Mount Ka’ala – A Slippery Climb to the Highest Point on Oahu, Hawaii

Kamalleunu Ridge from Waianae Valley

Kamalleunu Ridge from Waianae Valley – to Mount Ka’ala

Mount Ka’ala
Elevation Gain/Loss:
3,500′/3,500′
Miles:
7.2 Miles Round-trip
Peak Elevation:
4,025′

While on a family trip to Oahu, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to really hike in Hawaii. I did some research and found out that the tallest peak on Oahu is Mount Ka’ala. I also found out that the creators of Hawaiian hiking trails generally don’t believe in switchbacks.

We flew to Hawaii and had a great time at the Marriott Ko Olina Beach Resort. This morning, I woke up at 6:30AM, even though I thought I would have been up at 5:30AM. I guess my body was getting used to Hawaiian time already. I purchased four large water bottles (three for the pack and one for the car) from the market downstairs at the hotel, since I had forgotten my Camelbak bladder at home, as my daughter likes to use it as a hose to water the plants in our backyard.

Also, through a comedy of errors, I left all of my printed maps and trail reports at home. Even though I didn’t have the maps with me, I remembered most of the trail from memory. I decided to go against my own rule, No Maps, No Hike, just this once, since I didn’t think I’d be back to Oahu any time soon.

I drove the excruciating 25MPH crawl on the 93 to Waianae, where I took a right and drove up the valley to the trailhead. The “real” Hawaii is definitely a change from the commercialized lei-fest that most tourists know. It is rustic and rural, there are chickens and semi-feral dogs everywhere. The trailhead was next to what looked like a junkyard, only I heard a generator start up and I could only gather that someone lived there.

I quickly loaded up, making sure all my valuables were with me, since I heard that there can be break-ins in the area. It was already warm, but I still wore my Ex Officio Borocade Pant and was trying out my Ex Officio BugsAway Baja Shirt, which is long-sleeved. I was happy, however, that there was some cloud cover, but was not excited with the possibility of rain, which we had experienced nearly every day on Oahu.

I was quickly met by some workers who asked me in a thick Hawaiian accent where I was going. I said, “All the way to the top.” They then asked me why I was hiking alone. I pondered the question, since I was hiking a rather potentially dangerous trail by myself. I let them know that I was traveling with my family and that no one would go with me. They smiled to each other and walked away, likely amazed at the stupidity of tourists.

I continued up the paved access road, almost immediately covered in sweat. It’s humid in Hawaii, just in case you weren’t informed. But I was comfortable, since the sun was still behind some clouds and I looked to be entering a forest soon.

The Waianae Valley is a beautiful place, surrounded by jagged green ridges. I heard strange bird calls and the lowing of cows, sometimes closer than I would expect. The road ended and I started walking on the red dirt of Hawaii. The trail got a little steeper.

Waianae Valley Trail to Ka'ala

Waianae Valley Trail to Mount Ka’ala

I encountered a covered picnic table, built by a local Boy Scout and took a breather. That’s when I noticed the flies and mosquitoes. They avoided me for the most part, and really left me alone while I was moving. I was thankful for the shirt. The trail continued, almost tunnel-like, along a small ridge hump. I spied a small trail leading down to the left, and made a note to try that one if this trail didn’t pan out.

Small Ridge Line Tunnel Trail to Kaala

Small Ridge Line Tunnel Trail to Mount Ka’ala

It wasn’t two minutes later when I encountered about 6 guys with 9 dogs. When I told them I was going to Mount Ka’ala, they let me know I was on the wrong trail, pointed me the right way (back down that trail to the left), and asked me if I’d seen or heard any hogs. I let them know that I hadn’t heard anything yet and he let me know that I was in for an uphill battle.

The trail descended to a stream and the trail forked again. I took the trail to the right, since the other trail looked like it went downhill. I encountered a small waterfall (shown in the video below), as well as some interesting plants.

Flowers along the Waianae Trail to Kaala

Flowers along the Waianae Trail to Mount Ka’ala

Fungi along Trail to Ka'ala

Fungi along Trail to Mount Ka’ala

After I scaled the waterfall, the trail disappeared among the thick foliage and leaves on the ground. I decided to turn back and go to the fork and try the other way. I was regretting not having the maps and trip reports with me. Once I got to the other path, I knew right away that I was on the right track, since the path was well-marked and started going uphill right away.

I entered a thick forest before emerging into a section where I could turn around and see the ocean in the distance. I then entered another forest where the ground was muddier and slippery. As I ascended the steep trail, occasionally losing my footing in the thick mud, I began to wonder how I was going to get down without killing myself.

Forest along the way to Kaala

Forest along the way to Mount Ka’ala

Ocean Peek from the Waianae Kai Forest Reserve on the way to Ka'ala

Ocean Peek from the Waianae Kai Forest Reserve on the way to Mount Ka’ala

Fern Clearing on the way to Ka'ala

Fern Clearing on the way to Mount Ka’ala

The trail got steeper and steeper. I was walking on roots much of the way and scrambling here and there. After every challenging stretch, I would wonder again, sometimes aloud, “How am I going to get down this?” After using some rope and electrical cable left by someone who came before me, I finally made it to the ridgeline. I stood there for a while and drank in the views and wondered what lay before me as I scouted the ridgeline that steeply spiked upward in front of me. The trail dropped off for hundreds of feet on either side of me.

Ridgeline-Left to Right-to Ka'ala

Ridgeline-Left to Right-to Mount Ka’ala

Makua Keaau Ridge from Ka'ala Ridge Trail

Makua Keaau Ridge from Ka’ala Ridge Trail

Ropes near Ka'ala Ridge Line

Ropes near Ka’ala Ridge Line

Ka'ala Ridge Line

Ka’ala Ridge Line

Drop off on the Ka'ala Ridge Line Trail

Drop off on the Ka’ala Ridge Line Trail

“Where is the trail?” I wondered as I looked at a steep green rocky cliff that lay ahead of me. There had to be a way up there somewhere. I continued on the ridge, using the ropes more and more, until I came across about 20-30 feet of rock where the only way I could scale it would be to rely heavily on the knotted cable that ran along it. The rock was slick with rain and general moisture, and my shoes were covered in mud. I looked down on either side and seriously considered turning back. This would be difficult to get up without a lot of exposure. Getting down would be even harder. But I came all this way…

Steep section of the Ka'ala Ridge Line Trail

Where is the trail?

Exposure on the Ka'ala Ridge Line Trail

Exposure on the Ka’ala Ridge Line Trail

I made my way up, but the descent was always in the back of my mind. Even as I made it to the bog Reserve on top with the peculiar plants. One that stood out was a bright blue iceplant-like ground cover that was prevalent near the planks that comprise the bog trail. I made it to the top and through the first fence. I entered the fence to the left of the compound and walked around to the benchmark. There was no view except into the clouds that almost aways shroud Mount Ka’ala, but it’s the journey that is memorable. And boy was this an interesting one so far. I waved to some workers at the tracking station as I ate a power bar and drank some water. I longingly looked at the forbidden paved access road that follows a different way down which was completely out of the question for me.

Kaala Sign at Reserve Entrance

Ka’ala Sign at Reserve Entrance

Blue Plants and Walkway through Kaala Bog

Blue Plants and Walkway through Ka’ala Bog

End of the Trail on Ka'ala Peak

End of the Trail on Mount Ka’ala

Kaala Peak Benchmark

Mount Ka’ala Benchmark

Foggy view from Ka'ala Peak

Foggy view from Mount Ka’ala

Taking a deep breath, I shouldered my pack and began the journey back down. It was a slippery, muddy excursion where I could see the drop-off on either side of the trail more clearly than when I was ascending the mountain. I relied on the ropes completely and perfected my rappelling technique in the first few minutes. It was actually fun in some spots until I would lose some footing and dangle over the edge for a bit.

I was glad I brought my gloves and was wearing pants and a long sleeve shirt. I was completely muddy and wet when I got back to the car. I realized that I didn’t take one picture or shoot a second of video on the way back. I was focused on getting back in once piece.

What I learned:

- The hike to Mount Ka’ala is a hike to take with a buddy. There is some exposure and some physical and moral support would have done wonders.
- Don’t be afraid to wear long sleeves and pants, even in warmer weather. I would undoubtedly be carrying deep scratches all over if not for that.
Insect repellent-clothes work. Mine did. I only got one bite on my knuckle after seeing thousands of moquitoes. Can’t blame the shirt for that.
- Having a lightweight pair of gloves in your pack can leave you prepared for almost anything.
- Have a change of clothes in the car for after a hike. It’s been a rule for me for a while now and it really feels nice when I get back to the trailhead.
- Have some water ready at the car, because you may be out by the time you get there. I wasn’t out on this trip, but I’ve had water issues on previous trips and it’s pretty uplifting to know you have a stash when you get to the trailhead.
- Switchbacks are a blessing.
- Hiking in the tropics is challenging and gorgeous.

Google Earth Map to Mount Ka'ala

Google Earth Map to Mount Ka’ala – Click to Enlarge

Here is a temple that I visited the next day:

Byodo In Temple

Byodo In Temple

Hiking Santa Barbara, San Diego, and beyond, one peak at a time. I encourage people to get outside, promote stewardship of the outdoors, and engage people in the spirit of the wilderness. Feel free to reach out to me with questions.

Comments

  1. Zevensphin says:

    What an adventure! I especially enjoyed the bird sounds and the lush tropical landscape in the video. Do you have your camera on a Monopod when you’re narrating? Just curious.

  2. The bird sounds were some of the greatest highlights of the trip. I thought I heard a hog once in the distance on my way down, but I wasn’t sure.

    Regarding the video, I just have my Flip Video camera in my hand as I video. That’s why my aim is often off. I also sometimes zoom in without realizing it until I get home.

    There are a lot of tools that can make my video better, but I like having the camera in my pocket so I can quickly talk into it for notes and not worry about monopods, etc. I was considering a trekking pole with a ball mount on top, but they are pretty pricey.

  3. I just added the temple picture, too.

  4. I also added some pictures near the end of the report.

  5. Wow, I’ve never hiked in terrain and flora like that. What a change from SoCal. Those pictures are gorgeous. I think I would have been a little nervous doing that one alone. Glad it worked out. I’ve been eyeing a pocket camcorder like that. Nice work.

  6. Thanks for the trip report. I’d only recently heard about this hike. Looks like pretty fun. My wife and I had a great time hiking around similar mountains on Kauai a few years ago.

  7. Added a Google Earth Map Screenshot to give you an idea of the terrain.

    I really appreciate your comments.

  8. I climbed this yesterday, not the same trail you used though. we used a trail that starts at Kole kole pass and leads to Mt. Kalena, from there you go on the ridge that connects it to Ka’ala.. so overgrown… not maintained at all, and we only found that boardwalk after being on ka’ala for 3 hours, trying to reach the satellite things.

  9. Good job on the summit, it’s not an easy mountain to climb.

    I did know of the way from the east, but, since my hotel was only about 20 minutes away from this trailhead, I chose to go this way. It was actually pretty well maintained.

  10. Marshall says:

    Can you give me the website you used to get a permit to hike the trail? Or was it not required? And where was the trail head exactly? Any information would be great!

  11. No permit was necessary. There is a check in point for hunters, but not for hikers.

    Marshall,

    I took the 93 North from Ko Olina, making a right on Waianae Valley Road, taking it all the way to the gate and obvious trailhead on your left. Watch out for cows and it’s easy to take the wrong turn where the road crosses Plantation Road, but you’ll find it.

    Lat/Long: 21.475280, -158.152158

    http://goo.gl/maps/Nby1

    Let me know if you need more information.

    Thanks for reading!

  12. Hey,

    Me and my roomate hike all over Oahu with our 2 70 pound pups. We’ve hiked. Waimano trail a 7.2 mile hike with them. there were 2 nasty rocks about 7 foot high on each and we surpassed. my question is for mt ka’ala. is there anything of the sort that i will have to worry about with my pups. there pretty nasty when it comes to hiking and they can surpass most but i was wondering is there anything that will be problem. in other words having to pick them up over something because i cant get around it. i really need to know if theres gonna be something to stop me. i hate quitting lol.

  13. Hi Robert, thanks for reading!

    Although your dogs could probably make it up most of the trail, once you hit the ridge line, there are several things that would make me pause before hiking this way with dogs.

    One is the exposure. One wrong step and it’s a very long fall to the valley below on either side of the sometimes very narrow trail that follows the spine to the top. There is a particular section where you have to rock climb over a series of boulders. See the picture titled “Exposure on the Ka’ala Ridge Line Trail.” Keeping in mind that there are 1000-foot drop offs on either side of those boulders, I am not sure you could climb that while carrying a 70lb dog.

    Another is the sheer steepness of the trail. I had to use all fours to grip roots, branches and relied heavily upon the makeshift ropes to get to the top. And on the way down, there was a lot of rappelling. I am not sure how a dog, even trail-wizened, will handle those areas.

    Lastly is the Ka’ala Natural Area Reserve, which is the plateau on top that you have to cross before reaching the summit. The sign reads, “Introduction of any form of plant or animal life is prohibited.” You can interpret that any way you’d like, but I do know that this area is very sensitive and contains some pretty unique plants.

    I do recommend researching a trail that comes from the west, of which I know little, but I know people do that all the time. It may require permission to pass and I am not sure how dog-friendly it is. That may be your best bet.

    Good luck and let me know if you have any more questions.

    Happy Hiking,

    Derek

  14. Thanks! ill make sure to go up without dogs the first time! lol

  15. Cynthia says:

    Aloha,
    I live in the next valley over; Makaha. I really enjoyed reading this and seeing all you shared thank you. Have you ever done Sacred Falls or the Stairway to Heaven trails? I did them both, back in the day!

  16. I haven’t done either of those hikes, but vowed to do the Stairway next time I go to Oahu, if it’s legal to do so. Looked quite amazing from the highway.

  17. i heard a while ago the stairway to heaven was closed but ive seen pictures and it looks amazing

  18. Jeffrey says:

    Aloha Derek,

    Much thanks for the description of this trail. I’ve lived on Oahu for about 3.5 years now, and I thought this was a “Military Only” area of the island. Now I know that I can hike it, I can’t wait.

    Regarding the Stairway to Heaven, my first 6 months on Oahu I went with a small hiking group, and we hiked up a valley (i’m not sure which one), and hiked to the ridge top where the S.T.H. begins. The hike up was one of the most difficult hikes I’ve ever done (steep, mud and slush 2 feet deep, treacherous drop offs)…then descended down the S.T.H. The stairway ends in a suburban neighborhood and the only way out is to bushwhack through a creek bed.

    It is currently closed and illegal to hike up or down the stairway due to the steepness and difficulty of it. In addition, it is often patrolled by police and/or guards. The State of Hawaii spent millions of bucks to refurbish the stairway sometime in the last 20 years, only to decide against reopening it, most likely due to the difficulty and steepness of the stairway.

    I have climbed Half Dome in Yosemite, which was a piece of cake compared to the S.T.H. I could hardly walk for 3 days after the hike due to the soreness of my legs. But I must admit that is was spectacular and an experience I will never forget.

    Mahalo,

    Jeffrey

  19. Jeffrey,

    Thanks for sharing. I think about this hike all the time.

    Too bad about Stairway to Heaven. I heard that the locals didn’t like so many people parking in or near their neighborhood. Understandable. I hope they can find a compromise, as it really looks like an incredible hike.

  20. hey Adam thx for the information, i made it all the way with my dogs to the base of the bog area right at the 15 foot of rocks rofl. german shepard said no and refused to get dirty and climb up it but either way still great views and what not!

  21. My friend and I are hiking the moanaloa saddle to haiku stairs tomorrow and are trying to decide if it is a bad idea to do with just one person…?

  22. That totally makes me home sick and maybe inspires me to work towards such a goal.

  23. Melissa and joe says:

    Thank you for the detailed description of the hike we plan on doing this next weekend. All of your experience will be very helpful.

  24. Enjoy the hike!

  25. if i were to rate this review (enlightening article), i would give it 5 stars. remarkable ! will be hiking mt. kaala this sunday (28aug’11) and reading your notes convinces me that i can and will be able to do it — no prob ! thanks plenty.

    ps. hiking mt. kaala is preparaing my buddies and i to what in two more weeks will be another amazing hike in kauai; kalalau beach. mt. kaala however represents the elevation gain that kalalau does not have. excited ! :)

  26. Good luck, Fernando and thank you for the kind words!

  27. the blue stuff on the moss is herbicide they use to control the spreading of that invasive species. That bog is truly unique and i am lucky enough to have had the chance to do conservation work up there :D. Thanks for the cool video. Mahalo nui loa

  28. Thanks for the insight. That’s really good to know. Sure looks vivid when you’re hiking on the boardwalk!

  29. no problem. You should hike left fork in waimanalo! Supah nuts hike.

  30. Brennon Jacinto says:

    where do you get the trail maps from? i want to do this hike this weekend, and your review really helped alot, now all i need is trail maps

  31. I generally print my maps from Google Earth and various websites. For this hike, I don’t remember where I got it from. I did a Google search and found them. Mostly what I had were descriptions from SummitPost and someone’s personal website.

    Good luck! Please let me know if you have any questions.

  32. So I am looking at hiking this later this weekend. How long did the hike take you (both ways)? I’ve heard roughly 8 hours to do the entire hike.

  33. It took me just under 6 hours, but I hiked pretty steadily and had no one to chat with. I also didn’t really linger at the top too long, since there wasn’t a view. Your mileage may vary. Have a great hike!

  34. The “blue plants” on the boardwalk in the bog that you speak of is actually a from a dye they use to indicate that the invasive plants have been natually treated to kill off the moss. The moss is not natural to the Hawaii ecosystem.

  35. Just came down from working at the FAA/HIANG facility at the top….Trust me…Its better to drive up than hike…Unless you like the pain! lol

  36. Bill Melayter says:

    Thanks for the great descriptions and pictures. I have been up the Leeward/West trail many times and the Windward/East (Dupont) Trail twice. The Dupont trail starts behind Waialua HS on Plantation Rd and either requires permission or an early start to cross some private property (a horse corral) at the bottom. No permission required for the Leeward side. Some updates that people may find useful:
    Parking – 21.475467,-158.152176
    Water Tank 1 – 21.478699,-158.153847 About 400 meters from parking
    Water Tank 2 – 21.49023,-158.157549 About 1700 meters form parking
    The trail is marked with orange Gatorade type bottle caps where it might otherwise get confusing. Some of the old ropes have been replaced or backed up with newer ropes. There is a spigot that pokes thru the fence surrounding the water tanks for filling up bottles or bladders. We have drank the water from both water tanks with no ill effects (so far). Just make sure you turn the water off when done. About 1/2 way up at the power line tower the DLNR has started to install a pig fence.

  37. Just did this hike the other day but stopped at the second rock exposure because I didn’t want my sister to do it, and felt bad leaving her. I have to say I’m impressed you did that by yourself, that exposure is super sketchy. Any advice on how you approached it?

  38. Thanks for reading, Uncle P.

    How did I get up it? Sheer will power! I had summit fever and, wearing gloves, just climbed up with one hand on the rope. I actually slipped on the rappel the way down and dangled over the side a bit. I am thinking about repeating the climb pretty soon.

  39. Haha nice! That definitely takes cojones. I live in Makaha and will probably do the climb again soon with my buddy who’s stationed at MCBH. Definitely going to take gloves and possibly more rope. I have to reach that summit.

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