Hiking Koko Crater Trail in Honolulu, Hawaii: 1,048 Stairs of Doom

As with all enduring love affairs, my relationship with Koko Crater Trail is both simple and complicated.

It all started back in 2012 with my first Koko Crater summit foray (All tongue-in-cheek, of course; a volcanic tuff cone hardly counts as summit bid fare, I know!). I’d heard veteran hikers’ whispered war stories for years, but the trail was only a mile long. How bad could it be? I thought.

Oh, humble pie!

I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say I came dangerously close to tossing my cookies over the better part of East Oahu that summer afternoon. They don’t dub Koko Crater “The Stairmaster from Hell” for nothing. With a whopping 1,048 Stairs of Doom scaling 1,200 vertical feet in half a mile, this Honolulu trail certainly lives up to its devilish moniker of pain.

Attempt #2 ended just as poorly as Attempt #1, save for some small measure of consolation in having stopped before gastric distress induced Code Red status a second time around. Dreaded stair #750 had foiled me again! Third time’s the charm, or at least that’s what I told myself as I headed down the mountain (er, cone?)-side, licking my wounds.

Koko Crater had proven a worthy nemesis; I would never make the mistake of underestimating her again. I trained hard. Did Insanity for a month. Hiked with a vengeance. And the next time I returned, I knew the sweet triumph of reaching the top. I must have been grinning like an idiot that final, fateful step because a fellow hiker greeted me with an enthusiastic high-five and prophetic words.

“First time?” he asked.

I nodded, mostly because I was too busy trying to remember how to breathe to actually answer.

He gave me a knowing smile. “Won’t be your last. Koko Head’s addictive.”

I couldn’t have imagined the truth to his statement then, busy as I was trying not to die, but the kind stranger had foreseen my future with Yoda-like sagacity. In the years since, Koko Crater has become my favorite, most-despised workout regime. 1,048 stairs up, 1,048 stairs down. It’s never easy. It’s always hard. I love it. I hate it. And I am hopelessly and utterly addicted.

View of Koko Crater from the Koko Head Regional Park parking lot. The faint brown line tracing the left side of the “mountain” is the trail.
Stair 1–it’s a big one! Erosion has washed away the underside of the first step, so it’s a bit of a climb but a very fitting beginning. 😀

Koko Crater’s “stairs” are wooden railroad ties, vestiges of an old military railway used to transport cargo to pillbox bunkers during WWII. Over the years, the railroad ties have fallen into despair, and though the stairs are neither sanctioned nor maintained by the state, the trail remains popular with both fitness buffs and visitors alike.

You can see the disrepair here; trail angels have added wooden planks and cement blocks for support to many sections to aid hikers on their climb

When hiking, it’s helpful to consider the trail in three sections: 1) pre-bridge, or the first 500 stairs, 2) the bridge itself, comprising 100 stairs, and 3) post-bridge, the final 400 stairs.

Pre-Bridge, the First 500 Stairs

Stair height varies throughout the pre-bridge section, with most stairs measuring a fairly comfortable foot and a half tall. Hikers tend to fall into two distinct camps here: Team Push and Team Pace. Personal experience lands me firmly on the side of the latter (Summit attempts #1 and #2, I’m looking at you), but others prefer to push early-on to compensate for slower post-bridge times. Both strategies yield success, but it’s important to note that the final 400 stairs are significantly harder than the first 600. Post-bridge, the trail steepens dramatically, and railroad ties are fixed at a near 90 degree angle to the mountain. Slow and steady might mean a little ego bruising while other hikers overtake me here, but anything that keeps puking at bay is golden in my book. I’ve watched enough people get sick after the bridge to remember how close I came to doing the same!

And…we’re off! Koko Crater Trail, May 2017. Many thanks to my dear friend for humoring me once again with blog photos!
Stair height and distance between railroad ties varies with each step. Hard on the lungs and legs, but perfect for conditioning
The trail gets busy with the early-morning and after-work rush. It’s quite narrow, too, so stepping off the tracks is the best way to pass or let others pass

Seeking out the 100-stair “markers” that fellow hikers have inked on the railroad rails keeps me motivated…and ever mindful that Stair 300 is where things start getting real. Luckily, there’s quite a view to be had already, equal parts reward and incentive to spur the weary (ie: me) on.

Stair 300. Hikers have inked in stair markers in increments of 100 along the railroad ties.


View from Stair 300, taken in 2012 summer. With winter and spring rains, Koko Crater is lush and green. Summertime views are more brown and parched like this.

Stair 500: The Bridge (a.k.a. You’re Halfway There!)

Stair 500 brings us to the halfway point: The Bridge. The railroad ties continue here without discernible break, but unlike in the previous section, this portion of rail free-floats 15-20 feet above the ground. While the slats aren’t wide apart enough to fall through, they’re large enough to warrant a broken ankle or leg should you slip. Unfortunately, EMS rescues are not uncommon in this area, and though I’d love to cite that as my reason for skirting the bridge and taking a land detour, who am I kidding? I’m the biggest ‘fraidy cat around when it comes to exposed heights. EMS incidents or no, there’ll be no crossing that rickety bridge for me! Luckily, there’s a side path that skirts the bridge’s entirety, rejoining the main trail just past Stair 600. Here, the railroad ties are firmly rooted to the mountainside again. If you look to the right of the bridge, you will see a well-worn dirt path that wusses like me cling to with gratitude. 😀

The rickety bridge–no, thank you! I considered climbing a stair or two to get a better picture, but decided I liked living better. 😀
Looking back from the bridge, Hanauma Bay and Hawaii Kai in the distance
Looking back towards Hanauma Bay from the Bridge. The view is already pretty great from here, and it only gets better!

Post-Bridge: the Final 400 Stairs of Doom

The post-bridge finale is truly a test of mental and physical fortitude. No matter how many times I complete Koko Crater, Stair 750 always, always vexes me. It’s where I consider throwing in the towel, every single time. Here, the stairs steepen from a 45 degree incline to a daunting near-90 vertical climb. Stair height increases dramatically as well. At 5’3”, I often have to lift my legs 2-3 feet between steps, reverting to all fours to hoist myself up. Time and weather have eroded the gravelly dirt between stairs to well below stair-line, and many of the wooden railroad ties are narrow and broken as well, making for sketchy footing. How’s a girl to get to the top? “Eyes on the prize” is a mantra that serves many well, but I prefer to keep my eyes fixed upon the ground–one stair at a time, one foot at a time–until I’m past Stair 900 and safely past my mental quitting zone.

Stair 750 is no joke, and it only gets steeper from here! Take heart, though–you’re almost there!
So close and still so far…climbing toward Stair 800. It’s hard to see it here, but the distance between stairs is sometimes 2-3 feet.

But oh, to stand–or collapse, as it were–on the summit! There is nothing more glorious. To experience the beautiful camaraderie found at the top of Koko Crater is to understand the Aloha Spirit indeed. Strangers evolve into friends over fist bumps and high-fives. War stories are shared and commiserated. And always, Koko Crater veterans pay it forward, shouting encouragement to first-timers hundreds of feet below. “Don’t quit now! You’re almost there–push!” is a happy onus to bear.

The view from the top, Koko Crater Trail May 2017. That mountain on the distant right is the backside of Diamond Head.
The view from the top, Summer 2012. You can see how different the trail and surrounding hills look during the summer.
What goes up must come down, and in some ways, going down can be even trickier than climbing up.
Side-stepping works well for heading down safely. No shame in my game: I have no pride and will frequently use my hands to keep 3 points of contact on the way down.
Heading down Koko Crater Trail with views of Hanauma Bay and Hawaii Kai in the distance.

True, Koko Crater’s beautiful views of Hanauma Bay, Diamond Head, and the Ko’olaus are without rival, but I’d venture that the hike’s appeal lies less in its views (delightful though they may be) and more in the singular opportunity to challenge oneself. The stairs demand a unique skillset, delivering circuit training, strength training, and interval training in one convenient and grueling package–gorgeous views simply sweeten the deal. Koko Head’s short mile-long length also lends itself to weekly repetition, a boon to goal-oriented junkies who enjoy quantifying fitness gains. Given our hurts-so-good masochistic tendencies, this quad and glute (and lung!) burner has earned a weekly spot in our training regime. There’s nothing more gratifying than watching recovery times between spurts improve or seeing your time to the summit drop to thirty minutes or less! No matter how many times you claw your way to the top, Koko Crater never gets old. Fitness goals may change and evolve, but the challenge itself? Always there.

1,048 stairs up. 1,048 stairs down. It’s never easy. It’s always hard. Love it and hate it–Koko Crater Trail is the stuff of maddeningly sweet addiction.

Closer to Home: Hiking Ka’ena Point Trail

Not a cloud in the sky–an auspicious phrase, unless you’re hiking Ka’ena Point Trail with 25 pounds strapped to your back.

Then it’s more of a death sentence, though there’s hardly a better way to go!

With our trip a month away, we’ve been hiking twice a week and had planned Ka’ena as a long backpacking training run with our friends this past weekend. Only an hour’s drive from the hustle and bustle of Honolulu, Ka’ena marks Oahu’s westernmost point as well as the end of the road–literally! Spanning the western shore of the island in almost its entirety, Farrington Highway comes to an abrupt halt at Ka’ena Point Trailhead. There’s simply no seeing this hidden part of Oahu unless you’re willing to hoof it, and believe you me: this is a trail you want to hoof.

Between November and May, the sun-baked Waianae coast blooms to life in lush shades of tropical green. Warm waters welcome migrating giants, and on a clear day–which is next to always at Ka’ena–humpback whale sightings can clock in an easy dime a dozen in under an hour. Endangered Hawaiian monk seals sun themselves on sandy beaches while Laysan albatrosses circle the shore, their majestic 7-foot wingspans casting shadows across sand dunes and lava cliffs.   

But Ka’ena is also a land of extremes.

Literally “The Heat,” Ka’ena will make you cry uncle under its scorching midday sun. Heed the posted warnings; Ka’ena is aptly named indeed. You can access Ka’ena Point from both Waianae and Mokuleia, though from Mokuleia, the trail measures a hair longer at just over 5 miles roundtrip. We opted to hike the Mokuleia route as it offers more solitude than its Waianae counterpart; it’s also only 2 miles away from Dillingham Airfield, a safer parking alternative to trailhead parking with convenient public restroom access. While safe and free, parking at Dillingham Airfield added an additional 4.5 miles to our hike, bumping our total to a sweaty but satisfying 9.5 miles. 

Walking 2 miles along Farrington Highway from Dillingham Airfield to get to the trailhead. Many thanks to our friends for being such good sports about blog photos!

Our group set out from Dillingham Airfield at 8 am, each hiker laden with 5 liters of water, gear, and a bottle of electrolyte drink. With the sun low on the horizon, temperatures hovered at a bearable 80 degrees, though the day was already shaping up to be much more humid than we would have liked. We followed the highway for two miles, grateful that the paved road made for speedy hiking. We arrived at the trailhead gate a half hour later–a little sweatier under our floppy sun hats, but ready for whatever Ka’ena had to throw our way.

Beyond the gate, hikers must share the trail with any off-road vehicles brave enough to pit their tires against the heavily cratered red dirt and rock “road.” Not to worry, though–there’s no real chance of getting hit. Driving more than 5 miles per hour would be ill-advised here unless flat tires are the desired goal! Still, it’s good to be aware of the possibility of vehicles and plan accordingly. Countless spur trails beckon hikers to the ocean, and though we managed to resist this go-round, their allure is hard to ignore. We’ve been lucky to spot monk seals on hidden beaches and majestic honu (green sea turtles) just offshore in the past. The main trail, in contrast, is decidedly less comely, all red dirt and rocks for miles on end, but I’d argue that its meditative predictability is precisely Ka’ena’s charm.  

Follow the endless red dirt road
Looking back towards Dillingham Airfield; that hint of green is just a small taste of all the beautiful green to come! On a clear day, you can see for miles here.

To hike Ka’ena Point is to embrace the journey over the destination, and we were fortunate to be treated to some of the best scenery I’ve ever experienced in these parts. Recent rainfall left the Waianae Mountains greener than I can remember, and the sky and ocean melded into a seamless sea of blue. All of that blue, though, translated to little cloud cover for shade, and temps soon spiked at a sweltering 90+ degrees–a sticky, unforgiving heat that left us losing water faster than we could replace it. We slowed our stride to allow our bodies a chance to cool.

I’ve never seen Ka’ena so green! In a few months, this area will be parched and brown.
We didn’t follow this spur path all the way down, but you can see people fishing off lava cliffs in the distance
Stopping for a water break and admiring all the blue and green. And look! There’s even a mini-rainbow against the mountains!
We didn’t see any whales this time, but the water is so calm here–ideal for whale watching

At the 5 mile mark, we came upon a cacti and sisal “forest” that preceded our turnaround point–Ka’ena Natural Area Reserve, a wildlife sanctuary established to protect nesting wedge-tailed shearwaters and Laysan albatrosses. Cordoned-off footpaths meander the birds’ burrows, allowing visitors an up-close view of these large and fascinating seabirds. Unfortunately, we arrived at the tail end of nesting/migration season, so stragglers numbered few and far between. During the winter, however, visitors may see hundreds of nesting albatrosses circling and diving for fish–quite the spectacular sight! Equally impressive is the expansive and rugged relief of the Waianae mountains to the south of Ka’ena point, hidden from view until you reach the lighthouse. In a sprawling metropolis like Honolulu, I’m thankful that there are still pockets of untamed wilderness like this to be found–miles upon miles of unsullied blue and green, the way Hawaii was meant to be. 

Flowering sisal, a type of agave plant. These guys are huge! They towered over us.
Looking back from the Sanctuary gate
Entering Ka’ena Wildlife Sanctuary
Laysan albatross; they’re so much bigger than they seem here. They’re so huge that their wings cast noticeable shadows when they fly overhead
Laysan albatross nesting in the sand dunes
I spy an albatross nesting in the grass

Tempting as it was to linger under the shade of the lighthouse tower, it was already 10:30 am. The 90 degree high we’d noted earlier would rise within minutes as temperatures continued to climb. We hoisted our packs–a few pounds lighter now thanks to some serious water guzzling during our break–and headed back to the trailhead. Scorched arms and sweat-drenched shirts hastened our pace. In spite of slathering SPF 50 on every square inch of skin just two hours earlier, it was clear we were beginning to resemble broiled lobster. The time for admiring views had passed; we needed to get out of the sun and quick.

The final stretch before the lighthouse tower. Nothing terribly exciting, but then you turn the corner, and….
This is what’s hiding on the other side! Beautiful, untouched blue and green
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Ka’ena Point–the westernmost tip of Oahu. It was so hard to leave this view!
Soaking in the view at Ka’ena Point before heading back to the trailhead. It doesn’t get much better than this!
The view from the lighthouse tower at Ka’ena Point
Heading back to Dillingham Airfield

It was such a relief to reach the trailhead! Free of the Ka’ena inferno, sea breezes made for tolerable temps. But out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they say: where ocean breezes offered blessed relief, our achy feet were definitely worse for wear. Though not our first training hike, this was the heaviest weight we’d practiced with this month. Coupled with the 11 am heat, my feet were suffering Honolulu Marathon flashbacks (for reference, a one-and-done stint). 😉

Conversation took a back seat the last two miles, each of us digging deep to gather some inner resolve for the final push. Food fantasies have always done the trick in this past, and thankfully, this time was no exception. ‘AC and plate lunch’ became the mantra that got us back to the car, and boy, did Loco Moco Drive-Inn ever deliver! With an abundance of AC, good friends, and good eats, mochiko chicken plate lunch* never tasted as delicious as it did that day. Come for the hike and stay for the food–Ka’ena Point will leave you hooked.

*Local-style “plate lunch” is comfort food in Hawaii. 2 scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and some type of gravy-covered or Asian BBQ meat is standard plate lunch fare. Smothered-in-brown-gravy-or-soy-sauce is a popular option, though many places (like Loco Moco Drive Inn) now offer low-carb plates, substituting tossed salad for the rice and mayo-heavy macaroni salad. My favorite option of all is the mini plate lunch–with 1 scoop of rice, 1 scoop of macaroni salad, and half the meat of a regular plate, it’s just decadent enough to sate hiker hunger and feel like a treat!          

WW II Valor in the Pacific National Monument: Pearl Harbor Reflection & Tips

There are 1,177 men entombed beneath my feet.

The knowledge is humbling, overwhelming. The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 would stun the nation, catapulting America into WWII. History tells us that the battleship USS Arizona sustained a fatal blow to a powder magazine that day. That the violent force of the explosion caused it to sink in minutes, entombing the 1,177 sailors aboard. Some were trapped alive. I think about the average age of those who died that fateful Sunday–23 years old–and of my son, 15, not three years younger than the crew’s youngest. I picture the faint mustache settling in above his lip and the cartoon character baby blanket he refuses to part with. I think about the soldiers’ mothers, whose sons will never return. History may seek to analyze and interpret the events of December 7th, but standing here at the Arizona Memorial, there is no logic or reason–only profound sadness.

Two hours earlier, we’d made the fifteen minute trek to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument –in our Sienna, not a rental car–a first and likely last for us in the National Parks system, given our homebase of Honolulu. We’ve driven thousands of miles visiting parks afar; it was only fitting that we visit the NPS site closest to home. Just a week prior, the Arizona Memorial had made international headlines with the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but today, there is a quieter crowd. Christmas is a week away, and the kids are less than enthused about our choice of holiday activity. With school out, they’ve merry making on their minds–not war. But with complimentary tickets to the Pacific Aviation Museum set to expire, we knew a combined Pearl Harbor/Pacific Aviation Museum tour was in order.

It’s a repeat visit for the kids, who’ve come before on field trips. But it’s been two decades, maybe three since my last visit. Everything is shiny and new–the result of a recent multi-million dollar renovation. It is comforting to see the familiar NPS set-up at work: park rangers, visitor center, gift shop. In many ways, the set-up reminds us of Mount Rushmore, complete with turnstiles, on-site museums, and guards. In other ways, less so: namely, the constant reminder that we are on an active naval base. We secure 10 am Arizona Memorial boat tickets* from a crowd-weary park ranger, who swigs water from his beat-up Nalgene. His boots and backpack indicate he is a hiker; his accent is not local. I don’t imagine this is the gig he envisioned when he signed with the Parks service. North Cascades receives 30,000 visitors per year; Pearl Harbor receives 1.8 million. It is the number one tourist destination in Hawaii, which is saying a lot for a state powered by tourism. He reminds us to meet at the theater in two hours, where we will view a short movie before boarding a boat to the Memorial.

World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument
Walking to the Pearl Harbor Memorial Theater

We wander the Visitor Center’s two exhibit galleries, “Road to War” and “Attack.” Everywhere we turn, we are met with the sights and sounds of war: gunfire, airplanes, and portraits of Japanese fighter pilots that could just as easily pass for photos of lost relatives. It haunts me. Patriotism comes naturally–I was born abroad on an Army base, and my father and his seven siblings served in the Army and Air Force. But I am Japanese-American, wearing the face of those who attacked Pearl Harbor that day. And I am Japanese-American, wearing the face of US citizens who were interned, of JA boys who gave their lives in service to prove their loyalty to America. Confusion and sadness turmoil within. Intellectually, I understand the whys and hows of all that transpired. But wandering these galleries, I don’t know how to reconcile these feelings. Emotion overcomes me more than once. I tell myself this is a good thing. That we should not forget the price of freedom, that our nation is stronger for recognizing that heritage and patriotism are not mutually exclusive. Above all, I am reminded that war is fiercely personal and that opposing sides often wear the faces of young boys not unlike my son, separated only by fate. Loyal to different flags, unaware of the politics at play or how their actions may change history.

The line at the theater gives Disneyland a run for its money. Every ten minutes, two park rangers rally throngs of ticket-holders into a cordoned-off holding area before funneling them into the theater. For 23 minutes, we view black and white footage of the two waves of Japanese attacks that day. It is surreal to see Japanese Zeros flying against the crenulated relief of the Ko’olaus, rows of sugarcane in Ewa plantation fields. Unlike the Ben Affleck flick, though, there is no melodramatic soundtrack to set the mood. The sounds of actual explosions, planes, and gunfire are sobering enough.

The kids don’t say much at the dock. I suspect they feel as affected as I do; it’s hard not to. We are ushered with several dozen visitors onto a Navy-operated boat. It is a short ride to the Arizona Memorial, and clear skies and calm waters make for a smooth ride. Looking out upon Ford Island and the telltale contour of Pearl Harbor, it is impossible not to picture the events of December 7th. The stillness of the harbor reminds us that time may have passed, but this will always be hallowed ground.

Approaching the Arizona Memorial by Navy boat
As seen from the assembly chamber, Arizona Memorial

The all-white Memorial grows larger and larger until finally, its symbolic shape comes into full view–peaked ends sloping toward a concave center. The peaks represent America’s pre-war pride and eventual triumph; the concave depression symbolizes the attacks of December 1941. We deboard into the entry chamber, moving quickly to the assembly room to gather around floor portals that open directly into the water. Designed by architect Alfred Preis, the Memorial spans the sunken hull of the Arizona, floating above the battleship without touching it. Oil still seeps from the wreckage; this morning, there is a filmy sheen to the blue-green water beneath us. Our youngest points out a ten-inch slick just beyond the portal, a school of fish darting into view. Though the wreckage is clearly visible from all vantage points, there is a surprising lightness to the Memorial. Open-air ceilings accentuate blue skies, warm breezes. Overlooks allow for quiet contemplation over the water.

My personal discomfort stops me from photographing the Memorial, though I know that photography does not equal disrespect. Still, I am less sure of the selfie sticks, social media posts, and Go Pro cameras I see, though I try to refrain from judgment. Most visitors linger quietly–some in the assembly chamber, others in the shrine room with a marble wall bearing the names of Arizona’s fallen. Many offer lei, prayers. I don’t know how to honor the sacrifice here except to read the names of the fallen and try to comprehend the magnitude of each life lost. For a long moment, I am overwhelmed with grief, and then I see the diversity of those gathered: Americans of every color and credo, as well as international visitors–including many from Japan. Perhaps peace is the most beautiful testament of all to the sacrifice and memory of these men. Bonded here in reverence, it is clear that the humanity that unites us is so much greater than the sum of our differences. Here at the memorial wall, there is grief, yes, but there is also promise and beauty and hope.

Tips for Families Planning to Visit Pearl Harbor:

  • *Admission to WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument is free. Boat tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial Program are also free, but slots are limited. Recreation.gov allows you to reserve tickets up to 2 months in advance; there are also 1,300 first come, first served walk-in tickets issued daily. (A note of caution: walk-in tickets almost always sell out by mid-morning.)
  • For security reasons, no purses, camera bags, diaper bags, etc. of any kind are allowed at the Visitor Center. There are storage lockers available at the entrance for $3, but pockets are free and work well for phones, wallets, and keys.
  • The Memorial Program lasts 75 minutes, including boat rides, theater movie and time at the Memorial. Three hours provides ample time to wander the exhibit galleries and experience the Memorial. Allow an extra half hour to walk the Remembrance Circle and interpretive wayside exhibits.
  • Other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites include: the Battleship Missouri, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Separate admission fees apply unless you choose to purchase a Passport to Pearl Harbor bundle, which allows access to all sites for one inclusive cost. However, we found that the Arizona Memorial and Pacific Aviation Museum alone took us the better part of 7 hours to experience. I’d recommend spreading visits over two days, or alternately, choosing one or two historic sites to focus on.
  • The Pacific Aviation Museum is fantastic for aviation enthusiasts of all ages. Historic Ford Island is restricted to those with military access; however, visitors to Pearl Harbor can access the museum by taking a free 5-minute shuttle to the museum. As this is an active military base, cell phones and picture taking are prohibited during the shuttle ride. We highly recommend taking advantage of the free audio tours available at the museum’s entrance. They provide a wealth of information and do a fantastic job of bringing the exhibits to life. Be sure to visit Hangars 37 and 79; Hangar 79’s windows house bullet holes from the Pearl Harbor attack. Our youngest, an Amelia Earhart buff, loved the Combat Flight Simulator, a 20-minute hands-on experience over Guadalcanal. Be sure to check the museum’s website, which often features coupons for free flight simulator admission (normally a $10 additional fee).
    Pacific Aviation Museum audio tour
    Hangar 79, bullet holes in windows sustained during Pearl Harbor attack
    Waiting for the Ford Island shuttle


Closer to Home: 3 Unforgettable Stops in East Oahu

So often, I find myself wistful whenever I browse through travel magazines and social media sites. Summit selfies and lakeside camp photos stir a longing in me that makes me wish I was anywhere but here. Thing is, here is a pretty darned great place to be–a fact I too often forget. More importantly, now is the moment I want to be in–and the only one we’re guaranteed. I’ll get back to the Olympic National Park and Seattle portions of our trip soon, but I wanted to pause for a bit to pay tribute to the humble backyard adventure.

To be honest, I guess I’ve been feeling a little burned out. Kids, work, activities–nothing new or out of the ordinary, but lately, it’s all been feeling like a bit much. I thought a little extra sleep might help. Or that maybe I needed to cut back on a weekend activity or two. Still, the feeling persisted. Then I walked past a Crayola-colored worksheet hanging on my son’s door–I am a Bucket Filler!–and it hit me.

I haven’t been filling my bucket.

Oh, I had a million excuses–kids, work, money…life–but the truth was, I’d let my bucket run dry. I count my blessings that we’re able to vacation most years (and these fill my bucket in a big way), but vacations can’t be expected to sustain you indefinitely. In neglecting to tend to my personal happiness, I’d lost sight of the everyday wonder in the here and now. I knew I needed to remedy the situation and was lucky enough to have 4 days off from work this week to do just that.

It didn’t take a lot of money–less than $20 for the entire week–and time was limited, with kids and activities to tend to. But it’s amazing how far you can stretch $20 and a few hours a day with simple pleasures. I sipped coffee and people-watched in a coffeehouse. Lay on the sand and watched the sun rise. Hiked in meditative solitude. Watched a movie (Queen of Katwe, which was excellent!) and shoveled a ridiculous amount of buttered popcorn. Slurped pho on a lunch date with my husband. Most of all, I watched waves crash over and over and released a breath I’d forgotten I’d been holding for months.

My favorite bucket-filling backyard adventure of the week was an excursion along the eastern coast of the island. Should you ever find yourself on Oahu, I highly recommend escaping the hustle and bustle of Waikiki and planning a day trip out east.

Stop 1: Sandy Beach and Makapu’u

Begin the day with sunrise at Sandy Beach, and prepare to be dazzled by early-morning surfers as they put on an electrifying show. img_20130910_132552

Sunrise at Sandy’s–an unforgettable experience

Drive up the coast a mile or two and hike out to Makapu’u Lighthouse. More of a gentle stroll than a hike, there’s no better view to be had for less effort. Crowds are minimal on weekdays, allowing you to connect with your surroundings. I walked Makapu’u twice this week, meandering down a path toward lava tidepools and taking a spur trail near the entrance toward Ka Iwi Scenic Shoreline. I considered hiking Koko Head instead (a monstrosity of 1,000+ railroad track “stairs” that I will post about another time), but there is a time for challenge and a time for being gentle with yourself, and this trip was definitely the latter. Near the top, I scanned the horizon–no whales today, though they will return soon enough–and savored the views of Rabbit Island and Molokai in the distance. At less than two miles, you can easily walk this paved path in under half an hour, but lingering is what truly makes this trail memorable.

Backside of Koko Crater and the Ka Iwi Coast
Looking back toward Koko Head
Makapu’u Lighthouse
View of Rabbit Island from Makapu’u Lighthouse overlook
Views of Waimanalo and beyond

Stop 2: Halona Beach Cove

After Makapu’u, I headed back along scenic Kalanianaole Highway toward Halona Blowhole. This lava tube-meets-ocean attraction is on the radar of every tourist and guidebook on the planet, and for good reason: it’s spectacular. I jockeyed for parking with the endless parade of tour buses streaming into the parking lot and then escaped the crowds via a rock “staircase” that leads to the secret beach cove featured in From Here to Eternity and Fifty First Dates. To be sure, this “secret” is not much of a secret at all, as you can certainly see the beach from the overlook. However, in comparison to the number of people at the overlook, relatively few people venture down because of posted danger signs. The danger signs are no joke–the current is powerful here, and diving from lava rocks into rough ocean is not something I would advise. However, from a lone perch high atop the black lava rock, there is no better spot to admire Halona Blowhole as it hurls churning ocean water 30 feet into the air. I sat here for close to an hour, watching green sea turtles drift in and out of the cove. I wandered into a cave tunnel at the foot of the lava wall and felt my bucket overflow with the incoming tide.

The steps down to Halona Beach Cove
Beautiful blue-green water…be sure to admire from a distance
There she blows! Halona Blowhole
From inside the cave tunnel

Stop 3: Lanai Lookout

From Halona, I drove less than a mile to Lanai Lookout. A favorite of fishermen and tourists alike, Lanai Lookout doesn’t draw quite the same crowds as Blowhole, or maybe it’s that it draws a different type of crowd–quieter, more contemplative. Whenever I’ve found myself in need of quiet reflection, Lanai Lookout has always delivered. This trip was no different. I sat alone along the sea cliff and listened to the roaring surf pummel the coast. Tracked not one, but two ‘iwa (great frigatebirds) overhead, giant wings splayed a magnificent seven feet wide. Soon enough, it would be Monday. Soon enough, it’d be back to work and the familiar grind. But for now, I’ll savor the sun on my shoulders and the hot Kona coffee in my belly. Breathe in the salty ocean air and trace the smooth lava rock beneath my feet. Refill my bucket with the thunder of every crashing wave. Because this moment–the one before me right now? This moment is everything.

The ocean is mesmerizing here
My favorite view of Koko Head and Kalanianaole Highway
Pounding surf at Lanai Lookout
Oahu’s eastern shore, as seen from Lanai Lookout

Gear Review/Makapu’u and Kuliouou Trails

Our road trip is two weeks away, and we’ve been having fun testing out new gear on recent hikes. I can (and have!) spent hours scouring REI and Backcountry, marveling over the countless backpacking/camping gadgets for sale, dreaming of all the possibilities. In the end, though, reality (i.e.: that darned budget) dictates limiting actual purchases to what we really need as a family instead of those fun-to-dream-about wants.

With only 3 backpacking packs in our possession, backpacks topped our list of needs this year. Luckily, there was an REI Anniversary Sale and member dividend that was burning a hole in my pocket to save the day! We were able to score an unbelievable deal on a 2015 Osprey Kyte 46 and REI Passage 38.

Osprey Kyte 46, jacket in the front mesh panel, separate sleeping bag compartment with integrated rain fly just above.

I’m not big on brand name items, but I couldn’t ignore the Kyte’s glowing reviews–or Osprey’s stellar lifetime guarantee. And call me shallow, but I adore that beautiful teal! One of the features I like best about the Kyte 46 is the external hydration sleeve. It can be a hassle to load/unload a hydration bladder from a filled pack, and this back access compartment eliminates that problem. The hip belt and load lifter straps are so smooth and easy to adjust with the pack on–one of many areas where Osprey’s commitment to quality is very evident. The fully adjustable harness and LightWire Frame technology ensures a custom fit and comfortable carrying experience. I love the roomy hip belt pockets that allow easy access to snacks and a cell phone, and the multi-zippered brain compartment that enables easy organization of frequent-use items.

Spacious zippered side pockets–each pocket can accommodate a sleeping pad, fleece pullover, and backpacking pillow.

The front mesh panel stretches to accommodate a rain jacket, and the side mesh panels can easily accommodate a Nalgene bottle each as well. The zippered vertical side pockets might be one of the Kyte’s best features. What the main compartment may lack in size is more than made up for by these spacious side pockets. I’ve stuffed a sleeping pad, pillow, and adult-sized fleece pullover into ONE pocket, with room to spare. There is also a sturdy shoulder loop for quick and easy trekking pole storage/access.

Roomy hip belt pockets, external hydration sleeve, stow-and-go trekking pole loop, multi-zippered brain compartment; Osprey Kyte 46.

With an integrated rain fly and separate-access sleeping bag compartment with floating divider, the Osprey Kyte 46 is perfect for overnight or 2-3 day backpacking trips. It can also be easily compressed and cinched for longer day hikes, making this a pack we’re sure to put to great use for many years to come.

With two girls in our family, we’ve had our share of unpleasant hiking bathroom experiences. Without going into too much detail, let me just assure you that the pStyle is a GAME. CHANGER. If you are female and you enjoy spending time outdoors, you need a pStyle. To be fair, there are cheaper silicone versions of the pStyle that I have not tried, but reviews on Amazon suggest that these imitations are less predictable, leaving room for error–definitely not a good thing (or look–shudder!) when you’re backpacking with only one pair of pants. The pStyle, however, is discreet, fail-proof, light, and compact, earning its spot as a must-have item in our backpacks this year.

With 8 nights of backpacking on the itinerary , compact cookware and mess kits were high on our list of priorities. Combining every Walmart gift card we’ve received over the past few years, we were able to nab this GSI Outdoor Pinnacle Camper cook set absolutely free! At 3 pounds 11 ounces, it’s not the lightest kitchen set-up for backpacking, but since the weight accounts for cookware and mess kits for 5 people, it works perfectly for us. One of the features I love best about this kit is how everything nests into one compact 9 inch by 5 inch package, making it suitable for flying, too, where space is at a premium.

GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Camper cook set; everything nests in this compact 9″ x 5″ matryoshka-like system.

With a 9 inch frypan, 3 L pot, 2 L pot, and 2 strainer lids, the non-stick hard anodized cookware easily accommodates families or larger groups. The set comes equipped with 4 plates, 4 insulated mugs, and 4 bowls, and everything nests into a stuff sack that doubles as a welded sink in the backcountry!

Full-size cookware (3 L & 2 L pots w/ strainer lids, 9″ frypan), plates, insulated mugs, and bowls for 4, welded sink carrying case.

If I had any complaints, it would be that the plates are not especially deep or made of high quality material, but that’s minor in the grand scheme of things. I love having full-sized pots and pans with backpacking convenience and integrated mess kits in the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Camper cook set.

To complete our mess kit (the GSI cook set serves 4), we cashed in a Sports Authority gift card and took advantage of a 30% off closing sale to nab this Light My Fire MealKit 2.0 for free! With 3 plate/bowls and 3 lids that can double as eating vessels, this kit contains more bells and whistles than we’ll need, but it’s great to have those options for future trips. The MealKit 2.0 also comes with a spork, pack-up-cup, and cutting board/strainer for cooking.

Closer to Home: Recent Hikes

Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail

Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail is a popular and easy 2 mile “hike” along paved road, offering stunning views of Oahu’s southeastern and Windward coasts. From the parking lot, the paved road steadily climbs 500 feet, allowing easy access for strollers, wheelchairs, and those with mobility issues.

Paved road along Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail
Looking back from whence we came: parking lot in the distance
Koko Crater and Ka Iwi Scenic Shoreline

Recent additions of rest benches and viewing areas make this a great beginner hike, and there is no spot more beautiful than Makapu’u for whale watching during whale season (November to May). Although the lighthouse itself is not accessible to visitors, we’ve been lucky to see dozens of whale spouts and breaches during whale season here. Located on the eastern side of Oahu, this hot and dry trail is also a prime location to watch the sun rise. The only con to this hike is that its popularity translates to large crowds; arriving after 10 am means circling for parking and sharing the trail with a hundred or more hikers. Don’t let that stop you, though–this hike is a beauty, and despite the crowds, we do this one at least 5-6 times a year!

View from the top, Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail
View of Rabbit Island, aka Manana (State Seabird Sanctuary); I don’t recommend sitting that close to the edge!
A patch of pink among the cacti and brush; pillbox in the distance
3 short years ago…boy, time flies!

Kuliouou Ridge Trail

Kuliouou Ridge Trail is a 5 mile out and back hike that ascends 2,000 feet to summit the Ko’olaus. Families should plan on spending 4-5 hours hiking this trail at a moderate pace. Although this is a moderately difficult hike composed primarily of switchbacks, rain can render the steep slopes muddy and challenging.

Slippery, muddy stairs about 15 minutes from the top, Kuliouou Ridge Trail

Exercise extreme caution, especially with children. With all the recent bad weather, we had a few near-mishaps this past weekend. There are several long and steep rock/tree root scrambles in the second half that can become quite treacherous when coupled with mud. (No pics, unfortunately; was too busy trying not to die!) I should have known better than to push this hike in the rain, and we nearly paid the price for it. It is worth your family’s safety to wait for several days of clear weather before attempting this hike. That said, this hike is an absolute must-do! We huffed and puffed through the 2,000 feet of elevation gain, and the last 30 minutes of steep mud puddle stairs were thigh burners, but hiking in the clouds made everything worthwhile. Unfortunately, the bad weather didn’t make for great views.


End of Trail, Kuliouou Ridge Trail
Clouds and fog at trail’s end, Kuliouou

However, the fog and clouds lifted for a brief minute, and we were able to get a glimpse of the glorious views Kuliouou is known for.

View of Waimanalo, Kuliouou Ridge Trail
View of Koko Head and Hawaii Kai
Glimpses of green and turquoise below, Waimanalo
Stopping for well-earned spam musubi and gummy bears at trail’s end.

Having hiked Kuliouou during clear weather, I can tell you that the views of Hawaii Kai, Waimanalo, and Lanikai from the top can’t be beat. If you’re looking for a challenging workout, ever-changing scenery, and stellar views, Kuliouou Ridge Trail is the hike for you!

Closer to Home: Lanikai Pillboxes Hike

Summer’s here! The blog has been quiet as of late, but with school and the kids’ extracurriculars finally behind us, we’ve been focused on prepping for our Glacier/North Cascades/Olympic trip (we leave in three weeks!). Maps are being compiled; lists are being checked twice. With the bulk of our itinerary leaning toward backpacking this year, it’s also crunch time for conditioning. This weekend’s fun and easy training hike was Lanikai Pillboxes.

Lanikai is renowned for its beautiful beaches.

Sunrise, Lanikai Beach 2013

Media outlets like CNN have named it the most beautiful beach in the US, and though I haven’t traveled enough to say for sure, I can certainly vouch for Lanikai’s beauty. Located on the eastern side of Oahu, Lanikai’s fine powdery sand and pristine turquoise waters make it one of the best sunrise spots on the island. But Lankai has another great attraction that I love as much or even more than the beach: the Lanikai Pillboxes hike, a.k.a. Kaiwa Ridge Trail.

This 1.6 mile out and back hike begins across the Mid Pacific Country Club near a private driveway on Kaelepulu Drive.

Beginning of the trail, Lanikai Pillboxes

The trail begins with a steep incline; there are trees and ropes along the chain link fence to assist with the climb, though they’re probably not necessary for most. Sadly, litter and pet waste makes this area less than appealing, but not to worry–better sights and smells await.

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Hold your nose and climb fast, Lanikai Pillboxes
The beginning of the trail is a little steep, Lanikai Pillboxes

After a short climb, you arrive at a plateau that overlooks Lanikai Beach and the Mokulua Islands just offshore. Behind you are sweeping views of Mokapu Peninsula (Marine Corps Base of Hawaii), Flat Island, and Kailua Beach.

Lanikai Beach and Mokulua Islands
MCBH, Flat Island, Kailua Beach

From here, you can visualize the first pillbox in the distance and the rocky trail that follows the ridgeline to get you there. The trail gains over 550 feet in under half a mile, but the short distance makes the steepness doable for families with young children. With a little persistence, it’s possible to make it to the first pillbox in 20 minutes, and there are many places to stop and catch your breath along the way.

The 1st pillbox is that black speck at the top/center of the photo
Looking back

The trail diverges in several spots–traversing the top of the ridge and contouring it in other areas–but rest assured that all spur trails lead to the same destination.

Follow the ridgeline to get to the first pillbox (far left)


Along the ridge, overlooking MCBH

Once you arrive at the first bunker, take a moment to admire the view. We were there just before sunset, and there were several groups situated atop and inside the pillboxes, waiting for the sun to go down.

View from the first pillbox, Lanikai

Early morning hikers often find themselves vying for space here as it’s a popular spot for sunrise photography as well. As documented in my Bryce horseback debacle, I’m not keen on heights and ledges, so I opted to stay firmly on the trail here. 🙂 The boys, however, climbed atop the pillbox with my husband.


The first pillbox. The boys climbed up here and made mom verrrry nervous.
View from the ground, first pillbox, Kaiwa Ridge Trail

Many hikers opt to turn around here, but a short 5 minute walk further up the ridge takes you to the second pillbox–and a breathtaking view of the Ko’olau Mountain Range in all its verdant, crenulated glory.

View of the Ko’olaus and Mokulua Islands (photo credit to the hubby)
View from the second pillbox, Lanikai
Lanikai neighborhood as seen from Kaiwa Ridge Trail

From here, you can follow the undulating ridge for another 20-30 minute; the trail eventually descends into a neighborhood about a half mile from the trailhead, but we opted to retrace our steps instead. The sun was just beginning to set, and we were treated to cool tradewinds and an entire hillside of night-blooming cereus readying for evening bloom. Night-blooming cereus is a tropical cactus flower that blooms in the evening and wilts by dawn.

Night-blooming cereus, Lanikai Pillboxes (photo cred to the hubby)

All in all, this short and sweet hike is one that I would highly recommend. It packs mega scenery for minimal sweat, showcasing stunning Windward views of the island. Tell me: have you hiked Lanikai Pillboxes? What’s your favorite Hawaii sunrise or sunset spot?

Tips for families hiking Lanikai Pillboxes with young children:

Plan to hike on weekdays, if possible

The trail can get crowded, especially on the weekends.  We finished the trail fairly late (6:30 pm), and there were still large groups of ten or more arriving to hike as we left. Weekdays are less busy and tend to be more pleasant.

Use the bathroom beforehand

There are no bathrooms at the trailhead, so plan accordingly. The nearest public restroon is located at Kailua Beach Park, 5 minutes away.

No parking near the trailhead

No parallel parking is allowed alongside the Mid Pacific Country Club. Your best bet is to park in the surrounding neighborhood, but be advised that parking can be difficult to find because of the new restriction against parking in the bicycle lane. Resist the temptation to park illegally–parking in a restricted area will result in an outrageous $200 flat fine! Instead, circle the Lanikai loop patiently–you’re sure to find something quickly, as visitors are always arriving and departing from the beach.

Apply sunscreen and avoid hiking midday

The Hawaii sun can be brutal if you’re not properly prepared, especially on an exposed ridge hike like this one. Good sun safety makes for a pleasant and comfortable hike.

Wear proper hiking shoes

Many tourists attempt this hike in flip flops and sandals. I’m sure it can be done, but as the trail is mostly slippery rock and gravel, shoes with proper traction are key.

Avoid hiking during or after rain

Again, the trail is steep and challenging in certain areas. Mud and wet rock only exacerbates these difficulties and makes for a sketchy hike. We saw two adults slip and fall this weekend, and the trail was bone dry. Keep little ones safe, and be sure to limit hiking to good weather.

Sunset, Lanikai Pillboxes last year
Sunset, Kaiwa Ridge trail


7 Reasons to Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Although I currently call Honolulu home, I was actually raised on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the sleepy little town of Hilo. Growing up, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park wasn’t something I gave much thought to; it was just someplace in our backyard that I could count on visiting several times a year. It’s only now, as an adult, that I’ve come to appreciate the unique wonder of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. If witnessing one of the world’s only active volcanoes isn’t reason enough to convince you to visit this summer, here are 7 other reasons that just might change your mind:

1. Thurston Lava Tube


Entrance, Thurston Lava Tube

Where else in the world can you walk through a massive 500-year-old lava tube? Lava tubes are formed when flowing lava rushes beneath the surface of a previously hardened lava flow. Thurston Lava Tube trail begins in a lush tree fern forest and winds through a dark and damp lava tube illuminated by lanterns. Inside the tube, the ground is flat and level, but cool water seeps from the ceiling and collects in muddy pools along the floor, adding to the eeriness of the experience. While there are other lava tubes and caves on the Big Island, Thurston is the most easily accessible (and safest) by far.

Tree Fern Forest, Thurston Lava Tube
Thurston Lava Tube

2. Devastation Trail

This 1.6 mile roundtrip trail takes you through a stark expanse of rugged beauty–the remains of a 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki that left the area buried in cinder. Lone trees and barren stumps stand solemn against reddish-brown cinder mounds, evoking an eerie sense of otherworldliness. Perhaps what is most poignant about this path, though, is not the destruction that is so readily evident but the resurgence of plant life and native birds that serve as testament to the power of life.

Devastation Trail
Signs of life; Devastation Trail
Signs of life; the return of ohia lehua

3. Kipukapuaulu (Bird Park) Trail

This easy 1.2 mile loop flies under the radar of most guidebooks and visitors, but it’s one of our favorites. For as many times as we’ve walked this loop, we’ve never run into more than one or two people on the trail. Our oldest son is a birder, and Kipukapuaulu is one of the best places we know of to spot native (and endangered) Hawaiian bird species. Take a stroll through the lush forest–those with patience will reap the reward of hearing beautiful apapane and iiwi birdsong. Binoculars and a keen eye will help bring these delicate and brilliantly colored songsters into focus.  And as tempting as it might be to keep your eyes peeled to the treetops, there are also francolins and pheasants to be admired in the shrubs.

Kipukapuaulu Loop, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Stop and listen, Kipukapuaulu
Bird Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

4. Holei Sea Arch

Located at the very end of Chain of Craters Road, Holei Sea Arch stands 90 feet tall, formed only within the last several hundred years by the powerful forces of lava and water. Everything about standing at the overlook makes you acutely aware of how small and insignificant we are. Here, the ocean crashes against the lava cliffs, reminding us of its power to both give life and destroy. The ancient lava cliffs represent a similar dichotomy: even as lava destroys everything in its path, it flows steadily to the sea, creating new land–and new life. Above all, Holei Sea Arch serves to remind us of life’s transience. It is a temporary formation–beautiful, yet fleeting.

Holei Sea Arch, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Power of the ocean at Holei Sea Arch

5. Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail

Also located on Chain of Craters Road, this 1.4 mile easy to moderate hike takes you over a field of pahoehoe (smooth) lava to a boardwalk that straddles some of the best-preserved petroglyphs in the state. Pu’u Loa is considered a sacred site. While it is believed that the ancient Hawaiians used these petroglyphs to record their travels and history, Pu’u Loa is believed to be sacred because it also served as a burial site for umbilical cords after childbirth. This practice carried deep spiritual significance and ensured long life.

Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs
Boardwalk, Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail

Walking the wooden boardwalk is fascinating, but getting there can be a challenge for those with mobility issues. Crossing the hardened pahoehoe lava field translates to many small hills with uneven surfaces. Hiking shoes, or at the very least, tennis shoes are your best best; too many tourists attempt this hike in flip flops or sandals, which tend to get caught in lava crags. Pahoehoe might be smooth, but it is still lava rock, and it will definitely hurt if you fall! The uneven terrain also means this hike might take longer than you’d expect; it’s always a good idea to bring water with you.

Crossing a pahoehoe field, Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail

6. Crater Rim Trail

This 11-mile trail follows the circumference of Kilauea’s summit caldera. The beauty of this hike is that it can be easily accessed from several locations along Crater Rim Drive, allowing you to hike as little or as much as you’d like. One of our favorite portions of Crater Rim Trail is the Steam Vents and Sulphur Banks area. With all of the surrounding forest area, it can sometimes be easy to forget you’re at an active volcano. The Steam Vents and Sulphur Banks let you know in no uncertain terms that the land is indeed alive. Those who have visited Yellowstone will be familiar with the inimitable smell of sulphur; it’s an odor kids love to hate. No matter how many times the kids gag their way through this trail, they always ask to stop at the Sulphur Banks whenever we visit.

Hmm, what’s that rotting egg smell?
Sulphur Banks, Crater Rim Trail

A word of caution: those with asthma or breathing issues will want to steer clear of this area. Gases and vog (volcanic dust and gases) are present throughout the park (and throughout the Big Island, occasionally spilling over to the other islands), but are especially thick in  this area.

Overlooking the caldera, Crater Rim Trail
Stark beauty along the Crater Rim Trail
Steam Vents, Crater Rim Trail

7. Halema’uma’u Crater

Located within Kilauea’s summit caldera, Halema’uma’u Crater is home to some of the best volcanic fumes and glow to be seen within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Best of all, you don’t even need to traverse any sketchy lava fields to be able to see this awesome display. Simply head up to Jaggar Museum to snag your spot along the rock wall at sunset and prepare to be dazzled. The last time we went, we found ourselves jockeying for position with several bus-fulls of tourists. Shouts in Japanese, Cantonese, and Italian could be heard across the museum as each group competed to be heard over the noisy din. We didn’t hold out much hope for a meditative night-viewing experience, but the moment the sun started to set, it was as though a sacred and collective hush fell over the group. Shouts faded to whispers as everyone stood in silence, sharing the powerful sight before us. It reminded me once again of how the National Parks have a way of dissolving barriers and uniting us in wonder.

Sunset, Halema’uma’u Crater
Fumes and Glow, Halema’uma’u
Halema’uma’u Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has so much more to offer than first meets the eye. Whether you’re seeking the spectacular wow-factor of a lava night show or the quiet solitude of a stroll through Bird Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is sure to delight you and your family!

Tell me: When was the last time you visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? What was your favorite Big Island experience?

Liebster Award

LiebsterAwardAdventures of Five was nominated for a Liebster Award! The Liebster Award is meant to connect and support the blogging community, as well as to recognize and help people discover new blogs. Thank you to the lovely Weekend Campervanning for the kind nomination. Weekend Campervanning is an excellent blog chronicling a family’s passion for the outdoors through their weekend campervan experiences. Full of wonderful hike tips and delicious recipes (Aya’s crab cakes look amazing!), Weekend Campervanning has me dreaming of my next California vacation. I’ve bookmarked Aya’s campground and hike recommendations and plan to put them to good use soon. You should definitely visit and follow Weekend Campervanning!

To accept the award, I have to: 1) thank the blogger who nominated you, 2)answer the 11 questions the blogger gives you, 3)nominate 5-11 bloggers that you think are deserving of the award, 4)let the bloggers know you nominated them, and 5)give them 11 questions of your own.

Here are my answers to the questions given to me by Weekend Campervanning:

1. Describe your blog in a few sentences.

Adventures of Five captures our family’s road trip and outdoors experiences with a focus on the National Parks. As budget-conscious travelers, we strive toward minimal budgets and maximum fun. We try to share family-specific tips we’ve learned through our trips.

2. Why did you start your blog?

When we first set the goal to visit as many National Parks as we could before our oldest graduated from high school, I spent hours browsing blogs (still do) for tips and advice. These blogs were invaluable in helping us select campgrounds, hikes, and activities. I started blogging as a creative way to document our experiences and hoped that our information might help other families looking to try out new adventures.

3. What do you like most about blogging?

I love connecting with other hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. It’s wonderful to discover so many like-minded, National Parks-loving bloggers. Also, it absolutely makes my day when someone mentions that they were able to use a tip to help them with their own planning. It makes me feel I’m contributing in some small way toward the many tips I’ve gleaned from other bloggers all these years.

4. How long have you been blogging?

Monday will make 3 weeks. 🙂

5. When not blogging, what are you doing?

When not blogging, I’m either writing/working, doing mom stuff, enjoying the outdoors with my family, or slaving away in the kitchen, a.k.a. teenagers eat. A LOT.

6. Top 3 favorite travel destinations?

London, Yosemite National Park, and Grand Teton National Park.

7. What is your favorite National Park?

Ack! It’s like being asked to choose your favorite child. I love them all but have a special fondness for Yosemite, Grand Teton, Bryce, and Mesa Verde National Parks.

8. What are your favorite hikes?

The Narrows, Zion National Park; Hike to Partition and Double O Arch, Arches National Park; Kilauea Iki Trail, Volcanoes National Park; Mariner’s Ridge, Honolulu, HI.

9. What is your favorite food and drink of choice?

I never met a noodle I didn’t like, but I could live off of pho, really and truly. Carbonara, pad thai, chow fun–you name it–I love it all. I’m a coffee girl, but Chardonnay’s my drink of choice when I indulge.

10. What are the top 3 places that are on your travel bucket list?

  • Backpack the John Muir Trail, Yosemite National Park.
  • Backpack Death Canyon Loop and Paintbrush-Cascade Loop, Grand Teton National Park
  • Greece…oh! and also, Iceland. Plus Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

11. If you were on survivor, what would your one luxury item be?

A journal to scheme revenge/plot world domination document the experience.

I am nominating 5 wonderful bloggers for this award:

  1. regularguyadventures
  2. Day2Day Travels
  3. Sweater Giraffe Travels
  4. Unconditional Peace
  5. Wine and History Visited

Here are my questions for you:

  1. What is the main focus of your blog?
  2. Why did you start your blog?
  3. What are your 3 favorite campgrounds or backcountry sites?
  4. What are your 3 favorite hikes?
  5. What albums are on your travel or road trip playlist?
  6. What are your favorite travel adventures to date?
  7. What travel item can you not live without?
  8. Which destinations top your travel bucket list?
  9. What are your 3 favorite camping or backpacking meals/indulgences?
  10. What is your happiest National Parks memory?
  11. In your hometown, what is your local “happy place?”

Congratulations, all!





Closer to Home: Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

Mother’s Day 2016 began with breakfast in bed with the family and the lovely promise of a full day and 4 willing participants in whatever adventure my heart desired. With our Glacier/North Cascades/Olympic backpacking trip less than 8 weeks away (more on this soon!), hiking seemed a natural training choice. Hydration bladders were prepped; sunscreen was duly applied.

Kamiloiki Ridge Trail is not part of the state sanctioned Na Ala Hele trail system, and as a result, fewer are people are familiar with its existence. A 3.7 mile roundtrip hike that begins in Hawaii Kai and ends at the summit of the Koolaus, Kamiloiki Ridge Trail may not be as famous as other summit ridge trails on the eastern side of Oahu, but it’s every bit as beautiful. Running parallel to Mariner’s Ridge and Hawaii Loa Ridge trails, it offers similar views with far fewer crowds.

Kamiloiki Ridge Trail, Oahu, Hawaii

The trail begins at the end of a dead end street in a suburban Hawaii Kai neighborhood. It doesn’t seem possible that a summit trail could begin in such a populated area, but that makes the surprise all the sweeter. After finding street parking, we made our way to Pahua Heiau, a sacred and protected ancient Hawaiian site at the end of the street.

Pahua Heiau, Oahu, Hawaii

We offered a quiet prayer and respectfully requested permission to pass. Be aware that the trail is not at all obvious here; instead of heading toward the ridge, you skirt the left edge of the heiau through thick brush, eventually coming to the foot of Kamiloiki Ridge. Keep an eye out for the colored ribbons to stay on track.

In search of colored ribbons, ascending Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

It was drizzling at this point, and the ascent up the ridge was a little precarious, both muddy and slick. The kids did well in spite of several long drops and sketchy footing in certain areas.

The rain stopped by the time we reached the top, thank goodness, and we were left with gray, overcast skies–ideal conditions, since 2/3 of this trail stretches across an exposed ridge.

Along the ridge; Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

If you plan to do this hike, I would strongly recommend pants and a long-sleeved shirt. The prickly, overgrown brush that started out as a slight nuisance progressed quickly to complete aggravation; we all sustained some pretty nasty scrapes. Still, in spite of the brush, we had so much fun scrambling over waist-high rocks and testing our footing on the steep ups and downs. This hike is challenging but do-able for families with young children. Our 8-year-old doesn’t love flat multi-mile walks but tends to be amenable to hikes like this one with elevations gains and climbing challenges. There are natural resting areas along the ridge, though truth be told, I needed these rest stops (and oxygen!) far more than the kids did.

Natural chair at the beginning of the trail; Kamiloiki Ridge
Stopping for a breather, Kamiloiki Ridge Trail. Koko Head in the background.
The view below; Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

The last 1/3 of the trail climbs through an ironwood forest. It’s noticeably cooler in the forest with soft iron wood needles carpeting the forest floor.

Ironwood forest, Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

The ironwood forest is another area where it is easy to go astray, so be sure to follow the colored ribbons. Towards the end, there is a fun rope section where generous hikers left rope to assist with the final scramble up and down a muddy hill.

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Rope section, Kamiloiki Ridge Trail
Descending the rope, Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

The wind was tremendous at the summit, exacerbated by the overcast skies and earlier rain. We quickly devoured a bag of well-earned gummy bears, enjoying our hard-won views of Waimanalo, Olomana, and beyond. Kamiloiki connects with other ridges along the Koolau Summit Trail (KST). Along with Kamehame and Mariner’s Ridge, Kamiloiki marks the third ridge the kids have summited in the east. The KST is sketchier and more exposed than its perpendicular cross trails, but we hope to be able to hike portions of the KST when the kids are a little older.

View of Waimanalo, Kamiloiki Ridge Trail
Too close to the edge for Mom’s comfort; Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

Tell me: what’s your favorite hike in Hawaii?

Getting Kids Excited About the National Parks

When it comes to the National Parks, I’m a true believer. Spectacular hikes, solitude, and wilderness–count me sold! The kids, however, sometimes require a little more coaxing to see the light. Parents, take heart; it is possible to engender a love for the natural world in our kids. It just takes a little time…and a little know-how.

  1. Monkey see, monkey do
    • Kids mimic their parents. If you’re excited about nature, kids can’t help but be excited, too. Two years ago, my then-6-year-old son was less than enthusiastic about hiking the Grand Canyon. Who could blame him, especially when the rest of his classmates had Disney summer getaways planned? Every night, we talked up California condors and Cenozoic rock; every day, he talked about California Screamin’ and Tomorrowland. It seemed we were at an impasse. And yet, that same little boy who would’ve traded Splash Mountain for Grand Canyon in a heartbeat surprised all of us when, upon his first glimpse of the canyon at Mather Point, declared with all the reverence and solemnity a six-year-old can muster, “This canyon isn’t boring at all, Mom!”IMG_20140610_073655Which brings us to point number two…
  2. You don’t need to sell the parks for your kids to buy them
    • The parks are majestic, wondrous places. Kids can feel that, too. Give them the chance to experience the magic by setting basic ground rules. It may seem counterintuitive, but rules set the foundation for every adventure to come. One rule we always adopt? No electronics upon entering park. On the hours-long drive to the park? The kids can Nintendo DS and iPad to their heart’s content. But once we’re in the park? Don’t even think about it. No one grumbles because they know the rules from the start. And without electronics in-hand, kids naturally tune into their surroundings…and each other.
  3. Give them a goal to work toward
    • Our kids love earning junior ranger badges. I can’t extol the virtues of the junior ranger program enough! Each activity booklet is chock full of learning experiences that engage all the senses. Even the most reluctant learner can’t help but enjoy themselves–and come away with a wealth of knowledge to boot. Many junior ranger programs also require attending a junior ranger talk. Not to fear: park rangers go out of their way to make their talks engaging and fun. At Dinosaur National Monument, our park ranger had the kids blow up balloons and encouraged them to release air in…shall we say…as flatulent a manner as possible in order to simulate dinosaur gaseous emissions. It was a blast.IMG_20150626_105247
  4. Stamp away
    • A National Parks passport book is a fun and affordable way to commemorate your national park visits. You can buy them online and in most Visitor Information Centers. Stamp centers are free and located inside most Visitor Information Center. The kids love collecting stamps for each region of the nation. Here’s a relatively unknown tip (or maybe it was just unknown to me): parks with multiple visitor centers sometimes have different stamps, so be sure to visit and collect them all!
  5. Journal away
    •  Reading and writing probably sound like the exact opposite of fun, but no one was more surprised than me by how much our kids love travel journaling. With a fancy notebook and paint set in tow, they can be as creative as they like in documenting their time in the parks. The kids stash ephemera in the pockets, and their words and pictures offer irreplaceable windows into their thoughts and feelings. This, from my 6-year-old’s travel journal after hiking to Delicate Arch: “Today we hiked to Delicate Arch. It was awesome! And I did not die!” Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.IMG_20140614_090606
    • Be sure to stamp your journal at the Visitor Information Center, too! Stamps make for a unique and memorable header in any travel journal.
  6. Be still
    • It can be tempting to race around doing all the things ever. But racing around leaves precious little time to absorb the magic of a place. That’s not to say that visits should be left unplanned; on the contrary, coming from Hawaii, careful planning affords us the opportunity to maximize our time. But within our itinerary, I now try to schedule downtime, knowing that many of our best experiences have often occurred unplanned. Be still. Connect. It’s a mantra I’m learning to embrace with my family.
      Hiking to Double Arch is great. Snoozing under Double Arch? Incomparable.

      7. Be flexible

      • Even the best laid plans can be improved. True story: our Narrows hike in Zion National Park was completely unplanned, entirely impromptu and hands down one of the best hikes we’ve done, ever. When you leave room for the unplanned, you leave room for adventure and excitement. And every kid or parent can tell you–that’s the best kind of recipe for family fun!IMG_20140620_120950