Time: 1-2 HOURS
Distance: 1 MILE
Elevation Gain: 800 FEET
Foot Traffic: LOW
Challenges: Steep incline with loose rocks, Narrow ridges with steep dropoffs, Difficult free climbing
Sights: Kailua, Kaneohe, K-bay, Three Peaks, Pali Lookout, Ko'olaus
What to Bring: Shoes with Good Grip
A name that is notorious on Oahu, this hike is as beautiful as it is dangerous. The hike starts at the popular Pali Lookout where you cut into the trees to reach the "trail". From here, you gain elevation quickly to reach the ridge before you begin some rock scrambling in order to reach the first of two man-made notches. Both notches are dangerous free climbs with steep dropoffs on both sides of the ridge below. After navigating the notches and doing some more rocky ridge hiking, you will reach "The Chimney", a large vertical wall that leads to Pu'u Konahuanui (AKA K1), the highest peak in the Ko'olau Range. This hike is extreme, but the risk is worth the reward as the views of the Windward Side, the Ko'olaus, and the Pali Lookout itself are absolutely stunning.
The "Infamous" Pali Notches as they have become known on Oahu had been on my list for some time. I knew it was one of the more dangerous hikes on the island, with some sketchy free climbing, narrow ridge hiking, and steep dropoffs. I found myself with a free Saturday with no real plans. With good weather I figured I would take a trip to the Pali Lookout, one of my favorite hiking "hubs" on the islands. I had done the popular Pali Puka and the beautiful Likeke Falls, a waterfall hike near the lookout, but had yet to attempt Pali Notches. I figured on a day like today, why not scope out the notches and if I felt like descending them... well we would see when we got up there.
Here's a Google Earth view of what the hike looks like from the Pali Lookout, simply straight up the ridge.
We begin at the Pali Lookout, AKA tourist central. I joke, this place is amazing even if you just check out the lookout. But if you've read my other posts, you know I'm not a fan of big crowds.
So it's time to get away from the people and start the hike. That white sign is the best entry point for the ascent to the ridge. I used to get anxious when I did these "illegal" hikes near large crowds, feeling like someone was going to yell at me. Nowadays, the look of surprise people have when I appear out of the trees and hop these fences is somewhat amusing.
***Update 7/3/17- I did this hike again with my friend Peter and there was a huge downed tree blocking this path. You could probably go around it, but there is an entry point just off the parking lot that will get you to this point as well.
This hike starts in the trees. There isn't a set path, but you can follow the path of least resistance up to the ridge.
The elevation gain hits you hard and fast. I was breathing hard and sweating before I had even reached the ridge. A little warm up before starting this wouldn't have been the worst idea...
And we have reached the ridge. Now the real hiking begins!
But first, views! Besides I needed a quick stretch break before continuing onwards. Immediately across on the otherside of the Lookout is the popular Pali Puka hike. To the right, you can see K-Bay, the Sandbar, Kaneohe, and the rest of the Ko'olau Range leading up to the north shore.
And below us, the Pali Highway itself.
And you can even see the ocean on the Leeward side of the island. Just behind that left ridge is Honolulu. I love hikes like this where you can see multiple sides of the island. It makes you appreciate how small yet incredible the island is.
Up the ridge we go! I ran into a couple guys as I began my climb. These guys said they had descended the first notch, but not the second. I would understand why they made that decision soon enough...
This was some pretty good climbing, and I hadn't even reached the notches! I guess tomorrow will have to be my rest day.
Oh yea, did I mention this ridge is steep? This would be much more of an issue on the way down...
But it levels off periodically so you can take a break and soak in the views. Here you can see Three Peaks, one of my favorite hikes on the island that I posted about last month.
Hmm, the highway looks a lot smaller now.
The approach to Notch Number 1.
Here we are! This first notch didn't make my skin crawl like some of the other hikes I've done (cough cough Kamaile'unu Ridge), but it was no joke either.
It took a little time to safely navigate down, but this notch didn't prove to be too much trouble. I didn't really use the rope as I don't trust them. However, that doesn't mean it wasn't nice to have for emotional support.
Looking up at what we just accomplished. It looks less intimidating from down here now that we're done.
A photo of the windward side capturing the width of the notch.
Cue Jay-Z as we're On to the Next One. As I approached the notch, simply seeing the way this rope was attached made me nervous.
Remember how my skin wasn't crawling on the first notch? Not the case here. You can tell as you get closer to the edge that there just aren't as many holds as the first notch. It is also noticeably taller. I thought about turning back, but I decided I'm up here, I might as well at least give it a try.
Here we go...
This climb got sketchy quick. Once you get over one small ledge at the beginning, there isn't an obvious place to go. I decided to go straight down from this position, relying on the rope a bit more than I probably should.
I quickly learned it was very difficult to find footholds for my descent. I was left with a choice. Continue my descent, putting all my weight on the rope while trying to find footholds or ascend and head back, saving this challenge for another day.
I chose the latter option. Since I was by myself , I figured it was not worth the risk. As I headed back to the first notch, I saw these two guys rocketing down. These guys clearly had done this before. I waited for them on the ridge and as they passed I asked if they had ever descended the second notch. They quickly responded "Nope!" and continued on. Well now I had to see how they planned to attack this climb without having done it before.
I watched as the first guy (I later learned was named Ronson) jetted down the notch. He took a slightly different path than me. When he finally got to a point where there was nowhere to go, he simply jumped eight feet to the ground below. I was in shock.
The second guy (named Brady) also descended with considerable speed. When he reached the point with no path, he was a bit more hesitant. However, within moments he made the decision to follow his friend and leaped. I couldn't believe these guys, but alas they had descended and I had not.
And then an emotion entered my mind, pride. I couldn't let these guys continue on while I stood and watched. I asked if they would wait and help direct my descent. They obliged.
Down I went...
A picture from my previous descent. I had been trying to go down the right side with the rope and some climbing. Ronson and Brady went left, hugging the rock before taking a leap of faith. I hesitantly followed.
I was able to make it down this far before I ran out of footholds. It was still roughly an eight foot drop and the surface below was not quite level. I hesitated. My arms began to tire. At this point, I didn't have the energy to climb back up the notch. I had no choice. I jumped...
And I landed it! All my body parts were in tact. I saw Brady was taking a video of my descent. I'm sure he captured a few expletives in his footage.
After the dust (and my stomach) had finally settled, I was able to take in the beauty of what I had accomplished and where I was. A man made notch from the late 18th century, that was used as a gunport for canons during the Battle of Nu'uanu. Crazy, humbling, and inspiring all in one moment.
***Update 7/3/17- My second attempt at this notch went much more smoothly. I was able find some descent holds on the left side (from this picture's perspective) of the notch and had no trouble getting down. I still recommend bringing someone who's done it before if it's your first time.
But my (now our) adventure wasn't quite over. It was time to check out "The Chimney". The ridge leading up to it is still pretty narrow.
And still pretty sketchy...
But compared to that second notch, it was easy. Here is a rock wall called "The Chimney." If you climb this you can travel to Pu'u Konahuanui (AKA K-1), the highest peak in the Ko'olaus . You can turn this into a crazy long hike that connects all the way to Manoa Middle (check out my adventure doing that). It amazes me how many different ways you can tackle the different ridges and peaks on this island.
Now it was back the way we came.
As we approached the second notch, we saw two women coming down. I sped up as I wanted to see if they had a better approach to the descent.
I was unable to see the first woman's descent (Courtney), but I caught the second woman's (Lauren).
It turns out, they had no idea what they were doing either. Lauren ended up dangling from the rope and Ronson came up to help her down.
I should remind you these two don't know each other...
But it's all smiles despite the predicament Lauren was in just a few moments ago. After a meet and greet we decided we would all head back as a group.
Going back up the second notch was not actually too difficult. I wished I had made a mental note of where I put my feet and hands as I climbed, but unfortunately with a group of five people, it is easy to be distracted by conversation.
#hikingsquad en route home
Now back up the first notch.
And back down the ridge. This part proved to be one of the more difficult aspects of the hike. It is very steep and the dry rock/dirt surface was very slippery.
Example A of what could happen.
But it's all good, it's all part of the Pali Notches experience.
One last photo of this incredible place before descending back into the trees. In just a few hours, I would be taking that highway to the left to Honolulu, where I would be meeting up with some of these awesome people I had just met on this hike. It's experiences like these that make me wonder if I will ever be able to leave this incredible place.
Check out my video of this wild hike!
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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