The Hawaiian archipelago is justly famous for its beaches and snorkeling, but the hiking is also superb. Millennia of volcanic activity have resulted in scenic mountainous landscapes home to a surprisingly wide range of ecosystems, from sunny deserts to cool rainforests. And because one is rarely far from the ocean, trails often afford magnificent views of the coast.
On our recent trip to Hawaii we had four contrasting hiking experiences on three islands, consisting of easy trails that were relatively level and broad in addition to more-challenging tracks.
This small-group hike led by Hawaii Forest & Trail took us up the slope of Mount Hualalai on private land once owned by Hawaiian royalty (it now belongs to the Kamehameha Schools). Our affable guide, Garry, proved knowledgeable about the ecosystems around us as well as local folklore and mythology. We started in a landscape that reminded me of the Galápagos, with its scrubby trees and succulents thriving in volcanic soil. The view swept miles down the mountain all the way to the sea. Some of the black lava flows we later crossed had large air pockets beneath the surface that sounded hollow when tapped. We approached the edges of two immense craters and, at one point, descended with the aid of a rope into a lava tube. The hike finished with a descent through mature koa and ohia forests, their branches draped with Spanish moss. In some places, fog wreathed around the trees, giving the groves a mystical appearance. Such was the sweetness of the air here, it felt healthful simply to breathe. During our approximately three hours on the mountainside, our cheerful band of 10, ranging in age from about 30 to 70, didn’t encounter a single other person. This hike of 3 to 4 miles requires a moderate level of agility and fitness, but Hawaii Forest & Trail offers a number of appealing excursions that are better suited to those with less mobility.
Located on the leeward (dry) side of Oahu, this trail is easy enough to navigate without a guide, but it does rise up almost 700 feet within less than a mile. I recommend starting out as early in the day as possible, because there are only two small shaded places to rest before you reach the mural-covered World War II-era pillboxes (defensive concrete bunkers) at the top. Park on Kaukama Road; the trailhead on the right is unmarked but easy to spot. Walk uphill a few steps, and if you see a “hazardous cliff” sign, you’re on the right track. As we zigzagged up the rocky bluff, the views of the coast became ever more breathtaking. And the sensational panoramas from the top were worth the considerable effort of the ascent. Of course, the return had its own challenges. The rocks and boulders that had served as ladders on the way up took more dexterity to navigate in reverse. Fortunately, numerous small mesquite trees provided helpful handholds. We enjoyed this 1.6-mile (round-trip) hike immensely, mainly for its views, but it can be tiring. Bring plenty of water and wear ample sunscreen.
We drove east to Oahu’s windward side along Interstate H-3, a scenic 16-mile highway winding through the Halawa Valley. This wetter side of the island feels a world away from the austere and rocky west coast. Here, mountains and bluffs are softened by picturesque fog banks and lush tropical foliage. Our goal was the 400-acre Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Garden [https://www.honolulu.gov/parks/hbg.html?id=569:ho], centerpieced by a pretty reservoir created as a flood-protection measure. A broad half-moon of forest, lawn and garden surrounds the water, backdropped by a verdant ridge that looks as if it had been scraped down by a giant comb. The gardens offer several trails through plantings divided by region of the world. It was charming to encounter evocatively named trees such as lemonwood and ice cream bean. Paths slope down to the reservoir, but the incline is mostly minimal and the going is easy, if occasionally a bit muddy. During our 90-minute visit, the weather alternated between sun and rain, but it was nothing our umbrellas and hiking boots couldn’t handle (many of the locals at the gardens wore flip-flops, of course). Maps are available in the visitor center and online, and there are parking lots near all the various trails. If you park at the visitor center, I recommend walking down to the reservoir for the views, then backtracking a bit to connect to the trail leading through plants from the Americas. Head back toward the lake through the vegetation of India and Sri Lanka, and return to the main road via the path through the Hawaiian gardens. Take the road back to the visitor center parking lot, being sure to have a look at the dramatic ridge to the left.
It would be understandable if one never wanted to leave the confines of the Four Seasons Sensei Lanai resort, but we roused ourselves one morning for a pre-breakfast hike up to Koloiki Ridge. The guided hike departed right from the hotel entrance, taking us past the resort’s Adventure Center before we entered a cool stand of Cook pine. This gave way to a forest of various other nonnative trees, all introduced to stop erosion caused by cattle overgrazing in the early 20th century. Native or not, the trees offered welcome shade along the undulating path, which had only a few steep sections. For the most part, the 4.5-mile round-trip hike wasn’t very demanding. At its highest point, we were treated to stupendous panoramic views encompassing the deep Maunalei Valley and the distant islands of Maui and Molokai. We had some delightful chats with fellow guests as we hiked to and from the viewpoint, but that was the only benefit to hiking this trail with a group. Our party of 16 was unwieldy, and the two guides, though very personable, were more knowledgeable about fitness than nature. Since the path is well marked, it’s easy enough to accomplish this hike on your own, at your own pace.