The Koko Head stairs are grueling test of will that guarantees to leave you drenched in sweat and turn your legs to jell-o.
TEXT BY JESSICA BLACKMUN // IMAGES BY JACKSON GROVES & JESSICA BLACKMUN
There are several hikes we always do when we have visitors to push them out of the comfort zone during their vacation: Diamond Head, Lanikai Pillbox Trail, and Koko Head. Diamond Head is the most touristy as it is very close to Waikiki but it has a great view and is easy for all levels of hikers. Lanikai Pillboxes is a little less crowded and is amazing for sunrise but if you’re looking for a challenge you should definitely attempt the Koko Head stairs.
Hiking up the Koko Head stairs is a great workout that will make your legs feel like jell-o and get you so drenched in your own sweat that you will be able to wring your clothes out at the top. This hike is popular among athletes and locals because it’s such a great workout with gorgeous views to reward you at the top. People who do it regularly even time themselves running up. Jackson’s best time is 12:15 and mine is 13:22.
Exhausted hikers sitting on the ground mark the entrance to the hike in Koko Head Park, Hawaii Kai. Follow the partially paved foot path behind the baseball diamond to the start of the railway. This is the part of the hike where some people get a little bit intimidated. After looking up at the railway and barely making out the ant-sized figures slowly making their way towards the summit is often enough to have most people second guessing themselves.
During World War II, the military several built bunkers at the summit of Koko Head crater. They also constructed Koko Head Railway (now the Koko Head stairs) to move personnel and supplies up and down.
There are 1,048 railroad ties (steps) to the end of the railway then another 30 or so feet of walking to get to the look out points. The Koko Head stairs aren’t shaped evenly and are almost double the width of a normal stair so unless you are extremely tall, this could mean that you are either taking two steps for every railway tie or doing lunges up the whole way. Some of the ‘steps’ are very worn down as well so there are some makeshift steps and other areas where the dusty ground can be quite slippery.
About half way up, is the railway bridge. It is a small section where the ground disappears out from under the track, replaced by green foliage. Here, you are literally crossing a railway bridge to the next section. The railway ties in this area are placed much closer together and for the most part it is safe as long as you walk slowly and step carefully. If you have a fear of heights you can take a detour into the bushes until you pass this section.
After the exhilarating bridge section the hike gets exponentially steeper. On the plus side, for the short people out there, this is where the Koko Head stairs begin to get shorter!
About three fourths of the way up you start to get a preview of the view that you’ll see from the top. Turning around you can see the gorgeous blue waters of Hanauma Bay, the overhead view of Hawaii Kai, and the shooting range near the base of the crater. This is also the part of the hike where people on their way down start offering words of encouragement about getting to the top.
Once you finally make it to the top of the railway, there’s a few perfectly placed trees where many of the hikers choose to stop and catch their breath. This high up there is more of a breeze and the shade from the trees help you to cool off quickly. This is the point that we usually stop the timer and see if we’ve beaten our personal record.
The end of the railway isn’t the top of Koko Crater though. In order to get the real view and to access what it considered the top of Koko Crater Railway Trail, you weave your way up towards the metal grate platform.
The platform is an epic place to take photos. From here you can see Hawaii Kai and the Makapu’u Light House Trail.
This is an out and back trail, so when you’ve cooled off and taken the pictures to prove you made it up the Koko Head stairs, you head back down the railway tracks. If you thought the railway ties were slippery on the way up, they are ten times worse going down. So place your feet carefully and don’t be afraid to go a bit slower.
There is an alternate way down. If you head along the ridge of the crater towards the ocean you will encounter the trail that takes you to the Koko Crater Arch. This is a picturesque hike on its own due to the large rock formation and oceanic views. However, if you choose to take this route you will need a second vehicle to get back to the Koko Head Park parking lot.
TIP: When you attempt Koko Crater Railway trail make sure to wear grippy shoes and breathable workout clothes. A hat can also be a lifesaver as the sun can be quite harsh.
Also don’t forget your water bottle, camera, and sunscreen!
DISTANCE: 1.4 miles total
ALTITUDE: 690 feet