Distance Hiked: 5.6 Miles (Round Trip)
Numerous internet sources will tell you that the “Ka’ena” in Ka’ena Point means “heat” or “red hot,” though not a single Hawaiian to English dictionary I’ve found will corroborate that story. That doesn’t, however, disprove the fact that Ka’ena Point is, in fact, hot; really hot.
In all fairness, it’s Hawaii. It’s hot all over, but what makes this particular trail so infamous for being an absolute scorcher are two specific attributes:
First; there is no shade. None. Unlike the various trails crisscrossing the mountain ridges and valley floors, the Ka’ena Point trail follows the path of a century old railroad line around the very most western tip of the island. The leeward side of the island of Oahu receives significantly less rainfall than the windward, resulting in much less vegetation. This means there is virtually nowhere to hide once the sun crests the Waianae Mountains.
Second; to add insult to injury, the trail hugs the shoreline pretty closely, meaning that not only will you get blistering sun from above, but once the sun gets south and west of you that crystalline water and those crashing waves are going to be reflecting lasers up from below as well. Liberal use of sunblock is encouraged, and something like this would have been a handy addition.
It’s for these reasons that Ka’ena Point is typically regarded as a morning hike; because as the day progresses it simply gets hotter and hotter and hotter and doesn’t relent until the sun drops below the horizon.
We got lucky. Our original plan was to set out from home at an already later-than-advised 8:00AM to arrive at the trail head before 9:00AM; figuring ninety minutes to make the three-mile trek to the end and another ninety to get back to the trail head by noon o’clock. But unforeseen circumstances pushed our start time back about an hour and we hit the trail closer to 9:45AM. Our luck came in the form of clouds… Blessed clouds.
Our pace was also a hint slower than anticipated as, in addition to my wife and various in-laws, I was accompanied by a couple sets of very short legs; a four year old girl and my spirit animal, Matt the Dinosaur.
Which brings me to my next point.
As mentioned above the trail itself follows the bed of the old OR&L railroad line which once stretched from Honolulu, through Pearl City and Ewa Beach, along the leeward coast and up past Haleiwa to Kahuku via Ka’ena Point. In fact, aging railroad ties and telegraph poles can be spotted along the trail, though the rails themselves have long since been removed. A short stretch of this old railroad is still in operation and offers train rides for tourists out of the Railway Museum in Ewa Beach, if that’s your thing but it won’t take you as far as Ka’ena Point.
The point of this digression, is that this makes the trail itself very wide and largely flat, which makes it a casual, kid-friendly hike. Probably the kid-friendliest non-paved trail I’ve traversed so far.
For the most part, the trail meanders lazily along the coast, past numerous rocky shorelines, a few small natural arches, and at least one cave that I spotted; all of which appear to be accessible if you’re the adventurous type. You might even spot some wildlife as the area is frequented by the Hawaiian Monk Seal. Though unlike the caves and beaches, state law requires you keep at least 20’ of distance between you and this critically endangered species.
At about the two-mile mark you’ll reach the first wash out; a stretch of trail which has eroded and collapsed. The first is small and the trail has been re-built to span the gap, but it narrows significantly. Put your phones away and mind any little ones in this area, especially if it’s been raining. It was dry when we crossed it, but I can imagine mud could make it treacherous.
A bit further up the trail you’ll reach the second wash out which is significantly larger. In fact, if I had to bet I’d say it was once a sea cave which has since collapsed. There appears to be a large hollow beneath it which you can explore if the urge strikes you. The trail, again, has been rebuilt here, deviating from the railroad bed to climb up the hillside and around the wash-out. It, too, is well established, but it’s also narrow and strays close to the edge in places; so keep an eye on any little ones travelling with you.
Cresting the ridge which spans the collapsed cave, you’ll be granted your first view of the Ka’ena Point Bird Sanctuary. This area is surrounded by an imposing fence intended to block entrance to Hawaii’s more predatory invaders; such as rats, cats and mongooses… Mongeese? Mongi?
A sign posted states that no dogs are allowed within the sanctuary, so if you’ve brought your dog along, this is where your journey ends. Turn around, go home. However! The sign makes no mention of eight-inch plastic theropods, so Matt and I headed inside.
The inside of the sanctuary was a little different that other bird sanctuaries I’ve been too in the past. Typically, you’ll go inside and there will be birds flying around, in the distance and though there might be stragglers here and there, you never actually get close to many of the birds. So, I was a little surprised to find myself surrounded by still-flightless albatross chicks on all sides, with little between they and I but a piece of rope.
I can only assume the parents were out to sea gathering food for their chicks, since there were no adult birds anywhere to be seen.
We took a break here and the family had a snack while I poked around on my phone (there are two Pokestops and a Pokemon gym way out there; if you’re that kind of nerd). I’m not a big eater on the trail, but Matt must have been getting snacky because he kept inching his way toward the ropes. I had to remind him that disturbing or, god forbid, harming the birds is illegal and punishable with actual jail time.
Aside from the Laysan Albatross (Moli) and Wedge-Tailed Shearwater (‘Ua ‘u kani), there’s also the boringly named though really neat looking White-Tailed Tropicbird (Koa’e ‘ula) who are known to make their nests at Ka’ena Point. Many other species of native seabirds have also been spotted within the fence, as well as monk seals, and humpback whales offshore. So, bring your binoculars. Especially in the winter months when the whales are migrating.
In addition to wildlife, there is an old concrete structure at the Point which was, by this time, the first shade I’d seen in hours, as well as tide pools, and what looked like a decent swimming hole. I was not looking forward to hiking back while wet, so I opted against taking a dip and instead spent some time watching the blennies hop from pool to pool. Ultimately, the bird sanctuary offers a welcome respite before turning around and making the trek back to the trail head.
I wish I had taken more pictures while we were there though, and along the trail. My biggest regret is that I wasn’t more familiar with our destination before we decided to make the hike since further research has shown me there is just so much to Ka’ena Point that we missed. I took pictures of all the obvious things and missed out on some of the best parts because I wasn’t aware of their significance or presence.
Ka’ena Point a truly beautiful location steeped in history and mythology which would really be best served with the appropriate imagery. So, I’ll absolutely be going back, and this time I’ll know what I’m looking for and I’ll talk more about those things in the future.
Finally, on our way back, I spotted something I hadn’t noticed on our outward-bound trip; a blossoming stapelia plant. I’d seen a few around the island before, but never anywhere were I could reach; mostly on the side of the freeway. I’d researched them in the past because I was curious and the internet tells me that, similar to the more famous “corpse plant” these flowers smelled of rotten meat, or carrion. They have evolved this quality to attract flies which do the pollination work that bees typically perform for less foul smelling plants.
Always curious, I had to check it out. I mean, it’s a flower. How much like roadkill could a flower actually smell? So, I got down on my knees and crept closer and closer until my nose was almost touching the blossom; then I inhaled. Turns out, a lot. A flower can smell a lot like road kill. Exactly like road kill; and now I had a nose full of it.
Not one to suffer in isolation I urged as many of my travelling companions as I could to get a good whiff of it. Perhaps anticipating my reaction to smelling it, my wife had managed to make herself scarce before I started pressuring everyone else into trying, including my four-year-old niece who had just the best reaction.
Honestly, I think everyone should try it. It’s gross, sure, but there’s a certain novelty to smelling a flower that smells like death that’s oddly eye-opening.
With its surf and sand, sun, wildlife, whales, tidepools, history, folklore, and corpse smelling flowers, Ka’ena Point is, in my opinion, the distilled essence of Oahu’s west side. It is the antithesis to Waikiki and should absolutely be experienced by anyone visiting the island who likes getting away from the city. It’s definitely worth the drive.
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