Hiking Nuʻuanu Trail

By Rasa Fournier

When you’re the only one standing on a mountaintop at 5:30 a.m., the world is yours. As a kid, I imagined while lying in bed how much fun I could be having at night, if only the adults would quit being so rigid about this whole bedtime thing. On a recent morning, when I happened to open my eyes at 4 a.m., I decided to invoke that inner child. Grabbing my forehead flashlight, I set out for the great wild yonder right behind my Nuʻuanu home – in pitch black. Nuʻuanu Pali Drive is a gorgeous, curving roadway, hidden below a canopy of rainforest boughs. No wonder shows like Hawaii Five-O and Journey to the Center of the Earth 2: The Mysterious Island have chosen the location for their filming. Something else pretty fantastic also goes on here. HURT (Hawaiian Ultra Running Team) uses the Judd trailhead, located just off Nuʻuanu Pali Drive, as one of its food and drink pitstops when its members are doing their 100 mile run. Yes, you read that correctly! What’s five miles in the dark for me, when they run 100 all day and all night?

Nuʻuanu Trail 1

With each step, I struggle to reign in my imagination. This winding, isolated road is just the scene for any horror film. Every shadow looms high, myriad night monsters giving me goosebumps (or “chicken skin” as we say in Hawaii) as much as the ones that hid under my bed did all those years ago. I arrive at two horizontal concrete pillars on the right side of the road, where in the day I’d see a sign marking the Judd trailhead. Peering deep past the unlit roadside, a nest of darkness greets me. With fear and loathing, the hair pricking up on my spine, I step off the Nuʻuanu Pali into the blind fathoms, hurrying as though the faster I walk, the faster I escape my own trepidation. Right away, I come to Nuʻuanu Stream where I skip, heart in throat, from boulder to boulder across the flowing water (follow it a short ways in the daytime and you arrive at the refreshing Jackass Ginger pool) and straight into a bamboo jungle. Instantly, something happens. In the protection of the forest, all fright sheds off of me like a heavy blanket and I’m suddenly peaceful and light-footed as I move from the bamboo thicket to a hillside ripe with Cook pines. Then, I take a left onto the marked Nuʻuanu Trail.

Even without the beam from my headlamp, I know this trail well ? all the hairpin curves as it zigzags straight up the Nuʻuanu Valley mountainside, the slick boulder that I must approach with caution, the rope that helps me along another narrow stretch, the fallen tree whose branches I must duck under, and the high rock face, always dripping with moisture, as I turn a particular corner.

Nuʻuanu Trail 2 Nuʻuanu Trail 3

Finally, as I gain the ridge line, I arrive at the first lookout point, my destination, and I turn around to look out over the valley and watch nature’s morning show. In the east, looking out toward Kailua, the sky has already lightened to a periwinkle, hovering above the most tranquil, but alas fleeting, moment of the day. Soon, lights begin to flick on in the houses below, welcoming the hustle and bustle of residents preparing to tackle a new day.

A lone bird sings out a question. Echoing from afar, another answers. I make do with a glimpse of rays fingering up from the distant, eastern horizon and gaze upon mountain silhouettes across the way, above Kalihi Valley, before retracing my steps downward. (Continuing further upward along Nuʻuanu Trail leads to more lovely views of Manoa Valley and the Tantalus mountain ridge as the trail intersects with Pauoa Flats Trail. Many an unprepared hiker has found themselves lost in the labyrinth of trails that connect here and there, stretching on for untold miles in these parts.)

Nuʻuanu Trail 4

With light seeping gradually through the overhead branches, my solitary wonderland begins to turn ordinary. Meanwhile, a few birds call out authoritatively and a whole flock, a mini convention, twitters back their protestations and propositions about the day’s agenda. I like what I hear, agreeing wholeheartedly. … Or are they concerned about the strange irregularity of a clothed creature breaching their domain at this odd hour of the morning?

TRAIL: Nuʻuanu Trail
LENGTH: 3 miles round trip
HOW TO GET THERE: From Waikiki, get on H-1 heading west. Take the Pali Highway (route 61), exit and then veer right onto Nuʻuanu Pali drive. Park along the street near two horizontal concrete pillars that lay at the entrance to the marked Judd trailhead on the right side of the road. (Or, park a mile sooner, near a busier neighborhood for optimal car safety.)

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