Ka’au Crater Trail is hands down the best hike on O’ahu. Period.
The trail has everything you could want in a Hawai’i hike: waterfalls, ridges, rivers, rope climbs, 360° views, and tropical foliage so green you’ll have to blink twice.
The climb to the top of Ka’au Crater is physically demanding, thrilling, technical, mentally exhausting, and truly an adventure of a lifetime.
While this trail is the best trail on O’ahu, in my opinion, it is not for everyone.
Similar to the popular Olomana Trail many hikers have been injured and even died while attempting this trail. Only experienced, properly equipped, and physically fit individuals should hike Ka’au Crater.
This guide covers what to expect hiking Ka’au Crater Trail, finding the trailhead, parking, safety, what to pack, and more.
There are many incredible once-in-a-lifetime hikes on O’ahu, yes, but none as adventurous as Ka’au Crater Trail.
Table of Contents
Hiking Ka’au Crater Trail and Why Its the Best Hike on Oahu
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Ka’au Crater Trail Stats
Distance: 5.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,938 feet
Time: 4-6 hours
Getting to the Trailhead
Ka’au Crater Trail is located roughly 20 minutes from downtown Waikiki. Like many trails around the island, the trail is elusively situated in a residential neighborhood.
From Waikiki, head down Kalakaua Avenue towards Diamond Head. Navigate a series of small back roads to 10th Avenue. Follow 10th avenue until it veers right onto Waiomao Road.
Take Waiomao Road until it dead ends. Just past the last house on the left is the tucked-away Ka’au Crater Trailhead.
Unsurprisingly, there is no designated parking for the trail. There is a makeshift gravel lot on the right that can be used; however, it can only hold three to four vehicles.
It is very important that you respect the residents in the area and do not park on lawns, in front of driveways, or partially in the road.
If the small gravel lot is full, backtrack towards 10th Avenue until you can find a spot. Make sure to remove all valuables from your vehicle before heading to the trail.
Car break-ins are a rising problem on O’ahu — don’t skip this step.
How Long Does It Take To Hike Ka’au Crater Trail?
Hiking Ka’au Crater can take anywhere from 4 hours to 6+ hours.
Several factors determine the time it will talk you to finish the trail including the weather, voluntary breaks, photo ops, waterfalls dips, trail conditions, and how much of the trail you choose to explore.
While I don’t recommend skipping the ridge section of the trail (it’s half the fun!), many people do turn left at the top of the last waterfall for a variety of reasons. Doing so cuts nearly 1.5 miles off of the total trail distance.
If you’re short on time, totally wiped, afraid of heights, or the weather is turning for the worst, this shortened route is always an option.
Safety on Ka’au Crater Trail
Cole and I were lucky enough to live just two miles from Ka’au Crater Trail and have completed the trail more times than you can count on two hands.
Over the course of five years, we saw weekly helicopter rescues hauling injured, afraid, stranded, unprepared, uninformed, and exhausted people from the crater.
Do not let the 5-mile distance fool you into thinking Ka’au Crater Trail is a cakewalk. The trail is strenuous, technical, physically, and mentally demanding. People have died and countless have been injured.
Before attempting this hike, ensure you have proper hiking shoes, adequate water and snacks, favorable weather conditions, a sufficient amount of daylight, and a realistic understanding of your own limits and level of experience.
I elaborate more on what to pack later in this guide.
What to Expect Hiking Ka’au Crater Trail on O’ahu
Ka’au Crater Trail begins just past the last house on the left on Waiomao Road. Do not proceed walking or driving up the paved driveway on the right. This is a private residential address.
Look for the handmade sign nailed to a tree marking the start of the trail, or the small opening in the trees. Upon initial glance, it may appear as though there’s no way the trail starts from this spot, but rest assured it does and you’re in for a treat.
Right off the bat, the trail has you clambering straight down over a series of boulders and tree roots.
This first section of the trail feels like entering a portal to another world.
Less than one minute into Ka’au Crater Trail you are completely teleported to a spellbinding, jungle haven. Truly, the start of the trail is a bit disorienting because it’s hard to fathom how just seconds ago you were standing in a neighborhood.
Everywhere you look are looming trees and palms, dangling vines, and pockets of sunshine leaking through the thick canopy overhead. If you can pause despite all the excitement, do so and listen for the bird songs and trickling of water coming from the nearby creek.
Paradise, I tell you.
I could go on and on — just writing this description has me nostalgic for the magic that is O’ahu. Don’t rush through this first section, soak it in.
For the first half mile or so the trail wraps close to the creek with intermittent small waterfalls lining the bank. Prepare for the path to be muddy and even flooded if it has rained recently.
While the trail is pretty straightforward, some social trails can be misleading. When in doubt, hug the water, and always have an offline map handy.
We use trusty AllTrails for all of our hiking adventures.
An offline map comes in handy when it’s time to leave the river behind and start heading into the valley. We always see hikers miss this hard left turn.
Look for an old rusty brown pipe on your left, this is your sign to cross the river. Follow this pipe all the way until the first waterfall comes into sight.
For the next mile, you’ll be stepping over, walking beside, shimming down, and even having to step on this pipe to navigate the trail. While it’s annoying at times, it’s also nice as it lets you know you’re headed in the right direction.
This section of trail can be slippery and overgrown but it’s nothing too intense. There is a steady incline all the way to the waterfall but as far as elevation gain goes, this section is mellow.
On a good day, you can hear the waterfall before you can see it, while on others it’s barely a trickle.
Check the weather before you head out on the trail. Previous rainy days are good as they feed the waterfalls, but a day-of rain forecast you want to avoid for safety purposes.
The first waterfall is my absolute favorite stop along Ka’au Crater Trail.
On days we could peek out our bedroom window and see it was raining in the valley, we would rush out the door just to hike to the first waterfall and back.
Just as the pipe runs out on the trail, the waterfall appears. The first waterfall is located to the right, just as the trail just upward to the left.
At first, it can seem as though you can’t get down to the first waterfall, but you can. There are a series of tattered ropes to help you make the slippery descent.
If the waterfall has a heavy flow and a full swimming hole consider taking a dip. Let the cold water revitalize you for the climb ahead.
Waterfalls + Rope Sections
From the first waterfall on, Ka’au Crater Trail gets increasingly more difficult and more adventurous.
You come to another waterfall shortly after the first, but it doesn’t have a swimming hole. Using the help of some ropes you’ll scramble up the side of this waterfall to the top before continuing on the trail.
This section can get a bit tricky to navigate, make sure to reference your offline maps to ensure you’re still on the right path.
During this portion of the trail, you are in for very steep climbs and steep descents. At times you will be required to place all of your trust in a rope. Always have only one person on a rope at any given time.
When you come to the third waterfall you’ll start to wonder where the trail continues — it’s up. The trail does not go around the waterfall, though a social trail off to the left suggests otherwise, it goes directly up the side of the waterfall.
If you look to the left of the waterfall you’ll notice notices ropes in place to aid your climb. Take your time, double-check your grip and footing, and slowly make your way to the top of the several-tiered waterfall.
Once you reach the top of the falls, you’ve arrived at the ridge section of the trail.
Here, you have two options: go right and continue up the ridge of Ka’au Crater, or turn left and follow the trail back down, cutting out the ridge loop.
It’s important to note that you can reach the top of several waterfalls along Ka’au Crater Trail. Never approach the edge, peer over the side, step into moving water, or place a foot on any rocks that look wet.
By the time you reach the ridge, you feel like you’ve already conquered enough adventures for the whole month, but you’re not even close to being done with Ka’au Crater Trail.
This trail is so incredible because you feel like you’re hiking several trails in one. The ridge section of the trail changes things up once again, as you leave the river and waterfalls behind in pursuit of 360° views.
The ridge is demanding and every single step you take will be uphill. At one point in the climb, the grade reaches 79% — i.e. you’re basically navigating a mud staircase. Through a series of muddy trenches, slippery ropes, and exposed ridge lines you finally reach the top of Ka’au Crater.
On a clear day, you can see the entire east side of the island, as well as the south shore. It’s a remarkable feeling to be standing on the top of a mountain with views of the Pacific Ocean on all sides of you.
If you happen to reach the summit to be greeted only by socked in thick, white clouds, give it a few minutes. Sometimes the clouds part just enough to give you a taste of what’s beyond them.
While it’s tempting, don’t hang around too long. You’ve got a long, tiring trek back down the ridge.
What to Pack
Water + Snacks
Don’t let the 5-mile distance trick you into thinking Ka’au Crater Trail is a walk in the park. Make sure to pack a sufficient amount of water for the trail. A general rule of thumb is one liter per every two miles. I recommend bringing at least two liters of water and more if you’re someone who drinks a lot of water as it is.
As for snacks, you’ll appreciate having the extra energy boost as you round out the ridge section of the trail. Even if you don’t eat them, it’s good practice to have them on you for taxing trails like this one.
Ka’au Crater Trail requires you to use your feet, hands, knees — you name it. You will not want to be fidgeting with your phone and water bottle while hoisting yourself up a rope on an exposed ridge or waterfall.
Bring a long hiking day pack to keep all of your belongings, water, and snack secured in one place, so you’re hands can be free to maneuver up, down, along, and over the trail.
If you’re envisioning a groomed and manicured trail, Ka’au Crater isn’t it. You need proper hiking shoes with good tread to traverse this trail.
I love wearing Chaco sandals on this trail because of the wet conditions, river crossings, and waterfalls, but that’s just a personal preference. I’ve hiked many, many miles in my sandals and am comfortable doing so.
Don’t attempt to hike this trail in tennis. The trail is often wet, muddy, and slippery due to the unpredictable weather in the Ko’olau Mountains. Throw on your hiking shoes and lace them up tightly.
On a good day, the first waterfall is a great spot to hop in the water. If you’re visiting during the wet season (March-November), the chances of there being a strong flow and full swimming hole are high.
The water will be ice-cold and murky but it’s worth the memory to go in anyways. Packing and changing into a bathing suit is obviously optional, but enjoying the waterfall is a fun way to break up the hike and enjoy the incredible scenery.
Again, a raincoat is optional but we always regret forgetting to bring one when we hike Ka’au Crater. Unless you’ve chosen a cloudless, sunny day on O’ahu to complete this trail, rain is likely.
Even if it’s not raining in town, the Ko’olau Mountains might be sitting in a rain cloud. A quick glance at the mountain range can tell you a lot.
If you get chilled easily or just don’t want to complete the trail soaked, consider packing along a raincoat.
Top Favorite Hikes on O’ahu
I stand by Ka’au Crater Trail being the best overall hike on O’ahu, but it has some close competition. Here is a list of my other favorite trails around the island.
Best View: Kuli’ou’ou West Loop Trail
Most Adventurous Trail: Olomana Trail “Three Peaks”
Most Beautiful Trail: Pu’u Konahuanui Peak Trail via the Kalawahine Trail “K2 and K1”
Most Iconic Trail: Moanalua Valley Trail: Backway to the Stairway to Heaven
If you’re looking to take the ultimate O’ahu trip, check out my other guides highlighting my favorite island hikes, adventures, and more. Leave any questions you have about hiking Ka’au Crater Trail or any of my other favorite trails on O’ahu in the comment section below.
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