Monday, March 14, 2011

KST: Bowman to Stairway to Heaven

March 13, 2011 KSRT: Bowman to Stairway to Heaven

What a week. I got rained out last Tuesday and ended up working two days even though I'm supposedly on vacation. To make matters worse, one of those shifts I picked up left me a bit traumatized and later the same day the tsunami warning also added to the stress level. I really hadn't had a good night's sleep in days.

Kalhi Elementary School
Fast forward to Sunday when I met with Joshua Serrano and two of his partners, AJ and Mike, in Kalihi for the Bowman Trail and the Ko'olau Summit Ridge Trail to the Stairway to Heaven. I'd been pondering this route for a long time and when he mentioned it I had to tag along.

I arrived a little earlier than the 6:00 a.m. agreed time so I fooled around with my two cameras- something I'd come to regret later.  I passed the time by taking a couple night shots of the school with my point and shoot and fooled around with the D90.  

Not thinking, I put away my cameras and headed to the field to meet with the group.  I spent some time with a sketchy black pit bull and shortly thereafter, the crew arrived.  After brief introductions we started up the trail at a little after 6:15am behind the basketball court at Kalihi Elementary School. 
Radar Hill Road

Almost instantly I could see I was going to be in trouble with these guys. They blasted up the steep hillside to Radar Hill Road.  By the time we got to the top I knew that this wasn't going to work- I'm a not-so-great hiker and these guys were pretty great hikers.  At the roadway I excused myself from the hike because I didn't want to be the one slowing them down nor did I want to spend the morning pushing myself to keep up with them.  Add to that the lack of sleep and my pineapple breakfast churning unhappily in my stomach and there was no way I'd make it.  As they disappeared up Radar Hill Road I weighed my options... head back down to the car or do the trail solo. After catching my breath and regrouping I decided I'd start up the trail and see what happened.  I always tell myself that but never seem to turn around!  I was now about 45 minutes behind three guys who had a much faster pace than I did so I knew I'd never catch them.  Joshua's blog, 808 Goonies, has an excellent writeup of their account and a good video of the trail.  There's a link at the end of this post to it.

Concrete structure where the Bowman Trail begins.
The walk up Radar Hill Road was uneventful. It's got a fairly good uphill grade to it as you pass under some power lines. By the way, I hate hiking on roads! Thankfully it's a short section and I arrived at some kind of concrete structure where the Bowman Trail begins.

Initially this trail starts off pretty tame. I walked though a large stand of strawberry guava for a while on a mostly level grade.

Steep climb
Native forest.
The trail then becomes a mix of introduced and native forest. In fact, this trail reminded me a whole lot of the one up Kamanaiki right on the other side of the valley. I couldn't help but compare this trail to the Lanihuli trail. The ridge I walked along narrowed in sections to body width but for the most part there was a ton of vegetative security.

Curiously, there are markers every so often along the trail that I can only assume delineate the boundaries of the Fort Shafter Military Reservation. There were some fairly steep climbs along the way too. 

About two thirds of the way in the uluhe fern, the mud, and the more overgrown portions of the trail began in earnest. It seems like I was constantly tripping and slipping.  Some of the endemic plants I ran across were:  ko'oko'lau, akoko, koa, and other associated species.  Of course ohia was also present and I even spotted another metrosideros macropus- in red!  To date, I've seen more red macropus than yellow which is supposedly the dominate color of the species!  
Supposedly rarer,red metrosideros macropus.  The books say that this species of ohia normally blooms yellow.
There's a short landslide section to cross although it's not not difficult to pass, just watch your feet.
Landslide section
Lots of narrow ridge sections

After the landslide section the real work begins. The ridge climbs steeply then veers west to the base of some very imposing looking rock faces. The views of the windward side also begin here with a look at Olomana. I got my first sighting of the three guys I'd left earlier as they traversed the steep section near what I'll call the rock face.  It's here that you veer westward off the ridge along Kalihi Valley to approach the rock face.   There's a steep climb then  you contour along the base then up the rock face.  Following in their wake, I made my way up the ridge and wrapped around the rock faces. There was a very nice collection of cables, ropes, and wires in place here for assistance making the climb and the contouring trail pretty safe and secure.
The trail contours these rock faces but ,not to worry, there are lots of cables for assistance.
Looking back from the rock face section. (ruined shot!)
After negotiating the rock face area you top out to a large cloud forest. This area is mostly dominated by Ohia covered in mosses. There was also a good number of native birds in this section. I saw at least 5 apapane here. The trail snakes it's way through the cloud forest to the terminus of the Bowman trail.  Lucky for me there were no clouds today!


I didn't notice at the time but in this shot there's an apapane flying by.
Cropped image of the apapane in flight.  Lucky shot!

I paused for a while to take in the fabulous view of Kaneohe Bay below. The weather was perfect.  Just some scattered clouds but not one sign of them along the Ko'olau summit.  To be honest, until I reached the rock face I couldn't help but wonder why people kept calling this one of the most beautiful trails on the island.  I'd seen far better.  The scenery on the last third of the Bowman is worth all the sweat equity one must put into it.  These are some really fantastic views that the lens just can't capture. 
Bowman Trail Terminus
Looking Northwest
Looking east.
I could see Josh, AJ, and Mike just across the saddle from me making there way over to where the Tripler Ridge hike ends. I set out down the KSRT after them. The first parts were very muddy and my boots slid down the decline like it was ice. Any foot holds cut into the trail had been long wiped out by people slipping down this section over time. Reaching the base of the saddle I now headed upwards towards the power lines. 
Power lines, relay station, and the CCL building at the Stairway.
Lobelia- probably macrostachys
The views to the left and the right were awesome. Topping out at the first powerline I could see they were now approaching the relay. I stopped at the second tower for a while to check out a pair of lobelia. I'm guessing they're both macrostachys but I'm not really sure.  The first one looks fairly typical but the second one is doing something I've never seen before- it's flowering and at the same time appears to be branching.  

Blooming and branching lobelia
Just a few feet away there was a small colony of Plantago sp., another endangered endemic species.   Only two species are known to be on O'ahu- P. princeps and P. pachyphylla.

Heading up the trail further I arrived at the relay station.  After scouting around for a bit and snapping a couple more shots I noticed an intriguing trail to the windward side here with a rope and some metal stakes. I wonder who gets to go down that segment as part of their job! 

Plantago sp.
Continuing there's a good climb up to Keahiakahoe where the Moanulua middle ridge trail terminates. From there it was just a short walk over to the top of the Stairway to Heaven. 
Windward trail to...?
Relay Station- Looking east
The climb to Moanalua Middle Ridge
I love these geodetic markers.  I wish every peak had one!

Once I reached the top of the Stairway for a while I decided to hang out for a while.   I'd never been up there that late in the day. My only company was a guy and his girlfriend who'd hiked up Moanalua Middle Ridge. We talked for a while and he climbed up the CCL building's dishes for some photo ops. I said my goodbyes and headed down the stairs. It was a real pleasure to see Kaneohe Bay and it's patch reef islands in such great weather. I took a couple of shots on the way down.

CCL Building
Pathway to earth

Kaneohe Bay
All and all, I was surprised at how quickly this trail went.  Despite the 45 minute stop after parting with Joshua, AJ, and Mike I was at the Stairway about 12:30.  The Bowman Trail is definitely a real workout but honestly, sections of the KST I've done before are just as strenuous and have far, far greater potential for really bad things to happen.  In fact, the KST section of this trail was fairly tame as well except for the lack of solid footing in some areas. 

Don't get me wrong, there were a lot of steep sections, narrow sections, and overall, it was a very demanding trail.  I took a lot of breaks in the steeper parts and I'm definitely feeling it in my legs today as well as in my chest from going down the stairway.

I think I'd do it in reverse next time, just to avoid that horrible climb from Kalihi! 

Here's that promised link to Joshua's write up on 808 Goonies.  Be sure to watch the video.

Again, my apologies to the guys I was supposed to hike with on this trial with... I'm a not so great hiker and I would have killed myself keeping up with you!

'ohe naupaka
More pictures of this trail and others I've done are can be viewed  Flickr.  Aloha and thanks for reading.



  1. wish i knew you were behind us. glad you got to complete it though. how did you get back to Kalihi?

  2. Mrs. XJ picked me up at Haiku. I pretty much shadowed you guys about a ridge behind on the KST. I'm never eating pineapple before a hike again!

  3. Great post! You're WAY too self-effacing. If you go fast you HAVE to watch your footing and what's in your path. The reason you see the apapane and lobelia is because you go a pace where you can actually look around. The lobelia at the towers at Tripler Ridge are Trematolobelia singularis. I've also seen Lobelia gaudichaudii and Lobelia hypoleuca in the immediate area.

  4. Great job! Most people would never consider doing a trail like this. It's admirable that you rallied and followed us.

  5. I'd like to do this one day and I am probably in your league than those NCAA D-I ballers who went off. Plus now that City and County makes it hard to get on Stairway at a reasonable hour, this may be the way to go. I am fascinated like you by the KST. What a beautiful island.