OHE June 25, 1999 (Waahila to Kaau)

Date: Fri, 25 Jun 1999 21:17:56 -1000
From: Greg Kingsley (gkingsle@hawaii.edu>
Subject: Waahila Ridge/Kaau Crater/Palolo Valley

Having had a fun time at Keaiwa Heiau (Aiea) Loop Trail, the three of us decided to hop to it again on another trail. Lunch and water packed, Blossom and I parked at the Waahila State Recreation Area and proceeded into the pine forest. For some reason, ribbons had been tied to a bunch of trees, seemingly without pattern. We left a triple-twig arrow with one of our own pink markers affixed to it as our third hiking cohort wasn't to start until 10:30 AM.

The two of us took the occasional side trip into the pines in search of a view and a campsite and found at least one spot with potential. Guava soon replaced the pines as we trekked along a very wide and maintained rooty path. We noticed some plants along the way, as the cute (but invading) fiddlewood with its small orange berries. There was a tree off on the left which had beautiful blooms resembling those of ohia lehua, except its flowers had red bottoms and yellow hairs - however, the trunk and leaves didn't look related to the ohia.

Conditions remained absolutely wonderful, as the overcast kept temperatures in the low 80s, but I worried that the cloud cover would possibly obscure our windward views from the summit. The overhead fluff brought cool sprinkles early in the trail, which sent kids scurrying for the Waahila trailhead. At least twelve in all, in little cliques spaced throughout the trail with two adults in tow, they were probably doing the 3-mile Kolowalu-Waahila stretch to the van I previously noticed in the parking lot.

After a minor stretch of ups, downs, and the occasional contour, most of which being atop either grassy or rocky terrain, we reached the junction with the Kolowalu Trail. The official Waahila Ridge Trail wanes off the ridge, straight into this second trail, diverting hikers down toward Woodlawn Drive in Manoa Valley. Out of curiosity I gave it a five-minute inspection, returned to the Na Ala Hele marker post, and resumed the ridge hike.

Some rollercoaster action down boulders and up soiled humps followed, but wasn't nearly as hostile as ridges like Aiea Ridge or neighboring Mauumae (Lanipo) Ridge. In fact, by comparing our relative position on that ridge to Puu Kainawaaunui, we were making faster progress to the summit via Waahila. The credit goes to the 1.5-mile stretch of state-improved trail and Waahila's tame terrain. Ironically, both ridge trails start at the same elevation (1,080 feet) though Waahila lacks the initial 200-foot drop to a saddle and the steeper climbs as that of Mauumae. The two ridges may be sisters, but differ in personality.

From about the halfway point (including the stretch from the parking lot), the trail foliage drops to the wayside and opens up fabulous views deep into Manoa Valley on the left, where Blossom spotted the Lyon Arboretum. On the right were views of the overpowering hand of human inhabitation stretching its fingers deep into Palolo Valley to each side of the 400-foot high middle ridge before Kaau Crater. Ahead loomed Mount Olympus, bathed in the receding morning mist about the Koolau Crest. As we approached the ridge terminus, a straight, well-defined cut into the vegetation indicating a footpath contoured from the right, stretched past a junction with our ridge, then down to the left toward Manoa Valley before wrapping and disappearing behind a short pu'u. We wondered if this was part of the northwest-bound crest trail to Konahuanui.

Though we had frequent pauses to enjoy the crystalline views of downtown and Diamond Head perched above the ocean, we didn't need to stop or break for more than a minute during the course of the hike. In the same fashion, we eagerly completed the final ascent post haste for the summit, now vacant of clouds, promised windward vistas. Alas, Mount Olympus was beneath us as we passed a nice seven by seven-foot grassy clearing on the windward side of the vegetation. Hoping to find a better vantage point, we trekked east along the Koolau crest, briefly descending before rising to the true summit (elev. 2,486 feet). Ohia overhead and uluhe, thimbleberry, and clidemia robbing us of the view, we decided to return to the false summit clearing and break for lunch.

Setting down our gear, I trotted back to a spot with a clear lookout all the way down Waahila Ridge to bustling Honolulu. I spent about ten minutes trying to spot our hiking companion whom we assumed would be following. With a crackle and rustle to my right, up appeared John whom I led to our little lunch spot.

Nearly two hours of engaging conversation ensued before absolutely lucid views of the windward coast, from Konahuanui looming above Piliwale Ridge to the north, Kailua Bay and Mokapu's Ulupau Head straight ahead, to little Kaiwa Ridge off to the right. Like a triple-masted ship, Olomana Ridge was the proud clipper of these waves of lush green. Along the forest "coast", ducking in and out of the lower gullies, was the clearly discernable masterpiece of the Maunawili Demonstration (Koolaupoko) Trail

I had bounced the idea in my mind of traversing the Koolau Crest to Kaau Crater a few days prior, but John and I, being phobic regarding unspoken "rules" in motorcycling, made vehicle staging (or lack thereof) the demise of that plan. During lunch, I realized he had family (with transportation) nearby and I had $0.35. With a quick query, eager suggestion, and a unanimous mountaintop decision, we all were on our way to Kaau Crater!

Regaining the true summit, we headed out of the vegetation onto a windswept crest. Shouting over the blast of wind, standing above a very steep, but rounded, 280-foot descent to a small, narrow saddle in the crest, we analyzed the three possible routes we could have taken. The goal was to intersect with the spur descending along Kaau Crater's eastern rim. The problem was that we couldn't clearly see where the routes were leading, as each of them had a slightly precipitous drop or cliff which visually masked what came thereafter. There was a vote for the narrow gully on the left, a vote for the straight down approach, and a vote for the spur to the right. I decided to check out my suggestion before committing to one of the other opinions and zig-zagged my way down on the straight approach. The deafening gusts were effective in silencing the mutinous screams of my paranoia and fear!

This route, which was over slightly grassy, layered rock, was the best choice and Blossom and John were soon in tow. As we passed them, I pointed out three short plants, marked with pink ribbons, which were obviously a trio of a rare native variety. Although the entire slope could have been done upright by the more sure-footed, I pulled off the occasional four-point crab down a couple of rocky drops. When we leveled out, an obvious swath cut through the vegetation along the crest. As with most of the crest sections along this part of the Koolaus, we were perilously close to the vertical drop off the windward side. However, summer conditions ensured adequate footing, despite the occasional ghost of mist loitering off our left flank.

With a renewed sense of excitement, we pressed on, jokes and jovial jibes highlighting what conversations we had wherever vegetation was piled high enough to obstruct the wind's roar. The slope of the eastbound ascent toward the Palikea peak was more hospitable than the aforementioned descent from Olympus, so regaining 120 feet in elevation was quick and painless. The mid-afternoon sunlight had cooled sufficiently, for the cottony white fluff had sunken upon the crest and was now billowing through the nooks further along the crest. Topping out at the first powerline tower just above the spur from Kaau Crater's western rim, we took a moment to watch the clouds part over the crater.

Veering right and off the crest, we followed an obvious trail down the spur. To our left was a wonderful view of this geological oddity, mythical product of the failed Oahu-Kauai unification attempt by the demigod Maui, and namesake to a popular local band. Round in form and just over 1/4th a mile in diameter, the crater's basin (elev. 1,520 feet) is wedged mysteriously atop a middle ridge in the rear of Palolo Valley. The sheen glow of greens hides the crater's swampy texture, although a few open spots in the marsh reveal pools of water. A wide patch of blue-green dog-ears the northwestern corner while a raft of pale green seems to just float on the basin's center.

The trail, significantly more level than I had predicted, was a breeze to descend, as we were nearly jogging it all the way down. The course leveled out along a low portion of the western rim, providing close views of the watershed feature. Continuing around the basin, we ascended briefly toward another powerline tower, after which the trail swung left to hug the crater's rim. Along this easterly course, we noted the junction with the "usual" return route to the Kaau Crater hike - a typical trail which descends down the middle ridge. Having enough time, we decided to check out the headwaters to the popular waterfall which feeds Waiomao Stream: a cleft in the eastern rim which slowly drains the swamp. We descended from the southern rim section, which contours the crater between 1,600 and 1,700 feet in elevation, and a short duration later found ourselves within the waterfall notch.

A cool, quaint stream, averaging three feet in width by a foot in depth, was flowing quite nicely despite summer days. I took a moment to finger up some of the thick, rich green algae stretched by the crystal-clear water - a perfect goo for my plecostomus at home! I was surprised to find out that this "waterfall" was actually a collection of smaller vertical waterfalls between sections of a sharply-descending stream of whitewater. This was despite what I had seen from nearby Mauumae Ridge on a previous hike. Alas, a second discussion ended in a change in plans: forego the tame return route and descend the waterfall instead!

Unfortunately, I was wearing my cleats as the original plan was to hike a possibly moist Waahila Ridge and return the same way. As rocks and boulders were expected for footholds, I decided to bare it all - foot-wise, that is. After stashing my socks in my waistpack and knotting my cleats to my hydration pack, we set off down Kaau Crater's eastern rim, following a frequented course along the waterfall. Remembering a visit to the local Barefoot Hikers' webpage (and account of their inaugural barefoot traverse of Aiea Loop) and all that OHE-L talk of holistic benefits to barefoot walking, my soles were getting a grand tenderizing - therapeutic or not. It's amazing how sensitive our civilized feet have become to things such as mere ripples in the stone or an insignificant twig in the clay. I will admit, however, that I was definitely feeling a gush of circulation coursing through the fleshy meat!

In an attempt to surpass my two companions and assist the first along a slippery section, I lost my footing and was instantly treated to a barrage of bruises-to-come. Luckily, the only blood drawn was a minor cut to one knee and a bashed fingernail. Of course, I wouldn't have attempted anything heroic if that happened to be one of the several vertical sections along this trail.

A bit past a third of the way down, during a descent of a 12-foot-high boulder, I took nearly ten minutes finding some sort of personal attachment to this rock! The gushy moss and clay, although sweet to the touch, didn't quite help the frictionless footing, as I felt my toes slipping during each attempt. The balls of my bare feet, curving and curling atop a small, jagged outcrop midway down, forced me to rely solely on the black and orange rope to rappel. John tried to enhance my sense of security by holding onto the rope, alleviating some of the strain on whatever hapless tree it was attached to. Meanwhile, I tried to ignore the incidents at Waimano Pool and at the bottom of this very waterfall, as recently reported on the OHE-L. And though I successfully descended that vertical drop, I quickly donned my socks and cleats once more. The lack of grip with the cleats was comparable to my bare feet on clay, algae, and twigs - but didn't hurt as much!

Passing two rather interesting fellows on a late-afternoon ascent, the rest of the descent proceeded quickly, thanks to a less painful traverse. We noted a plaque affixed to a rock bearing the name of a woman who died in 1997 (probably 26 years of age) but did not give a reason to the locale of the plaque or her early death - was this a fatality here?

Shortly after, we reached the final waterfall - one which stands about forty feet above a shallow pool. We waved down to an attractive couple sitting at the base. They were hostel and hiking companions of the two males who had, about fifteen minutes prior (with darkening conditions abound), ascended past us. Upon reaching the small pool, our trio kept the two company: the gal, a culinary arts major in Arizona, and the guy, a former Hawaii-native/current San Francisco resident and post-graduate in Speech interviewing for a teaching position at both Maui and Leeward Community Colleges. As it is a small world, we had a lot in common and the discussion was lively, lasting the 45 minutes (or so) it took for their two "interesting" companions to return. In a California-surfer-dude dialect, one of them told me the descent was "way easier" than the ascent. He added that he had smoked an eighth of a bag of pot before the hike to the laughs of his fellow "dude" who joked about them being in the clouds.

With the "interesting" guys back and a setting sun eclipsed by the surrounding ridges, we decided to make an early exit and trotted down the narrow, partially-graded trail through the thimbleberry and uluhe. It took us on a course to the west of, just above, and parallel to the stream on a direct, downhill romp through the narrow valley. Just as the lower waterfall showed signs of an early aqueduct system, an old metal pipe weaved in and out along the path as we ventured out of visual range of Waiomao Stream. About a mile later, we dropped back down to the stream, crossed it, briefly ascended, and emerged onto a paved road, exiting the Board of Water Supply's Honolulu Watershed Forest Reserve through a gate at the end of Waiomao Road. About twenty minutes later, drenched by valley showers, the foursome caught up to us in their rental and offered a lift. Somehow, the seven of us were piled into this small towncar as we zipped back up St. Louis Heights Drive to our awaiting motorcycles at the Waahila Park. We learned that they were planning on hitchhiking from Sacramento to Alaska in the coming months. Much thanks to them and godspeed!

The three of us ended our awesome adventure with some hot food, shaved ice (Tropicana Freeze, again!), laughter, and plans for our next bit of fun. Good times!

Happy hiking!


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