I had the good fortune to hike up 1,900 foot Pu'u Heleakala with the Sierra Club on March 25, 1996. About thirty hikers gathered near the corner of Farrington Highway and Haleakala Avenue in Nanakuli at 8:30 a.m. in preparation for the hike. After everyone signed in and received a pre-hike briefing by our trek leader, Reese Liggett, we boarded our vehicles and drove to the trailhead a bit further up Nanakuli Valley.
The trail begins in a vacant lot in a quiet neighborhood on Mokiawe Street. Leaving first were a dozen hardier sorts who would make the rugged trek to Heleakala, descend 1,000 feet, ascend to another 2,200 foot peak further up the ridge and then return. I was among them. We set out at 9:15. The rest of the hiking party, dubbed the "moderate group," would ascend to Haleakala, lunch there, and retrace their steps.
After crossing the empty lot and traversing a concrete drainage ditch, we began climbing a rock and grass-covered upswelling. Once we reached the top of that small pu'u, cool ocean-borne winds caressed us, a delightful gift on this otherwise scorching, cloudless morning. We moved upward steadily, Liggett offering tidbits about plants, Hawaiian place names, and rock formations we passed (he made the group say "A'ali'i"--a plant species--in unison a couple times to verify the accuracy of our pronunciation).
We crossed a fairly level scrub-covered section for about a quarter mile. To our left was massive Lualualei Valley, strewn with strings of uniformly straight roads constructed by the military. Further makai to the north, two large outcroppings, Pu'u o Hulu Uka and Pu'u o Hulu Kai, jutted out of the flat valley floor and stretched to the coastline. To our right lay Nanakuli Valley, home to a smattering of homesteads and the circular buildings of Nanakuli High School. Looming a mile up the ridge to the northeast was Pu'u Haleakala, our first major goal.
The flat mesa now completed, we began a steady ascent of a series of humps in the ridge. Though not overly taxing or dangerous, the climb tested our legs and lungs. At one point we had to do a short stretch of rock climbing which was quite manageable because of an array of hand- and footholds. We took a break after about 45 minutes of humping. During the short respite, Liggett reminded himself to slow the pace a bit because our group was stringing out more than he would have liked (the Sierra Club's policy is to keep hiking groups together which is different from the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club's go-at-your-own-pace philosophy). As we rested, we could see the moderate group trudging upward further down the ridge.
We continued our upward march, ascending one hump, then another, then another. Finally, after a total of approximately 90 minutes of climbing, Pu'u Heleakala was ours. The views from the summit weren't the best because of a semi-dense thicket of small shrubs and trees. However, by pushing our way through the foliage, we gained vantage points to view the hike ahead: a steep descent to a 1,000 foot saddle and 1,200 foot climb up a pyramid-shaped rock formation to a series of nobs on the ridge to the north.
Because I had a basketball game to play that afternoon, I decided to head back for the trailhead at that point. Accordingly, instead of continuing on, I signed-off of the group (I did this by scribbling the statement "I'm leaving on my own" next to my entry on the sign-in sheet). The hike co-leader, Cedric Yoshimoto, asked me if I was fit enough to descend alone (I assured him I was). I set off for the trip down at 10:45.
About 15 minutes down the trail, I passed the first handful of the moderate group members, still puffing and huffing upward. After a few more minutes of descending, I had passed all the members of the second group and I was alone.
Not long after that, I stopped to recyle some water on a trailside shrub, to swig down some water and to gobble a snackbar. During the break, I noticed a female hiker, moving quickly, descending the ridge about an eighth of mile above my position.
Within minutes, she had caught up to me. She had heard from Cedric that I had signed-off and was heading back down, and needing a lift back to town, she set out after me to hitch a ride. We descended together, sharing hiking stories and opinions about the way the Sierra Club folks conducted their treks. She introduced herself as Holly, a 5-foot-9, athletically-built blonde from Canada who has been working as a maternity ward nurse at Kapiolani Women's and Children's Hospital for the past six years. An avid hiker, Holly told me she had traversed some challenging trails, including Manamana (her favorite), Kalena, and Keahi a Kahoe.
By 11:45 we had reached our Mokiawe Street starting point and were in my Cherokee heading Honolulu-bound. We both agreed that Heleakala, although not in the same category as its Valley Isle almost-namesake, was challenging and beautiful nonetheless.