Time: 1-2 HOURS
Distance: 1 MILE (to Chimney)
Elevation Gain: 800 FEET
Foot Traffic: LOW
Challenges: Steep incline with loose rocks, Narrow ridges with steep dropoffs, Dangerous free climbing
Sights: Windward Side, K-bay, Three Peaks, Pali Lookout, Ko'olaus
What to Bring: Shoes with Good Grip, Courage
Dangerously beautiful, this notorious hike has a lot to offer in such a short, action packed adventure. Beginning from the popular Pali Lookout, you quickly gain elevation with a steep scramble up to the ridgeline. Once you break out of the trees, you will be greeted with epic views of the Windward side of Oahu. You then continue to gain elevation until you reach the first "notch," a man-made cut out in the ridge-line. This and the sketchier second notch, are dangerous free climbs with steep dropoffs on both sides. From here, you can continue along the ridge until you reach "The Chimney", a large vertical wall and even sketchier free climb that ultimately leads to Pu'u Konahuanui 1 (AKA K1), the highest peak in the Ko'olau Range. Whether you stop at the first notch, or ascend the Chimney, the incredible thrill and beauty of this ridgeline will not disappoint.
The first time I wrote about the Pali Notches was in April of 2017, after my first time successful navigating both notches. While I did revisit the Notches a few times shortly after, a landslide in February of 2019 forced the closure of the Pali Highway and Lookout, restricting access to this trail. After months of hard work (and something like twenty million dollars), the Pali Highway and Lookout finally reopened and with it, access to this unique section of ridgeline. I was excited to finally revisit what I think is one of the most epic places on the island.
Here's a shot of what the hike looks like facing windward. It's a straight path up this section of ridge, known as the Nuuanu Saddle.
The hike begins at the Pali Lookout, a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful views and history. There is a parking lot, which you are technically supposed to pay for. I've heard rumors that payment is not actually enforced... but those could be just rumors. Head towards the lookout. Off to your right is a roped off area with some uninviting signs. You will see a beaten down path heading towards the trees. This is the most direct path to the ridgeline.
The crew for today included Indre, her mainland visitor Joey, and our friend Ricardo. We got into the trees quickly, leaving those judgemental looks from the tourists behind us. In case you can't tell from the butt shots, this initial ascent is very steep. Hopefully, you got your pre-hike stretching in at the car, because you will start breathing hard right away. There aren't really trail markers, but following the natural beaten down path, which will veer slightly left, will get you to the ridgeline.
It takes less than 10 minutes to break through the trees. And this is what you are greeted with, those amazing windward views! These views will be here the entire time as you continue up the ridge.
Which by the way, the physical challenge isn't quite over yet. We still have some elevation to gain.
More butt shots. Did I mention this climb is steep? Catch it on a wet day and this could be pretty miserable. Lucky for us it was nice and dry. So the ascent felt like a nice little workout.
Once you get high enough on the ridge, you can get a nice view looking leeward towards Honolulu. The Pali Highway reopening is huge for reducing traffic congestion too and from the windward side. Not to mention some of the best hikes, like this one and Pali Puka, are accessible again.
But remember, this hike is no joke. Even before the notches, the ridge has narrow sections. And this dropoff is a reminder of how far you would fall...
So maintaining your focus throughout the hike is key. Speaking of the notches...
Here's number one! This is definitely the easier of the two--it has more large holds and the natural path down doesn't put you near the edge of the ridge. Indre is looking towards that natural path, down and to the left. There is a rope, but I always caution relying on it too heavily. It's just a matter of time before one of these ropes gives. This is the type of hike it's smarter to go with someone who has been here before.
A slightly different perspective of Notch One. The team had no issues getting down this notch. Now a quick scramble up the other side and...
..on to Notch Two. Gulp! Just looking at this you can tell it's more challenging. The base is more narrow and the path down isn't quite as clear. The way I see it, there are two choices here.
Head to the right (looking down), where you can use the full length of the rope and there are more holds. Unfortunately, that puts you right out over the edge of the ridge and a few of the footholds are not really visible on the descent. After coming here a few times, I think this is my preferred route, albeit maybe riskier. This picture was actually from a different day at the notches, but Indre looks pretty badass, so I had to include it.
The other option (in my nonexpert opinion) is to take the path Joey is taking. The very first time I was here, I followed this path. When I ran out of rope and couldn't find an obvious hold, I ended up leaping about 7 feet to the ground. Luckily, no injuries, but I think that's why I'm biased against this route. Joey, however, had no issues. If you can't tell from the picture, he's not using the rope at all, just straight free climbing. He's a serious rock climber, but nonetheless I was impressed by the mainlander.
There is more to the trail after the notches. I generally like to continue to a nice perch just before the chimney. The trail does get more narrow here.
And there is one last challenge. Just before the perch, you have to squeeze around this narrow ledge before hoisting yourself on top of the perch. Going up isn't too bad, but going back down is very unnerving. There's a couple blind holds you have to reach with your back to the ledge when descending. For me, this is the scariest part of the hike.
But the perch is pretty epic. There is another little dip in the ridge just before the chimney. Getting to the base of the chimney is yet another climb down to a narrow ridge just a few feet in width.
Case and point.
Indre decided to pose by the Chimney. Only once have I ever ascended this thing, on the way to Konahuinui 1 (K1). I have never descended. It's definitely one of the sketchiest climbs I've ever done. I'm often impressed I worked up the nerve to do it. I do think I will be back at some point. But not today. Not today.
Today is a day to enjoy this epic place among friends.
And cherish its beauty and our collective accomplishment. Now it's time for a beer.
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Also check out:
- This Wikipedia page about the significance of the Pali Notches in the pivotal Battle of Nu'uanu
- Unreal Hawaii's post about their experience on this challenging hike
- My video of this hike