Hiking to the sky: Kuliouou Ridge Trail

I’ve hiked only a few times on Oahu, Hawaii. The terrain is deceptively challenging due to constant assault from the elements: heat, humidity, aridity, slippery mud, sharp lava rock, vertigo-inducing heights, and serious elevation change. The conditions can change drastically in a heartbeat. Add that I’m not on-island for long–just a few days around my birthday. And, I’m wearing sandals instead of hiking boots. But I want a serious hike–I want something apropos for my birth day.

A quick web survey yields several different stats–and most are troubling. If the data I’m reading is accurate, this is a supreme ass-kicking hike: 4.4 miles and 1,945’ elevation change, each way. Wait. What? I hike that distance and elevation gain at home where it’s cool and dry–not here–where it’s hot and humid.

Oh. It does have amazing views. That is, if we can make it to the top. My fellow hikers–a family–hadn’t looked too closely at trail data. That’s best.

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Yes, that’s the ‘trail’

The trail is shaded in the beginning. And, thankfully. Because, it ascends quickly–switchback after switchback, climbing out of the valley–then cutting over the ridge for a quick break in elevation gain at approximately halfway. A covered shelter/picnic table is a welcome respite. Trail is a maze of roots and lava boulders. Trees and plants I’ve never seen.

A contingent of my group decides they’re heading back. Wise choice. I’m becoming dubious of any of us making it, muttering to myself that this better be the best view ever. The hike is taking its toll on me. And, that’s the easier part. The harder part is next.

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Trees roots form ‘arches’ along trail
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Roots stretch out like webbed fingers
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Yes, that’s still the ‘trail’

We climb a muddy, 60-degree, heavily rooted slope, leading through twisted tree ‘arches’ to a series of steep narrow steps built into steeper terrain along the ridge. They appear to lead directly into the sky. At every turn views become more spectacular. Wildflowers are abundant. We enter clouds, continuing to climb steps through the whiteout. The clouds part. We are at the top.

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276 knee-jarring steps, going straight up
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A tiny orchid along the ridge top
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Got vertigo?

Whoa. The view. Is. Just. Whoa. Pictures can’t do it justice. It’s truly amazing. And windy. And cold. And sandy. And, exactly what I was hoping for on my birthday.

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THE TOP: Looking toward Waimānalo and Kailua
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THE TOP: Looking toward Waimānalo, Hawaii Kai, Koko Head

Several entire vallies stretch out before me with crimson soil contrasting fields of verdant green, tan strips of beach, then a spectrum of vibrant waters extending from turquoise to ultramarine. The cool-off is perfect. The view, incomparable. Damn. What a struggle. And, worth it.

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This 89-year old woman hikes this trail to the top weekly. Her partner, below, is 92.

And yet, the real struggle is commencing now: the descent. We’re cold, dehydrated and fatigued, quickly heading down to warm up. I have to pull over several times as the vertigo-inducing steps are made more so by our haste. Willpower. Focus on not falling off the ridge. Oh, more greasy mud. Skidding a few times, I somehow defy gravity. Eventually, the trail again flattens and widens. Sigh. After being scared silly for over a half hour–practically running down the ridge–regular trail is easy. Except my legs are hash.

Back at trailhead, I have two blisters, jelly legs, and am overheated due to a long-exhausted 3-liter water supply. Not bad for hiking 8.8 miles, gaining/losing 3,890’ elevation. In sandals. On vacation.

We are all in need of cool refreshment and sustenance after that slog. Hank’s Haute Dogs is close by, for our post-hike meat-in-tube-form needs. I earned my Kobe Dog today. It couldn’t all be healthy. After all, it is my birthday.

IF YOU GO
Though the Kuliouou Ridge Trail is considered ‘moderate’, I recommend starting early, as the trail is exposed in many areas and becomes hellish when temps rise. Laying off umbrella drinks the night before might be a good idea unless you’re in Ironman shape. And, bring plenty of water. You’ll need it. The trail is on the south side between Waialae-Kahala and Hawaii Kai. Highly recommend this hike to anyone who’s willing to go the extra distance to experience a particular beauty, on an already heavenly island. That, and you can eat whatever you want after, at Hank’s.
All images and content copyright ©2017 Eric Schadel. All rights reserved.
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