Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Wa'ahila Ridge Trail

In our next Hawaii hiking adventure we're having a go at Honolulu's Wa'ahila Ridge Trail, in the state park of the same name. This was actually one of the very first hikes I did on O'ahu, but the resulting blog post sort of stalled out in a half-written state and I sort of forgot about it, as there was always something newer to write about instead. Since I'm currently stuck back in Portland, holed up from the ongoing global pandemic, it seemed as good a time as any to dig up this post and try to finish it, as a little memory of what the outdoors were like in the Before Times.

Anyway, one of the things I really like about hiking on O'ahu specifically is that many trailheads are easily accessible by public transit, so you can just can hop on a city bus, take a fairly short ride to the edge of suburbia, and wander off almost immediately into a dense tropical forest. Once you're in the forest it quickly feels like you're a few hundred miles past the back of beyond, but then you come to to a break in the trees, and there's a view of downtown Honolulu a couple of miles away, and sometimes a subdivision a few hundred feet straight down from you in an adjacent valley, and you'll likely never be out of mobile phone range, and a lot of other hikers turn out to be neighborhood residents on their daily dog-walking route. But the illusion is still pretty convincing, or at least it still works on me.

So with all that introduction out of the way, here we are at Wa'ahila Ridge State Recreation Area, above the St. Louis Heights neighborhood, which meanders up the lower ocean-facing part of the ridge. City bus #14 goes from Waikiki to just outside the park entrance (the Peter St. & Ruth Place stop, #3994, to be precise). Or you could drive there, if you don't like public transit for some reason; unlike a lot of area trailheads, there's plenty of parking available, and nobody's glaring at you for being the millionth tourist parking in front of their house. The parking lot is within a large grove of introduced Norfolk Island pine trees, which give the area a cool, mountainous feel, although you're really not that high up and it's not that much cooler, but somehow it feels that way. Maybe it's just the power of suggestion, since you typically don't associate pine trees with tropical climates.

To a bit about geography. The Ko'olau Mountains are a long ridge along the east side of the island (the Waianae Range is a smaller and roughly parallel equivalent on the west side), with very different conditions on the two sides of the ridge. The windward side of the ridge is essentially a vertical wall (at least on s. part of the range), as seen here in the Ho'omaluhia Botanical Gardens post a few months back. The leeward, Honolulu-facing side is not as steep and has a series of side ridges projecting out sorta-perpendicular from it, with valleys between them, and suburbia sprawling out into both. Which subtracts from the wild nature aspect a bit, but works to our advantage with ridge trails in that you don't have to hike up from sea level if you don't want to.

The tops of these ridges are quite narrow, sometimes just wide enough for a trail, and sometimes even narrower than that, with sheer drops on either side of you. There's literally nowhere to put switchbacks to get up the steep bits, and nowhere to reroute the trail around them. So when the ridge undulates, so do you, and this sometimes involves scrambling over boulders or relying on (but not entirely trusting) ropes left by previous hikers. That said, it generally looks more scary than it actually is, so long as you stay on the trail, though I've had my doubts now and then when a strong crosswind picks up.

The Wa'ahila Ridge Trail is pretty typical in that it follows the ridge up to the point it joins the main Ko'olau ridge. At that point you can admire the view off to the windward side, and then either go back the way you came, or turn left or right, follow the Ko'olau Summit Trail over to the next ridge, and make a loop out of it. The KST runs the whole length of the Ko'olau ridge, and yes, hiking the whole thing in one go is a thing that exists, though doing smaller segments of it between ridge junctions is much more common. The junction point for Wa'ahila Ridge is one of the higher points along the Ko'olaus at about 2500 feet, and it somehow picked up the absurd name "Mt. Olympus". Absurd because references to Greek mythology seem incongruous here, and it had already been called Awaawaloa for centuries before some 19th century students at a local private high school decided to start renaming things. Which isn't an authoritative source of place names, if you ask me. "Olympus" isn't even a very original name. Wikipedia actually has a list of peaks named Olympus, and it seems there are 8 of them in Greece and thereabouts, and 7 on the US mainland, others in Australia and Canada, and an enormous one on Mars. In short, I'm sticking with the real name of the thing.

Not that we'll be needing that name a lot this time around. As Wa'ahila was the first ridge trail I tried, and I'd gotten a late start that day, and frankly because I was a bit out of shape, I had a more modest goal in mind: Go as far as the trail junction with the Kolowalu Trail (an insanely steep trail up the side of the ridge, now closed indefinitely due to landslides), and take a photo of the back of the official End Of Maintained Trail sign, I guess in the spirit of the rarely-sung 4th verse of This Land Is Your Land So yeah, that's another fun detail: A fair number of popular & well-known trails on O'ahu either do not officially exist at all, or like this one officially end well short of where everyone knows the trail goes. I think this is largely for liability reasons, plus I'm sure it holds down the cost of trail maintenance a bit. Oh, and sometimes things really are closed due to being unsafe, let's not forget that little detail. The problem is that while many of these restrictions are completely ignored, others are strictly enforced to a almost absurd degree, most notably at the legendary (and long-closed) Haiku Stairs, which at times has had police at the trailhead 24/7, handing out $1000 tickets for trespassing. And knowing which category a given place falls into can be a problem, for locals as well as outsiders; rules may suddenly be enforced after being ignored for decades after someone gets hurt, or a local property owner complains, or sometimes for no reason at all. (Ticketing hikers is also a nice, cushy make-work gig for a chronically overstaffed police department, but that's a rant for another time.) I have no specific advice to offer about this situation, but it's something to be aware of.

I do have some advice on what to bring with you, which is more or less the same advice you'll see from everyone else: It's usually going to be hot, so bring water. Also sunblock, and more water. I brought mosquito spray when I did Wa'ahila Ridge thanks to my earlier misfortune on the Manoa Falls trail, but didn't encounter a single mosquito there, and that's been my experience with other ridgetop trails since then. Valley trails are another matter entirely, and you absolutely will be eaten alive by the little bastards if you don't take precautions. Oh, also bring food. I like to bring a bunch of apple bananas along; they're small and easy to pack along, and they're a tasty local item you can't find on the mainland. Depending on the time of year, there might be strawberry guavas growing along the trail. They're edible and fairly tasty, but they're also about 80% seeds. As you eat one you end up spitting out seeds constantly, and you quickly realize why it's such a successful invasive plant here. It's kind of the Hawaii equivalent of the Northwest's invasive Himalayan blackberry bushes, overall. The "annoying bush that will scratch up your legs" part of the role is played by the local uluhe fern, and some people recommend wearing long pants if you'll be hiking through a lot of ferns, though I generally don't do that.

Normally I'd have more of a detailed description of the trail here, beyond what the trailhead and turnaround spot are like, but I neglected to write that part before this post stalled out in Drafts, and now it's been too long to remember that level of detail. I do remember there was one spot early on in the hike where you have to make your way down a slope that's essentially just a mass of very slippery tree roots, with no dirt for traction. There might have been pine needles on top of these tree roots, unless I'm thinking of a different spot on a different trail; it's been a while. Anyway, I didn't like that part, and you might not like it either, but there's only one place like that and it's fairly short, and you miss out on the good parts if you turn around at that point. Anyway, in lieu of more of a proper writeup by me about the trail, here are a few links I liked from around the interwebs about the place. They probably explain it better than I would have done anyway. Enjoy!