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The most isolated community in West Maui is the sleepy little town of Kahakuloa on the NE side of the coastline. Though the road around West Maui is paved, some of it very recently, there are quite a few miles on either side of the town that are a single lane wide. Even with plenty of wide spaces, it is almost impossible to make it along the road without you or an oncoming car having to back up at some point to make room to pass. In addition, the road is incredibly windy as it makes its way in and around every inlet without the benefit of a single signficant bridge (20-foot spans across a stream don't count). It has such a poor reputation that almost all traffic around West Maui goes around the south side. As the wetter of the two sides, the north side is arguably the most scenic, with lush tropical vegetation, cascading streams and ruggedly sculpted volcanic shorelines pounded by the rougher seas on that side. I had visited the shores along SR30 twice in the past week, once with my daughter for a short hike along a section of coast and a second time with my son for a swim in the Olivine Pools. On this second visit I was struck by the look of an impressive rocky summit I could see off in the distance. From the northwest angle I viewed it, it appeared to be surrounded by cliffs on all sides. I had to learn more about it...
I found that the summit is called Pu'u Koa'e, rising 636ft above the town of Kahakuloa and the bay of the same name. It is also called Kahakula Head (the Tall Lord) in some guidebooks. In Andrew Doughty's Maui Revealed The Ultimate Guidebook, he has this to say about it: can only be reached by a death-defying, 'okole-squeezing, nail-biting scaling of the crumbly rock wall. Thanks, but no thanks. This turns out to be an exaggeration. There is even a page for it on SummitPost, describing the South Face as exposed class 3. In the author's description he comments, "Maui has many volcanic rock formations along its coastline. Having driven all around the island, I can say that this is the only one I was compelled to climb from the moment I saw it.. It seemed very much worth a visit. As the whole climb is no more than 30min up and down, I needed more to occupy my day. In Stuart Ball Jr's The Hiker's Guide to the Hawaiian Islands he lists the Waihe'e Ridge Trail only a few miles southeast of Kahakuloa reaching to the summit of 2,563-foot Lanilili. There is also a SummitPost page on this one. With these two objectives in mind, I headed out early in the morning before 6a.
It was not the best of days, weather-wise. Well before I reached the turnout for Pu'u Koa'e I had my windshield wipers working in earnest to keep the steady drizzle off and allow me to see the oncoming cars in time on the narrow, windy road. I had one backup manuever to make to allow a small truck to pass, but for the most part I saw little traffic at that early hour. At the parking lot I stopped to view the South Face of Pu'u Koa'e - it looked steep, and hard, too. Even without the SummitPost recommendation to avoid climbing in the rain, I would have come to the same conclusion. I really wanted to climb this thing, but not in these conditions. I decided to do the Waihe'e Ridge climb first, then come back and hope the weather had improved a few hours from now.
I had no trouble finding my way to the TH for Waihe'e Ridge with signs at the highway and at the obvious starting point just above the 1,000-foot elevation mark. There is a large parking area just past the TH when driving up the road, not immediately obvious when approaching the TH. Mine was the only car in the lot when I started up just before 7:30a. The reports describe the outing as a wet one and today would be no exception. The rain had stopped but it was heavily overcast (as it would remain pretty much all day) and both the trail and flora along it were saturated. After passing through a stile in the gate the trail starts up what appears to be a steep cement driveway. At the top of this slope the trail heads left off the driveway and into some dense woods. Though lacking views, this part of the trail is quite nice with smells coming from the trees and sounds from the birds inhabiting them. Roots from the trees are abundant on the trail and it is not hard to trip oneself up. Another gate is reached with a stile downhill a bit to the right (I totally missed this on the way up and went over the fence instead). As the trail switchbacks up the hillside, a bench is reached at an overlook where the trail bends, offering views to the lush Makamakaole Stream drainage to the north. The trail soon reaches the ridge proper where another bench and another fence are found. The topo map calls this Kanoa Ridge, but it appears to be more commonly known as Waihe'e Ridge, named after the stream that flows in the drainage immediately to the south.
Past this third gate is the most scenic part of the trail as it follows the ridgeline for the most part, narrow in places, but never really kinife-edged as many other Hawaiian ridges can be. I had fleeting views behind me to Kuhului Bay and the the adjacent towns of Kahului and Wailuku, the clouds soon closing this up. On either side are deep, green valleys with streams rushing through them that could be heard for great distances. Cascades and waterfalls on adjacent ridges can be glimpsed as well - here's one advantage of doing this hike in wet conditions as they would be absent in fair weather. Though steep and slippery in places, the trail remains a good one with wooden steps constructed on the steepest parts. a rivulet of water ran down the center of the trail in most of the upper half, though without overgrown brush on either side, my boots remained relatively dry on the inside.
Just shy of the 2.5mi mark the trail ends atop Lanilili. A picnic bench is located at the flattish summit with another fence and several warning signs just beyond. The west side of Lanilili drops more than 300ft before continuing up towards the West Maui highpoint of Pu'u Kukui. I went over to the fence to see if some sort of use trail might continue past the fence (this one with no gate or stile), but found nothing but tall, wet grass. This was as far as I'd go. Though I carried a sandwich in my daypack, I didn't get to enjoy the use of the bench because it was so wet. Lunch could wait.
I came across more than a dozen parties on my way back down the trail. I hadn't realized just how popular this route was. Part of its popularity might be due to the lack of sufficient trails in the area. Compared to places like the Koolau Range on Oahu, there are few trails to be found on West Maui. I said "Hello" or "Good morning" to each party as I passed by, only about half of them responding and only a couple with much enthusiasm. Perhaps they didn't appreciate the wet conditions, the trail gradient, my offensive looks, or some combination thereof. The large lot was half full when I returned at 9:20a. Signs indicate the trail is open 7a to 7p, but I don't know that anyone would care if you got there earlier.
Returning north along the highway, I stopped for a second time at the TH for Pu'u Koa'e. Though still cloudy, there was no rain, no mist and no real threat of impending precipitation. I was feeling quite happy that I had decided to wait. Though it looks imposing, the South Face isn't so bad once you've made the 100yds crossing from the parking lot to its base. There are more than one route up from this side, at least three that I noted and possibly more. I went up one way, down another just to the side, neither seeming obviously easier than the other. I think the SummitPost rating of class 3 is accurate, as is the description of good holds. Though volcanic in nature, much of it is soft like a cross between talc and sandstone. I didn't find the rock that loose nor the exposure that great. I would have been okay taking my kids up the summit, though I'm sure I'd have been nervous until they got through the steepest parts. After about five minutes of scrambling the gradient eases and one finds oneself wading through shoulder height grass. A path of sorts had been plowed through it and I simply followed the line of least resistance to reach the top, taking all of 12min from the car.
I found a concrete survey block at the summit implanted with a tattered flag representing an unknown entity. There is a slightly detached lower summit to the northwest that could be scrambled to without much difficulty. Somewhere on the other side of it is Kahekili's Leap, a platform more than 200ft (1/3 the height of Pu'u Koa'e) from which the 18th-century Maui king would regularly dive into the ocean before breakfast while residing at the summit. Or so legend says. I'm not a big believer in legends. More disappointing was not finding the folding lawn chairs that Doughty had seen at the summit while flying over in an ultralight aircraft. It was nice enough now that I could have enjoyed my sandwich in style. Instead, I was standing about in tall grass. I took a few pictures of the fine coastal views before heading down. Just as I was descending, the first of what would become a regular parade of helicopters came flying up the coast from Kuhului, starting the day's long line of helicopter tours. The helicopter circled once before continuing northwest up the coast. While vanity might like to believe they had spotted me and were giving me a closer look, it was probably to allow a better view of the much more scenic Kahakuloa Bay below me.
Just south of Pu'u Koa'e is Pu'u Kahulianapa, about 100ft lower. It is a far easier climb (no scrambling involved), just a lot of pushing through tall grass. A herd of more than a dozen feral goats did not appreciate my encroachment on their grazing pasture, first watching me intently then making off at a moderate clip to a more inaccessible part of the summit closer to the cliffs on the ocean side. There was nothing of particular interest at the top, just more really tall grass. I descended off the south side of the summit to reach the road, then walked the road about 1/3mi back to the car.
Still only 10:30a, I had plenty of time to tack on some bonus peaks along the road on the drive back. The first of these was Umi (an unusually short Hawaiian name) about 1/3mi from the highway on the west side of Kahakuloa. A 4WD road used by hunters makes access easier, passing within a few hundred feet of the summit. The summit, like all the ones that follow, have very little prominence. Umi was composed of crumbly, red Hawaiian dirt with a few Cooks pines growing at the top. There is a nice view east to Kahakuloa Bay and the two summits I had most recently visited.
Kaikaina was a 305-foot summit about a mile further north, only a few hundred feet from the highway. There is an old rusty gate that leads a short distance in off the highway, but most of the way is cross-country though tall grass or the understory of a small forest of Cooks pines. The top features a steep dropoff to the south, uncertain footing, and mediocre views, mostly upcountry to the fog-enshrouded summit of Kukui. Not much to recommend it.
Several miles further northwest along the highway are the twin summits of Akhluaiki and Akaluanui, both a short distance from the road. The first of these isn't much of a summit even by Hawaii's already low standards and I passed by it without realizing it. I stopped for the second one, finding a turnout west and downhill from the closest point along the road. I walked back up along the road, careful to watch out for cars on this narrow, shoulderless road, and reached its open summit quite easily. Good views of the road and the coast and upcountry, but almost the same views can be had from various points along the highway.
Another mile and change further west along the road is another puny summit, Pu'u Kaeo. Though literally about 100ft from the road, I couldn't reach its summit. The choices were limited. The road cuts across its face, leaving steep, loose cliffs that would have me falling back onto the road only to be unceremoniously run over by tourists. Alternatively I could drive further away on either side and make a horrendous bushwhack for about 1/5mi for very little reward. After stopping to give it the once over, I drove on.
The last summit I visited was a small bump called Kulaokaea about 1/3mi from the highway. The area used to be under irrigated culitivation as evidenced by the irrigation tubing and black plastic sheets that still cover much of the ground (but heavily overgrown with cane grass and other plants such that the plastic sheeting isn't readily evident). I found a gated dirt road heading out towards the summit, getting me most of the way there. Several such dirt roads in the area are used as hiking trails to reach various coastal beaches and points on this side of the highway. The last 150ft to the top involved pushing through more thick grass. The "summit" is a small, rounded bump with maybe 20ft of prominence. The topo map shows a VABM benchmark here, but I saw no obvious signs of it and didn't bother to dig under the grass, dirt and black plastic to look for it. Views are mediocre - not much to recommend this one either.
And without much further ado, I called it a day. The highlights were Lanilili and especially Pu'u Koa'e, both of which I can recommend without qualification. As for the others - you'd have to have standards as low as mine to get much enjoyment from them. :-)
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Lanilili - Pu'u Koa'e
This page last updated: Sat Dec 20 21:35:33 2014
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