After several weeks (months?) of having low hanging clouds over the Ko’olau Mountains on Curtis’ days off, we finally had a brief break in the clouds! And I mean brief as in, if we had been a half hour later to the peak, we would’ve missed it completely. Regardless, we finally were able to enjoy a hike on the ridge and had stunning views of Honolulu/Hawaii Kai, the Windward coast, and more of the Ko’olau peaks. We’ve done a few other peak hikes in this general area, such as Kuli’ou’ou and Mt. Olympus, but both times were unable to see the Windward side because of clouds.
When looking out my kitchen window early that morning and seeing exposed peaks South of us, I immediately began gathering our things and told Curtis to pick out a hike. I was expecting him to pick either Hawaii Loa or Wiliwilinui Ridge, as those were both ones I had on my list, but he found one I hadn’t heard of on AllTrails. It’s found in between Kuli’ou’ou and Hawaii Loa ridges and listed as “Kulepeamoa Ridge Loop Trail” on AllTrails. Curtis chose this one because he really wanted to do a loop trail so that we could walk on the Ko’olau Summit Trail (KST), and I happily agreed.
We drove to Hawaii Kai and into a neighborhood in the Pia Valley and parked at the end of Anolani Street. At first we were confused by the yellow gate blocking off what we assumed was the start of the trail — there were garbage cans and a mailbox next to the paved road/trailhead, so we wondered if it was a private residence and if the AllTrails listing was making us trespass. There was a van parked nearby and a woman walking down the driveway, so we inquired about the trail and she told us it was fine — there was a residence, as well as a water tank owned by the state of Hawaii, but we could still walk in between the two safely without trespassing. And so we began our trek down the road and into the forest.
We passed by the house and water tank, taking the trail to the right of the tank. We shortly came to a wide stream crossing. There were plenty of boulders to hop across and the water level was very low that day. We walked through the valley, passing a banyan tree and through guava bushes. There was lots of unripe guava fallen on the ground, and there were so many gnats hovering in those areas. The trail was well marked with pink surveyors tape — but I’m glad Curtis maps our hike with AllTrails so that we have that to go off of if we were to lose the trail.
After leaving our shelter among the Cook Pines, we began our hike on the ridge
We only had some confusion when figuring out which trail to take when we came to the trail junction. After following the stream for over half a mile, we veered off to the right and eventually came to a clearing with red exposed rock. Curtis decided that going counter-clockwise would be safest, so we took the trail to the right and began a steep uphill climb. Unlike Hawaii Loa and Wiliwilinui hikes, which begin in neighborhoods up on the ridge at around 1000 feet, this one begins in the valley at 230 feet so we had much more elevation to gain. By the time we reached the loop trail intersection we had only gained 300 feet.
In the next .3 miles, we doubled our elevation, climbing up to 1,100 feet. There were a couple big rocks or steps to climb up, but they only proved to be an obstacle for me and my short legs. We pushed through to the ridge where we were greeted by a patch of Cook pine trees. We sat down to rest in the shade and drink lots of water. We had only walked just over a mile at this point — we had 1.7 more to go to reach the ridge, and 1300 feet elevation gain.
There was a strong breeze welcoming us to the ridge, and while initially it felt good after such a steep stretch of trail, we soon realized that it wasn’t exactly favorable to have a strong wind when walking on the narrow ridge. Along with that, we noticed grey clouds moving in — above the Ko’olau Summit, but still concerning. Still, we pressed on. We had waited so long to hike to one of these peaks, we couldn’t back down now — especially after gaining so much elevation. This isn’t exactly the wisest decision, and we questioned our sanity several times while continuing our hike. Had conditions been worse, I think we would have reconsidered…I think. We’re not always crazy risk takers.
As I mentioned before, I hadn’t heard of this trail before, and now I was realizing why. While trails like Kuli’ou’ou, Hawaii Loa, Wiliwilinui, and Mt. Olympus get a fair amount of hikers and have steps or ropes to assist in making it up steep ridges, this trail had almost nothing. After following the ridge up and down the natural bumps for .8 miles, I looked up ahead of us and gasped. In front of us stood an incredibly narrow ridge jutting straight up about 200 feet. Please let there be ropes… I thought. Thankfully, this was the one stretch of trail that did have a cable for extra support. I questioned whether it could hold my weight and decided to try not to rely fully on it. “You got this,” Curtis said, and so I began the straight uphill climb. It had been a few days since the last rain, so it wasn’t too muddy, and I used both the cable and whatever roots and rocks were around to help me feel more secure. I knew that they may not support me in the worst case scenario, so I pushed forward as quickly and safely as I could until I reached the end of this stretch.
Looking up the steepest ridge
I breathed a sigh of relief…but we were still a mile from the summit. Curtis told me later that he was more concerned about this part after the cable, because there were no more ropes or cables for support. It wasn’t as steep, but still verging on uncomfortably dangerous. However, when I really thought about it, I realized there was nothing there to secure ropes to. The majority of this ridge is surrounded only by these shrub-like plants that are sharp and were scratching up the exposed parts of my legs. Until this point, I hated them, but now they were the only things growing around me, providing security in my mind and keeping me from seeing just how steeply the sides of the ridge dropped. I would loosely hold onto them as I walked, just for mental support because they definitely wouldn’t hold us if we slipped.
Looking down on the Windward side: Waimanelo, Kailua, Ka’iwa Ridge and Kailua Bay
There were only two things on my mind as I carefully took each step: Don’t stop moving, and keep breathing. If I were to stop, panic would set in, and all the possible worst case scenarios would go racing through my mind. I focused on just putting one foot in front of the other and taking deep breaths to keep me sane. And that carried me through to the end — before I realized it, I was standing on a small grassy area overlooking the Windward side. The sky was grey, and clouds hovered over higher peaks North of us, but we were still in the clear and had an amazing view welcoming us to the top.
The Windward side, featuring a new angle of Olomana
We stopped briefly to have a snack and drink water, but knew we shouldn’t hesitate here. We had about a half mile to walk along the KST to reach the next peak and the trail we would be descending. I had no idea what condition that trail would be in, but all I knew was that I didn’t want to descend the one I just hiked. Curtis took the lead, and we began our slow trek along the trail.
Facing Southeast, looking back at where we started our trek on the KST
I’m not exaggerating when I say it was slow…or rather, I was slow. The KST was much muddier, and similarly to the ridge we hiked up, was incredibly narrow with steep drop offs and only short plants and bushes growing on either side. However, the views were incredible so I didn’t mind inching my way along the trail. It was constantly going up and down, and there would be sudden bursts of wind that would cause me to crouch down for extra security, but I lived to tell the tale. I have to say, backpacking all 50 miles of the KST is definitely not on my bucket list, and I am impressed with those crazy avid hikers that have attempted or completed it.
As we were making our way up to our final peak, I was starting to become concerned about our hike down, so I asked Curtis if he knew what the name of the trail was called. “Hawaii Loa,” he responded. “Wait, the Hawaii Loa trail?” I had definitely heard of that one — it was on my list to hike, and I knew it was used fairly often. My nerves were instantly calmed, the hardest part was over. I guess I just didn’t realize that this trail was Curtis’ intention all along, and he didn’t realize that the trail was more popular and would be safer to descend. We arrived at Hawaii Loa peak and relaxed. We still weren’t clouded in, and the hardest part was over!
Facing South; heading down the many stairs on the Hawaii Loa trail
After enjoying the peak, we began our hike back down, which was much safer and easier than the hike up. There were many flights of stairs, and though they were muddy and eroded, they were much easier to navigate as we carefully climbed down. I have to say, I am still glad we did this as a loop though — not only for the gorgeous views along the ridge, but also because walking up all these stairs would have been tiring! We started to run into more groups on this trail, the first people we’d seen all day. As we looked back to see where we had come from, we were shocked to see the summit now completely socked in by clouds — our timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We were also able to see the profile of the ridge we had hiked up previously, and were pretty proud of ourselves to know we had done most of that without ropes.
Facing East; looking at the profile of the steep ridge we had climbed up
Right before the end of Hawaii Loa trail, we veered off to the left to complete our loop hike and make it back down to our car in Pia Valley. This trail was very steep and basically went straight down into the valley, and would have been much harder if not for the guava trees. There were so many, and the circumference of their trunks is just the right size to reach around and use as support while hiking down. It helped me to keep a quick pace, and soon enough we were back in the valley, following the ravine, until we met back up with the loop. It was a smooth hike back to our car — still the only one parked along the road.
Facing North; looking back at the summit, now covered in clouds
Altogether, this hike was 5.7 miles and gained almost 2400 feet in elevation. I would say it’s more challenging and it would be best to have some experience with ridges with more support. Hawaii Loa is a less strenuous and dangerous hike, however in order to enter the neighborhood where the trail begins you must have either a Hawaii state ID or military ID, and they only allow 10 cars at a time. If you are a visitor, look into hiking Wiliwilinui or Kuli’ou’ou instead, as they are easier to reach and will give similar views. That being said, with our amount of experience hiking in Hawaii, we really enjoyed this trail and I might go as far as putting it as one of my favorites because it was scenic, a good challenge, and not popular.