Butt-kicking Hiking on Oahu, Hawaii: the Ko'olau Summit Trail (via Mañana Trail)
Two radically different trails rolled up into one
Mañana Trail actually leads to two completely different paths: a 1.5 mile trip to Waimano Falls and a 6 mile voyage across a ridge that extends across a sizable chunk of the Ko'oalu mountain range and ascends 3000 feet into a cloud forest.
- Hiking shoes with cleats to navigate the ridge. It gets very steep and the path gets narrow. No rails here.
- A walking stick as another measure to help prevent slipping and sliding.
- Camping equipment if you begin the trek in the middle of the day. It's unlikely that you'll finish the whole thing in one day unless you are experienced and fully prepared to really push yourself.
- Enough food and water for 8 hours of strenuous hiking. (Do some research and make up your own mind as to the exact amount of water you should take.)
- The guidance of an expert hiker or someone familiar with the area.
- Read this info about hiking in Hawaii.
We can do this the easy way... or the hard way
When I was preparing and collecting information about the Mañana Trail online, I was reading accounts of parents taking their kids to the Waimano waterfall-- so I thought Mañana wouldn't be very hard at all. The plan was to leave around 5PM to stay out of the sun, and we brought a LED lantern with us just in case we decided to hang out by the falls for a few hours and watch the sunset.
When we came across the sign pictured below the first time, we mistakenly thought that Waimano Falls was 3/4 of a mile away to the left followed by something called the Ko'olau Summit (we had no idea what that was at the time) 5 and 3/4 miles after that. If you look a closer at the very bottom of the sign, though, you can see that it's actually pointing in two different directions.
About a mile in, we realized that we weren't going in the right direction and that heading back from this particular trail at dark would be dangerous, so we decided to revisit Mañana Trail again mañana.
I came to find out that the path we stumbled onto by accident is one of several entry points on what is known as the KST (Ko'oalu Summit Trail). The KST turned out to be so impressive that we decided to explore another hunk of the Ko'oalu ridge again the next day instead of Waimano Falls.
Keep an eye out for this sign
Your journey begins
The gate leading to the Mañana entry point is located at the end of a dead end road in a sleepy suburban neighborhood. If you're going there for the first time, you'll wonder: am I in the right place? It really doesn't look like the place to start an odyssey across a volcanic mountain ridge.
Mañana Trail Entry Point
The exact address for the start point is hard to dig up online. Here it is!
Travelers on the Mañana Trail
The path leading up to the sign that points you towards either the KST or the Waimano Waterfall is kind of its own universe compared to other parts of the trail. It's not crowded by any means, but you'll probably see a few people around here and there, either heading back from the KST or the waterfall.
You won't run into many tour groups, like you will at Diamond Head or Manoa Falls. (After reading some blog entries from moms who took their children out here, I was expecting to see some families headed toward the waterfalls... but we didn't see any kids.)
On this first leg of the trail, we past a few very funky smelling guys that were probably coming back after doing some minimalist camping way out on the KST for a number of days, and another intense looking hunter who had a machete strapped to his backpack. There were also a couple guys who looked like they were preparing for some type of martial arts thing because they were kicking and punching the air and shouting out "Hy!" as they jogged along the path.
Not much signage
In the early well-developed sections of leg one of the KST, the trail sometimes diverges into what looks like two different paths, but don't sweat it-- the paths usually come back together again. The idea is probably to give travelers a chance to take either the high road up or the low road around a hill.
To prevent erosion, the people who maintain the trail have inserted stairs into key spots along the first leg of Mañana trail leading up to and slightly beyond the part where the trail veers off and becomes the KST.
You'll encounter some mile markers from time to time. Other than that, you'll have to figure the rest out yourself. If something looks dangerous... it probably is. So don't take on anything you can't handle. You can always go back and rethink your plan, and head out again mañana.
Fading traces of humanity
Just beyond the gate you'll see some pine trees. After that you'll get a nice elevated view of some mountains and valleys, and you will also see some power lines. You'll also run into some kind of heavily graffitied water treatment plant. After that signs of humanity pretty much vanish and nature takes over.
Roots weaving in and out of the trail
Look down and you'll notice lots of tree roots growing across the path. The path will get progressively gnarly as you go. At times you'll be carefully descending down a steep slope, and you'll need to hold on to the roots to avoid slipping around.
On the sides of steep inclines, the criss-crossing roots form ledges that you can use as steps to ascend. But the roots can also trip you, if you don't watch out. When you're moving though the roots just keep a close eye on your feet and watch where you step.
At about the 3 mile mark, the trail nearly fades away completely and you'll have to follow a contorted bundle of roots through the thicket. The roots will eventually lead you back to the path on the other side.
Hiking over a volcanic ridge
The Ko'olau volcano is the youngest of two volcanoes that formed Oahu about two or three million years ago, according to Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii. You can read a big hunk of that book for free on Google Books if you want to learn more about Oahu's prehistory and geography. Here's a link.
A famous battleground
Another thing that's interesting about the Ko'olau mountains is that a famous pali (cliff) in the Ko'olau mountains (called the Nu‘uanu Pali) was the site of a famous battle between Kamehameha the Great and Oahu's King Kalanikūpule. Kamehameha landed with his warriors at Waikiki in 1795. The fighting began at Puowaina, which is now nicknamed "punchbowl." Kalanikūpule's men retreated to Nu'anu and made their last stand in the mountains, but they were no match for Kamehameha's warriors because Kamehameha had better guns and equipment. Still, both sides suffered massive casualties.
After that bloody battle, it was all downhill for Kamehameha I. There were no more physical conflicts after Nu'anu and Kamehameha was eventually able to unite all of Hawaii under his rulership. Things didn't go so well for Kalanikūpule, though-- he was sacrificed to Ku (the god of war) when Kamehameha caught up with him after his victory.
According to hawaiianencyclopedia.com, about 10,000 people died during the Kalanikūpule-Kamehameha confict. At Nu'uanu, many warriors were driven off the cliff or decided to jump to their deaths instead of surrender.
The red ridge
A small chunk of your trip along Mañana will take you over some interesting, dusty looking cliffs and narrow ridges.
The roots abruptly vanish here. This area is probably treacherous in the rain, but if it's dry you'll be able to stand near the side of a cliff and look down at vegetation growing off the side of it at an almost horizontal angle.
On the way back on our first time on the trail, night fell. Since we weren't too far out we took out our LED lanterns and hung around a little bit in the dark. The easy section of the trail is pretty safe even in the dark as long as your lantern is powerful enough. If you carry a lantern with a flashlight you'll be able to see where you're going while also looking ahead or peering into the thicket. Everything looks totally different here after dark.
Hiking in the dark
We made sure that we had good flashlights and lanterns to guide us back after nightfall, because we decided that we'd rather not slide down a hill and get devoured by wild boars in the middle of the night.
One way to do some night hiking here is to head out early in the morning, that way if you get lost you can wait until the sun comes up to get your bearings. What we did, though, was go about a mile in slowly. Then we saw the sun set over the mountain. After that we headed back with our lights on. Since we came out in the light we found our way back without any issues.
It was cool to check out this trail at night, but it did not compare at all to the stunning views you get when you hike it during the day. If you're going to try this trail out at night, the best time to do it is during the full moon that way you can also use the moonlight to look around a little. I would not try hiking the dangerous parts of this trail at night, though. Personally about a mile in is as far as I would go. If you're close to the summit at the end of the day, the best thing to do would be to just set up camp and hit the sack if it's getting dark.
The next day
After checking about a mile or so of the trail out the first day, we decided to come back again and get another taste of it to see how hard it gets. We were hoping that we might be able to do the whole thing in about six hours. On normal terrain it takes us about 30 minutes or so to cover a mile. The first part of the KST wasn't very hard. We were moving at about 2MPH, so we were thinking that we could get there and back in about 6 or 7 hours.
We ventured out again around 10:30AM.
We went past the red ridge on our second trip and reached a totally different section of the trail.
The grassy section of the trail takes you up the ridge and a gentle incline, where you'll be able to take in some jaw-dropping views. The grassy trail section is easy to navigate, though there are a few narrow areas. You'll also find a bench and then a picnic area. When we were there, there was the remains of what looked like a campfire. Camping is permitted along the KST, and we'll be taking advantage of that the next time we head that way so that we can relax and take it all in as we go instead of feeling rushed to get in and get out before night hits. A camping permit is good for five nights and costs $12 to $18.
It gets rough
Our pace crawled to less than 1MPH about an hour or two into the hike. Part of the reason was all the incredible views and things to look at. But the main reason we slowed down was that the roller coaster up-and-downs were wearing us out. We took a big bottle of water with us, but that wasn't enough fluid to keep us going. Really we needed two or three bottles of water, or more.
With a quarter of a bottle of water left we decided to go ahead and keep going until about 2PM and see how far we could get.
The helicopter clearings
After about the third mile, you'll stop running into amenities. There are no benches, tables, etc. that far into the trail. But you'll keep running into helicopter clearings the whole way. When you stop and take a look around in one of these clearings, you'll realize just how far out you really are. From here, there's nothing but trees and sky all around.
It's a good thing that the island is still preserved to the extent that activities like this are still an option on touristy Oahu.
I took a few panoramas of the clearings using the Photosynth app.
Apparently invasive species have crowded out some of the natural vegetation along the KST. I'm not an expert on Hawaiian wildlife, but it was clear to me that the farther you go the more exotic the plants get. The part of the trail around the 3.5 marker is crowded with bright green ferns. The picture below is of a strange, hairy fern that we ran across that was larger than the rest and purplish in color. This picture of its alien-looking frond is one of my favorites in the album.
You'll eventually reach a section of the trail where you have to pull yourself up the side of a steep incline with a rope. Don't depend solely on the rope, though. Some of the ropes looked pretty ragged. Your best bet would be to hang on to nearby branches for extra support.
As you progress you might start to feel like the trail itself is alive-- and trying to screw with you. The trail will lead you to some stunning views, but you're also going to have to work for what you get. The path gets progressively harder the farther you go along, especially as you start hitting lots of ups and downs.
Rushing to the end and back in one day vs. camping at the summit
There's two ways to do the KST. Judging from what I've read, some people do the whole thing in a day and others break it up into a two day trip and camp somewhere near the summit.
One thing to keep in mind is that parts of this trail are dangerous, and hiking while tired makes you sloppy. Also once you get to a certain level of exhaustion, you'll stop appreciating your surroundings.
After hitting this trail a couple of times I feel like the best way to do it is to break it up into a two day thing. If you're an experienced hiker and you want to try to push yourself to conquer the whole trail in a day, though, go for it.
In six hours we were able to make it a little more than halfway there and back. It's really a 10 to 12 hour hike to do the whole circuit. Getting to the summit takes four to five hours if conditions are good. The first part of the trail is easy but on the last section you'll be moving about a mile per hour or slower.
Descending down the summit (via Doug Baker)
KST related links
There's all kinds of info out there about the KST. Here's the good stuff.
- Reserve your camping permit online from the ehawaii.gov site.
- Here's the story of a guy who completed a 50 mile trek across the entire Ko'olau mountain range.
- Photos of and info about another trail that leads to the cloud forest: the Bowman Trail.
- Official Manana trail info from Na Ala Hele
- Dayle Turner's early 90s style "Hiking the Koolau Crest" website is a collection of dated but interesting writeups about different hiking paths along the Ko'olau ridge. All of the accounts are ten years old or more, but they are some very well written and engaging stories there.
To be continued...
Frankly I'm jealous of a guy who calls himself the not-so-great hiker, who made it all the way to the end of the slightly different but similar Ko'oalu Ridge Summit Trail (KSRT) and back in one day. He also has some pretty great pictures, so if you're curious about what the rest of the trail looks like be sure to check out that blog entry.
Apparently after the 4 mile marker you have an option to either do the KSRT or the KST. The KSRT leads you down, and the KST takes you up. The blogger I referenced above says that the final miles of the KSRT are actually pretty easy and doing it in one day is doable if you start early in the morning.
Next time we try this hike we'll be better prepared and I'll be able to fully document the whole enchilada: all the way to the end of the KST, into the cloud forest and back. There isn't a lot of documentation out there on the KST and hopefully I'll be able to contribute something. But mainly I wanted to get this hub out primarily so that anyone thinking about doing this hike knows just how difficult and intense this trail is.
This hike is probably the most serious hike that I've ever done, and it showed me how rewarding "real" hiking can be. Even all the pictures I posted here can't do justice to what it's like to do this hike in real life.
The cool thing about this trail is that the initial sections of it are pretty forgiving. If you aren't that experienced go ahead and see what you can do in a few hours. Chances are that you'll eventually come back for more.