Koko Head Stairs – Oahu’s #1 Fitness Hike – Climb a Hawaiian Volcano!

Koko Head Stairs

If you’ve ever dreamed of hiking to the top of an extinct Hawaiian volcano – this hike is for you.  Sure, you can join the thousands of other tourists climbing up the inside of Diamond Head – but if you want to climb the outside of a volcano, get away from the entrance fees, experience sweeping wild views of the rocky South Shore of Oahu the Pacific Ocean, and even the neighbor islands of Molokai, Lanai, and Maui – then climbing the Koko Head Stairs is for you.

Koko Head Stairs

It’s a funny name…but there is nothing funny about this hike. 1042 stairs up the vertical face of a volcano on Oahu. Koko Head is 1208 feet tall (368m). That’s the tall part with the stairs. There is a bit of confusion around the name because in fact, the stairs go up Koko Crater – Koko Head is actually the headland on the other side of Hanauama Bay – the peak (where the stairs go) is actually named Kohelepelepe. Confused yet? Don’t be – just do like everyone else and call the hike Koko Head Stairs.

 

Koko Head Stairs

Koko Head last erupted about 35,000 years ago. So you don’t have to worry about that happening while you hike. You just have to worry about finding your way to Koko Head Regional Park. Once there, park past the baseball diamond. The pop pop pop you hear is the Kokohead shooting range. It’s contained and no danger to hikers. You’ll see exhausted hikers strewn all around the parking area.

Koko Head Stairs

Follow the path past the baseball diamond to the base of the stairs. You’ll see hundreds of pairs of hiking shoes thrown onto the power lines as you approach the base of the stairs. I don’t know why people do that. Shoes are expensive.

Koko Head Stairs

The stairs are the remains of a funicular built by the U.S. military during World War II. A small train pulled troops and equipment up to pillboxes and bunkers on the top. You don’t get that option because the train is long gone. The railway ties, howeever, remain. Get ready for over a thousand lunges…big steps. Halfway up you will have to overcome any fear of heights as you cross the crumbling railway bridge and then you will go up the last near vertical section just as you think you can’t go any further.

Koko Head Stairs

Finally, you will reach the top and share smiles and congratulations for your amazing achievement – don’t let the fitness freaks who have run past you four times on your journey up take away from the moment (they went up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down – freaks.) It’s not an easy hike. Many turn back. Many look up the stairs and don’t even try.

Koko Head Stairs

From the top you can find different views. The communities of Hawaii Kai and Portlock with Diamond Head in the distance. Hanauma Bay below you. The neighbor islands. And the interior of the Koko Crater which is filled with a desert botanical garden.

Koko Head Stairs

Hike up to the metal grate and take epic photos. Hydrate. And get ready for the hike down when your legs will turn to jelly.

Don’t forget to wear sunscreen, bring water, wear breathable clothes, wear good shoes – this is not a flip flop or barefoot hike. Also take breaks if you need to and don’t be afraid to call it quits if it is too much. A hat isn’t a bad idea either.

Saturday Slideshow: Tropical Flowers on Oahu

I’m going to start using the Saturday Slideshow to showcase some of my travels to different places around the world and around the USA – but that will be next week. This week – I’m going to share some splashes of amazing tropical flower power to brighten up the cold and rain that I know are hitting most of the United States and much of Europe. This is how I share a little Aloha before the holidays!

Come to Hawai’i and visit Oahu – the flowers are for everyone – just remember the secret code of the flower – behind the left ear means you are taken, behind the right ear means you are available, behind both ears means that you are taken but willing to consider upgrading…:)

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The Halona Blowhole – Lavatube, Wild Hawaii Coast, South Shore Oahu Marvel

Halona BlowholeI’ve always thought that the Halona Blowhole, and blowholes in general, are very unfortunately named. They should instead be called ocean geysers or lava tube spouts – but blowhole? Really? Oh well, there’s nothing I can do about it. The unfortunate name doesn’t change the fact that the Halona Blowhole is one of Oahu’s most exciting natural wonders. Like Diamond Head– people come to Hawaii with seeing ‘the blowhole’ on their bucket list – often without knowing what to expect.

Halona is a stretch of rocky and wild coastline on the South shore of Oahu. The word Halona means overlook in Hawaiian language and as descriptions go, it’s pretty apt. Sitting between Breakneck Beach (Sandys) and Hanauma Bay – this rocky overlook provides views of whales, Maui, multi-colored water, and of course, the aforementioned blowhole. So, just what is the blowhole?

Halona Blowhole

Several hundred thousand years ago, the Koko Head volcano was active and lava flowed from it to the ocean below. Surface lava cooled quickly and hardened into stone, but under the surface rivers and streams of molten rock made their way to the ocean. As the streams dried up, they left tubes behind – sometimes large, other times small. Most of them collapsed from the weight of the rock above but some of them (in particular smaller ones) remained as small tunnels. One such lava tube formed at Halona and was left just below the high water mark. Tens of thousands of years of wave action eventually broke the surface of the tube so that incoming waves would burst through the rock after traveling some distance in the lava tube – if the pressure was (or is) strong enough based on direction of the waves, volume of water, and tidal conditions – the water spouts skywards and sometimes causes visitors to get wet!

On the right day, at the right time, in the right conditions – the Halona Blowhole goes as high as 30 feet! Other days you are lucky to see a little mist coming out. Nearly every visitor to Oahu makes the trek to Halona – the parking lot can be crowded – but on the right days – you won’t even notice the people. Don’t forget to look behind you at the Kokohead Volcano. Blowhole Oahu

There are strict rules in place and visitors are not allowed to go down to where the blowhole erupts. In the past there were no fences or barriers and adventure seekers would get close to the blowhole to feel the power of nature…and some of them died. There have been a handful of fatalities from people making bad decisions and the result is that no one is allowed to go near the blowhole. On one tragic day, a teenager got blasted by the spray and then sucked into the blowhole and died in front of visitors.

Halona From Here to Eternity

The Halona Blowhole parking lot is also where you park if you want to visit Eternity Beach – but I’ll tell you about that in another post.

Hike Oahu’s Diamond Head Volcano then Surf Diamond Head Break in Hawaii

As a guide, one of the top requests I get is to ‘see Diamond Head’ – which is funny, because often when I get the request – it’s in Waikiki where Diamond Head is most visible!  Diamond Head is just one of those monuments that people have heard of but don’t really know what it is – sometimes they know it’s a volcano, sometimes they know it’s a hike, sometime’s they know it’s a surf break – but Diamond Head is that and more. It’s also a neigborhood, a road, a direction, a crater, a park, a National Guard base, a historic military lookout, a lighthouse – and quite frankly – an experience and feeling – a sense of actually being in Waikiki.

Geologically speaking, Diamond Head is a tuff cone volcano that last erupted about 400,000 years ago. The Hawaiians called it Le’ahi which means ‘forehead of the tuna’ and from Waikiki – that’s exactly what it looks like. Western sailors gave it the current name because it was a visible landmark from sea – also known as a ‘head’. The shape of the top is roughly diamond shape which makes sense to me but there are other stories about sailors finding calcite crystals they thought were diamonds and even about the way the light refracted off of it at sunset.  At it’s tallest point, it is 762 feet tall (232 m). Diamond Head was the last gasp of the Oahu volcanos and took place millions of years after the main island-forming eruptions of the Ko’olau and Waianae Volcanos. The Pali Lookout sits at the top of the Ko’olau Volcano rim – sometimes people get the lookouts confused.

In modern times, the crater and nearby areas outside the crater were part of the U.S. Army’s Fort Ruger. Today there is still a National Guard Unit and Hawaii Civil Defense inside the crater. It was used as a lookout point for the U.S. Military in Hawaii during both world wars and the pillboxes at the top of the popular interior hike are the remnants of those bygone days.

Diamond Head is a U.S. National Monument and Natural Landmark – so it is protected. In the 1960s and 70s there were huge Woodstock style concerts in the crater with the likes of Jimmy Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, and more.  I would have loved seeing the Grateful Dead in there.

Today, most people who come to Diamond Head want to do the hike. It is less than a mile each direction but with some serious elevation gain (about 560 feet). Bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen,  and take breaks if you need to. The trail was built in 1908 by the U.S. Army. In ancient times, there was a Heiau (temple) dedicated to the God of Winds up near where tourists take in the view today. You’ll see why – so hold onto your hat! Admission is $5 per car if driving or $1 per person if walking. It is open every day of the year from 6am to 6pm with last entrance at 4:30 pm daily.

Parking is cheap but you may have to wait for a few minutes. To get there just drive up Diamond Head Road to Kapiolani Community College and turn right at the sign, drive through the tunnel into the crater, and pay for parking at the gate.

After you take the hike, drive back out through the tunnel and continue on around Diamond Head’s exterior. You will find several pullouts where you can take in the view of the surf on one side and the exterior of the Volcano on the other. Between the lookouts and the Diamond Head Lighthouse which is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard – you will see a trail that leads down to the surf break. Diamond Head is one of the most consistant and popular surf breaks on the island of Oahu. You will have to hike your board down (and back up) but it will be worth it. If you just want to watch the surfers, the lookout with the Amelia Earhardt memorial is the best spot.

Further down the road, you will enter the Diamond Head neighborhood, one of Oahu’s most exclusive and expensive places to live. Just a bit further and you will be back in Waikiki at Kapiolani Community Park. Don’t forget to turn around and enjoy the beauty and grace of Diamond Head as you enjoy Waikiki.

The Nu’uanu Pali Lookout on Oahu – See Hawaii from Above

Pali Lookout HawaiiOne of the most spectacular viewpoints in the world lies just a few miles from Honolulu and Waikiki. The word ‘pali’ in Hawaiian language means cliff – and the Pali Lookout won’t disappoint you as you get an amazing view up the Windward Side of Oahu and down into the beautiful towns of Kailua and Kaneohe. The lookout itself is a magnificent section of cliff which sits at the top of the Nu’uanu Valley and just on the town-side of the Nu’uanu tunnels (Route 61) which go straight through the walls of the ancient Ko’olau volcano. The tunnels date back to 1958, before that the road went up and over the lookout.

From the lookout you can see Kualoa Mountain, Chinaman’s Hat, Coconut Island, and Kaneohe and Kailua Bays.

Driving from Honolulu, you will take the Nu’uanu Pali Highway and turn off at the Nu’uanu Pali State Wayside – don’t forget to pay for parking- the attendants are vigilent! If you wear a hat, hold onto it because there are often strongtrade winds barrelling through the pass. Before the tunnels, this was the main road across the Ko’olau connecting town-side with windward side. The road up from the town side has always been important and today there are consulates, church headquarters, Buddhist missions, a synagogue, and nice neighborhoods. The Nu’uanu valley has been inhabited for more than a thousand years. Hawaiian royalty built their summer homes in the valley to avoid the higher temperatures from June through September.

Historically, the lookout is celebrated as the site of the unifying battle of the Hawaiian Islands where King Kamehameha the First brought ten thousand warriors and slaughtered the defenders of Oahu – who were mostly conquering Maui warriors. He forced Kalanikupule to the edge of the cliff and then threw him from the edge along with four hundred of his soldiers. This happened in 1795.

Fifty years later, the first road crossed the Pali. Hawaiian legends abound about the Pali – there are ghosts and goddesses and magical dogs and enchanted lizards – but mostly you will see chickens and cats.

One of my favorite of the stories goes that you should never have pork in your car when you cross the Pali – mainly this is because Pele, the goddess of the Volcano had a terrible relationship and bad breakup with Kamapua’a – the pig god. Since that time, she won’t let any pork or pigs come across the Pali and if you try…your car will break down until you remove the pork from the vehicle. So you better not pack ham sandwiches for lunch!

 

Makapu’u Point Lookout and Lighthouse on Oahu, Hawaii

Makapu’u Point. One of the most visually striking places on the island of Oahu comes as you head around the south side of Oahu through rocky, volcanic, cactus filled and generally desert island vistas and you turn north onto the Windward side of Oahu. People think of Oahu and generally they think of Honolulu – a large and wonderful city of right around 1-million people – but here is the secret – most of the tourists on Oahu stay in Honolulu and Waikiki – on the other islands they go everywhere. That’s just one of the reasons why Oahu is my favorite of all the Hawaiian Islands…but of course there are many reasons beyond that.

As you turn North and start to head towards the Windward side – don’t be in a hurry – Kailua, Kaneohe, Laie, and the North Shore can wait…right now you are on sacred ground. This is where the climactic zone you are in suddenly and without warning does a handstand.

Pull into the overlook at Makapu’u Point…take the walk up to the viewpoints. Look north and take a deep breath…suddenly, all is green and blue and wonderful. There are a dozen shades of blue and a dozen shades of green here – your camera can’t capture all those colors – but your eye can. Still, even the pictures can take your breath away. This is Hawai’i. This is the amazing land of Aloha. This is where the magic happens.

When you get back in the car and start heading North, you’ll drive along the rocky cliff face and see a pull out where you can park your vehicle, get out, and look back. Do it!

You’ll see the stunning Makapu’u Lighthouse. It was built in 1906 and has the largest lens of any lighthouse in the USA. Plus, it’s scenic as hell.

For an even better view go down into the Makapu’u Beachpark parking lot across from Sea Life Park. If you do it at sunrise, it’s even better – but don’t leave your valuables in the car. The cockroaches love breaking windows and stealing valuables…and you’ll never see them do it. 

I have been all over the world, I’ve seen a lot of places, but there is nowhere that is like Hawai’i.  Especially at sunrise.

A Beautiful Free Waterfall Hike On Oahu – Manoa Falls Trail

Oahu waterfallSure, you will enjoy this hike more if you pay for it – the guides will tell you lots of stories, you will learn about the plants, the history, the geology – and you won’t have to worry about parking your car. But if you want to go for a great free hike on Oahu – Manoa Falls is it. Easy hike (5 year olds do it all the time and so do grandparents) with great scenery, set locations from lots of different movies, and a waterfall. Are you suppossed to swim in the waterfall? Well, no, you aren’t. Does that stop anyone? No, not really. In fact, the ropes and signs are ignored by everyone – even the people who have died from rocks dropping from above and smashing their heads – so don’t say you weren’t warned.

 

I’ve been doing this hike for a long time – and even though it’s more crowded than before – it’s still a good hike. Here’s me doing the hike back in 2007.

To get to it, you simply head out of Waikiki towards the University of Hawaii at Manoa and if you want to pay $5 for parking, drive all the way up to the lot or if you want to walk an extra half mile or so, park in the neighborhood below. The waterfall can be gushing but sometimes it’s just a trickle. The hike is the best part. Getting in the water at the falls is illegal, but most people do it anyway…there is some danger of rocks falling from the cliffs above and killing you if you are in the pool. There is also the danger of Leptosporosis. You’ve been warned.

Oahu Waterfall

The hike will lead you through a hau tangle, into a verdant rainforest (parts of Jurassic Park were shot here – watch out for dinsaurs) into a Bamboo forest, down muddy trails, and along a stream. Do bring bugspray – you will end up at the beautiful Manoa Falls. Don’t drink the water! For two reasons – first leptospirosis can get in tropical fresh water – you don’t want it. Also, figure that everyone in that waterfall pool is peeing in it – so if you wash off mud downstream – you are pretty much washing in. A bunch of strangers urine. Urine Luck!

Oahu Waterfall

Pee jokes aside – take your time on this hike and be sure to bring water, good hiking shoes, snacks, and a towel to dry off with (either at the waterfall or at the bottom when you wash off the mud in the parking lot.

The Hitachi Tree in Honolulu’s Moanalua Gardens

On the west side of Honolulu, just near the big pink building (Tripler Army Hospital)  – just on the edge of the Salt Lake Neighborhood but before you reach Aloha Stadium – is one of the most famous trees that you’ve seen but never heard of (unless you are Japanese). The tree is located in Moanalua Botanical Gardens, a privately held garden which is open to the public with a small admission fee.

The Hitachi Tree – the symbol of the Hitachi Company – a large monkeypod tree with a distinct umbrella shape that is so important to Hitachi that they have paid a license fee to use it since the early 1970’s.Currently the annual fee is about a half million US dollars. The tree is a huge draw to Japanese tourists, though most Americans or other nationalities have never heard of it.

The Hitachi Tree first originated through a TV commercial that aired in Japan in 1973. It symbolized the “comprehensive drive” and the “wide business range” of the Hitachi Group. It continues today as an image of the Hitachi Group’s working for communities through leveraging of its collective capacities and technologies, and the dedication of the individuals that the Group comprises. The tree is widely recognized, especially in Japan, and has become an important symbol of the Hitachi Group’s reliability, and earth-friendliness. It also enhances Hitachi’s brand value as a visual representation of its corporate slogan: “Inspire the Next.”  Over the past 35 years, the Hitachi Tree has become a valuable Hitachi Group asset as a familiar and respected image in Hitachi’s expanding messages globally.

It is a magnificent tree – but the gardens around it are also worth visiting. The Moanalua Gardens contain the Hitachi Tree and the summer cottage of King Kamehameha V of Hawai’i  which was moved from it’s original location up Nu’uanu Ave and Old Pali Road.. There are beautiful refelction ponds, a stream running through the gardens, a lovely visitor center, and large grassy areas that are perfect for picnics, days playing frisbee, or just lying under a huge trees and reading a book.

One word of advice though,  don’t try to relax under the Hitachi tree – about once an hour a bus full of Japanese tourists will pull in and crowd the area to get a picture with the most famous tree in Japan.

To get there, take the H-1 Freeway West from Honolulu, when the freeway splits into the H-1 or the H-201, stay to the left on the H-201 and take the Moanalua/Pu’uloa Road exit. The entrance to the garden will be on the right side before you get off the ramp. It’s tricky, but you can do it. Watch for the sign that says Moanalua Gardens about midway down the ramp and turn right directly after it.

Kapena Falls – Free, Beautiful, Not Crowded, Easy Oahu Walk with Petroglyphs

It always amazes me that there aren’t crowds of people at Kapena Falls – I really can’t figure it out. Manoa Falls has a bizillion people on the trail even when it’s raining or the falls are a drizzle – people go past the ‘don’t go past this sign’ signs and wade into the shallow water of Manoa Falls with thousands of others each day – but Kapena Falls – most times I go there, no one is there – or just local kids enjoying the pool there and jumping off the cliffs into it.

I’m not giving away any sort of secret by writing about Kapena Falls – it’s well known. It’s in the guide books, it’s been written about by plenty of other Hawai’i travel websites – but it’s almost always serene, quiet, and uncrowded. Maybe it’s the dogs….

First of all, let me tell you how to get there. From downtown Honolulu, take Nu’uanu Ave towards the Pali. Turn into Memeorial Cemetary on the right side – the one with the huge pagoda. Drive through the cemetary all the way down to the maintenance shed where there is parking. Don’t leave valuables in your car – ever.

The trail starts to the left of the maintenance barn.

A few steps in, you are awarded with a set of waterfalls in Nu’uanu Stream. That is Alapena Falls. Take a few more steps and you will see a rebar cage on the left side with some rubbish around it (it’s always there, I think that some people think the cage is a rubbish bin) – take a moment and let your eyes become accustomed to the jungle light – you will see ancient Hawaiian Petroglyphs. There are people and dogs. I’ve always heard that they are Madam Pele’s dogs, magical beings that act as guardian spirits to the area – there are other stories, but that’s the one I like.

Don’t be surprised to find homeless campers on the other side of the stream. Homeless people are everywhere on Oahu except for the rich neighborhoods and the tourist areas like Waikiki. They won’t hurt you. The mosquitos on the other hand – make sure you have plenty of bug spray on. There are a lot of mosquitos on this trail.

A few minutes walk and you will find yourself at the base of the beautiful Kapena Falls. The trail ends at the shoreline of the Alapena pool. The Hawai’i Department of Health advises to not swim here because of Leptospirosis and urban pollution – so, do so at your own risk. The cliffs are a favorite summer jumping spot for local youth – if you join them, be sure to swim in the area you plan to jump first because there are rocks in certain areas that people have jumped and landed on – and then been injured.

It’s said that Queen Emma, who had her Summer Palace not far away – used to cool down in this pool on days when the trade winds were still. I certainly can’t blame her.