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

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Paved road along Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail
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Looking back from whence we came: parking lot in the distance
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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!

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

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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.

 

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End of Trail, Kuliouou Ridge Trail
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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.

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View of Waimanalo, Kuliouou Ridge Trail
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View of Koko Head and Hawaii Kai
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Glimpses of green and turquoise below, Waimanalo
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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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Lanikai Beach and Mokulua Islands
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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.

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

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

 

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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.

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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.

 

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The first pillbox. The boys climbed up here and made mom verrrry nervous.
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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.

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View of the Ko’olaus and Mokulua Islands (photo credit to the hubby)
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View from the second pillbox, Lanikai
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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.

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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.

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Sunset, Lanikai Pillboxes last year
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Sunset, Kaiwa Ridge trail