Hiking to Pu’u Hina on the Pupu Kea Trail • October 15, 2017 • Written by Curtis
We were on a roll in terms of hiking these first couple of weeks, doing a hike almost every weekend. What’s more, we had done a hike Windward, Leeward, Southward, and in the Valley, so it seemed appropriate that we do a hike on the North Shore. We shopped around online and on All Trails looking for hikes that would be accessible and perhaps slightly more challenging than those of previous weekends.
While doing this, I stumbled across references to the Summit Trail, KST, or Ko’olau Summit Trail: a near continuous trail that follows the ridge of the Ko’olau’s from the North Shore to the South Shore near Makapu’u. During my time alone on the island, I had hiked a very short distance of this trail and knew how rugged, remote, and precipitous it could be, but naturally I started looking into backpacking it. It didn’t take long before I came across a personal trip report of the only person known to ever have backpacked it continuously.
While I soon realized the unlikelihood of us ever successfully backpacking the ridge, I figured we could at the very least attempt to section hike it. And so early Sunday morning, we drove our way up for the first time to the North Shore. It was a sleepy Sunday this early and the traffic light. Popular destinations we passed by were largely vacant and we made note of many of them for future trips.
Unlike most of the hikes we had done up to this point, the Pupu Kea Trail and KST are NOT popular. Therefore there is very limited resources or information on the trails themselves and most information is tribal at best. I don’t even know who maintains the trails or land. One source I read recently said that the KST was originally built by the US Army during the 30’s. We eventually turned off the Kamehameha Hwy onto Pupu Kea Road which soon dead ended at a Boy Scout camp and our trail head. We were pleasantly surprised for the first part of the trail. For almost three miles, we followed an old abandoned road which, based on topographic maps, went from one side of the mountains to the other. But it soon became clear why the road was abandoned. In at least 3 locations large sections of the road were washed out. Some Civil Engineer somewhere screwed up I guess.
We walked and walked enjoying the pleasant windy day and the lush forest and fresh guava. A loop trail branched North off from the road on a couple of occasions but we kept on looking for our trail leading South up the ridge. It wasn’t until the road started turning North that we realized we had probably missed the summit trail. We used the All Trail’s app to backtrack to where we thought it was and found some of that tribal knowledge showing us where the KST officially began. ‘After a bridge and before a sign’. No trail signs, or even really a hint of a trail. I don’t think I would have ever noticed it had we not been looking explicitly for it, and even then, I had to push through a patch of very tall grass before I could confirm that we were in the right place.
And so on we went, going from literally walking on a road, to following a muddy trail through the guava. It was quite evident from the start that this trail wasn’t hiked often. The Strawberry Guava grew thickly on either side of the trail and the Uluhe ferns grabbed at our clothes. We went about a mile further before we came to the first actual trail sign we had seen on this hike. One arrow pointed left and said ‘Summit Overlook’, the other pointed right and read ‘Ko’olau Summit’. We opted to go to the Summit Overlook which turned out to be a rather rutted trail to a helipad, but it did offer our first views of the Northeast part of the island. I’ll be honest that they weren’t all too impressive. Partly because the sky was overcast and perhaps because the Northern end of the Ko’olaus is simply not as impressive as the Windward ridge. The knife-like ridge in the South simply disappears into a delta of undulating peaks and valleys, none of which are truly distinct from the others. I think this last reason is why the KST doesn’t go all the way to the ocean on the North end.
We slogged our way back to the trail sign and then continued on. I really don’t know why we continued. Our ‘destination’ was a nondescript peak perhaps a mile further. There wasn’t a trail junction there (not a real one at least), nor any sort of structure to mark an ending. But we did it. We made it all the way to Pu’u Hina (so said the USGS marker), ate a bit, and then began our slog back to the road.
Needless to say, we were quite glad to be back on the road and walking freely back to the car rather than stumbling over roots and mud. There is simply a fine balance between a trail being too untraveled that it fades from existence, and too well traveled that it suffers from erosion. This trail fell on one side of that line. It’s just like the road we walked, slowly being reclaimed by nature. And that’s the adventure of it I guess.
Back at the car we started to make our way home, but not before stopping at a nearby State Historic Site, Pu’u O Mahuka. This site, overlooking the Waimea River Valley, is the site of the largest heiau (Hawaiian religious temple) on the island and was constructed sometime between the 17th and 18th centuries. It was used for religious ceremonies until probably the early 19th century when Liholiho, king of the Hawaiians, abolished the Hawaiian religion and had all the heiau destroyed. I’ll confess that I know next to nothing about Hawaiian history, modern or otherwise, but I am learning and will hopefully be able to give more information on the historic places we see in the future.
We then began the drive home through the valley and as we drove past those ‘sleepy’ places we had seen that morning it soon became apparent: If you want to visit a popular place such as the beach, the North Shore, the Dole Plantation, or really anything, arrive early. The earlier the better.