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Nightfall chased us out of Mt. Tantalus the other day; thank goodness for someone’s ingenious invention of the flashlight app otherwise we would’ve really been in the dark. My younger sister and I spontaneously decided to do one of our favorite hikes at the top of Round Top Drive; it starts with the Manoa Cliff Trail (2.3 miles) before connecting with Pauoa Flats (0.75 miles) and finishing at the Koolau summit.
The beginning of what turned out to be a pretty eventful hike, to say the least!
This time, however, it ended in a slightly different way – in the pitch black of night, with only a foot of visibility ahead! Let this be a lesson of what NOT to do on a hike in Hawaii. Rule #1: Make sure you have enough time in the day to make it back safely.
I admit that I got so into filming and taking pictures that I lost track of time. We started at 4:30 p.m.and usually the hike takes about two to three hours total. By the time we reached the end – a breezy lookout above the Nuuanu fishing reservoir – we looked at the time, “Oh no! It’s already 6:15!” That’s when I snatched my dog (who was in mid sniff), and we booked it back, powering through the uphill and splashing through the muddy parts not caring about dirtying our shoes. I could tell the sun already set by the grayness in between the trees that bordered Manoa Valley. We had about an hour’s worth of hike left and probably only 40 minutes of light.
Feral pigs, weirdos, potential injuries – just a few fears that raced through my mind and made it seem like my legs couldn’t move fast enough. A rustling in the shadowed foliage sent us in a full sprint; with the flashlight app seemingly dimmer by the minute, I reassured my sister that we were almost there, almost there! Seeing the iron grate path at my feet gave me that reassurance I needed to support my fading optimism. We were nearing the trail head. By this point, with 10 minutes left, we found ourselves relying on the faint outline of the marked path for guidance. Almost there…nothing looked familiar anymore, with the black around us slowly starting to creep in on our only source of light.
(Left) Banyan tree roots standing at attention. (Right) My favorite moss-covered tree.
The gray, moon-lit road through the thick guava trees ahead let us know that we finally made it! The time: 7:15 p.m. The mood? Muddy, exhausted and relieved! We did, however, manage to locate the last bit of humor in our depleted spirits, joking that it’s ALWAYS an adventure with Alyssa, Ariel and Pakala (my dog). You don’t even want to know why…ha!
VIDEO: Cruising through the trail to a scenic view of Nuuanu.
What to Expect:
Overall, this is a beautiful hike through a lush, native forest so isolated from the city that bird chatter and whistling winds become the norm. You’ll notice the different groves of trees as you hike along the cliffs above Manoa and around Tantalus Crater. Huge guava trees and koa engulf the trailhead before you wander down into a booming forest of bamboo so vast it extends beyond one’s visual scope. We’ve hiked this so many times that the trees have become natural landmarks; once we pass through the second bamboo grove, we know it’s about five minutes to the lookout.
(Top) Taking a breather to admire another marvelous Manoa day. (Bottom) A maze of tree roots creep through the earthy trail.
Because it’s about 500 feet in elevation, the trail gets more rain than other parts of the valley, which means hikers should expect mud. Volunteers who maintain the trail have laid out cut logs and branches through the muddiest parts, which helps, but I still wouldn’t suggest wearing brand new kicks here. The plus side to being so high up? The spectacular views of Manoa and Nuuanu valleys; the tiny cars and houses below confirm the height.
How to Get There:
Drive up Round Top, past Puu Ualakaa State Park and continue up the winding road until you see the brown and yellow trailhead sign to your right (about a 10-minute drive). This hike has a small, shaded parking area to the left. The Manoa Cliff Trail intersects three other trails. The first intersection will be the Puu Ohia Trail on the left, and the second is the Pauoa Flats trail on the right. This is where you’ll see a map of the Honolulu Mauka Trail System. You can also take the Kalawahine Trail, which will loop back 1.1 miles to Tantalus Drive.
MANOA CLIFF & PAUOA FLATS TRAIL • 6.2 miles roundtrip (about 2-3 hours total) • Difficulty Level: Moderate • Hike with a buddy, water, snacks, flashlight and cell phone • Free parking; not accessible by bus