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.

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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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