Just minutes from downtown Honolulu, Ala Moana, and Waikiki, the Honolulu Mauka Trail System offers a superb variety of beautiful walking and hiking trails. This system is part of Na Ala Hele, the State of Hawai’i Trail and Access System.
Na Ala Hele trailhead marker
On the Honolulu Mauka system, eighteen well-maintained trails provide locals and visitors with easy access to the Ko’olau Mountain Range, one of two mountain ranges on the island of O’ahu. The trails range in distance from 0.25 miles (0.4 km) to 3.4 miles (5.5 km) and cover valley to ridge to summit. Enjoy a valley walk along a stream, a gentle hike meandering along the side of a mountain, or a pulse-pounding climb on a ridge to a summit. Experienced and fit hikers can combine several trails for longer and more intense hikes. See trail descriptions and a trail map of the Honolulu Mauka trail system.
Note: Before you do any hiking on O’ahu, I recommend that you go to the Forestry and Wildlife department, which is just past the Hawai’i Nature Center on Makiki Heights Drive in Honolulu (see map). There, you can pick up trail maps and longer descriptions of hikes on all of O’ahu’s trail systems.
During a recent trip to Honolulu, I hiked the Manoa Cliff and Pu’u Ohia trails and the Pu’u Pia trail. All are recommended for novice hikers, which includes those new to hiking in Hawai’i. Read Stuart Ball’s excellent Hawai’i hiking books, such as The Hiker’s Guide to O’ahu, for more information about what you need to know when hiking on the islands. Believe me, it’s not just like hiking on the U.S. mainland. Hiking in Hawai’i is harder for a variety of reasons. Certain precautions are crucial to maximize safety and enjoyment of your hike. But hiking in Hawai’i is also an amazing and less-traveled way to experience the pure and ancient magic of the Hawaiian islands.
Manoa Cliff Trail
During my childhood growing up in Honolulu, many hiking trails on the island were overgrown and difficult to follow. Manoa Cliff changed my perception of hiking in Honolulu. The trail had been recently weed-whacked and cleared of overgrowth (in fact, I caught up to the weed-whacker towards the end of my hike). Like other trails on the system, the trail is clearly signed at junctions, well-graded, and easy to follow. And it’s a beautiful and easy introduction to the Honolulu Mauka Trail System, with plenty to recommend it.
The Manoa Cliff trail starts on Round Top drive, in the 4005 vicinity, about 2 miles past Pu’u Ualaka’a State Park. The small dirt parking area for the trail is on the makai side of the street (going up Round Top Drive, that’s the ocean or left side). The drive itself is very pleasant, showcasing expansive views of Honolulu, from Diamond Head Crater to downtown. Once you start seeing the brown-and-yellow Na Ala Hele trailhead markers, look out for the parking area. Park in the parking area and cross the street to the Manoa Cliff trailhead.
Views of Manoa Valley and the Ko'olau Range from Manoa Cliff trail
A brief initial climb through mahogany and guava forest was followed by a short descent down a rooty and muddy hill. Just 1/2 mile in, I started to see lovely views of Manoa Valley and the Ko’olau Range.
The trail leveled out and meandered along the side of the mountain. Native vegetation such as ohia trees, Hilo holly, and clumps of hala trees, as well as a dense bamboo grove, flourishes along the trail. Look for markers indicating the names of plants. The delightful sounds of birdsong filled the air (and drowned out the occasional roar of a garbage truck or whine of a moped from Manoa Valley below).
About a mile in was a small bench and overlook. After the bench, I passed through a native-forest restoration gate erected to keep out wild pigs, and shortly thereafter I reached the junction for the Pu’u Ohia trail.
The Pu’u Ohia trail seemed interesting, so I followed it to find peekaboo views of Kaneohe and the misty peaks of the Ko’olau range. I continued on the Pu’u Ohia trail 0.25 miles through a short but thick bamboo grove to the top of the Mt. Tantalus, where there is a Hawaiian Telephone service station and tower. From here, I was graced with a spectacular view of the Ko’olaus and Kaneohe in the distance.
View from top of Tantalus, on Pu'u Ohia trail
I chose to backtrack to finish the Manoa Cliff trail rather than taking the service road down on Pu’u Ohia. Back on the Manoa Cliff trail, shortly after the Pu’u Ohia junction, I reached another junction, this one for Pauoa Flats, complete with a map of the entire trail system. Continuing on Manoa Cliffs, after two downhill switchbacks, I was rewarded with views of the southwestern side of the island, looking out towards Ewa Beach and Barber’s Point.
View of southwestern Oahu from end of Manoa Cliff Trail
The Manoa Cliff trail ends at a junction with the Kalawahine Trail, which leads back to Tantalus Drive. Since I was parked on Round Top, I headed back the way I came on the Manoa Cliff trail. From the Pu’u Ohia junction, with minimal photo stops, it was less than an hour’s walk back to my car. Next time, I’ll hike the Manoa Cliff trail to the Pauoa Flats trail, which ends at the Ko’olau summit and offers views of Nu’uanu Valley.
The author surrounded by koa trees, near the summit of Pu'u Pia
Stuart Ball describes the Pu’u Pia trail as a “short, delightful walk”, an apt and succinct description. As far as Hawai’i hikes go, it’s a shorty: only about 2 miles round-trip. This mini trail offers a pleasant hike through lovely vegetation, some of it native, and leads to the top of a hill, or pu’u, with wonderful 360-degree views of Manoa Valley, Manoa Falls, and Honolulu. It offers a unique perspective of Manoa Valley. It’s a perfect morning jaunt if you want to be back in Honolulu in time for lunch. Speaking of lunch, I have a few recommendations on that front, too. <Coming soon!>
Wiliwilinui Ridge Trail (Waia’lae Iki ridge)
Note: This trail is not part of the Honolulu Mauka Trail system, but is part of Na Ala Hele, the trail system on O’ahu, and is also easily accessed from the center of Honolulu.
Wiliwilinui Ridge trail (~5 miles roundtrip) combines a pleasant, moderate hike along a wide trail with a challenging summit ascent. In my childhood, the most exciting thing about this trail was the ascent, up the steep and slippery side of the mountain, which could only be made with the aid of ropes. When I hiked the trail in June 2010, trail workers and volunteers were setting black plastic boards in the hillside, which work to prevent erosion and serve as stairs to offer a marginally easier route to the top.
Summit ascent of Wiliwilinui trail, with ropes
Even with the stairs, the hike to the summit requires a great deal of exertion, but the reward is a panoramic view of Honolulu, Waimanalo, and Kaneohe.
The trail starts at the end of the Waia’ale Iki subdivision, off of Laukahi Street. For detailed information on this and other wonderful hikes, on O’ahu, see Stuart Ball’s excellent Hiker’s Guide to O’ahu.
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