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Best Hikes on Oahu: The Kaunala Trail

Basic Information

  • Name: Kaunala Trail
  • Where: Pupukea, Hawaii
  • Distance: 5.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 886 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Time: 2.5-3.5 hours
  • More Information: The Hikers Guide to O’ahu

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

Topographic Map of the Kaunala Trail

Kaunala Trail Topo Map

Overview

The most remote area on the island of Oahu is the northern section of the Ko’olau Range.  The easiest way to access this area of the island is from the Kaunala Trail.  The trail is a loop hike that meanders through the lush forests above the village of Pupukea on Oahu’s famed North Shore.

Kaunala Trail Map

Hawaiian Meaning

The world “kuanala” is Hawaiian for “to braid something”.  I am not sure why this trail was given this name, but that is what it means.    The word “Pupukea” which tends to make mainlanders chuckle is actually Hawaiian for “white shell”.

Directions

Getting to the trailhead is very easy.  Take the Kamehameha Highway on Oahu’s famed North Shore to the village of Pupukea.  At the stoplight with the Foodland supermarket turn on to Pupukea Road and follow it all the way up the mountain to Camp Pupukea:

Parking

At the end of Pupukea Road parking for this hike is located along the side of the road:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

I had no issues finding a spot to park and proceeded to walk up to the end of the road where Camp Pupukea is located at.  Camp Pupukea is home to Oahu’s Boy Scout troop.  For this hike do not park inside the Boy Scout Camp, there is plenty of parking along the side of the road:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

Narrative

At the entrance of Camp Pupukea, the Kaunala Trail is accessed by taking the dirt road to the right.  The dirt road soon comes to a locked yellow gate that has to be climbed over:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

On the other side of the gate is the official trailhead for the Kaunala Trail which is marked with a number of information signs:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

I did find it interesting that motorcycles and horses are allowed on the road, but with the gate locked I am not sure how they would get in:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

After passing the trailhead sign the dirt road continues to climb deeper into the wilderness of the northern Ko’olau Range:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

As I hiked up the dirt road something truly unexpected happened, the trail became a beautiful paved road:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The road was constructed by the US military to provide access to the Kahuku Training Area.  This road looked like it was fairly new construction which made me think it was odd that it was abandoned so soon by the military:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

Fortunately this road is not open to public traffic because it is so scenic that I am sure it would be clogged with vehicles:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The road soon came to the turn off for the Kaunala Trail:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

At this turn off the trail immediately forks, but fortunately there is an arrow marker that shows to take the trail to the left:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

Hunting trails going off in various directions from the main trail is a reoccurring theme on this hike.  However, the main trail is well maintained and easy to follow:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The first part of the trail section of the hike is a nice walk through a dense eucalyptus forest:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

Some of the trees were quite impressive to see with their thick roots crossing over the trail:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

According to The Hikers Guide to O’ahu the Kaunala Trail was built to access this area of the Pupukea wilderness all the way back in 1933 to aid reforestation efforts.  The reforestation efforts were an obvious success because this wilderness is thickly forested, by mostly non-native vegetation such as eucalyptus trees:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The trail section of the hike goes up and down into four different gulches.  The gulch sections are generally muddy and have different vegetation such as this thick grove of ti plants:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The ti plant was introduced to Hawaii by the early Polynesian voyagers who brought it with them.  The early Polynesians used the ti plant as thatch on the roof of their homes, to make clothes, and to cook with:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

One gulch actually had a little bridge to cross:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The worst part of this hike unfortunately was crossing the gulches.  This was because the mosquitos and bugs were absolutely horrible.  A lot of it had to do with the wet water combined with rotting guava berries and other fruit along the trail.  The water and fruit were a magnet for all the insects found in the gulches:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

I was very happy every time the trail ascended out of a gulch so I could get away from the bugs:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The trail next came to a clearing on a hill with a make shift trail sign where it is important to make a right because going straight leads up another hunting trail:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The trail then came to a clearing where my guide book said a sandalwood tree could be spotted:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

Sandalwood trees were once found all across the islands, but were nearly wiped out when the Hawaiian royalty ordered them chopped down and exported primarily to China.  The sandalwood tree has a particular fragrance to it that was popular for use in perfumes and incense.  I think the below picture is of the sandalwood tree, but I am not totally sure:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

After the clearing I next came upon the only gulch that had flowing water in it:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The mosquitos and bugs were extra horrible as passed through this gulch.  I kept my mouth closed and held my hands over my nose just to make sure they did not fly up it.  I was very happy when the trail ascended out of the gulch:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

As I ascended up the trail I came to an opening in the foliage where I could see the ocean out in the distance:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

From the clearing I continued to ascend up the hill:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The trail continued to have a lot of guava berry trees around it:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

This section of the trail also had a number of the native Hawaiian koa trees which were historically used to make canoes:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The koa trees are easily identifiable by their sickle shaped leaves:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

Here is a closer look at the koa leaf:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

As I continued up the hill there were various views of the hill I had previously ascended and the gulch I had crossed below me:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The next major landmark I came to was a dirt road with a sign pointing to the right:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

Taking a left here leads down the hill to a Girl Scout Camp while taking a right leads back in the direction of the Boy Scout Camp I started the hike from:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

As the dirt loaded continued the steady ascent up the hill it alternated between a road and a trail, but was very easy to follow regardless:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

As I walked up the dirt road I happened to spot a few beautiful orchids growing along the trail:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The ascent up the dirt road ends at a clearing that offers some great views of the North Shore:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The best views are found not from the clearing, but from scrambling up this volcanic rock on the side of the trail:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

Standing on top of the rock offers a clearer view of the Waianae Range to include Oahu’s highest peak the 4,025 foot Mt. Ka’ala out in the distance:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

In the opposite direction I could see deeper into the wilderness of the northern Ko’olau Range:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

Looking down the adjacent gulch I could also see the ocean out into the distance near the Kahuku area of the island:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

At the end of the gulch I could also see the domes from the Opana Hill Radar Station:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

During the Pearl Harbor bombing attack this was the location of the experimental radar that first picked up the Japanese bombers flying towards Oahu.  However, the report from the radar crew members was dismissed as likely being a flight of B-17s arriving that day from California.  If the warning from the radar operators had been taken seriously the loss of life that day would have likely have been much less because the military would have had time to warn personnel to seek cover and to man their battle stations prior to the attack.  Here is a picture of the old radar:

After taking in the views from the clearing I followed the dirt road down towards a locked yellow gate:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

On the other side of the yellow gate I found the paved road again:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

Continuing up the dirt road to the left leads to the Pupukea Summit Trail hike.  For the Kaunala Trail hike this is where I made a right.  As I walked down the paved road I could understand why the military no longer uses this road despite its relatively new condition, some of the bridges have been severely damaged:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

You would think that somebody would have done an assessment before spending the money to pave this road that sustaining the bridge would be difficult.  Anyway the next thing I spotted as I walked down the road was this covered picnic table built by the local Boy Scout troop:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

As I continued down the road there was random viewpoints looking back towards the Waianae Range:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

I next came to the prior intersection that designated the start of the loop hike portion of the Kaunala Trail:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

A short while after passing the trail intersection I the paved road turned back into a dirt road:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

The dirt road then came back to the locked gate to designate the end of my hike on the Kaunala Trail:

Picture from the Kaunala Trail

Conclusion

The Hikers Guide to O’ahu lists this hike as being 6-miles long, but my GPS measured it as being 5.5 mile hike.  Considering that half the hike is on a dirt or paved road I made really quick time completing this hike at 2.5 hours.  Despite the quick time on this hike my legs still got a pretty good work out from the respectable 886 feet elevation gain on this trail.  I think most kids can handle this hike, but the distance, elevation gain, and mud is likely too difficult for young kids.  However, walking along the road is perfectly safe for young children and makes for a great hike as well.  So for anyone looking for an easy hike to explore the wilderness of the northern Ko’olau Range this is it.

YOU CAN FIND MORE GREAT HIKES AT THE OAHU REGIONAL TRAIL FINDER:

Note: Further information about hiking in Oahu can be found in the below book:

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