Distance Hiked: 7.2 Miles (we wandered a bit)
Due to its centralized location, ease of access, and the happenstance of being situated within the boundaries of one of Oahu’s very few public campgrounds, the Aiea Loop Trail is unarguably one of the most heavily trafficked unpaved trails on the island.
The Aiea Loop Trail is an off-shoot Kea’iwa Heiau State Recreation Area, and said heiau is the first thing you’ll see upon arriving. I didn’t realize there was a heiau near to our destination because I do all my research retroactively for some reason, so I was surprised to see it and wanted to check it out. So we parked the car in the lower lot, secured our belongings against the local jungle fowl, and headed over to take a look.
A heiau is a sort of Hawaiian temple which comes in many varieties and can be dedicated to a number of purposes or deities. Kea’iwa is what’s called a heiau ho’ola, or a healing heiau. A place where the sick would come to place offerings and be treated by a kahuna who specialized in the healing arts. But more over it was a place of learning, where students of traditional medicine would come to learn about the healing properties of plants and herbs, fasting and prayer. There’s a whole brochure about this available online and I’m no scholar of Hawaiian tradition, so I’ll not attempt to explain the ins and outs of any of this; go read.
While the original thatch buildings no longer stand within the stacked stone perimeter and though the brochure requests that you don’t leave behind offerings, the structure itself is open to the public and evidence of said offerings (fruit and leis, mostly) can be located all about the grounds of this ancient sacred site.
Since we’d already parked the car and didn’t know how crowded the trailhead would be, we opted to just walk from the lower lot along the paved road to the upper trial head which added about and extra three-quarters of a mile to our round-trip hike (we took the long way, apparently). While the parking lot at the trail head did have a few spaces available, I was surprised at how many other cars were there, and how many people seemed to be coming and going. I asked one gentleman who was headed for his car about the trail conditions; he advised us that it was quite muddy and that we should be prepared. More on this later.
At the trailhead, you’re immediately surrounded by a grove of lemon eucalyptus trees. The wind in the area carries on not only the refreshing scent of lemony dish soap, but the slow knocking and groaning of the Ents in deliberation. We were about a hundred feet from the trailhead before I began to doubt if we’d finish this trail simply because it was so pleasant to just sit, eyes closed, beneath the boughs and take in the atmosphere.
I once wrote a short story which contained a grove of intelligent trees which lured travelers in and lulled them to complacency and lethargy so that they’d give up on their journey and just lie among the trees to eventually expire from blissful apathy. If you were to take this portion of the trail and turn it up to 11, I imagine you could get there; it’s about an eight as is. The limiting factor is the web-work of roots crawling across the moistened clay trail which I imagine would make it uncomfortable to lie upon.
Through sheer force of will, we soldiered on.
From here the trail itself is fairly unremarkable. It’s comfortably long, about five miles, with a fair degree of ups and downs without an over-abundance of either one. Like I said before, there’s a lot of traffic on this trail (relative to other trails) so it’s well marked and well maintained. If trail running is your thing, this is probably a great trail. It’s wooded, so there’s shade, and as long as you’re nimble of foot and able to avoid the aforementioned roots, it’s largely obstacle free. One gentleman we passed was hiking barefoot.
About a mile and half in you’ll come to a lookout overlooking the H-3 freeway. If you’ve ever traveled on H-3 and looked to your left or right as you zoom through the valley approaching the tunnel, you get this sense of being out of context. Like you’re cruising above the jungle on a futuristic floating highway. Standing at the viewpoint of the Aiea Loop trail only reinforces this sensation as you stare down at H-3 hovering above the surrounding forest; completely outside of the prevailing time and space. It’s like you’re looking at the island before mankind, and then there’s this slash of pavement… It just completely doesn’t belong there.
The Alltrails app tells me that from this viewpoint there is another, longer, Aiea Ridge Trail which follows a northeastern tangent off the loop which I’m sure provides additional views of the highway below. I don’t know, we didn’t go that way.
It wasn’t until we got beyond the H-3 lookout that we encountered the mud we’d been warned about. At first it was just patches of easily avoided wet soil here and there, but as we continued deeper and deeper into the valley of the return leg, the environment just got more and more damp. In one location, we were forced to duck beneath a fallen log laid across the trail. I reached up to brace myself against the log since the ground beneath was slippery, and my fingers sank into the wood like a sponge it was so waterlogged. I’ve never seen anything like it.
About 3.75 miles in, when it’s far, far too late to rethink your decision, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of dark, damp valley. I use words like dark and damp which make it sound dreary and foreboding, but it’s not. It’s a clean, cool, refreshing darkness. And the damp smells of soil and leaf-mold. It’s pure, quiet, tranquil forest and I loved it. We sat for a while by the stream on the valley floor, caught our breath and just took it all in while we sought out the best set of stepping stones to carry us across the water.
In all, it was a welcome reprieve allowing our batteries to recharge before the series of seemingly endless, muddy switchbacks which make up the last half mile of the loop.
Going downhill on mud isn’t a problem. When you slide, you at least slide in the direction you’re headed and can more often than not catch yourself. Sliding backward is whole different beast, and if the saplings along this stretch of trail, worn smooth of bark and branch, are any indication; people find themselves struggling for purchase on a regular basis. Thankfully, I was well prepared and wore boots with decent traction, so I came out of it largely unscathed.
One could, of course, do this trail in reverse and begin with the muddy switchbacks and finish with the relatively dry lemon eucalyptus grove, some might even prefer that route. But as whole that reversal would result in a predominantly uphill hike, since the end of the trail sits a significantly lower elevation than the beginning. Your choice.
Either way, the trail spits you out right next to a “comfort station” (public restroom) with clearly posted signs asking you not to use the sinks to rinse your shoes.
I ended up removing mine and putting them in a reusable grocery bag to clean them when I got home instead of tracking mud all over the car.
I did learn some lessons from this hike though. I now bring extra shoes and shirt with me to change into when I’m finished. This way, if I want to stop at Starbucks or something on the way home I don’t end up looking like I’d been sleeping in the woods for the last week. I also learned that I need to be more careful with my phone.
At one point during the hike I took my phone from my pocket to snap a picture and must not have locked it properly when I put it back, because when I got back to the car the battery was completely dead (note, not a whole lot of pictures here). It took me like a week to locate and correct all the random button presses and adjusted settings that had been made while it was in my pocket, and some of the texts I sent were… disconcerting.
This is bad, of course, because if I had wandered off the trail and gotten lost, or hurt myself, my phone would have been useless to me if I’d needed help. Thankfully I never hike alone, so we had a second phone with us, but it just reminded me that maybe it would be a good idea to invest in a secondary device for things like taking pictures and carry analog devices for navigation; what’s a compass weigh? And ounce?
Again, this particular trail is heavily trafficked, so I’m sure that had something happened someone could have helped us out, but not all the trails we travel are so well used.