Distance Hiked: 5.7 Miles
They day began with a sense of foreboding. I didn’t sleep well the previous night for reasons unknown and when I awoke I was wrapped up in a cocoon on impending disaster. The planned hike for the day was the Kaunala Trail Loop and the information I had gathered created a discordant knot in the pit of my stomach. The reviews I read of the trail painted it as a lightly trafficked wilderness trail, something of a departure from the previous couple of weeks, which had me excited. But that remoteness brings with it a certain vulnerability and danger which made me hesitant.
One of the primary reasons it took me so long to get out into the woods after moving to Oahu was a general unfamiliarity with the environment. Unlike the Pacific Northwest where I’m aware of things like which plants are harmful, which berries I can eat, what sort of wildlife might I encounter, and a myriad of other considerations; the Hawaiian wilderness is wholly alien to me. So, I put it off and put it off hoping that one day a friend who knew these things would invite me along on one of their trips and I could get out there and learn with people who already know what they’re doing.
That never happened.
It wasn’t until recently that I said, “Screw it,” put on my YOLO pants and decided to hit the trail completely unprepared. It’s an island, if you get lost just walk downhill until you hit ocean, right? Anyway, “Adventure Mode!” or not, it didn’t negate the fact that I was aware of what I was unaware of and that makes me nervous.
One might notice from other entries to the trail blog that my primary concern when on the trail is what’s happening to my car while it’s parked at the trailhead. Returning to my vehicle after a long hike and finding it damaged or missing scares me to death. This was at the top of my list of things that could go wrong that day due to reviews listed at Alltrails; one of which said it was a high theft area, another stating that their car had in fact been broken into. I even went so far as to confirm with my insurance company that vandalism was covered under my auto insurance package. I really wish I knew why I was so worked up that day, I nearly talked myself out of going at all.
Thankfully, all that worry was for naught. The Kaunala Trail Loop is fricken awesome.
The first sign that I might have been over-reacting was when I reached the trail head. Instead of just being a remote hole in the jungle at the end of Pupukea Road, I found a well-marked trailhead bordered on one side by the fancier-than-I-can-afford Sunset Ranch and the Boy Scouts’ Camp Pupukea on the other. Maybe it’s a personal bias, but the presence of Boy Scout in the area had me feeling immediately more comfortable, despite the shenanigans I used to get up to when I was a Boy Scout.
I pulled into the open gate of the ranch and considered using their parking lot, but decided there was enough room (and other cars) parked along the street that it should be safe enough there. So I parked the car, shouldered my pack and headed for the trailhead.
The Alltrails app lists this as the Kaunala Trail or Kaunala Loop Trail, but neither of those is exactly correct. I call it the Kaunala Trail Loop because in actuality it’s an amalgamation of three separate paths which happen to incorporate the Kaunala Trail (also because I’m pedantic like that). This creates and easy format by which I can break this thing down for you.
At the end of Pupukea Road you’ll find the trailhead locked behind a vehicle gate. It’s easy enough to bypass on foot and puts you on the dirt and gravel path of Paalaa Uka Pupukea Road. You’ll stay on this road for the first three-quarters of a mile at which point you’ll reach the Kaunala Trail trailhead-proper.
It’s on your left and clearly marked. For the next two miles you’ll traverse the aforementioned lightly trafficked wilderness trail through the Pupukea-Paumala Forest Reserve.
This is just and absolutely beautiful stretch of trail through a number of different ecological niches, from forested hills, to jungle-laden streambeds, it seems like there’s something new around every corner. We saw a few people running with their dogs when we were on the gravel road, but once we dropped down into the forest, we were all alone among the trees.
The trail itself is more rustic than other more popular trails, like the Aiea Loop, and I suspect that this one gets only limited maintenance by the nearby Boy Scouts and even less attention from the forest service, as evidenced by a recently fallen tree blocking the trail. It took a minute or two but we negotiated our way past it.
At about the two-mile mark the trail split again. Straight in front of you, and curving to the left the trail appears to continue up a ridgeline, but as someone had so helpfully marked on the torn remnants of an old pair of pants draped across a weathered and barely legible wooden sign, the actual trail takes a sharp turn to your right downhill into a ravine. If that sign hadn’t been present, I don’t know that we’d have seen the actual trail and who know where we might have ended up.
Whatever the case, we stopped here for a few minutes to have a little conversation. See, this was the first -real- hike we’d done since our misadventure at Puu O Hulu. I knew from prior research (I’m learning!) that the Kaunala Trail comes to an end about three miles into the loop, at which point it joins up with an old forest service road and begins what looked on the map like a comparably steep uphill climb. We’d talked ahead of time about this, not wanting a repeat of the heat exhaustion situation so far from the car, we had discussed maybe only doing the Kaunala Trail itself as an out-and-back instead of completing the loop.
Seeing now that the Kaunala Trail was going to drop us into a ravine before we reached the end and we’d have to climb out anyway even if we turned back made take pause and consider whether we even wanted to go that far.
I’m making the discussion seem more dramatic than it was, honestly. We were both feeling pretty good, the sun was out but the trail was shaded, we had plenty of water left, and the trail to that point had been one of those which seem to give you energy more than sap it away. What I mean is, when we asked ourselves, “Do we keep going?” The answer was a resounding, “Hell yes.” and into the ravine we went.
The hike down was well worth it on its own; There’s an inexplicable meadow just out of nowhere,
we spotted some local wildlife,
and at the bottom, as expected, a babbling brook.
There’s something about the streams at the bottom of valleys that make you want to just sit and stay for a while. They’re always so quiet and still and peaceful; it’s like being in another wholly separate world. This one was no different, so we did, stop and stay a while. I always find myself wishing I had one of those water purifiers that lets you just suck up stream water through a straw. I used to drink from rivers and streams all the time as a kid. Despite warnings of “Montezumas Revenge” or “Beaver Fever” I never had any problems with it, and there’s something about the taste of mountain water… But this is another one of those I-don’t-know-what-dangers-Hawaii-holds situations, and I’m pretty sure the cast-iron gut I had as a kid is starting to rust, if you know what I mean.
Either way, after a few minutes of enjoying the solitude and a few gulps of the boring, clean, government approved, danger-free, tap water I’d brought with me, we headed up the other side.
There’s an immediate shift in trail quality after crossing the stream. It’s pretty clear that most people who hike the Kaunala Trail opt to turn around and go home once they reach the stream crossing. I don’t know if this is because they figure there’s not much else to see so they’d rather not climb the hill to get to the end, or if it’s because the stream is typically running higher and harder to cross. Whatever the case, the trail on the far side has seen significantly less traffic than the already lightly trafficked trail we’d been on.
There is one particularly dangerous stretch along this ascending trail where the dirt track gives way to grass which hides how deceptively narrow the trail becomes. One of us, I won’t say who, performed an impromptu gravity-check when he or she stepped where they believed there to be trail beneath them only to discover that there was not. It was a little scary for a minute. Just, watch your step climbing out of the valley.
At about the three-mile mark, the Kaunala Trail comes to an end on an old service road which marks the perimeter of the Forest Reserve. You’ll want to heed the sign and take a right here beginning your ascent to the loops summit.
The trail gets rough here. The moist soil gives way to a coarse gravel dotted with loose fist-sized stones which roll away with every footfall. The shade which had been shielding us from the sun all morning became progressively more and more scarce the higher we climbed. I checked the time, and of course we’d timed it just right that we’d reach the most exposed stretch of trail at 12:30 in the afternoon… So that was cool.
In effort not to make the same mistakes as we did in Waianae, we reduced our pace significantly, We took the climb more slowly, stopping periodically to enjoy the wild orchids and Strawberry-Guava which grew in abundance along the road.
We pushed ourselves forward with false hope, uttering phrases like:
“The top is just around the corner.”
“It looks like it flattens out up ahead.”
“It’d actually be a longer walk back to the car if we turn back now”
“Pretty sure this is the last hill.”
But there was always one more hill. Somehow, even though it looked like there was no mountain left to climb, there was always one more hill until suddenly, finally, there wasn’t.
Cresting the summit was breathtaking. We came up over the hump of the final hill and were greeted with gusts of cold ocean breeze, a welcome reward for sticking it out and defeating our own hesitant demons. The view was equally rewarding. I don’t often get awestruck, but standing at the top of that mountain, at the Waianae Range in the distance stretching from Ka’ena Point to Wahiawa with the ocean licking the shoreline at Haleiwa and the wind turbines rising up from the landscape… it was really something else.
It’s all downhill from here… in a good way.
A couple hundred feet downhill from the summit, there’s another vehicle gate. Crossing it will put you on a curiously paved road. You’ll want to turn right.
I say curiously paved because it doesn’t make any sense to me that it’s there. Pupukea road is paved, up to the end where it turns to dirt and gravel at Paalaa Uka Pupukea Road which actually veers off onto restricted government property before you reach the Kaunala Trailhead. This road extends from there but is paved for some reason, despite having been unused for years. It’s on this stretch of pavement you’ll travel the last mile or so back to the trailhead.
Along the way we passed several washed out portions of road which were clearly marked, a few road safety signs, and in a couple of places remnants of an even older road on top of which this road was constructed. I’m glad we didn’t do this trail in reverse, honestly, I think if the first third of the trail had been all uphill on pavement, I probably wouldn’t have taken it all the way to the end.
It’s unclear to me who actually uses this road and it doesn’t appear on any maps that I can locate, but there it is. Anyway, there’s a Boy Scout shelter with a picnic table along this stretch of road, but other than that there’s not a lot to see… Unless you’re a big fan of derelict infrastructure. In which case, enjoy the undercut pavement.
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If you also want a cool water purifying straw, visit High Peaks Hiking.