Exploring Oahu: Camping Kouli'ou'ou

The Kuli'ou'ou ridge trail is one of my favorites on Oahu. It's a 2.5 mile trek that ascends roughly 1700 ft to the top of the Ko'olau mountains which cut eastern Oahu in half. I've done this hike a number of times, and each time I'm amazed by the stunning views. So, of course, when we learned that camping permits were available for this ridge and its surrounding trail system, Barry and I simply couldn't resist.

Thumbnail image for campsite on kuliouou.JPGWe decided to take it easy on ourselves the first night. I stepped on the trail with 30 lbs of gear strapped to my back, so I was in no hurry to the top. About 1/2 way up, there is a nice little area with a covered picnic table, so we decided to set up camp nearby in a clearing. Our amazing dinner consisted of sunflower seeds, peanut butter and guava jelly sandwiches, and Pringles. We hadn't decided if we were going to camp for one night or two, so we carried enough food and water to last us for three days. The one major downside to camping on ridges is that there's no fresh water - there aren't even any major streams in this area, unless it's been raining a lot. The water was the heaviest item we carried.

Thumbnail image for orchid on the kuliouou trail.JPGAfter a night under the stars, we made a beeline for the summit. Along the way I marveled at the native plants, like the 'ohia, and the beautiful rainforest on either side of me. Even this high up, though, invasive species are everywhere. Some of them, at least, are beautiful (like the orchid on the left). It was a little overcast and cloudy up in the mountains, but the view was still stunning. We made it to the top before 9 am, had breakfast, and came to the sudden realization that we had all the time in the world but no idea where we wanted to go.

Behind us lay the Kouli'ou'ou ridge, which, if we retraced our steps, would lead back to a valley trail we've never explored. To the left lay a narrow, perilous-looking trail leading to the highest point on the Ko'olaus. To the right, a narrow, perilous-looking trail leading into the unknown. I had just worked hard to make it to the top of the range - I was damned if I was just going to go back down again. The valley could wait. The question was, right or left? For me, the answer didn't take long. The trail to the left ends in a steep ascent of a scary ridge, and I was not as nimble a normal, what with a giant backpack on. No, we decided - the summit could wait, too. To the right it was.

The trail to the right carved across the top of the mountains. We were never far from the edge of a cliff - most often, we were on it. It was only a foot or so wide, though well trodden and marked so there were no really scary moments. Of course, it had it share of breathtaking views:

Thumbnail image for a long way down.JPG

Eventually, though, the trail headed downhill. Energized by a spirit of adventure, we headed down. The trail was steep and slippery, not because it was wet but because it was coated in loose pine needles that readily gave way. I knew that there was no chance I'd be climbing back up that section of trail, not that day. We'd been hiking for a couple hours at this point, and my backpack was starting to feel heavier. When we finally reached a point where it leveled off, we decided to take a break, eat some lunch and rest. We ended up curled up on a bed of pine needles watching the clouds for over an hour. Finally, though, we pressed onward.

Where the trail leveled out, we again faced a decision. We could continue straight, which looked like it may lead down and out somewhere, or we could explore the valley through a trail that hooked back around. Well rested and feeling spritely, we headed deeper into the valley. Maybe, we thought, it would connect back to the Kouli'ou'ou ridge trail or the mountain top trail.

It did... sort of. After winding its way through the back of the valley, we ended up on the Kuli'ou'ou ridge... just not where we had been. No matter where we went, we couldn't find a trail leading up to the Kuli'ou'ou ridge trail. Of course, we didn't figure this out then. Then we concluded we must have ended up on some other ridge. After hiking for 5 hours, we reached the end of the ridge, and it became clear we weren't where we thought we were. As to where we were, we had no clue.

Thumbnail image for jacksons chameleon.JPGWe decided to head down hill on whatever marked trails we could find to get off the ridge. We ended up on a number of trails to nowhere that dead-ended in the middle of woods, and kept having to re-trace our steps. At least, though, the area was stunning. The forests were beautiful, and we even got to see some cool critters, like the Jackson's Chameleon in the picture (also invasive, by the way, but still neat).

In the end we had to hike all the way back to that cross-roads at the base of the trail. We went straight this time, and ended up on a neat little ridge trail that looked much more used. Soon enough, we encountered an old man hiking. He told us where we were and how to get back to civilization. Although we had thought about staying another night, we'd been hiking with our packs for over 8 hours. We hadn't picked a good campsite, and we were both unbelievably exhausted, so we decided to head out and find our way to a bus stop to go home.

As it ended up, we had found our way onto the Haha'Ione valley system, a set of trails we had never even heard of - though now we can't wait to explore more. Despite being lost all day and hiking until my feet were about to fall off, I had a great time. We plan to go backpacking somewhere in the Ko'olau range again soon. Until I do (or do something else cool on Oahu)... Aloha!

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That area still has a (fairly) robust population of elepaio, I wonder if you heard any?

By Sebastian Marquez (not verified) on 04 Jun 2010 #permalink