For hiking enthusiasts, residents and visitors alike, the Ka‘au Loop Trail in Palolo Valley is one of the most popular on all of Oahu for its spectacular views and for its challenge. Those views are hard earned, however, because the Ka‘au Loop Trail is every bit as dangerous as it is beautiful. But for the capable and prepared, its rewards are profound.

As recently as late 2013, a fit, 23-year-old University of Hawaii graduate student was killed in a fatal fall along one of the many steep, rocky, and perilously slick sections of the trail. News stories of stranded hikers being plucked from the trail by a Honolulu Fire Department aerial rescue helicopter are not uncommon. It is not for novices. Those that find themselves in trouble on the Ka‘au Loop Trail are most often inexperienced and unprepared.

The trail takes hikers past three cascading waterfalls, involving rope climbs and requiring the sure-footedness of experienced trail seekers, or perhaps a mountain goat. It also runs along the rim of Ka‘au Crater and offers a bewildering, panoramic view of Windward and Central Oahu, all the way out to the Waianae Mountains in West Oahu.

Ka‘au Crater waterfall, close up

According to Hawaiian legend, Ka‘au Crater was formed when the demigod Maui tried and failed to turn the islands of Oahu and Kauai into a single landmass by dragging them together with a hook and line (Maui is said to have pulled the islands from the sea the same way). The line snapped, but Ka‘au Crater is where Maui’s hook landed.

There are a few things to remember when attempting the Ka‘au Crater Loop Trail. Foremost among them is to know your limits. This is not a trail for beginners or for children.

The trail is about five miles long, steep and slippery up the three waterfalls. The ropes are there for a reason. Many sections of the trail, up the waterfalls and along the crater rim, are queasily precipitous and require careful attention. For those planning to hike the entire trail, plan on six hours start-to-finish. Have a route planned and pay attention to trail markers. As with many trails all over Hawaii, it’s easy to get lost. The best bet is to go with someone who knows the trail.

Ka‘au Crater waterfall, wide shot

The views along the trail are unparalleled, and anyone who hikes it is going to want to take pictures. A simple mobile phone camera will do for this (they’ve gotten so high quality!). That new DSLR camera swinging from your neck will only be in the way. A slim mobile in your pocket or pack will do fine to capture the impossibly green and panoramic views. If you’re not too stunned by them that you forget about taking pictures altogether, that is.

As with any hiking excursion, bring a buddy and let someone know when and where you’re going. That cell phone in your pocket or pack could end up being a lifeline. Bring plenty of water, and pack some snacks if you plan on doing the entire five miles of the trail. And pack out what you pack in. It’s hard, hungry work, the Ka‘au Crater Loop Trail. And it’s worth every step.


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