Kuaokalā Trail is ideal for hikers who don’t want to choose between mountain or ocean views.
Driving up the winding road to the entrance of Kuaokalā Trail on the northwestern tip of O‘ahu, I pass golf ball-like doppler radars and abandoned military buildings. These landmarks seem unusual, but then I remember I’m heading deeper into the government-managed land at the cusp of Kuaokalā Forest Reserve. Soon my car radio only picks up Kaua‘i stations. I begin to contemplate the trek in my near future, which, at 4.7-miles roundtrip, introduces hikers of all levels to two sweeping vistas of the West Side: Mākua Valley Ridge and Keawa‘ula, also known as Yokohama Bay.
With a name that means “back of the sun,” Kuaokalā Ridge is believed to have been home to a heiau (traditional place of worship), one of the highest on the island, where people worshipped the sun. Taking in my surroundings, I see how such a name is fitting: Here, on the calm, leeward side of the island, the mountain and valley and ridge are drenched in golden sunlight.
When I reach an unpaved lot marked with a bright-orange barrier, I park and step out of my car. To the right is a doorwaylike clearing among the trees and a sign by Hawai‘i’s Nā Ala Hele Trail and Access program welcoming me to Kuaokalā Trail. The trail starts off narrow as it hugs the ridge, but soon the path opens up and I catch glimpses of green mountains to the left and the ocean to my right. In the winter, this trail makes for a perfect vantage point for whale-watching. As the path widens, narrows, and forks, signs lead me in the right direction. The trail gains elevation at a manageable rate and there are no tedious switchbacks to be found, so I am able to traverse smoothly and take in the sights. The smell of eucalyptus fills the air as I pass under fallen trees. On the way, I encounter a red rock formation in the unmistakable shape of a shark fin. As I go farther along the ridge and higher in the sky, the trail gets rockier, forcing me to carefully descend the eroded pathway. I am the only hiker on the trail, but that doesn’t mean I am moving in complete silence. Nature is at its loudest here, courtesy of birdsong and cool winds.
Eventually, I arrive at an unmarked, unlocked gate. In front of me is sunbathed Mākua Valley, the place where Hawaiian legends say humans were first created. The valley was used for live-fire military training from 1942 through 2004, despite the ancient Hawaiian sites and artifacts there. Now there is a legal struggle between the military and sovereignty and environmental groups over cultural access to the sacred place. Beyond the gate, I can head right and scale taller peaks for even grander views from mauka to makai (mountain to ocean), or I can flank to the left and head deeper into the forest. Either way, I can feel the valley’s indescribable mana (spiritual power).
Accessible by permit only, the entry to Kuaokalā Trail is also the military-managed entrance to the Ka‘ena Point Satellite Tracking Station. It is located at the end of Farrington Highway. Get a permit online at https://trails.ehawaii.gov/ or in person at the Hawai‘i Division of Forestry and Wildlife.