a reward. Geared up with our hiking packs filled with 1.5 liters of water (pro tip: get the backpacks with water bladders!), granola bars and our cameras, we headed into the trail, which we read would be shaded for most of the hike.

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We immediately felt like we were somewhere else. Gone were the palm trees, the sand and water… they had been replaced by almost mainland-looking trees, dirt and rocks.

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It was only the peek-a-boo view of the ocean we had at the occasional clearing that reminded us we were still in Hawai’i.

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It was both comforting and disorienting to experience a different side of the vegetation here. At times, John felt like he could have been back in the woods near LA or Portland, and I was reminded of trails around Big Sur and Sedona.

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Despite the shaded trail and some cloud cover here and there, we experienced very early on that we were going to suffer a bit on the way up. This first section was pretty hot and humid, but the ascent wasn’t too bad in terms of terrain; it was mostly flat switchbacks that we had to navigate single file.

After about 45 minutes, the scene changed pretty dramatically. The trees now had long needles that hung straight down from the branches and blanketed the ground in a thick layer.

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This second section was extremely serene and beautiful. It might sound odd, given we’re in a tropical climate, but it reminded me of the peaceful quiet after a fresh nighttime snowfall. We were still walking up the switchbacks, but it was much cooler in this part, with amazing breezes in certain spots.

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The trail was pretty easy to follow, for the most part, although we did have to stop in a few places to be sure we were still on it.  Luckily there were some trail markers in questionable sections that helped us find our way. However, the higher we went, the more challenging it became. This was especially true when the scenery changed again, and we entered a third section with more traditional looking pine trees, along with some other interesting flora.

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This third section was particularly difficult — it had gotten pretty steep, the ground was covered in roots, the cool breezes were few and far between, and the trail itself was no longer easily identifiable in many spots. At this stage, we questioned whether ‘moderate’ was really the right designation for this trail, or whether we were just out of practice. I was beginning to think one particular review I had read, in which a hiker said he, his wife and two small children made the ascent in about two hours, was an out-and-out lie. But, we soldiered on.

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The final section up to the ridge itself was the most challenging. It was beautiful, with more tropical looking trees, plants, and flowers, but it was the steepest by far. We had read and been told that there would be steps at the end leading up to the summit, but we were not prepared for how difficult this would be.

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These weren’t your ordinary hillside steps (if there even is such a thing). They weren’t a consistent height or depth, with some as high as my knee and too narrow to place my entire foot down. There were also waaaay too many of them – more than we had anticipated. The only consolation at this point was that we knew we were close to the end, and the views at this stage were so wonderful we were excited to discover what we would see when we actually had unobstructed views from the top.

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The steps were broken up by sections of flat path, so that each time we finished a set thinking (hoping!!) it was the last, we were shocked to find there were actually more lying in wait. We had to stop a few times while climbing the (what felt like) thousands of steps to catch our breath and stop our hearts from popping out of our chests. It was during one of these rests that we saw someone running – yes, running!! – up from behind and passing us on the way to the top. Absolutely crazy.

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Finally, two hours and nine minutes after setting off, we found ourselves at the top of the Kuli’ou’ou Ridge trail, and the hard work had paid off. We were lucky to have a mostly clear day with no fog, and the view was just spectacular. We could see all the way down to Diamond Head to our right, with Hawai’i Kai and Koko Head sprawled out in front of us, and all the way up to Kailua and Lanikai to our left. The water was gorgeous, with layers of the clearest blue and turquoise shades, and the land below was lush, in vibrant tones of green. The photos simply do not do the colors justice.

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We spent about twenty minutes at the top, admiring the view, sucking down water, and sharing a granola bar. It was delightfully cool up there, with pretty strong breezes, which helped to re-invigorate us for the return trip. What goes up must come down.

Our descent took about an hour and fifteen minutes. We had to take it slowly during the steps since they were so uneven, as well as during the hill of roots (pictured above), as our legs were a little wobbly from climbing all the steps earlier. Needless to say, we were thrilled and extremely proud of ourselves when we finally reached the end of our nearly five mile round trip. After a quick change, we headed over to the Kona Brewing Company at the marina in Hawaii Kai to reward ourselves with some tall, cold frosties and pupus.

While the trail was a bit more difficult than we expected, we are so happy to have done it. The view from the top was magical and well worth the effort to reach it. Having done it once now, and knowing what to expect, we would do it again, especially with anyone visiting. We are so glad to have finally checked ‘go hiking’ off of our ‘fun’ to-do list, and are already looking forward to the next one.

Me ka hau’oli (With happiness/joy),

Jess

9 thoughts on “Hiking the Kuli‘ou‘ou Ridge Trail

  1. Great description and pictures! I can’t get over the carpet of needles on the ground. And when I come visit, I would prefer not to hike…can you research some good spots for lying around and staring at the water/mountains/ etc.?

    Like

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