Our major goal of going to Oahu was to complete one big ridge hike. Oahu is famous for hikes along the skinny ridges on the tops of the mountains. I wanted to find one that wasn’t too dangerous in all the rain Hawaii had got recently. I’d read a lot of blogs and reviews on AllTrails that made some of these hikes seem super sketchy, like reading one lady say they had to make a human chain to cross back over the river when the levels started raising in the rain. LOL. Since it had been sunny for a couple days, we were hoping the trails had dried out a bit and decided to try to hike to Ka’au Crater, a 7 mile hike with 2200 feet elevation gain that takes you up along the ridge of the crater.
The trailhead was only 15 minutes from our condo, and starts in a residential area. There was only space for maybe 5-7 cars at the trailhead and we were the last to arrive at 10:30 am, squeezing in between another car and a neighbor’s trash cans. Another car showed up right after us and had to go park way further down the street. Alltrails lists this hike as on private property, but we didn’t have any issues when we went.
The trail starts down a stream in wet slippery rocks and you immediately feel like you are entering a jungle. There’s a sign right at the entrance saying that the trail isn’t maintained, and to enter at own risk. For an unmaintained trail, I was surprised that there were even a few signs along the first part of the stream making sure hikers don’t go the wrong way. You hike along/over/in the stream for the first quarter mile, and then start making your way up the jungle hillsides, requiring lots of stepping over roots and stepping in and around deep mud the entire way to your first waterfall. There is a water pipeline along most of the trail until the waterfalls, and at some points we just walked on the pipeline to get out of the mud. I was the first one to dunk my entire boot in mud, and then about 5 minutes later Blake did the same. Luckily we have good hiking boots and our feet stayed pretty dry. At the first waterfall you can scramble down to the water. It’s a pretty towering waterfall, pretty loud, and you feel like you are deep dark in the jungle because not much sunlight gets in here. It was beautiful.
After the first waterfall the trail gets steeper and you start using ropes to make your ascent. There are probably 50 -100 ropes on this trail. Some were pretty necessary, others were just there to guide you. You scale up past the first waterfall using the ropes, and then soon after you get to the second waterfall. I liked this one more because there was more sunlight here. Blake took the first fall of the day here, and he was like a flailing giraffe! He was taking a picture and stepped backward, slipped, tried to catch himself, slipped again, and ended up completely on the other side of the stream with a small cut in his leg and scrapes up his arm. Luckily nothing worse and he didn’t break his new phone we got just before the trip, but he had to jump back over the stream to get back to the trail. After this I was so annoying to him telling him to put his phone away so he didn’t slip again, which could totally be catastrophic on some of the narrow and exposed sections of this hike.
After the second waterfall you again use ropes to scale up past the waterfall, the trail becoming skinnier, and more overgrown. We completely felt like we were in Jurassic Park, especially when we finally got a view of the third waterfall and you can see the ascent to the crater. Then you have to down climb a section of ropes to get down to the base of the third waterfall. I didn’t like putting my full weight on some of these ropes because you never know how long they’ve been there, what they are anchored to, and what condition they are in, but it was somewhat impossible to climb up and down some of these slimy steep sections without fully relying on the rope. We ate lunch at the bottom of the waterfall. We actually did wear swimsuits on this hike and brought water shoes in case we wanted to swim in the pools at the base of the waterfalls, but it wasn’t that warm of a day, and the water wasn’t quite as clean as we’d expected. We didn’t want to be wet for the rest of the hike on a cloudy cool day, so instead we just enjoyed the view, and kept our pace up because hiking in such muddy conditions was taking us twice as long as normal.
The rope climb up the third waterfall was the most fun because you are actually climbing right next to the waterfall. The waterfall is really low angle, so it isn’t that difficult, but you are just a foot from the water sliding over the rocks. At one point you have to jump over a flat section of the waterfall to get to the other side and keep climbing the ropes. It was probably the most unique section of hiking we’ve ever done. However, I don’t think I would recommend going down this way. Once you get to the top of the third waterfall, you gain a bit more elevation, and then you are at the base of the crater. You have the choice to hike counterclockwise around the crater, or turn left and hike clockwise around the bottom rim of the crater for probably a quarter mile until you get to a different trail to take you back down to the stream that you initially started hiking on and then eventually the trailhead. This side of the loop is a lot less difficult. It is still muddy in places, but you are higher up on the hillside instead of down by the stream and water pipeline, so you can get down quicker. If you don’t want to hike the entire crater rim, but want the experience of scaling up all three waterfalls, then taking this shortcut down is a great recommendation so that you don’t have to scale back down the waterfall.
We did the full 7 miles and hiked counter clockwise around the rim of the crater. Once you’re on the rim you are much more exposed to the wind, which felt good after being in the muggy jungle below. You can see the circular shape of the crater, and the bottom of the crater is apparently full of marshy water which feeds the waterfalls, so you can’t walk across it. The entire ridge line along the rim is super narrow and exposed and still super muddy. It’s a gradual ascent until you have to make a steep incline up some of the peaks, and the mud here became knee deep trenches with more rope climbs. We tried to walk closer to the edge to avoid some of the mud trenches, but there was probably a 60-80 degree slope down on each side of the trail. There are dense jungly bushes on each side of the trail, but you can’t really rely on them because they give way to nothing. If you stepped too far to the side your foot would just go through bushes because it was so steep. We were constantly grabbing hold of roots and branches to help stabilize ourselves on this entire hike. At one point the branch Blake grabbed on broke loose and caused him to lurch forward. I grabbed him by the backpack and pulled him backwards, but I don’t think he would’ve gone off the edge either way on that section, luckily. That just tells you how exposed this trail was though.
We were fully committed to the mud at this point, using hands, knees and feet to get up these mud trenches, but eventually made it to the top and our first viewpoint looking down into the Mokes Islands. This ridge-line separates the island from the south west shore to the north east shore, so you could see down to downtown Honolulu behind us, and to the Kanahoe Bay in front of us. The clouds were looking really ominous up here, but kept holding off on rain like it was supposed to, but the wind was really bad.
Next we had to start going DOWN this kind of muddy exposed trail, and that’s even worse. For a couple steep slick sections that were along straight 90 degree drop offs, we were literally crunched down so low to get out of the wind and limit our exposure, essentially in a crab walk or just sliding on our butts. We had to go up another section of mud trenches to get to the other peak on the left top side of the rim before finally descending down the other side of the crater. Going down the mud trenches was even trickier to make sure we didn’t just completely slide off the side of the mountain, but luckily there were ropes in all the trickiest spots. I had so much relief at surviving the rim trail when we were finally back down to the lower part of the crater.
The remainder of the trail hike was still muddy and full of roots, but much easier. The entire hike took us 7 hours for 7 miles, so we only averaged a mile an hour, which is half our normal speed. We only saw one couple coming down from just hiking to the waterfalls, another couple at the first waterfall, and one lone man on the north side of the crater that we were totally not expecting to see. Otherwise this was a completely empty hike.
This was 100% the most unique hike we’ve ever done, and Blake even said its his favorite hike he’s ever done, but I’m not sure either of us would ever need to do it again! Hiking up past the waterfalls was so fun and the views were extraordinary, but it’s one of those hikes that takes so much effort that it’s better to let the memories sink in as a once in a lifetime experience.
I’ve never been to Hawaii, and Blake has only been to Kauai for work. We’ve been wanting to go for so long especially since Southwest Airlines started flying there and between islands. Our friend Sean reached out to see if we wanted to do a trip in March because he needed a break from work, and his own Hawaii trip was canceled last year when the pandemic started. I really wanted to go to Kauai...