Mt. Ka’Ala: Oahu’s Highest Peak

If memory serves me right, foot trekking adventures in Hawaii offer a handful of distinct features that define hiking on the U.S. volcanic island chain: Brutal humidity, vast panoramic ocean views, lush tropical jungle landscapes, and direct steep ascents requiring a network of climbing ropes necessary to eclipse the final summit. This most recent endeavor to Oahu’s highest peak proved that my recollection was a crystal clear 20/20 foresight. 

My previous visit with friends to Waipio Valley on Hawaii’s ‘Big Island’ was unforgettable. I fondly recall jaw dropping panoramas and pristine natural treasures torn straight from ‘Jurassic Park’ scenes of the Hawaiian coast. This time around I had the pleasure to share the hike with my dad. Let’s just say he’s a good sport for humoring my sense of adventure. 

Steep pitch on the way up to Mt. Ka’Ala’s 4,026′ plateaued ridgeline.
5 Takeaways From Ka'Ala
  • Convenient access from Honolulu 
  • Expect remote, rural travel through Waianae Valley
  • Hawaiians don’t believe in switchbacks 
  • Best views are likely beneath the summit
  • Ropes, lot’s of ropes
Getting There

Drive H1 / 93 Westbound from Honolulu towards Waianae. Turn right at Waianae Valley Rd., continue northbound until the road dead ends at parking area [Note: Just before trail head, Waianae Valley Road bears left at y-shaped traffic circle]. Several burnt out abandoned cars line this narrow, rural roadway. Suspicious characters seem to drift around the parking area. Use appropriate precautions, hide all valuables inside your vehicle.

Quick Hit Highlights

Ka’ala Mountain trail commences beyond gate to the right of the Budweiser shine. Although unseen on the day of our hike, hunting is permitted year round. Hunters are allowed to bag pigs and goats in the Waianae Kai Forest Preserve within the constraints of a documented daily quota. 

And so our trekking began. Nearly 1.5 paved miles of steep climbing wind steadily upward, penetrating deep into the Waianae Valley. With stern determination and a remarkably elevated pulse rate, we progressively passed two Municipal Water utility bunkers. Presumably these outposts collect and treat fresh water on its way through to the lower reaches of the Waianae Valley watershed. 

I found myself with neck craned and mouth agape admiring the unobstructed views of the vaulting, folded hillsides which framed the surrounding valley. The wavy texture of the Hawaiian mountains procures an alternating patchwork of beaming illumination then transitioning to muted shade under the influence of the afternoon sun. 

Just beyond the graffitied second water treatment bunker, the trail narrowed between an understory of shoulder high tall grasses. Over the next mile, hard-packed dirt and medium sized stones canvas the forest floor underfoot. Well-developed root systems curb the challenge of the further increased grade. 

Just ahead there comes a signed fork in the trail. Despite climbing incessantly uphill thus far, we opted for a relief by following the left branch downhill into the dried creek bed. Dad made a point to pause in a moment of silence to absorb the chorus of pollinating bees humming all around. Colorful, textured leaves, barkless tree tunnels, and fungal blossoms exude robust character to our immediate landscape.

With nearly a quarter of the distance still yet to climb, the Ka’Ala Ridgeline hovered high in the clouds far overhead. At just this moment, we’d finally come level with the surrounding peaks. In my opinion, the best views of the entire trek were available here. The lush green valley formed a majestic cradle of natural civilization below. To the south, and disappearing in the valley to our rear, was the sprawling Pacific Ocean just off the south western Oahu coast. Four stratified layers of ocean blue delineated layered ranks of depth across our view.

The final approach to the plateaued Ridgeline was pitched nearly vertical. Let’s just say that Hawaiians don’t believe in switchbacks. A network of ropes and straps aided our ascent. Former climbers had expertly tethered these lines to tree trunks, greatly aiding the effort. Jungle gym for grown ups anyone?

On the way up, we took a double take at the sight of blue dotted food dye splattered beside the narrow pathway. Turns out the local environmental patrol was on the move that same day, working to eradicate an invasive species with herbicides. 

Once the plateau was reached, a gated fence line demarcating the boundary of another protected area. Per the request of the park signage, we made certain to wipe our shoes and abided the instruction to seal the gate behind our admittance.

Just beyond the fence line a twin plank boardwalk commenced, winding through a swampy bog on the course to an Air Force Radar monitoring station complete with an oversized weather bulb. By this point, our views of the surrounding scenery were shrouded in clouds. Fortunately this outpost, protected by the U.S. Army, offered plenty of intriguing sights.

Following a well deserved snack, we commenced our downward trek towards the trailhead. Arguably the descent was more taxing than the approach. Relentless repelling along our previously travelled course proved a skillful and exhausting way to conclude the afternoon.

Concluding our walk as rain clouds roll in.