Hiking the Aiea Ridge Trail to the Aiea Summit | January 2019
Back in our first month of living on Oahu, we hiked the Aiea Loop Trail and enjoyed the easy walk through the woods, filled vegetation that was then unfamiliar to us. About halfway through the loop, we veered off on a side trail that took us to a view of the H3 from high above. The side trail continued, much more narrow than the wide and well maintained loop trail, and we learned later that it continued all the way up to the Ko’olau Summit. We noted it as a possible hike for when we were more familiar with Ko’olau ridge trails.
Since then we’ve completed many ridges, mostly focusing on the Southern Ko’olaus. The trails on the Southern ridges are shorter, and the further North you go the longer the trails are. The only ridge North of H3 that we had started hiking was Manana Ridge, but we were just doing that for fun and had no intentions of going all the way to the summit. Over time, we sort of lost interest in pursuing those longer hikes. It seemed like a lot of effort to reach the Ko’olau summit when we could get there much easier on one of the shorter trails.
Our lack of enthusiasm to take on new hikes led me to make one of my goals for 2019 to “Hike one new Ko’olau Ridge.” That’s right, ONE. I assumed it’d be months before we felt like doing a new one. And yet, here we are…it was the last weekend of January, and we spontaneously decided to go for it — even without proper hiking boots. We really wanted to go for a ‘real hike’, something longer than 5 miles, and out of all possible contenders Aiea was the shortest drive to and the shortest hike at 9 miles.
The H3 Tunnels
We drove to the state park in Aiea and started at the higher trailhead for the Aiea Loop Trail. We started off on the easy trail, playing PokemonGo as we went and ignoring the grey skies above us. We agreed that it was perfectly fine if we weren’t able to hike the whole thing, we were just out here because we wanted a ‘real hike’ on a less popular trail.
When we came to the ridge trail, we left the loop behind and began confidently on the narrow path. We had seen many hikers and joggers on the loop, but we were all alone for the entirety of the ridge hike. I’m pretty sure this is the only time we have been all alone. In comparison to other ridges, it definitely wasn’t as overgrown as Lanipo ridge, and it was honestly one of the more pristine trails we’ve seen. There were very little signs of erosion, and plenty of healthy o’hia trees.
Since this trail parallels the interstate, we were almost constantly hearing noise from the traffic throughout the hike. This definitely isn’t a peaceful, nature-sounds only type of hike, but we still enjoyed seeing the H3 from different angles. Personally, I think the interstate is better looking than the sprawling neighborhoods that fill many of the Southern Ko’olau valleys. And when facing North, all we could see was wild, uninhabited land. Somewhere up there are the Waimano and Manana Ridge trails…ones that aren’t on our ‘must do’ list, but after enjoying the Aiea trail, we may consider them another day.
I was concerned about hiking in tennis shoes, ones that don’t have any traction, but surprisingly they held up well. The week had been pretty dry though, if it had rained recently it could have been another story. That being said, I did take my time when hiking downhill.
Konahuanui is the tallest peak in the center of this picture; the tower is on the summit of Moanalua Middle Ridge
Usually when hiking new trails, my mind is constantly thinking about the return trip — how will all this feel coming back? If I’m not comfortable with a section of trail, maybe I shouldn’t continue. However, today I was taking it all one step at a time, and truly living in the moment. The result was that the entire way up, I was enthusiastic about our progress and anxious to go farther and see more. The way back wasn’t too bad either — I had just forgotten how long the trail was and we were both exhausted by the time we reached the end.
After 3.5 miles of ridge hiking, we came to a big open grassy area where we stopped for a short break. Up until that point, the trail had been easy — a few rope sections, but nothing that made me uncomfortable. After this part, however, the trail became noticeably more difficult. I would honestly consider doing this hike again, and just hiking up to this point for the sake of an easy, quiet hike. However, today we decided to continue. We were only a mile from the Ko’olau summit, which was somehow completely clear despite the sky above being overcast, and it seemed silly to turn back when we were so close.
The final stretch of trail before the true summit
The trail from here to the next false summit was more narrow, muddy, and steep, and the vegetation was shorter which made me feel even more exposed. We took it easy, making slow but continual process to the next peak.
Facing North with the Koloa Mountain range and Chinaman’s Hat off the shore
I think I’ll remember Aiea Ridge best for its false summits. We finally reached what looked to be the end, but it turned out that we were still .2 miles from the true Ko’olau summit. That doesn’t sound like much, but being able to see the narrow and steep ridge before us made it seem daunting. We took a short break before pressing on to the end. Even from the false summit, we were already enjoying some of the best views we’ve had of the Northern Ko’olau Mountains, as well as the Koloa Ridge.
Kaneohe and the Kaneohe Bay along with the sandbar – the hill in the center of the picture is Pu’u Ma’eli’eli
The true Aiea Summit was marked by a green sign with the words “AIEA SUMMIT” carved into it. Curtis found a geocache and we took in the beauty of the Ko’olaus and Kaneohe Bay below us. We were even able to see all of Konahuanui to the South. Not only that, but the sun broke through the clouds, making the ocean bright blue contrasting the white sand bar in the bay. Unfortunately the valley behind us was filled with vog, otherwise we might have been able to make out the North shore as well. We were still able to see all of Ka’ala and the rest of the Waianae Mountains, and had a great view of Pearl Harbor and Ford Island. So many new and beautiful views that we didn’t know we were missing!
Beginning the long trek down Aiea Ridge
We were about to leave, when in a moment of silence we heard what sounded like a gong. We stood there confused for a moment, when I remembered that we had seen a large gong at the Byodo-In Temple last month. We walked around for a closer view of Kaneohe right below us, and sure enough, we saw the back side of the temple. How cool that a month after visiting, we were able to climb to the top of those picturesque mountains we enjoyed seeing behind the temple?!
The Waianae Mountains across the vog filled valley
Finally, we began to make our way down. As I mentioned before, it was long and exhausting, but we made slow and steady progress along the steep ridge and picked up the pace as the trail grew wider after the first false summit. We arrived back at our car after 7 ½ hours of hiking (counting breaks). Curtis’ phone managed to stay alive that entire time, so we have our complete trail recording here. Despite feeling exhausted and sore all over, we agreed that we were so glad we did this, and it gave us a more positive outlook on hiking the Ko’olau Ridges. Maybe we’ll find our way up another new one someday…but hey, at least for now I can say I’ve already completed one of my goals for 2019!
• • • • •
When trying to decide on a ridge, we had considered Moanualua Middle Ridge, which is the back way up to the popular Stairway to Heaven hike. While the views of the H3 tunnels from the Windward side, the metal staircase, and views of the Southern Ko’olaus are tempting, we just couldn’t justify it. I have heard many reports of it, and already knew what we would experience if we hiked it: Every day, dozens if not over a hundred people hike or attempt to hike up this ridge. Often times there are groups of 20+ people hiking together. This ridge once looked as pristine as Aiea, with native vegetation growing around, but because of the constant traffic it has become extremely eroded, which has led to many O’hia trees dying and vegetation being wiped out. Looking at pictures of this ridge compared to others we’ve hiked, it is literally brown with huge, deep ruts rather than green with a narrow but clear trail. I can’t even imagine hiking a narrow ridge like that beside so many other people! All that to say, no, we won’t be hiking that ridge, and I will never recommend it or encourage other hikers to do it. There are plenty of other beautiful ridges in the Ko’olaus that will give you amazing views, and you’ll also get to enjoy native Hawaiian plants along the way. The Southern Ko’olau ridges that we’ve done have all been beautiful and scenic, but if you’re also looking for a quiet, peaceful hike, I highly recommend exploring North of the H3. It’s worth the effort!