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Best Hikes On Oahu: The Koko Crater Stairs

Basic Information

  • What: Koko Crater Stairs
  • Where: Hawaii Kai, Oahu
  • Distance: 1 mile round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 1,047 feet (from parking lot)
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • More Information: Yelp.com

Koko Crater Path

Topographic Map of Koko Crater

Koko Crater Stairs Map

Google Earth Map of Koko Crater Hike

Koko Crater Google Earth Image

Narrative

Being a Colorado native and a veteran of many climbs up the Manitou Incline, I have always wanted to do to the Koko Crater Stairs on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.  The stairs are only have half the distance and elevation gain of the Manitou Incline, but I figured it would still be a fun and nice work out to try on Oahu.  So early one morning I made the drive over to the Hawaii Kai area of southeastern Oahu where the Koko Head District Park is located:

Koko Crater is a volcanic tuft cone with a maximum elevation of 1,208 feet that last erupted 30,000 – 35,000 years ago.  The railway ties to the summit of the volcano were built after the bombing of Pearl Harbor between 1942-1943 to access a radar station built on top.  Troops and supplies would have went up and down the tramway regularly each day during the World War II.  The radar station remained in operation until 1966 when the land was handed over to the city of Honolulu.

Image of old military incline rail car via Civil Beat.

The morning of my hike, I arrived at 5:50 AM and found that unlike the Manitou Incline there is a lot of parking at Koko Crater and it is free.  The popularity of Koko Crater has caused it to be controversial with Hawaii Kai locals who complain about hikers taking up parking and causing increased strain on local services for rescues.  I think the best thing to do is make people pay for parking just like Manitou Springs did when the same complaints were voiced.  The money has generated money for the city to pay for services such as the refurbishment to the Incline which has made it safer for everyone to use.  Hawaii Kai should look at doing the same thing to generate revenue to pay for needed services for the Koko Crater Stairs.

Anyway from the parking lot it is about a quarter mile walk to the base of the stairs.  Here is view of Koko Crater in the early morning light as I was walking towards the stairs from the parking lot:

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After about a 10 minute walk I found myself at the base of the stairs and ready to begin my ascent up them at 6:00 AM.  It is said that there are 1,048 railway ties that have to be ascended to reach the summit which I was not about to count:

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Just like the Manitou Incline, posted at the base of this stairs is a sign warning of all the dangers that can befall those who attempt this hike:

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If you are fit, really the only danger to worry about is slipping on the slick railway ties and even slicker rocks near the summit.  I wore my jogging shoes for this hike which was a mistake.  I need to buy some cross trainers with some better traction on them because I did slip hard one time on the summit rocks due to not enough traction.  Fortunately I did not slip on any of the railway ties.  The only thing at first slowing me down was not the fear of slipping, but stopping to take in the views which were just incredible:

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Not too far up the stairs I came to the infamous railway bridge:

Bridge on the Koko Crater Stairs

I read so much about how scary this bridge was on various online sites and found it to not be scary at all.  Yes if someone was to slip and fall off the bridge the chance of death is possible.  However the bridge is wide and sturdy with the only real danger being slipping on the moist ties.  I took it slow and easy across the bridge and had no issues.  I continued to keep a steady pace up the trail and only paused when stuck behind slow hikers or other people descending the trail.  After 20 minutes and 6 seconds I found myself at the end of the stairs where I could see the concrete building that once housed the winch and cable that pulled up the rail car:

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Here is the view looking down from the top of the stairs:

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I think if I was in my peak Incline shape and got here early enough to avoid getting stuck behind people that I could finish this in under 15 minutes.  Considering my best Incline time was 37 minutes.  From the top of the stairs there are various paths going in different directions.  I took one path that gave me this nice panorama view looking towards Hanauma Bay down below and Hawaii Kai:

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From the viewpoint I found I then headed up towards the summit of Koko Crater which involved walking up these smooth rocks which were slick with moisture on them:

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The summit of Koko Crater is this large grated structure which was packed with people watching the sunrise to the east:

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From the summit the views of the sunrise were extraordinary:

Koko Crater Sunrise

Here is a winder angle view that shows Hawaii Kai to the left and the sunrising on the far right:

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I spent about 25 minutes on the summit walking around taking pictures.  The views of Hawaii Kai down backdropped by the rugged Ko’olau Mountains were my favorite:

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Hawaii Kai back in the 1950’s was a rural farming community until the dream of developer Henry J. Kaiser became a reality when he entered into an agreement with the estate of Bernice Pauahi Bishop to make a residential community on this side of the island in the 1960s.  Fast forward a few decades and the farming land has been replaced with a marina, posh apartments, and many beautiful homes:

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The homes not only cover the valley floor, but ascend nearly up to the crest of the Ko’olau Range:

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This next picture shows the inside of Koko Crater where a large botanical garden is located:

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Off in the distance to the west I could see the iconic Diamond Head crater and the various high-rise buildings that make up Waikiki:

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Here is a closer look at Waikiki:

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As I continued to walk around the summit taking in the views I noticed that there was a number of cactus growing on top of the crater:

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As I worked my way over to the south I could see Koko Head and Hanauma Bay down below:

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I then walked back towards the top of the stairs and spotted this prayer box:

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I had to look online to find out what this box was for and found this extensive KITV report on the prayer box.  I have no issues with what she is doing if it has been approved by the City of Honolulu.  I would hate to have people leaving various items on top of Koko Crater using this prayer box as a precedent.  We have had this problem in Colorado with people leaving things on the summit of 14ers to include even kettlebells for Crossfit workouts.

From the prayer box I descended down from the summit over the slippery rocks which is where I slipped and landed on my butt really hard:

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Fortunately I was okay and began my descent down the stairs:

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I am not a big fan of walking down stairs like this, but unlike the Manitou Incline there is no descent trail to use so I had no choice, but to go down the  stairs.  I did find myself making good time and was soon back at the bridge again:

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Crossing the bridge going up the stairs I thought was quite easy, however going down is a different story.  The railroad ties were slick with moisture which made me have to be extra careful crossing them.  Something I did not have to worry about though was other climbers coming up the stairs because they were all waiting for me to cross because they probably had their own anxieties crossing the bridge and did not need me on it to make it more difficult for them.  Anyway I ended up crossing the bridge with no issues.  As I got lower down on the stairs the shooting range below Koko Crater came into view:

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Fortunately there was no shooting this early in the morning.  The sound of gun fire would have made this hike a lot less pleasant than it was.  Here is a wider angle photo of the view with the rifle range on the left, Koko Head in the cener, and Hawaii Kai on the right:

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In just under an hour I found myself back where I started:

Base of the Stairs

Conclusion

Even though the Koko Crater Stairs is half the workout of the Manitou Incline it  is still a great workout.  I saw some people going up it multiple times which is something I will probably end up doing.  I would however need to start earlier than I did because trying to get around people on the stairs is harder than on the Incline.  It is not as wide and the amount of oblivious tourists who are exhausted and in their own little world blocking the way can be annoying.  Even though tourists blocking the way can be annoying I can’t blame them for hiking up this trail.  This hike should be on the itinerary of anyone physically able to do the stairs.  Just like the Manitou Incline the views are incredible, but the experience of getting up early and tackling these stairs with a diverse group of people you meet along the way is even better.

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