I’d been eyeballing the Nu’uanu-Pali region on Alltrails for a couple of weeks prior to this hike trying to decide the most efficient way to see as much of the area as possible with as little redundancy in ground-covered as I could. The area between the Nu’uanu and Manoa Valleys on Oahu is a historically and culturally rich area crisscrossed with all kinds of trails, both modern and ancient.
Wait, I need to stop here for a second and clarify a thing.
I use the word “ancient” fairly loosely here because it applies a little differently to Hawaii than it does to most of the rest of the world. To me, as a layman, Ancient Hawaii exists in a sort of historical limbo. See, the Hawaiian Islands were one of the most recent habitable places to be settled by human kind. Researchers suggest that there were no humans in Hawaii prior to the 4th Century. Some even put that number as recent as the 13th Century. So, when I say “ancient” we’re not talking about multiple thousands of years here.
It’s my understanding that the term “Ancient Hawaii” basically refers to any time before the Hawaiian Kingdom was unified in 1810. Bringing that back to the topic at hand, it’s well established that a number of the trails cutting through the jungle valleys north of Honolulu definitely date back to this pre-Unification time period even if they’ve been modernized by/for modern tourist traffic.
Anyway, at the time, we were entering about our tenth straight week of hiking every Sunday but we’d yet to do a waterfall trail. This one looked like a straightforward trail, not too long, not too short… According to Googlemaps, it had some semblance of a parking lot at the trail head. On top of all that, the weather was perfect; partially cloudy, not too hot, not too humid. All in all, a great day for a hike. So after a quick, light breakfast, we hit the road.
As I mentioned before, I took a look at the trailhead on Googlemaps before heading out there since it looked like the trail began right at the edge of the Pali Highway; a fairly busy road. On street view it looked like a fairly well used dirt patch off the highway that should be easy enough to access, and it was. What I didn’t expect was that it’d be completely full. There were so many cars we ended up parking along the side of the road on the amazingly scenic Nu’uanu Pali Dr. a good half a mile or more from the trail head.
Since we were closer to it than to our intended destination, we decided to check out the Kaniakapupu Ruins first since it’s a stupidly short hike, then head up to the Lulumahu Trailhead afterward.
The trail to Lulumahu Falls is clearly marked by a series of signs letting you know that not only is it a restricted watershed area, but also that it’s a public hunting ground. Ignoring the signs and passing through the gap in the fence dumps you right into the same invasive bamboo forest which has taken over the Kaniakapupu site.
The trail splits almost immediately upon entrance but our trail app told us to go left, so left we went. In retrospect I can see that, though still obvious and easy to follow, the over-grown left-hand path was certainly the road-less-traveled. In a few different places we were forced to duck into the jungle to allow hikers coming from the other direction to pass, and at one point, standing stationary for a good five minutes as group after group after group filed along the trail making forward progress impossible. As indicated by the filled-up parking lot, there were a lot of people on the trail.
Once the entire population of Honolulu had passed us by, we were able to press on only to have this claustrophobic jungle-passage spit us out on to an open grassy meadow. It was pretty jarring for a moment, pushing through the sticks and vines to suddenly be greeted with a striking view of the mist-shrouded Ko’olau Range just beyond a verdant green ridge of grass and stone. We stood for a moment, snapping photos and brushing the sticky seeds and whatnot gifted to us by the jungle from our clothing.
From here the trail makes a quick climb up the ridge giving you a couple of options. There’s a well-worn lower path about halfway up which will take you to an old stone staircase down the way. Or you can just get the climbing over with, sans stairs, and take the dirt path all the way to the top right here. I opted for the latter, maintaining my prerogative to avoid stairs at all costs.
It wasn’t until I crested the ridge that I realized we were standing on spine of the historic Nu’uanu Reservoir Dam. Constructed in 1910, the Nu’uanu Reservoir and accompanying dam have become something of a concern in recent years as its located uphill from a major population center and its aging bits and pieces continue to degrade. Not to mention the public safety concerns brought about by people who just won’t stop jumping from the easily accessible tower.
Once across the dam you’ll come to a narrow set on concrete stairs leading up into the undergrowth past an old guard shack or something. Taking the stairs (there’s only like eight, I’ll compromise my principles for eight stairs) will lead back into the run-down waterworks and holding tanks and stuff which I’m sure were all very important once. Now they’re just empty concrete pits adorned with rusty pipes surrounded by ineffective chain link fence. There are a number of decaying concrete structures back in the brush as well as at least one service road which I’m interested in checking out on another visit. Be kinda cool just to check out all the abandoned dam-works.
But our goal today was the waterfall.
Beyond here the trail digs a deeper well-worn path into the jungle. Soft dirt, tree roots, the occasional rock or mud; all very standard fair until it takes an abrupt turn. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from hiking in Hawaii, it’s that you never know what’s around the next bend. The Lulumahu Trail is no different. We began to hear the sounds of running water up ahead and rounding the corner we found ourselves standing atop a narrow concrete retaining wall above a spillway on Lulumahu Stream.
This is the last bit of concrete you’ll see on this trail. Approaching the end of the concrete path the trail suddenly disappears replaced a steadily flowing stream. Thankfully water levels were decently low that day and I was able to rock-hop to shore on the right-hand side where the trial continues for about ten feet then immediately asks that you rock-hop once more back to the left.
That quick zig-zag across the stream is the standard pattern for most of the remainder of the trail; cross the stream, walk ten of fifteen yards, cross to the other side, rinse and repeat. If the water is low, like it was for us, those of nimble foot can make the numerous crossings without getting their feet wet. If you don’t mind hiking with wet feet, well, the water is cool and shallow… So just stomp across like a heathen. Whatever, you do you, get the stepping stones all wet and slippery for everyone else. We don’t mind. I love going to work with a bruised ass.
These crossings get progressively more difficult the further upstream you go until they basically become the trail and you find yourself hopping from rock to rock and climbing over miniature waterfalls more often than you put your feet on firm soil.
Honestly, I had a blast. It was a really fun experience which brought me back to my younger days playing in creeks and streams, trying to maximize fun while minimizing the amount of trouble I’d be in if I came home with wet shoes.
At one point, I even turned to my wife and said, “I think all this trail needs in order to be my favorite trail is a rope climb.”
Not ten minutes later, with the waterfall nearly in view, we were confronted with a near vertical five-foot rock face, and a thick piece of climbing rope someone had helpfully tied to a nearby tree. If I’d smiled any wider my face would have cramped.
I snatched up that rope and scrambled up that rock giddily to finally come face to face with Lulumahu Falls. I was not disappointed. For our first waterfall hike I couldn’t have been happier with what we’d found.
Lulumahu Falls is forty or fifty feet high cascading down into a shallow rock-laden pool, making it easy to approach and touch and stand inside and just let it rain down on you. I didn’t do these things because I was carrying gear and electronics which I didn’t want getting wet, but there were other people (including my wife) who were having a great time. So instead I hung back, helped some folks take pictures under the falls, and just relaxed in the spray until I’d had my fill.
This trail has another thing going or it in the sense that, unlike a lot of out-and-back hikes where turning around and going homecan be less enjoyable because you’ve seen everything before, the Lulumahu Trail with all its rock-hopping and stream crossings, remains interesting because it asks you pay attention. It wants you to think about what you’re doing, look around, digest the scenery, find that safe place to put your feet or that tree you need to hold on to. It won’t allow you to get distracted or up into your head. It requires you to be present which makes it almost as much fun on the return trip as it is on the hike in.
All total, despite the unexpected wealth of human traffic, Lulumahu Falls currently holds the title of my favorite Hawaiian Trail.
Just, maybe don’t go after a heavy rain.
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