Climbing Mt. Ka‘ala, O‘ahu’s Highest Point

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Views of the west side valleys on the way to the summit of Mt. Ka‘ala.

The west side of O‘ahu is known for its sunshine, even in winter, when much of the island is wet. Last weekend, for example, the west side was dry… and we got 13 inches of rain in less than two hours in Waimanalo on the windward side.

A few weeks ago, my buddy and I took the opportunity to soak in some of that sunshine and tackle the crown jewel of hikes on the west side: Mt. Ka‘ala, the highest point on O‘ahu at 4,025 feet. It’s not that high compared to what you can find on the Big Island or Maui, but you start out just a bit above sea level, and it’s a decent climb across steep, narrow ridges. It’s by no means a beginner hike or a lazy-afternoon excursion.

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Patches of clouds moved across the sky in scenic fashion as we climbed to the top of the first ridge, providing expansive views out Waianae Valley. At times, the trail climbs straight up the mountain like a staircase. Some parts are more stable than others, depending on whether it has rained recently. There are ropes in place where it tends to be muddy or overly steep. Some parts of the trail require you to climb over big boulders, which should not be taken lightly. There is little room for error – one slip and over the ridge you go.

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The path along the first ridge line is the best place to take photos of the valley. The summit of Mt. Ka‘ala is an ecosystem all its own, considered a cloud forest. The higher you climb towards its peak, the more entrenched in fog and precipitation it becomes. It reminds me of the area around the Visitor Center of Volcanoes National Park, which sits at the same elevation. It is amazing to see how the dry terrain suddenly turns into a mini rainforest.

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As you near the peak of Mt. Ka‘ala, you can expect to be under cloud cover. If you’re only in search of views, there’s no need to continue past the first ridge line. There is no lookout at the summit of Mt. Ka‘ala, only an Army outpost that’s closed to the public. It’s worth a trip in my mind, though, to see how the terrain changes and to see some of the unique plants that aren’t found in many places on O‘ahu.

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My buddy and I found a place to sit near the summit, amongst the ferns you see above, to watch the fog and clouds roll in and over the ridge line, clearing for a few moments before clouding back over again. The return descent provides the most in-your-face views as you ease down the steep trail and gaze out over the valley. Just make sure you stop in a secure place when you want to take a photo – again, one slip and you could easily tumble a long way down.

As you can see in the photos, there are many other peaks and ridge lines that surround Mt. Ka‘ala, including access to the Waianae Ridge Trail. I plan to go back and explore some of the other trails this summer to see what I can find.

A Delightful Detour to a Waterfall in Waimea Canyon on Kaua‘i

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Remembering to take travel setbacks in stride.

It was a simple plan. Grab last-minute plane tickets, pack the tent in the backpack, and dip over to Kaua‘i for theweekend. Miraculously, despite it being a busy holiday weekend, I was able to get a rental car and a permit to camp at Lonomea, the most remote of the numerous campsites along the Koaie Trail in Waimea Canyon. It all fell into place nicely, and so early on Saturday we flew from Honolulu to Līhu‘e, picked up some groceries and a can of propane, and set off south towards Waimea.

With the errands and all, we got a late start. The afternoon clouds came in and out to provide cover from the hot sun, and we descended more than 2,000 feet down to the canyon floor, first over exposed red clay and then turning into thick, shaded forests. After you come to the first camp, Wiliwili, you have to cross the river several times. Things got a little hairy at that point. The water level was higher than usual, and crossing was difficult with a 30lb pack.

Our pace slowed to a crawl. It was getting dark fast in the canyon, the sun blocked by the tall walls. With the river the way it was, I wondered if continuing on was the safest thing to do. On a break, I saw a side canyon nearby. I took a short scout around the corner and saw that it was a rather big canyon and that a waterfall . I was at first disappointed we weren’t going to make it to Lonomea that night, our plan and destination.

I once read a memoir by a poet who expressed the joy his writing routine brought him. Every morning, he’d wake up at 4 a.m., light the wood-burning stove, and write. He loved to romanticize the idea that he was the only person in the world doing it, the only one up at that hour, writing poetry by the fire. Deep dude, for sure. But that image always sticks with me when I go into the wilderness, because that’s the place I go to do things that no one else is doing, to have it all to myself. In the quiet of nature, I feel fortunate in a way that no public place has ever duplicated.

This setback brought us that solitude. There are 70,000 people on Kaua‘i. A handful of them were at Lonomea that weekend. But that night and next morning, that waterfall was just for us. I’m happy to be reminded that, in the face of detours in travel and life, whether things go right or wrong is always a matter of perspective.

The next day the river was calm, and we ended up seeing other, bigger waterfalls and campsites as planned. But, for the most part, that little no-name waterfall is the one we end up telling everyone about.

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The Locals Route at Ka‘ena Point

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When the surf is calm, you can walk amongst the rocks and find solace in the tidepools along the north coast of the Ka‘ena Point hike.

It was a crystal-clear day on a winter’s weekend, and we cruised with the windows down along the North Shore, past Dillingham Airport where the skydivers were landing to the end of the road and the Ka‘ena Point hike.

I’ve avoided Ka‘ena Point for a long time, mostly because I didn’t think it fit in with what I’m looking for on a hike. To me, the wilderness means less people, not streams of them, and Ka‘ena Point is well traveled. But with friends in town for the holiday weekend and their sights set on seeing whales, I decided it was a good time to give it a try.

When we arrived in the late morning, there were many cars. Most people walk the big dirt 4×4 road all the way to the point, and I could see groups of people going up and over the first hill. Anxious to avoid the holiday crowds, I made a sharp right over the dunes and down towards the water. The sea was relatively calm and the rocky coastline was revealed.

I could walk on the rocks safely out of reach of the water, in and out of small caverns and tide pools. The sharp terrain forced me to slow down, to breath it in. It took the focus off the final destination and placed it back in the moment, where it always belongs.

I expected to find many others doing the same. But there was no one. Whether it’s a lack of awareness or an intentional avoidance due to the terrain (you need sturdy footwear, i.e. no flops), very few people choose to go this route. It was nice to look down the coast and see no one, minus the occasional fisherman checking his rod, knowing there were groups clunking along the road nearby. Out of sight, out of mind. My friends and I were literally alone and, as you see above, free to get lost in nature.

This would all change when we eventually reached the sanctuary, when we decided, for the sake of time, to brave the crowded 4×4 road on the return trip. It was a quicker route, but one where we had to consistently dodge four-wheel drive vehicles and puddles of mud.

To be honest, I felt lucky to have avoided it on the way in. By foregoing the road and taking the coast, I was able to see a totally different, totally local side of that area. I was able to bypass the streams of people walking the road, turning a popular hike in a popular place into a private experience.

Maybe you can try, too, when the surf is calm and you’re looking to see a different side of a place you’ve probably seen before.

The Softer Side of Haleakalā

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Coastal campsite at Kīpahulu in Haleakalā National Park.

Burning sunrises. Barren landscapes. Massive basins. These are the images that come to mind for most people, who see Haleakalā from near its summit. But I had not thought about those things in some time. At my campsite at Kīpahulu, each and every rock was smothered in bright, green vegetation, very much alive and well and welcoming.

The road to Hāna has been well-traveled for a long time, and more recently, tourists have taken to driving the complete circle, continuing south on Highway 360 until it turns into 31 – the Pi‘ilani Highway – to get back to the middle of Maui. This has made the backside of Haleakalā National Park and the Kīpahulu Reserve a hot spot of sorts, heavily visited considering its remoteness.

I myself have driven this route several times, and I won’t knock it – it’s a spectacular drive. Yet on this most recent adventure, I craved more. With all the drive-by tourism happening, what was it like to stay out there, to wake up there? I found this typically busy area to be a whole new world at off hours. Almost eerie, like visiting a school when class is not in session, but in a good way.

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Many of the hikes out there, like the bamboo forest at the beginning of the Pīpīwai Trail – can get crowded. But wake up at sunrise, put on your shoes, and wander to the trailhead? I was in and out and back at my tent for coffee before I saw another person hit the trail. To stand amongst the tall trees, observing the way the individual bamboo stalks stood together to form one unit, with not another soul in sight, was a special thing. No one taking pictures. No one talking. No one to share the energy with – the ultimate conversation between man and nature. I would return again for that opportunity alone.

As for the campground itself, it’s a fantastic combination of lush, green wilderness, craggy sea walls, and rhythmic ocean. Find a spot on the cliffs. Enjoy the stars. Hit the trail first thing, and absorb what it was like hundreds of years ago, before tourism.

A Visit to Hawai‘i’s ‘Golden Cage’ at Kalaupapa

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Coastline flanking the Kalaupapa Peninsula.

Three miles, 26 switchbacks, and 1,700 slippery feet later, I emerged from the rainforest at the bottom of the world’s tallest sea cliffs on the north side of Moloka‘i. The 100+ year-old Pali Trail is the only public land-access route to the Kalaupapa Peninsula, a 25-square-mile piece of land completely fenced in by the towering sea cliffs and a roaring Pacific ocean. Its beauty was overwhelming — the kind that punches you in the gut. As I came out of the forest I followed the coast north towards the tip of the peninsula.

My arrival at the isolated Kalaupapa was the icing on the cake of an already tourist-free visit to Moloka‘i. From the very beginning, the island has resisted tourism, and it doesn’t take long to pick up on that vibe. Look no further than the “No Cruise Ship” signs that grace front yards, or the island’s “Kingdom of Hawai‘i II” meetings, where some locals discuss plans for a return to a sovereign nation. Further proof is in the numbers: In 2013, for example, more than 5 million people visited Oahu, and only 55,000 boarded the short connecting flight over to Moloka‘i.

Moloka‘i is described by locals as “the real Hawai‘i” or “old-school Hawai‘i,” not only for its lack of tourism, but also because the island is a birthplace of Hawaiian civilization. The western Halawa Valley was an original point of settlement in the Hawaiian Islands, and despite its beauty, Kalaupapa played its own significant, dreary role in Hawaiian history, one that saw 8,000 people die in forced isolation over the course of almost 100 years.

The Kalaupapa Peninsula Leper Colony was originally established to prevent the highly contagious disease from becoming an epidemic and spreading throughout the islands. In 1865, King Kamehameha V and the Hawai‘i  Board of Health created the colony at Kalaupapa when they signed the Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy. It ordered all infected to be quarantined off from society, saying that its purpose was “to secure the isolation and seclusion of such leprous persons [who], as in the opinion of the Board of Health or its agents, may, by being at large, cause the spread of leprosy.” They chose Kalaupapa for obvious reasons: It’s a remote peninsula, encaged by the world’s tallest sea cliffs, on the lightly-populated island of Moloka‘i.

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Beginning with 12 “patients” upon the law’s official enactment in 1866, thousands of people, many misdiagnosed, would be forced into exile at Kalaupapa in the years to follow. Here, their new life began as part of a commune of their “own kind.” The odds of survival were not good, and most suffered from deformities, upper respiratory problems, and nerve damage. Small amounts of dignity were afforded to the patients thanks to the work of figures like Father Damien de Veuster — who was officially canonized by the Catholic Church a few years ago in 2009 — in the form of treatment, comfort, and community. He built churches, homes, and inspired hope before succumbing to the disease himself.

Kalaupapa’s doors would remain open for the next 80 years. Things changed in the 1940s, coincidentally between the time of the Pearl Harbor attacks and when Hawai‘i  became a state in 1959. Forced isolation officially came to an end in 1949 thanks to the discovery of a cure for leprosy and a changing public perception toward those infected with the disease. Support for the latter was built over time through the efforts of many, including celebrities such as Shirley Temple and John Wayne, who visited Kalaupapa to spread awareness.

Interestingly enough, although the patients were made free to leave in 1959, many decided to stay. My first thought was, “well, I can see why.”  I felt the slightest hint of romanticism creep in. Looking at my surroundings, I heard a voice in my mind’s eye: What a privilege it must have been to call this place home.

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Later, I learned that this was a shallow thought. Of course, it was not a privilege, and a lot of suffering took place, its impacts disseminated through nearly 100 years of angst, torment and rejection. More to the point was the fact that Kalaupapa had become a place for these so-called social refugees to call home, a place where they felt accepted, welcomed and understood.

When the Kingdom announced the end of forced isolation, they included a rule: once a patient left the colony, they could not return. Stories told today at Kalaupapa reveal that many patients who decided to leave regretted it after only a few months. Once outside the Kalaupapa community, they were greeted in the “real world” by a public that, despite the efforts of many, was still wary of being too close to someone with leprosy.

About a half dozen patients still live at Kalaupapa (13 in total are still living). The community dwellings are plantation-style homes that sit in the shadow of majestic, breathtaking scenery, frozen in time, complete with decaying old vehicles and a school bus that doubles as a tour bus. I was at the colony only a half day, but it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to be overwhelmed by the charm and beauty of Kalaupapa. It’s a golden cage in a sense, maybe the prettiest prison you’ll ever see.

After the tour, I walked east along the beach. Looking up at the cliffs, I thought a lot about a number that was thrown out by the guide as we parted ways: 51,000.  It’s the number of people that visit Kalaupapa each year. I wondered what that looked like when compared to, say, Pearl Harbor on O‘ahu. There were 40 people on my tour. But how many paid their respects to the USS Arizona Memorial that same day? When I got back to my room that night, I checked. In 2013, Pearl Harbor Memorial had 1,786,024 visitors.

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The cold-hard fact is that history lessons for tourists in Hawai‘i typically start and end with Pearl Harbor. It’s understandable given the magnitude and implications of the event. It officially invited the United States into World War II and affected the lives of millions of American mainlanders. And it is certainly a part of Hawaiian history. The attacks undoubtedly impacted the local Hawaiians.

But after experiencing Moloka‘i and learning more about its role in Hawai‘i’s history as a kingdom, its low number of visitors really began to develop significance for me. Has US history in Hawai‘i completely overshadowed Hawai‘i’s story as a once-sovereign nation? The details of December 7th, 1941, are a no-brainer for most of us, yet how many mainlanders realize that Hawai‘i wasn’t even a state during the 1941 attacks by the Japanese?

History is odd like that: There I was, coming down the mountain like a kid at a playground, happy to finally be in the “real Hawai‘i,” and all of a sudden I realized that I’d arrived at a leper colony — one where a lot of people suffered and some still lived — and that it was being severely overlooked by the modern world.

Many people are quick to point out that the fault of visitors knowing next to nothing about Kalaupapa’s history falls in the lap of Moloka‘i and its resistance to tourism. Encourage people to come and see it, they say, and it will get the exposure it deserves.

My two cents is that Kalaupapa welcomes all who arrive, and it’s not Moloka‘i’s job to bus in tourists and shove its history down their throats. That quest is what separates travelers from vacationers, what distinguishes a trek for truth from a day of distraction.

Stepping onto the trail, I started my climb back up the Pali Trail. When I got to the top an hour later, I felt like I had the map to a hidden treasure in hand.

I pass it on to you, hoping you’ll follow, and then do the same.

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Kalaupapa Peninsula