When I wake up pumped for action but with no pre-planned destination for treading my ready feet, I instinctually opt for Kuliouou, a hike I’ve done more times than any other on Oahu. The trail follows a cement road several yards, before veering right onto a marked dirt path. After a few more yards, a sign on the right of the path alerts me to a side trail, all lumpy with rocks, where I begin my ascent. The first half of the trail trudges over boulders and roots, past tall grasses, under the dotted shade of thin trees, before approaching a distinct change in the terrain. It might not be white, wet and cold, but I think of snow when I step into the magical, shadowy stillness of an ironwood forest, where the ground is buried under a thick blanket of fallen needles.
The jaunt follows a series of switchbacks up the side of the mountain before finally approaching a ridge line saddle. The strain of my efforts is instantly washed away by a cooling rush of wind that whispers up through the trees and gushes over me. I follow the main trail as it bends to the left and enters a thick grove of Cook pines before depositing me at the base of a red dirt hill which I climb to arrive at a covered bench. A short breath-catching rest and an energy bar prepare me for the final climb to the peak. When I was younger, I’d sometimes turn back at this point, but the real excitement begins just past the bench.
Once I step beyond that resting zone, it’s a steep climb straight to the top. A root-riddled scramble leads to a second bench offering the first panoramic view that stretches over Kuliouou valley out to the sea. Then comes a distinct gnarled archway, woven by banyan branches, that I duck through as I head toward a thin ridge where the views become exponentially more and more beautiful. At this point, a decade or so ago, I once faced a sheer toe and finger scramble up a dirt, or often mud, face until some well-placed ropes aided my way. Now, hikers have the luxury of stairs ? yes, a relative luxury ? and more and more stairs, before finally arriving at a bald plateau. The committed effort makes arrival at the top that much more rewarding.
Standing at that pinnacle, two urges overwhelm me. One, to stand in quiet, subdued awe. The other, to make like an opera singer and fill my lungs to bursting so they can pipe my ecstasy into the valley below, and as my voice reaches a trilling crescendo, I leap, swoop and soar out over the all-encompassing glory of East Oahu. Over the wide beaches and farmlands of Waimanalo, along the stretching Kailua coastline, out to the jutting Kaneohe peninsula, and over to the right, lifting above the majestic Koko Crater and hovering over the ocean marina and channels that finger their way into the Hawaii Kai landscape. My inner singer fills my head as I gaze. I never took opera lessons and I don’t have hang gliding equipment, so I simply stand in mute awe.
TRAIL: Kuliouou Ridge Trail
LENGTH: 5 miles round trip
HOW TO GET THERE: From Waikiki, take Kalanianaole Highway toward Hawaii Kai. In Hawaii Kai, turn left onto Kuliouou Road. Take a right at Kalaau Place and park toward the end of the road. The trailhead is just beyond the cul-de-sac.