Time: 5-6 HOURS
Distance: 5 MILES
Elevation Gain: 1700 FEET
Foot Traffic: LOW
Challenges: Muddy, Uneven Footing, Steep and slippery ascents/descents, Some narrow ridges
Sights: 3 Waterfalls, Ka'au Crater, Honolulu, Diamond Head, Windward Side
What to Bring: Shoes with good grip, Water, Lunch, Sunscreen
With waterfalls, a crater, and ridge hiking, the Ka'au Crater Loop is one of the most diverse and beautiful hikes on all of Oahu. Fully experiencing its glory isn't easy, as you must hike over 5 miles along muddy trails, narrow ridges, and even climb up a waterfall. However, there is no better way to experience the diverse beauty of Hawaii in one hike.
After an easy Friday afternoon hike at Tantalus on the Mauka Trail System, I was looking for something a little more challenging for my Saturday. The thought popped in my head to revisit Ka'au Crater, a hike I'd done a year and a half ago. The hike's waterfalls, ridges, and crater loop give it more variety than any hike on Oahu. Its many features also creates it's own unique challenges. With that in mind, I was off to hike Ka'au Crater.
An image of the hike. In my mind, there's three parts to this hike. The first is the hike along the stream through the forest to the waterfalls. The second is the ascent to the main ridgeline and the ridge itself. The third is the hike around the other side of the crater and the descent back to the stream.
The hike starts at the end of Waiomao Road. Parking is tricky. There is a tiny "lot" across from this house where the trailhead is located. If it's full you will need to park up the road a little ways. Parking on the side of the road is fine... if you can find a place. The street is quite narrow...
The trailhead is across from the lot where you will find this sign. I saw a couple of No Trespassing signs around the trailhead. I've never heard anything about this hike being illegal, but it is deep in a neighborhood so just be respectful.
Immediately after the sign, the hike will hit you quick as you will be required to climb down a sharp decline. You will then reach a stream, which may or may not be flowing. We will be heading right and upstream for the first part of the hike, the waterfall portion.
There's plenty of markers on this section and the hike as a whole to help guide you.
We've reached the first waterfall... just kidding. It had been pretty dry recently, so there wasn't much flow in the stream. I'm sure it could be better with consistent rain.
There's even a sign! And they said this trail was unmaintained...
After 15-20 minutes, you will reach this pipe. This is your navigation aid for the next little while. When following this, the stream will be on your rightside and below you.
This is when the hike starts to get very muddy. Watch your step. A friend of mine was navigating around the pipe and slipped and busted his knee on the pipe. It put him out of commission for a few months. Maybe he was just clumsy, but it never hurts to be careful.
With the significant moisture in this area also comes a lot of green. It really feels like you are hiking through a rain forest.
The first waterfall isn't exactly along the main path. Since you are above the stream, you will have to take a right and go downhill to reach it. This is a good landmark to look for. Shortly after this you should see a path to the waterfall. FYI there are other paths before this that will get you to the stream, but those will require you to do some rock hopping to get to the waterfall. It took me slightly over an hour to reach this point.
It is a steep and muddy climb down to the falls. But it is worth it.
Because this is what you get. A majestic looking waterfall tucked away deep in the valley. It may not be big but it is beautiful.
I took some time to take a couple of long exposures to capture this awesome place. I probably could have stayed here for hours.
But we have a mission to accomplish. To continue, you head back up the way you came to the path that parallels the left side of the waterfall. To continue on, you will have to scramble up this rock portion to get on top of the waterfall.
Looks a little bigger from the top.
On to waterfall number 2! The path will be the obvious beaten down area through the trees.
And in no time, you will reach the falls. The second waterfall is bigger, but the flow weaker. I'm sure it could be better had it been raining. Regardless, a waterfall is a waterfall and it's still beautiful.
On to number three! Look for an opening to the right of the waterfall. It's another steep climb up the side of it.
It takes more time to reach the third waterfall (maybe 25-30 minutes). You will eventually see it in the distance via an opening in the trees. If you're like me you'll be wondering, how do we get the base of that when we are so high above it?
The answer is we have to climb down this very steep roped section. As a whole, this hike has several steep and slippery sections but, in my opinion, this is the trickiest. The rope will definitely be your friend.
But with some care, you will reach the base of his waterfall. About 2 hours into the hike, it seems like a good place for a little snack break.
Because guess what? It's time to climb up the waterfall! This part is tough, but there's plenty of ropes to help you along the way.
And really, how often do you actually get to hike up a waterfall?
The next part of the hike is the ridgeline portion to the summit. To get up to the ridgeline, you will follow a path to the right of the waterfall. It is well marked so finding the path shouldn't be too hard.
And after a little sweat, we've reached the ridgeline! If you look to your left, you will see Ka'au Crater, one of the three craters on Oahu (the other being Diamond Head and Koko Head).
But the fun of the hike isn't over, we still need to get to the summit. It's a steep and of course muddy climb to get there.
But the higher you go, the better the views get. Here we have Diamond Head and Honolulu coming into view.
There's also plenty of ropes to help you out.
This section was clearly eroded, making the trail very narrow. It just goes to show there is always danger on these unmaintained ridges.
We made it! This is the true beauty of this hike in that you can see gorgeous views of both sides of the island. Here you can see Kailua and the Windward Side. Right in the center is Three Peaks, one of my favorite hikes on the island.
Looking North, you can see Kaneohe and more of the Ko'olau Mountain Range.
And of course, if you look back the way you came, you get Ka'au Crater, Honolulu, and Diamond Head all at once.
I took the opportunity at the flat summit to fly the drone around. This shot really captures how small you feel in comparison to the surrounding beauty.
And a shot capturing the leeward side. Amazing! This shot also captures what's up next. That ridgeline in the front is what we'll be hiking.
Let's get to it then! This ridgeline does get steep and is pretty narrow at times. It's definitely not a time to get careless.
Gotta love the industrialization high up here in the Ko'olaus. These powerline structures are actually good landmarks. Shortly after the second structure is when we have to cut left to go down the ridge on the other side of the crater.
Just before the path down is this nice flat area. Take in the views of Honolulu one last time.
Because it's down we go. There is a fork here, but we are going left. Heading right would allow you to continue on the ridgeline. It is very overgrown and not often used, but it would eventually lead to Mount Olympus, another great Ko'olau ridge hike.
The descent is no joke. It's steep and very slippery. I definitely fell once or twice on this descent.
Hello from the other side!
Once you do the loop around the crater, you will begin to make your way back towards the start of the hike. You will now be heading towards the leeward side of the island and downstream.
But you won't see the stream because you will be high above it on the ridge. This portion is a nice walk on this partially shaded ridgeline.
But eventually you will have to get down back to the stream. You will follow a series of swtichbacks to get there.
And we're back to stream level! From here you head right and follow the stream all the way back to the initial trailhead. Just make sure you keep your eyes peeled, because it's definitely possible to miss the exit.
Such an awesome day exploring the diversity and beauty of Ka'au Crater. There's never a dull day out here on the island of Oahu.
Check out my video of this great hike!
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Also Check Out:
- Journey Era's post about this hike