The Koko Head Hike railway stairs are a grueling test of will and lead you to the Koko Head Crater summit, which is a view worth the grind!
The Koko Head Crater hike is one of the most popular hikes on Oahu and while the it might seem that the Koko Head stairs are a relatively short hike but don’t be fooled. The unforgiving incline will have you gasping for breath by the time you reach the top an you will see what it is a popular physical challenge amongst locals and tourists. In this blog post, I will give you all the information about the location, distance, elevation, address and even the history of how the Koko Head stairs came to be. I’ll also share with you my personal record up the stairs and the details of a guided tour up the Koko Head Hike to the Koko Head Crater summit.
You will probably get some great ideas from my most popular blog post: 80 AWESOME THINGS TO DO ON OAHU: THE BUCKETLIST
Koko Head Hike History
During World War II, the military built several 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. The tracks carried supplies up and down the volcanic Koko Head Crater via a gasoline-powered winch in a tramcar. Nowadays the stairs are the main feature but during the period where the winch was in full swing, there was a barracks and other buildings at the base of the tracks.
Since the war, the site has been used by the Hawaii Air National Guard, Federal Aviation Administration, and the Air Force. In 1966 the Air Force pass the facility over to the City of Honolulu and the property has since been known as Koko Head Regional Park.
Koko Head Hike Distance
The total distance of Koko Head Hike is just .7 miles to the top. That is just a mere total of 1.4 miles for the round-trip. You might be thinking it sounds like one of the easiest hikes you’ve ever done but hold your judgement til you are 3/4 of the way to the top. It may sound like a short distance but it isn’t the distance you should be worried about. It is the extreme elevation that you ascend over that short distance. If you begin measuring from the parking lot it will be 1.8 miles total out and back in total distance.
Koko Head Crater Hike Elevation
Koko Head Railway Stairs take you up 990ft (301m) over just .7 miles (1.13km). You are gaining almost 1 ft of elevation for every 2 feet of distance, which is a very steep gradient and a gnarly incline. At the Koko Head Crater summit, you will be 1208ft (368m) above sea level with panoramic views.
Koko Head Railway Stairs Opening Hours and parking
The Koko Head hike is open at all hours more or less. People often throw on a headlamp and get hiking the trail before sunrise to be at the summit for sunrise. In fact, if you ever look up to Koko Head hiking trail before the sun has risen, you will see a line of small white lights slowly making their way up the trail. There is a huge parking lot at the foot of the crater near the baseball field. From the parking lot, which is free, you need to walk behind the baseball fields for about five minutes until you reach the Koko Head stairs of doom.
*It’s important to remember that you should be respectful to the local community and neighbors by quietly parking your car, not causing any disturbances, and respecting their privacy and yards. Park, quietly organize yourself, and then move off to the trail and begin your hike.
Koko Head Crater Hiking Tour Guide option
The hike itself is free and not hard to navigate but it isn’t near Waikiki. There is a tour that includes transport, assistance, food, and someone to carry your water and guide you along the way. If you prefer to do the tour with a guide and including hotel pick/up and drop-off from Waikiki it could be a good option and takes the organization out of the equation. The tour does have good reviews and for many, it may be a valuable tour especially as it includes the pick-up and drop-off from your hotel in Waikiki. It’s only $40 per person so when you take into account transport fees it’s a pretty cheap price and will come with some great local knowledge.
Book your tour: Koko Head Trail Guided Adventure
My Experience on the Koko Head Crater Hike
To get to the trailhead from the parking lot, follow the partially paved footpath 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, it is often enough to have most people second-guessing themselves.
Exhausted hikers sitting on the ground mark the entrance to the hike in Koko Head Regional Park, Hawaii Kai. They look up at you when you arrive, silently judging you. You can see them thinking in their heads whether the next guy will struggle or not.
There are 1,048 railroad ties (steps) up the Koko Head Stairs to the end of the railway and then another 30 or so feet of walking to get to the lookout points. There are three distinct sections of the stairs and as you progress through each third they get exponentially steeper. Many people are confident in the first third and even begin to run. You will likely see them sitting on the side of the stairs gasping for air in the final third. Pace yourself as you’ve probably never walked up something this steep in a while, or ever.
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. The unevenness of the stairs is half the battle as you can hardly find a rhythm. You just kind of battle through it.
About halfway up you will find the railway bridge, which stretches over the ravine below. 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 as pictured below.
After the exhilarating bridge section, the Koko Head 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! If you are attempting to run, this part is likely where you will finish your running and commence the walking. Don’t be ashamed only very fit trail-runners can continue running after this middle section.
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. Generally there will be a sprawl of people here, too tired to congratulate you. It often looks like a battlefield with people lying all over the place.
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. My ‘running’ record up the stairs is 12:54 but I think I have a sub-11 in me. There’s a goal! It’s on my Strava if you don’t believe me: My Koko Head Strava Upload. The fastest recorded time up the stairs on Strava is 8:30 so just check your watch while you are walking when it gets to 8:30 and imagine being at the top!
The end of the railway isn’t the top of Koko Crater Hike 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.
Koko Head hike 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. People who run down are just showing off. They probably didn’t run on the way up and are now attempting to roll both their ankles on the way down. Push yourself on the way up and head safely and slowly down not the other way round. I’ve seen a number of people slip on the way down over the years and there’s really nothing to gain. Get down safely so you can enjoy the rest of your trip.
There is an alternate way down the Koko Head Crater hike 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!
MY FOUR FAVORITE ACTIVITIES ON OAHU
Looking for some idea for activities on your rest day from hiking? These are my favorite activities on the island… especially the doors-off helicopter flight.
- Oahu scenic helicopter flight: My number one recommendation is to do a heli-flight (doors off). You will be absolutely blown away when you see Oahu from the sky! Click to book your tour: Doors-Off Helicopter Flight Tour
- North Shore Shark Cage Adventure: The biggest adrenaline rush you can have in Hawaii is beneath the surface with sharks! Click to book your tour: North Shore Shark Cage Experience
- Eco-Friendly Dolphin and Snorkel Half-Day Cruise: One of the best experiences I had on Oahu was swimming with the beautiful spinner dolphins. A once in a lifetime experience. Click to book your tour: Eco-Friendly Dolphin and Snorkel Tour
- Turtle Canyon Snorkel Cruise by Catamaran: One of my favorite memories of Hawaii is floating in the water with a Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle. On this tour that is exactly what you will do! Click to book your tour: Turtle Canyon Snorkel Cruise by Catamaran
HAWAII HIKING PACKING LIST
Many people come unprepared for hiking on Oahu and that’s why there are so many rescues. Make sure you atleast have the basics and you will be prepared for bad weather or any mishaps on the trail. A headlamp, rainjacket and good hiking boots or shoes are the three main pieces of gear you need.
Hiking shoes – It’s best to use hiking boots with good grip and that can handle mud, rain, and tough terrain. Hiking shoes I use: Salomon Mid GTX
Rain Jacket – Never hike in Hawaii without a rain jacket, no matter how sunny it is in Honolulu. Rain Jacket I use: Arcteryx Lightweight Rain Jacket
Spare T-shirt – To change into at the top of a summit to be dry and warm as you will sweat through your original shirt while hiking: Dry fit hiking shirt I use: IceBreaker Merino Lite
Headlamp – So you can keep your hands free instead of holding a torch. Head Torch I use: Petzl Head Lamp 450 Lumens
My Camera Backpack: You simply won’t find a better camera backpack for hiking that my Atlas Athlete Backpack, which I’ve been using on all of my hikes all over the world for years now: Atlas Athlete Camera Backpack
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What to pack for a trip to Hawaii
What to pack for Hawaii?: After multiple trips to Hawaii, there are some items you NEED to pack. I wrote a blog post with all of my suggestions about things you might not think about packing: THE HAWAII PACKING LIST: WHAT TO PACK AND WHY
Where to stay on Oahu
Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort (Overall Favorite): In the heart of Waikiki, this high-end resort is right on the beach. Luxury rooms overlooking the beach, a private lagoon and a free fireworks and dance performance show. Hilton is easily the most recognizable hotel on the Island.
Why I recommend this hotel: It has its own private lagoon. While lots of people love the beach it is perfect for families. Kids can kayak, swim and snorkel with no worries. There are no currents, waves or sea creatures to worry about. The hotel is right on Waikiki Beach so don’t worry the beach is right there also.
Sheraton Waikiki (Luxury): A luxury resort with the most amazing infinity pool on the island, which overlooks the beach. The bar and nightclub at the Sheraton is a great place to relax after a long day of island adventures.
Why I recommend this hotel: The Sheraton is always exceptional no matter the location but imagine you are leaning over the edge of an infinity pool, the ocean is below you and you turn to your left and watch Diamond Head crater in the distance. That’s where you will be at the end of each day, having a Mai Tai cocktail in your infinity pool. Later on, in the evening Rumfire is a great bar venue, which is actually part of the Sheraton. It is open to the public and is one of the best high-end venues on Oahu. It has a small dance floor but is mostly standing and seating areas for drinks, chats and good times.
Ewa Hotel Waikiki: (Value): Hotels in Waikiki can be expensive. Deciding where to stay on Oahu can be difficult if you don’t have much cash. Luckily, there is an accommodation option on the edge of Waikiki that is excellent value.
Why do I recommend this hostel/hotel: This is the perfect hotel if you want location but are willing to sacrifice a pool and some luxury items to save up to $200 per night. All of the hotels in this area are minimum $300 per night and often much more. Ewa Hotel is just one block back from the beach and is just over $150 USD. If you are like me, I never swim in the hotel pool anyway. Didn’t you come halfway across the world to swim in the beach!
Waikiki Beachside Hostel (Budget Choice): A budget alternative, which is still in an amazing location. Walking distance to Waikiki beach and a central location to base yourself for a week of adventures.
Why I recommend this hostel: Unfortunately Waikiki and Honolulu, in general, are not cheap. You can grab a dorm room for under $35 a night within walking distance to Waikiki surf beach. This location really is great. You are near a lot of attractions and can take public transport to a lot of great east coast beaches and hikes. It is the number one hostel in Waikiki and I’m sure you will meet other adventurers to go on hikes with!
Disney Aulani Resort (Family Choice): This is a resort your kids will never forget. It honestly feels like a theme park at times with just how many pools and activities are available. If you can afford it, this is the #1 place to stay for families on Oahu.
Why I recommend this hotel: Disney Aulani Resort combines luxury accommodation with family fun. A huge lazy river/tire tube lagoon is probably the highlight of the resort although the water slides and private beach aren’t too far behind. The kids club and massage center are just among a few of the many activities included in your stay. Attend ukelele lessons, free fire-pit story-telling at night and more and more! Your kids will never be bored and the quality of entertainment and facilities is just beyond amazing.
MORE OAHU BLOG POSTS
I lived on Oahu for two years and loved adventuring from the beaches to the mountains to the waterfalls! These are my most popular blog post and guides from the beautiful island of Oahu to help you plan your trip!
What to pack for Hawaii: THE HAWAII PACKING LIST: WHAT TO PACK AND WHY
A helpful guide to choosing accommodation: WHERE TO STAY ON OAHU: WHICH REGION IS BEST FOR YOU?
Most epic hike on Oahu: THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN OAHU, HAWAII: UPDATED 2018
The best Waterfalls: 11 AMAZING WATERFALLS ON OAHU, HAWAII
Ultimate Cliff Jumping Guide: 11 BEST CLIFF JUMPING SPOTS ON OAHU, HAWAII
Guide to Swimming with Sea Turtles: WHERE TO SEE TURTLES ON OAHU, HAWAII
My favorite experience on Oahu: AMAZING DOORS OFF HELICOPTER TOUR OF OAHU, HAWAII
The Ultimate Guide to Oahu: 80 THINGS TO DO ON OAHU – THE BUCKET LIST