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Explore beyond the beach in Oahu

It would be an arduous 2,000-foot climb up more than 3,500 metal steps anchored into a lush green cliff in Oahu's Koolau Mountains.
With Palolo Valley and the Pacific Ocean in the background, hikers walk the Waahila Ridge Trail, in Honolulu. Oahu trails can bring hikers in touch with the true beauty of the state's most populous island.
With Palolo Valley and the Pacific Ocean in the background, hikers walk the Waahila Ridge Trail, in Honolulu. Oahu trails can bring hikers in touch with the true beauty of the state's most populous island. Marco Garcia / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It would be an arduous 2,000-foot climb up more than 3,500 metal steps anchored into a lush green cliff in Oahu's Koolau Mountains.

On the nicknamed "stairway to heaven," hikers literally climb into puffy white clouds over a tropical forest for views of the Haiku Valley and beyond, to the ocean.

But those who try the Haiku Trail risk a trespassing ticket and a towed vehicle. The trail is closed to the public by the private land owner at the base of the stairs, even though the island government spent $875,000 in 2002 to make repairs.

Fortunately, even though this and a few of Oahu's other finest trails are off-limits due to access issues or rock slides, there are another 80 trails to choose from.

A system of nearly 20 paths in the Koolau Mountains above Honolulu wind through the thick canopy of the rain forest and lead to some of the highest ridges that overlook deep vistas and lush valleys. Others take explorers to hidden waterfalls or introduce hikers to the variety of native plants and wildlife.

For many, it's an escape from crowded Waikiki, now lined with luxury shopping and fine dining.

"These trails have been the most redeeming part of our trip," said Dan Lemley, 26, of Portland, Ore., who trekked to Manoa Falls above the University of Hawaii's main campus and then climbed up the steep, muddy Aihualama Trail.

"Since we've been here, we have been appalled at the tourism and lack of Hawaiian culture. This hike made us just stand back and say, 'Wow!'"

Getting to the beaches is easy, but the trails wend deep into the real beauty of Hawaii, with crooning birds, endless varieties of plants and greenery - all while offering a sweaty workout.

Hiking in Hawaii has gained popularity in the past few years with the availability of more guidebooks and comprehensive Web sites, said Aaron Johnson Lowe, Oahu trails and access specialist for Na Ala Hele, which maintains and manages the trails for the state.

Lowe said there seems to be a trend of people looking for more healthy activities, and he's also noticed many repeat visitors who have done the tourist activities are now wanting more from the island.

"It seems once they get on one trail, they become hooked," he said.

A brief warning: Watch out for pig hunters, who sometimes use the trails, and check online if permits are required for certain hikes.

Based on hikes of more than 30 trails, here are some of the best:

  • One of the most popular hikes on the island takes visitors inside Diamond Head volcanic crater, where even relatively unfit travelers can trudge up 175 stairs and journey through a 225-foot unlit tunnel to reach an observation deck once used by the military to search for approaching enemies. The paved trail attracts novice hikers rewarded with a view of the shores of Waikiki and nearby areas from above.

  • More intense than Diamond Head is the climb into Koko Crater to the south, where more than 1,000 makeshift "stairs," which are really wooden blocks from an old railway track, take climbers to the top for sweeping views of the upscale Hawaii Kai homes and marina.

  • While on that side of the island, the paved pathway on Makapuu Lighthouse Road offers views of Manana (Rabbit) and Mokuhope islands. A rocky switchback leads more adventurous explorers to some tide pools and a powerful blowhole located nearly 400 feet below the road.

  • Crave waterfalls? Most tourists make their way to the Manoa Falls Trail, which veers through a bamboo forest, over massive boulders and exposed roots before the 0.8-mile-long trail reaches the 150-foot shimmering falls. Don't expect a swim, as a 2002 landslide dropped debris and rocks into the pool at the base of the falls, causing the state to rope off the pool. Most people end here, but the 1.3-mile Aihualama Trail will take hikers up a winding path to the end of Manoa Valley and a stunning overlook.

  • The Judd Trail, known as Jackass Ginger, crosses a shallow, rocky stream and passes bamboo, ironwood and eucalyptus forests before coming to a small waterfall, which trickles into a refreshing pool. A rope swing makes for an adventurous dip and a slippery rock can be used as a slide. (The trail is also where ABC's hit show "Lost" filmed many of last season's scenes, including Eko's death and the mysterious Jacob's home.)

  • Midway through that hike, the Nuuanu Trail veers off for a rigorous climb and more great lookouts, connecting to those 20 other trails above Honolulu. Look carefully from these openings, especially on the Manoa Cliff Trail, for distant falls across the valleys.

  • Kaau Crater Trail takes hikers past multiple cascading falls, and the 1.5-mile walk up the Maunawili Trail brings thrill seekers to a deep pool where many jump into brisk water from more than 40-feet above. Sadly, one of the best island waterfalls, the 87-foot Sacred Falls in Kaluanui Valley, closed in 1999 after a rock slide killed eight people and injured dozen of others. The state has since closed the two-mile trail and the Maakua Gulch Trail, which leads to small waterfall and wading pool.

  • The ridge trails are often the most challenging, but offer airplane-window views of the island. The Mauumae Ridge Trail, also known as Lanipo, is often called the "roller coaster workout" for good reasons as it leads visitors along the tip-top of the dense green mountainside, with a closeup view of the rest of Koolau Mountains and the entire south half of the island from Koko Crater to the Waianae Mountains.

  • Another high journey for experienced hikers is the 5.5-mile haul up the Dupont Trail in the Waianae Range, which rises 4,000 feet and eventually reaches Mount Kaala, Oahu's highest peak.

Many of the marked trails in the tropical forests can become tough to navigate, but those looking for help can call on the Hawaiian Trail and Hiking Club, which takes groups to different trails on Saturday and Sundays with members who know the locations of the island's most breathtaking landmarks.

The club also works to get permits and permission from land owners to complete some trails not normally open to the public, said member and trail coordinator Steve Brown.

But Brown admits many hikers still wish they could go back in time and climb the Haiku Stairs, the challenging ascent to the summit of Pu'u Keahiakahoe built by the Navy during World War II for access to radio equipment.

"That's a really sore spot for a lot of hikers," Brown said.