Distance: 4.6 mile Loop | Time: 3.5 – 4.5 hours | Level: Difficult
Kuliouou Ridge Loop Trail hands down offers hikers the best view on Oahu. From the trail, the views of the Ko’olau Mountain Range are vast and dramatic.
The west loop trail is an alternative to the popular out-and-back Kuliouou Ridge Trail. While the loop option is much more physically demanding, the lack of foot traffic, sweeping views, and adrenaline-inducing drop-offs make it worth the extra effort.
Cole and I have hiked over 100 trails on the island and confidently claim that Kuliouou Ridge Loop Trail offers the best view on Oahu.
In this guide, I cover what to expect when hiking the loop trail, how to prepare for the hike, where to find parking, and trail length and difficulty. I also included a bonus blurb at the end highlighting our favorite hike on the entire island.
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Complete Guide to Hiking Kuliouou Ridge Loop Trail on Oahu
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Kuliouou Ridge Trail vs. Kuliouou Ridge Loop Trail
The Kuliouou Ridge Loop Trail commonly gets overlooked by the heavily trafficked Kuliouou Ridge Trail. As the name suggests, one trail makes a loop, while the other takes hikers on an out-and-back path.
Kuliouou Ridge Trail
Kuliouou Ridge Trail is the more commonly hiked trail of the two. It’s a go-to hike for many locals. The hike is 4.7 miles, well maintained, and gains roughly 1,800 feet in elevation. Hikers make their way to the top of Kuliouou Ridge via a series of switchbacks and manmade steps.
The trail offers a unique change of scenery with iron wood pines being the main foliage. Much of the hike is spent weaving through the shaded pine forest and navigating exposed roots. However, once hikers reach the top of the forest the views of the south shore come into sight.
The trail from the top of the pine forest to the Kuliouou Ridge summit consists of make-shift stairs. The “stairs” are just metal slats dug vertically into the ground. On this section of the trail hikers lose the tree coverage.
The metal slats are there to help with trail erosion and the only thing preventing the trail from turning into a slip-n-slide every time it rains. Prepare to be out of breath as you climb these steps to the summit.
The views from the top of Kuliouou Ridge Trail are beautiful, but truthfully fail in comparison to those along the loop trail. It is also common for the summit to be packed with people taking pictures and the random hiker playing music without headphones.
Preparing to Hike the Ridge Loop Trail
The loop trail is one of the more physically taxing trails on the island. You need to be prepared mentally and physically, as well as appropriately packed and dressed.
What to Pack
A day-pack is a must for this trail. You are required to use your hands constantly while navigating rope sections, pulling yourself up, and steading yourself along the ridge. This is not the trail to be carrying your phone or water bottle in your hand.
I never hike without my Gregory Nano 16L.
As someone who doesn’t require a lot of water, take it from me when I say you’ll be wanting lots of it. The entire first half of the trail is straight up and exposed to the sun. Make sure to have at least two liters on hand.
I also highly suggest getting a bladder rather than using a water bottle so you don’t have to stop and go through your pack every time you want a sip. Keep in mind that finding safe and comfortable places to rest can be tricky along the steep climb and ridge.
What to Wear
Hiking shoes or trail runners are a must for the loop trail. Even if the trail isn’t muddy, (and there’s a good chance it is, by the way) the clay is extremely slippery. You’re going to want shoes with good tread that allow you to trust your footing in some pretty dicey situations.
The Saucony Peregrine ST 11s are my go-to hiking shoe.
Long pants are more of a recommendation than a necessity. The loop trail is not maintained and once you reach the ridge you really start to notice. My legs were super scratched up by the overgrown grass and limbs covering the path.
The next time I do this hike I’ll make sure to throw on some pants or leggings that I don’t mind getting roughed up or muddy.
As always, make sure to protect yourself from the sun and bring along a hat, shades and/or sunscreen. The sun will 100% be blazing.
Check the Weather
On that note, make sure to check the weather before beginning the trail. While you should protect yourself from the sun, it’s the least of your worries. Rain and wind can majorly impact the trail conditions.
The first time we hiked this trail the winds were so strong that getting blown off the ridge didn’t seem that unlikely. Once you are hiking along the rim there is nothing to steady yourself on. If you happen to get stuck along the connecting rim trail while the wind is picking up, crouch down and take your time.
Chance of rain is another weather condition to take note of before hiking. The Ko’olau mountains see a heavy amount of rain, regularly. A quick way to check the conditions is to simply look at the mountains. If the ridge is consistently sitting in the clouds it might not be the best day to attempt the ridge.
For one, you won’t have a view. There’s nothing worse than powering through a gruesome climb to arrive at a completely socked in summit. Secondly, it might indicate that it is raining. Like I mentioned earlier, once it starts raining the path becomes a mudslide, while water flows down the trail like a waterfall.
We had to turn around once five minutes shy of the summit because the trail conditions became so dangerous. If the weather turns quickly, make the wise decision and turn around.
Parking for Kuliouou Ridge Loop Trail
There is no designated parking lot for the Kuliouou Ridge trails. Street parking is the only option for hikers.
Finding parking can be tricky, especially if you don’t begin your hike first thing in the morning. Not only are the parking options naturally limited, but the residents also don’t make it easy with their strategic parking choices — which brings up an important note.
Keep in mind when hiking nearly all trails on Oahu that you are parking in front of someone’s home. Be respectful when coming and going and don’t block any driveways.
You might have to take several laps around the block until a spot opens up, or cave and park far away. Keep this added distance in mind when factoring in the length of this trail.
Finding the Trailhead for the Loop Trail
Whether you are choosing to hike the out-and-back Kuliouou Ridge Trail or the loop route, you will park in the same place.
The trail begins at the end of a cul de sac. You’ll hike a couple of minutes in until you come to a Y in the road. Going right puts hikers on the most popular Kuliouou Ridge Trail while choosing left takes hikers to the start of the Kuliouou Ridge Loop Trail.
Once you veer to the left it’s going to feel as though you’re walking in the wrong direction. Rest assured that if you see a fenced-in building, you’re in the right place. Just before you get to the building, look to your right and there you will see the faint resemblance of a trail leading straight into the forest.
Keep in mind that because it is a loop, hikers can technically start the trail from either end. However, it is very important that you hike the loop clockwise and do not start at the Kuliouou Ridge Trailhead. Reversing the trail would lead to some pretty gnarly descents.
We’ve seen people hike the trail in both directions; however, I do not recommend it.
Who Should Hike Kuliouou Ridge Loop Trail?
While 4.6 miles doesn’t seem too strenuous of a hiking distance, the trail gains 2,000 feet of elevation in just two miles. Only physically active individuals should attempt this hike, as the trail is physically demanding.
Additionally, the trail gets technical in a couple of sections. Luckily, ropes are provided. Several times, when going both up and down, you will need to rely on the ropes.
If you don’t feel confident in your ability to hold yourself up by a rope, this hike isn’t for you.
Lastly, consider how comfortable you are with heights. Not only will you have to scale several rock sections, but you will also have to navigate the narrow spine of the mountain. Throw in some not-so-great weather conditions and things can get tricky, quickly.
If you decide the loop trail is not for you, you’re not out of luck. The Kuliouou Ridge Trail is one of the most popular hikes on O’ahu for a reason. Consider skipping the loop and opting to hike the out-and-back Kuliouou Ridge Trail trail, instead.
What to Expect Hiking Kuliouou Ridge Loop Trail
Much like the Kuliouou Ridge Trail, the loop route immediately puts you to work. The trail begins in a dense forest that causes you to question if you’re even on a trail.
Again, do not begin the loop trail at the same trailhead as Kuliouou Ridge Trail.
For the first half mile, you’re climbing out of the valley towards the ridge. The trail is slippery here and requires you to tug on some tree branches and use your hands to make your way upwards. Luckily, this section is shaded and doesn’t last long.
The trail remains shaded for a little while longer as you trek through the ironwood pines. Once you exit the pines you will be in direct sun for the remainder of the trek to the summit. While the sun can be brutal along the ridge this is where the fun really starts.
Once you’re in the clearing of the trees you come to several, very steep, rope segments. You will need to use the rope in order to get up (or down) the steep sections. Near the ropes, the trail is pretty washed out and slippery.
As a rule of thumb, always tug on the ropes before placing your trust in them.
Once you climb the rope sections you will finally find yourself along the ridge that connects the west and east trails.
It’s a surreal feeling to be as high as the clouds, teetering along the top of a mountain. From the ridge, you can see both the east, northeast, west, and south shores of the island.
Keep an eye out for Diamond Head, Koko Head, Koko Crater, Rabbit Island, Chinaman’s Hat, Kualoa Ranch, and the Mokulua Islands. The panoramic views will absolutely blow your mind and make you forget how gnarly the trip was getting there.
If you can believe it, things only get better from here.
The Most Beautiful View on Oahu
About two miles in you will come to the iconic platform. From this platform, you will have the most incredible view of the Ko’olau Mountain Range. I’ve hiked all over the island and have yet to come across a view that even comes close.
Linger here for a bit to soak up the beauty before carrying on.
After the view platform, continue along toward the Kuliouou Ridge Trail lookout. On the last section of the ridge, the trail gets more muddy and overgrown. Just before the second lookout, you come to a very steep rope descent and the hardest one on the trail. Take your time.
Expect to see lots of hikers on the Kuliouou Ridge Trail summit. We never spend much time at this summit because it doesn’t compare to the beauty of the ridge.
While the second portion of the trail is much easier it takes a long time to descend back to the starting point. Once you make your way down the makeshift stairs and into the forest you’re going to come to some switchbacks. The switchbacks are mellow and long.
Remember, don’t take any shortcuts (no matter how tempting it is).
Kuliouou Forest Reserve Restoration
Please make sure to stay on the trail at all times. During the switchback portion of the trail, there are many moments where you could shave off some time by creating shortcuts.
While shortcutting a trail may seem harmless, doing so kills the flora as well as causes soil erosion. Private and state agencies are re-planting native species in the Kuliouou Forest Reserve to combat the harm done by shortcutting.
The Kuliouou Ridge Trail system is heavily trafficked. It is all of our responsibility to help keep Hawai’i beautiful. Please abide by the signs and stay on the trail.
Best Overall Hike on O’ahu
Ka’au Crater Trail
It’s always hard to narrow down a “favorite” anything, but when it comes to hiking on Oahu we always find ourselves recommending one hike: Ka’au Crater Trail.
Ka’au Crater Trail combines the best of Oahu hiking into one: waterfalls, rope sections, stream crossings, lush green foliage, narrow ridges, and panoramic views.
It’s our favorite hike on the island because it’s the most adventurous hike. The trail constantly keeps you on your toes. While ridge views usually take the cake for the highlight, the waterfalls steal the show on Ka’au.
Instead of taking switchbacks up to the ridge, you use ropes to go straight up a series of cascading waterfalls to reach the top.
I guarantee hiking Ka’au Crater Trail will be something you remember forever.
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