The Ka’au Crater Hike one of Oahu’s most coveted trails. It’s right in the center of Honolulu – only 15 minutes from Waikiki. The trail climbs up the mountain through three different waterfalls – all of them impressive on their own, then it makes its way to a large hidden volcanic crater that you would never expect it to exist because it can’t be seen from anywhere in town. Finally, you can summit the mountains to view the windward side of the island – a 360 degree view on most days of the week. All in all, it’s an amazing hike, that rewards hikers willing to dedicate at least six hours of total time to this journey. I recommend this hike to the most adventurous of souls.
The trail starts at the end of Waiomao road. You’ll want to park on any of the side streets before the end of Waiomao and then walk up to the start of the trail, which is clearly marked on the left hand side behind a number of mailboxes before a private road. The trail immediately descends 50 feet, on a short and steep incline, and from there you will follow the pink markers on the trees.
If you see these signs to your left, you’ve luckily found the start of the trail.
Climbing the Ka’au:
The Ka’au Crater Hike immediately – and I mean immediately – throws you straight into the thickest jungle you can find on the island – with soaring canopies, vines climbing towards the sunlight, and dense low level ferns. You’ll be wondering whether you were in the neighborhood a few minutes ago, or if you were already three hours deep into the trek. It doesn’t joke around.
After the tricky immediate descent into the jungle, you’ll meet the stream and follow it upstream, crossing it multiple times using the pink markers as guides.
Then, after 10 minutes of hiking you’ll come to a clearing in the forest where the stream widens, and a water pipe pops out from left side of the stream. You’ll follow this pipe for the next hour, using it as your guide as it crosses over the stream a few times. It leads all the way till the first waterfall – about one hour into the hike. Just make sure to not walk on the pipe – as it’s very slippery.
An hour into the hike, you’ll make a slight detour going downwards to the first waterfall. It’s worth taking a break here, or if you are more adventurous, then take a break at the top of the falls, while dangling your feet above. The rope section continuing up the trail is to the left before the waterfall.
This first waterfall spot is either the coolest place to take a break, or the scariest. What do you think?
After seeing the first waterfall, you’ll go back into the forest for another five minutes to waterfall number two. If the sun is out, then it’s a good lounge area. The trail continues upwards to the right.
Shortly after waterfall two, you’ll be at waterfall number three. This one goes on way farther than the eye can see. It’s super impressive. Almost 20 minutes of rope climbing, going uphill, crossing back and forth, to make it to the top. You have places to stop along the way, where the natural waterfall makes some swimming holes and flat spots to rest.
But when the waterfall gets narrow, as if you’re almost walking in it, and you’re on the right hand side of falls, you’ll reach a plateau area. Take a right up the ridge. The markers to the left are for the loop trail. Most people will do the crater loop in a counter-clockwise direction, so going right is the fastest way to the top. Five minutes of regular-non-waterfall hiking later and you’ll have a view of the crater like this.
Once you view the crater, it’s worth assessing whether you want to keep climbing up the mountain or turn back. At this point we were two hours into the hike. From the lowest point of the crater to the summit is an extra 30 minutes of difficult scrambling up a narrow ridge. It’s exhilarating, but exhausting. I think most people continue upwards, but I’ve turned back at this point before. This day looked clear at the top and a few others were summiting too, so we decided to keep going.
It gets really tricky in this area. You’ll be climbing up on all fours on a narrow ridge, and the winds will be blowing through, but not many other hikes on the island are this raw and real. A few minutes from the summit and you’ll be able to see to the other side of Oahu. The excitement builds because this was the whole reason for the thirty minute climb. I love the moment of summiting the mountain and seeing the other side.
Most days on the Ko’olau Mountain of Hawaii, you’ll get a few clear patches. It’s worth waiting 20 or 30 minutes to get the best sunlight after the clouds pass. We were lucky this day, so the summit was clear for almost all of the time we were resting.
If you venture to the right of the summit, you’ll be fully immersed in the mountains. It’s worth taking a minute or two to walk without anything and to enjoy the natural beauty of this island.
Going back down takes a fairly long time, considering it’s downhill. We managed to scramble down the ridge and three waterfalls in about two hours with lots of breaks included. Our total time for the hike was six and a half hours. Much of it was spent taking breaks and photos. That added at least 45 minutes or more. An additional thirty minutes was spent hunting for wild mountain apples, which were in season during this July month. It lines the whole pipe-area of the hike.
Ka’au Crater will leave you exhausted, but feeling accomplished. But that’s what I like about this hike. The most beautiful part about this trail is that from minute one and for the next six plus hours, you’ll be fully immersed with nature. Every step takes so much of your concentration because of the slippery mud, the criss-crossing roots, the wandering trail that sometimes leads in odd directions. It all passes in a blur. But at some points, either during the hike or afterwards, you’ll remember – oh, I climbed three waterfalls in a day, scrambled up a ridge, summited a mountain – all in a few hours. It’s one of the best hikes on the island.
Time: 6-7 hours
Elevation Gain: 2000 ft., 647m
Description: Muddy trail with three-waterfalls and summit hike.