Hiking Puu Ohia Ridge

By Rasa Fournier

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Never mind that there are abundant hiking trails throughout Tantalus Forest, the drive up the mountainside is a spirit-soother unto itself. The curving road climbs through such a welcome flourishing of vegetation, that I unroll my windows, open my sky roof and inhale deeply the cool wind flooding my car with a fresh rush of eucalyptus. An Isaac Asimov story comes to mind where rains so enveloped a land that the greenery multiplied like a fast-growing monster. Here, leafy tendrils, hanging from the verdant mass of branches above, swipe at my roof.

The drive is marked by a series of overlooks that in the daytime offer scenic views of nature’s blues and greens contrasted against a textured spill of dwellings and spindly high-rises that delineate Waikiki. And at night, lovers park to take in the starry firmament and Honolulu’s romantic city lights. This treasured setting is home to a network of trails, from short strolls to mega-long, sweat baths, depending on how you map out your journey.

Today, I’m in for a fairly mellow walk, but it’s one where I have to watch my footing as the path is narrow, being only lightly frequented. I feel like a bush pig as I duck through hearty undergrowth onto Pu‘u Ohia Trail, which begins with an immediate ascent. A series of planks have been fastened into the hillside serving as makeshift stairs, to halt erosion and prevent treacherously muddy climbs for hikers. The resulting terraced levels add to the surrounding beauty, inviting forest wanderers up and up. Once the path evens out, boughs providing shade, bend toward forest grasses highlighted here and there by tender violet petals.

Then come the bamboo groves. All those myriad green stalks planted just inches apart readily invoke a sense of awe. A ways down the path and there’s one more stair-climb through the panda heaven ― their diet is more than 99-percent bamboo ― up to a utility road, which is itself encased in yet more of the tall, lush stalks. A sign tells me to turn right onto the road, where I encounter poetry-worthy views of a skyline where the Ko‘olau range, earth’s dark, looming backbone, rises to meet celestial puffs of white, all under the auspices of a royal blue sky.

Further down the road, the trail continues to the left of a fenced structure, where I enter … yup, more panda fodder. The path here has been rutted, perhaps by the area’s steady surplus of rainwater, so that a deep, moss-covered groove has formed. Unusually absent of earthen wetness on this warm, but breezy, summer day, the rut instead has filled with a tan crisscross of dry leaves.

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And then the thick foliage halts suddenly at a gated fence, out here in the middle of the woods. The fence protects a native forest restoration project from damage by wildly destructive feral pigs. Just beyond the fence, a man diligently tends to his forest gardening. Bent over, his hands absorbed in plying the land, he doesn’t even glance up.

Past the gate, the terrain transforms dramatically, opening up, with a view across trees and bushes, deep into the valley. The path winds down and then up for a moment and back down the sloping mountainside until it intersects with the Manoa Cliff Trail. Turning left here leads into a madding miles-long network of trails that without a map or GPS could easily lose a person for hours. Turn right, and two miles down, the trail connects with Round Top Drive, a mile or so down the road from the original Pu‘u Ohia trailhead. The easiest route back to the car is to turn around here and save the other trails for another day.

TRAIL: Puu Ohia Trail

LENGTH: 1.5 miles round trip

HOW TO GET THERE: From Waikiki, take Ala Wai Boulevard and turn right on McCully Street. Make a left onto South Beretania Street and turn right onto Punahou Street, then left at Nehoa Street and right onto Makiki Street. Turn left onto Round Top Drive and continue for five miles. Shortly after passing Kalaiopua Place on the left, turn right into a parking area lined with short poles. The marked trailhead is across the street.

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