Hiking Kolowalu Trail

By Rasa Fournier

There’s no beating around the bush. The Kolowalu trail is a doozy. It’s only one mile up, but it’s straight up. However innocuous “one mile” may sound, there’s nothing “meh” about a short hike in Hawaii. Some of my one-milers have been far more harrowing than any of my day-long, 11-hour gruelers. We hear the term “stranger danger” when talking about safety in social situations, but that term aptly pertains to trails as well.


In our gorgeous paradise, hikes that we haven’t researched and prepared ourselves for can quickly turn tragic. Oahu’s mountains are not made of impenetrable granite. They boiled up out of our oceans all those millions of years ago and are volcanic and crumbly. Earth, especially at a cliff’s edge, can give way even for the most nimble-footed hiker. Views are so spellbinding as to be lethally distracting (yes, people have been so swept up in gazing at, or snapping photos of, the scenery that they have fallen to their demise). To complicate matters, wild boar scamper through our rain forests creating misleading side trails, and flash floods can instantly send a river cascading down a path that was dry seconds earlier.

Along with some basic cautionary measures and common sense, the safest bet is to choose hikes listed on the State’s Na Ala Hele trail system, which are carefully maintained. On these public access trails, there is no second-to-second danger element present in the thrill climbs that bloggers one-upping each other boast about on the Internet. For some nevertheless thrilling adventure, but on a safe, state-maintained trail, there’s Kolowalu. Not quite a stroll with the family experience, it’s more of an exercise addict’s sprint. Kolowalu is a whole lot of up-up-up, littered with rock and root obstacles, all packed into one short adrenaline-pumping burst.

Because the ascent is so steep, the topography changes quickly. Starting on the outskirts of Manoa neighborhood, the path opens on level ground. Thousands of viny tendrils stretch down from the tops of forest giants, draping in a thick curtain through a clinging display of leaves the size of elephant ears. Instantly the path begins to rise. Just further up, the lush greenery gives way to a grove of spindly strawberry guava stalks. Even further, the thick forest tapers into a mass of stalky bushes that hug the mountainside, allowing for a sightline of building-streaked Waikiki, topped by baby blue skies and marshmallow clouds.


The higher the climb, the more gnarly and twisted the tree trunks and more profound the slithering spectacle of roots become, conjuring visions of gnomes. Nature even highlights the enchanted atmosphere by covering parts of the path and tree trunks with a grasshopper-bright carpet of moss. Up here, toward the top of the ridge, is a grove of yellow guava whose trunks are thick, smooth and tan, and packed close together, their myriad arms stretching akimbo like a motley army of forest soldiers.


Suddenly, amidst my sweating, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other revelry, I’ve gained the ridge, marked by a trail sign announcing that I’ve arrived at a junction with Waahila Ridge Trail. Waahila Trail travels down 2.4 miles to Waahila Ridge State Park. Rather than turn around and go back down Kolowalu at this point, an alternate option is to park a car at the beginning of each trail and descend along Waahila.

Either way, you’re in for some of Hawaii’s most invigorating, and steepest, outdoor fun. Safe trails!

TRAIL: Kolowalu Trail

LENGTH: 2 miles round trip

HOW TO GET THERE: From Waikiki, take Ala Wai Boulevard and turn right at McCully Street. Then turn right onto Kapiolani Boulevard and left at University Avenue. Continue onto Oahu Avenue, and turn right onto East Manoa Road. Turn left at the intersection with Alani Drive. When Alani makes a sharp right, park along the road and continue onto Alani Lane by foot.

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