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Best Hikes On Oahu: Kuli’ou’ou Ridge Trail

Basic Information

  • Name: Kuli’ou’ou Ridge Trail
  • Where: Honolulu, Oahu
  • Distance: 5 miles
  • Max Elevation: 1,930 feet
  • Elevation Gain: 1,746 feet
  • Time: 3-5 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • More Information: The Hikers Guide to O’ahu

Kuli’ou’ou Ridge Trail Topographic Map

Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail Map

Google Earth Map of the Kuli’ou’ou Ridge Trail

Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail Map

Elevation Map of the Kuli’ou’ou Ridge Trail

Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail Map

Narrative

I have been meaning for sometime to do one of the hikes to the summit ridge of the Ko’olau Range on the Hawaii island of Oahu.  However, it has seemed like every day I had off from work and time available, the mountains would be clouded in.  I don’t see the point of hiking to the top of a mountain to look at clouds.  Recently I had a day off that coincided with good weather that allowed me to complete one of the hikes to the top of the Ko’olau Range.  The hike I settled on was the Kuli’ou’ou Ridge Trail which was described in The Hikers Guide to O’ahu as one of the better trails to the top of the Ko’olau Range.  Getting to the trailhead was quite easy, I drove west on the Kalanianaole Highway until I had to make a left turn at a stoplight on Kuli’ou’ou Road just before entering Hawaii Kai.  I followed the road up to the end of the valley where the trailhead is located:

At the trailhead there is no dedicated parking so I had to park on the curb in a residential neighborhood.  This is not uncommon for trailheads on Oahu and thus why I am always respectful of the residents where I park and keep noise to minimum.  To better my chances to avoid clouds I started my hike very early in the morning.  I left my house at 0500 in the morning and arrived at the trailhead at 0535.  I was head up the trail at about 0545.  The trailhead was easy to spot even in the early morning darkness because of the yellow gate at the end of the road and this big concrete sign put up by the Board of Water Supply:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

To begin the hike I walked around the yellow gate and followed a paved road where I next spotted this sign for the Kuli’ou’ou Ridge and Valley Trails:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

The Kuli’ou’ou Valley Trail is a shorter 2-mile hike into the valley that I plan to do on a future date with my young kids.  The Kuli’ou’ou Ridge Trail on the other hand is 5-miles long with over 1,700 feet in elevation gain.  Here is a picture of what the road and the trail sign looks like in the daylight hours:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

A short distance passed the trail sign and off to the right I spotted a large Kuli’ou’ou Public Hunting Area sign.  This is really where the hike begins.  Just passed the hunting sign there is a black mailbox where hikers are asked to sign in and out on for their hike.  Here is a picture from later in the day of the hunting sign and the black mailbox behind it:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

A short walk passed the mailbox and down the trail I came to the crossroads for the two trails:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

The Valley Trail descended deeper into the rainforest while the Ridge Trail immediately began to switchback and gain altitude up the mountain.  The first half of the hike is pretty easy except for a few of the switchback turns which were a bit rocky and I had to be careful hiking up in the darkness.  Here is a picture of what one of the turns looked like later in the daylight:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

The first half of the trail was very well maintained and easy to follow even in the darkness.  There were occasional social trails that went off in the wrong direction, but I never made any wrong turns because of how obvious the main trail was:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

I hike up the trail in the darkness until I came to a covered picnic bench which is the unofficial halfway point of the hike.  Here is a picture of what the picnic bench area looked liked during the day:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Passed the picnic bench the trail did become steeper and have more tree roots to deal with, but overall was still easy to follow.  Here is a picture of this section of the hike from later in the day:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

It was along this section of the trail that I began to hear a pig grunting in the trees.  Then I heard a pig come charging out of the brush.  I quickly retreated down the trail and grabbed a large branch to defend myself.  Fortunately the pig just ran across the trail and then stopped and looked at me as I directed my light at him.  I could se that he was quite a large pig.  After looking in my direction the pig then proceeded to run through the trees on the other side of the trail.  I then cautiously made my way up the trail hoping to not have another pig run in.  After my pig scare, the trail next came to a park bench with a nice view of the ridgeline across the valley.  Here is a picture of the bench from later in the day:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a picture of the view from the bench during the daylight hours:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

The park bench is where I recommend that those with young children turn around because the difficulty of the hike increases substantially after the bench.  After the bench it appeared that the trails reaches the altitude of the mountain that is usually covered in clouds which means the trail was wet and muddy.  Fortunately the sun had just began to rise to give me some daylight to traverse this section of the hike:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Of interest is that the environment noticeably changes at this high altitude.  All the introduced pine trees I had walked through earlier in the darkness had been replaced with mostly native habitat.  Because of this the State of Hawaii asks hikers to clean their boots before continuing up the trail to avoid moving the seeds of introduced plants higher up the mountain:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Some of the introduced species such as these guava berries has spread into the native habitat anyway:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

I even saw a few papaya trees that were growing along the trail:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

The final section of the trail was steep and very muddy:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Fortunately there was a few sections that had stairs that helped make ascending the mud more manageable:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

As I ascended the stairs I also began to have my first views because of the rising morning sunlight.  Here is a view looking towards Hawaii Kai and Koko Crater rising above it:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

I have previously hiked up Koko Crater in the early morning to see the sunrise as well.  I was getting even better views from this trail to include of Koko Crater:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

I could even see two other Hawaiian islands in the distance, Molokai (foreground) and Maui (background):

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

I had a great view of the 10,023 Mt. Haleakala which I had previously been on the summit of a week prior:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Looking towards the other peaks of the Ko’olau Range I could see the early morning sunlight shining on its summits:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Looking back towards Honolulu I could see the early morning sunlight also shining on the iconic Diamond Head Crater as well:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a closer look at Diamond Head Crater:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

After taking a couple of minutes to see the views I then powered up the last remaining section of steps which just seemed to get muddier and thus more slippy to climb:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

At the top of the final stair section I then popped up at a large clearing at the ridgeline summit of the Ko’olau Range:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

From here the Ko’olau Range ridge trail goes off in both directions from the lookout.  However, this trail is not maintained by the state and can be quite hazardous:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Many people have died over the years traversing the unmaintained sections of the trail:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

However, there is nothing hazardous about the lookout at the end of the Kuli’ou’ou Trail.  I had a huge space all to myself to take in the sun rising in the distance over the Pacific Ocean:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a wider angle view of the sunrise:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a closer look at the sun rising over Makapu’u Point which has one of the most popular hiking trails on Oahu:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Across from Makapu’u Point I could also see the island of Molokai:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

As I looked towards the  far eastern ridge of the Ko’olau Range I could just see Manana Island more commonly called Rabbit Island visible below the cliffs:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is the view that was directly in front of me looking towards Waimanalo and its lush farms below the cliffs:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a look straight down one of the ubiquitous chutes that line the cliffs of the Ko’olau Range on the windward side of the island:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a wider angle picture of the view looking towards Waimanalo:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a full panorama from the lookout that I took of the view:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

To the north of Waimanalo I could see Bellows Air Force Station which has a beautiful beach which President Barack Obama and his family are known to frequent when they visit Hawaii each Christmas:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a closer look at Bellows Air Force Station:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Adjacent to Bellows Air Force Station I could also see the Ka’iwa Ridge where the popular Pillbox Trail is located:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Across from the Ka’iwa Ridge the Mokulua Islands are visible as well:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

I ended up spending about 30 minutes at the lookout taking in the views before deciding to head back down the trail.  Here is one last picture of the stunning cliffs of the Ko’olau Range I took before departing:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

From the lookout I immediately began to descend down the muddy steps:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

As I descended I kept stopping to take in more views because of how beautiful it was.  For example here is a view of the Hawaii Kai neighborhood and Koko Head that rises above it:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is the view I had of Diamond Head Crater out in the distance:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Straight down below me I could see the Kuli’ou’ou neighborhood where my hike began:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a closer look at the neighborhood which was about 2.5 miles below me:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

As I continued to descend down the stairs I had to be extremely careful because of how slippery it was. It was actually quite more difficult to descend in the mud then it was to go up the stairs.  Fortunately I walked very slowly and never slipped during the descent:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

My slow descent down the muddy trail gave me time to really appreciate the beautiful native Hawaiian scenery I was surrounded by:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

I reached the spot along the trail where I had my last sweeping views of the hike.  Here is the view looking back towards Hawaii Kai where Koko Crater (left) and Koko Head (right) were each visible:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Finally here is the view looking back up the trail towards the high summit ridge of the Ko’olau Range:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

From this lookout the trail then descended into the thick forest and slightly leveled out which made hiking easier:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

I then found myself back at the bench and enjoyed this great early morning view of the Kuli’ou’ou Valley down below me:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

From the lookout at the bench I left the native Hawaiian habitat and entered back into the introduced pine forest:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a picture of one of the massive Cook Pines that could be seen along the trail:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a picture of the needles of one of the many Ironwood Pines along the trail:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

While hiking in the darkness I had not spotted this tree, but the below picture shows a cool tree arch that hikers pass under along the trail:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

The descent seemed to happen pretty fast and soon I was back at the picnic shelter:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Since it was daylight now I could see how trashed this place was.  It is frustrating that people would think that it is acceptable to leave so much trash around the picnic tables.  If I had a large garbage bag I would have hauled a lot of this garbage down the mountain:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Just passed the picnic tables there was one small muddy area that was quite slippery:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

That would end up being the last muddy area I would see for the rest of hike as I descended through the forest of thick pine trees:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

The Ironwood Pine Trees were so thick that their needles covered the ground and prevented other plants from growing:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

This actually facilitated making the trail easier to follow.  Whenever there were social trails going off in different directions there was usually a sign to keep hikers going in the right direction:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

I was soon back in the lower section of the trail that switchbacks to the valley floor:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

I next came to a nice lookout where I could see the Kuli’ou’ou neighborhood below me:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a closer look at the neighborhood which was less than a mile away:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is the view looking down into the Kuli’ou’ou Valley:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

When I reached this stretch of the trail it was about 8:30 AM and hordes of people were now heading up the trail.  It was like a never ending chain of people.  I was very glad I hiked so early in the morning and had the trail completely to myself on the way up.  At the last switchback I found myself back at the crossroads for the Kuli’ou’ou Ridge and Valley Trails:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here there was also a boot cleaning stationing that really helped get the mud off of my boots before returning to my truck:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

From the boot cleaning station it was an easy and short walk back to the trailhead:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is what the actual trailhead with the yellow gate looks like during the daytime:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

At the trailhead I had a nice view of the Ko’olau Range that I had just hiked up:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

From the trailhead I walked back to my truck parked a short distance down the road.  In the early morning hours I had no problems finding parking, however by the time I got back there was no parking to be found and cars were following me as I walked back to my truck:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

Here is a look down the road that was completely packed with cars:

Picture from the Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Trail

I feel bad for the residents that have to deal with this every weekend, but there is just no other place to park other than along the road.

Conclusion

This hike took me 3 hours and 15 minutes to complete which included the 30 minutes I spent at the summit.  It took me less then two hours to get up the trail and about an hour to get down.  I actually jogged down sections of the trail once I got passed the bench because of how dry the trail was from that point.  I found this to be a great hike for novice adult hikers looking to summit a section of the Ko’olau Range.  However, I do not recommend young kids to go past the bench because of the mud.  Even adults needs to be very careful with ascending and especially descending in the mud.  I also recommend getting an early start in order to find parking and avoid the crowds on this very popular trail.  Besides that try to avoid pigs, pick up all your garbage and enjoy the views from this fantastic trail.

You can find more great hikes at the Oahu Regional Trail Finder:

The Oahu Regional Trail Finder

Note: Further information about the Kuli’ou’ou Ridge Trail can be found in the below book:

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