Music on the Mountain: Kuliouou Ridge Trail on Oahu
It was only when the faint drone of a plane’s engines tapped the edges of my serenity that I realized how quiet this trail was. Just 10 miles and 20 minutes from the heart of Waikiki, Kuliouou Ridge Trail starts at the dead-end of a suburban road in Hawaii Kai. Within a half-mile on the rocky, tree-lined and switch-backing trail, I’d left the one-way streets, stoplights and pedestrian crosswalks behind. Far behind. It doesn’t take much for me to disappear into the wild. Or, rather, for my mind to do so.
The fading airplane made me notice other sounds, the most noticeable being the wind whisking down the mountain ridge above—my destination—and out to Maunalua Bay. Of course, I could hear my breath, too--it all but drowned out the airplane’s engines.
Kuliouou Ridge Trail* gains 2,000 feet in elevation over 2.5 miles, and the climb seems to come at the beginning, hence, the tight switchbacks, and the very end—which goes straight up.
I’m learning there’s more to Oahu than just the shops and restaurants along Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head. Oahu has some spectacular hiking, too. Some trails were carved out of the wilderness and up and over mountain passes by ancient Hawaiians. Some were constructed by thirsty sugar plantations in need of water. Some built by the U.S. Army for training and defense. Some built for conservation efforts. Others created solely for recreation. Turns out, the island of Oahu is a network of crisscrossing mountain trails that could tally more miles than the highway system. (Well, maybe not quite.)
I kept my eyes on the ground as I hiked, avoiding boot-stubbing rocks and noting the lauae fern lining the trail. A canopy of Christmas berry and guava trees, both introduced, provided shade. This part felt very familiar, much like the first mile or so of a hike on my island—Sleeping Giant. The tiniest of red flowers got me to pull out my iPhone and snap on an Olloclip macro lens.
But, then, I encountered a grove of ironwood trees that threw me for a loop. From what I’ve been told, ironwood trees were introduced from Australia, because the trees grew fast and straight and made good wind-breaks along the coastal edges of sugar plantation fields. The tree’s thin, pine-needle-like leaves drop onto the forest floor, creating a thick, spongy mattress and killing off any and all undergrowth. So, it looks like an inviting, open forest, but in reality it’s eliminating all forest diversity, including the native plants. What surprised me was finding this grove of ironwoods deep into a valley and high along a wide ridgeline that bisected Kuliouou Valley from its neighbor.
Up here, the sounds changed. The plane was long gone. My breathing had evened out. And the long, lanky branches of ironwoods draped across each other, making musical compositions in the wind. The wood-on-wood rubbing sounded like the noticeably absent forest birds that should have been singing. Oh, sure, I saw—and heard—a Shama thrush or two. But that was it. When I heard rustling sounds coming from above, I realized why the notes of forest birds were silent. I’d flushed a mongoose out of a tree.
On Kauai, two mongooses have recently been trapped and dozen more credible sightings reported. This has made wildlife biologists and conservationists gasp—no, hyperventilate. Kauai had long prided itself on the fact that we did not have mongooses roaming the island and eating the eggs of our ground-nesting birds, like nene and Laysan albatross. As I watched the mongoose scurry down the tree atop the ridge on Oahu’s Kuliouou Trail, I realized that mongooses threaten more than just our ground-nesting birds. They eat the eggs of native forest birds, as well. No wonder it was so quiet up here.
Right on top of this realization, I made another one: I was standing atop the ridge.
The trail disappeared among the pile of ironwood needles at my feet. Should I go right? Or left? I knew I had more trail to climb, and I thought I saw the faint signs of trodden pine needles along a rise to the right. So, right I went. I got a hundred feet down the “trail” when I got my first view. And a sweeping one, at that, of Koko Crater and Koko Head far below on the backside of Kuliouou Ridge. I’d chosen this hike for its stellar views—from Kaneohe all the way around to Diamond Head. There was a rocky outcropping ahead, something like the corner fortress of a medieval castle, perfect for scenic vistas.
The rise of the trail + the view + the rocky outcropping. I figured I was headed the right direction. It took me a mile and a steep descent—sometimes you have to go down to go up, I reasoned—before I gave up and decided that I should have gone left back when I went right. A long wait for a search on Yelp (one bar of service only) told me I should have passed a picnic pavilion by now.
I retraced my steps, got to the trail’s junction again, went left this time. And immediately around a bend, I passed a couple of men. Then, a couple. Not much further, I discovered the pavilion and a half-dozen people sitting at a picnic table. The Yelp reviews said this point was about two-thirds to my destination.
Now, headed in the right direction, the trail’s substrate turned into a maze of tree roots, and the forest changed from ironwoods to Cook pines, another non-native tree. They were big and old and evidently planted here in nice, neat rows. Why?
I stopped at a bench—to catch my breath and take in the view of Kuliouou Valley, all the way to Maunlua Bay. Around a distant point, I even made out Diamond Head.
And, then, the stairs started. That’s right: Stairs. The trail had gone from rocky to rooty to stairs.
At the base of the first set of stairs, I scraped my Keen hiking shoes on a boot brush, its very existence communicating two things: 1) the trail often turned to mud. (Note: don’t attempt this trail in the rainy, winter months.) And 2) I was entering a special place.
And, indeed, the forest changed again. Here, the Cook pines gave way to a semi-native forest of ohia and lama trees and uluhe ferns. The ridge narrowed. I was climbing stairs on a thin strip of land. Cliffs fell away on both sides. I’d climbed above the vegetation line. The sun would have scorched here if it wasn’t for the merciful clouds gathering at the top of the Koolau Mountain range. And the views. Oh, the views. They made a convenient breath-catching excuse to stop and take pictures.
I wish I’d remembered to count the steps. Maybe someone reading this knows. But once I climbed the very last stair and stepped onto the ridge’s summit, I realized that some hikes are about the journey and others are about the destination. This one was all about the destination. It took 15 snaps on my iPhone to stitch together a panoramic photo of the nearly 360-degree view—from Kaneohe to Koko Crater to Koko Head and around to Diamond Head. The wind was blasting up here, chilling my sweat-soaked shirt to my back.
One time, a long time ago, I hiked four miles to a waterfall along Kauai’s Napali Coast. When I got there, I sat on a rock and pulled out my lunch of granola bars. Another man, hiking in rubber slippers—a sure sign he was born and raised in Hawaii—arrived. He pulled out a couple rolls of sushi from his pack, and when he offered, I couldn’t resist.
This time, atop Kuliouou Ridge, I shared the trail’s destination with another young man, who, like that man years ago, exhibited a clear sign that he was kama’aina, a local. Like me, he wore a backpack. But, unlike me, the neck of one ukulele stuck out of his backpack.
Music and mountain-tops. Because you cannot have one without the other in Hawaii.
*Kuli'ou'ou: literally translates to "sounding knee," according to Places Names of Hawaii by Mary Kawena Pukui. It most likely references the sound made by a Hawaiian musical instrument known as a knee drum. Of course, in my case, it could have been the actual sound of my knees on the hike's descent. At least, my toenails, after a well-timed trim, weren't banging the front of my boots.