Koko Head Hike: Oahu’s Grueling Stairmaster to Heaven

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Koko Head Hike Best Hikes Oahu Hawaii

Inside: Oahu’s legendary Koko Head Hike is a serious workout. Are you up for this scenic challenge? Here’s everything you need to know to decide.

The popular Koko Head Crater Tramway is one of Oahu’s most challenging and rewarding hikes. Located in the southeastern part of the island, near Hanauma Bay, the hike is also known as the Koko Head Stairs, the Koko Crater Stairs, the Pu’u Mai Stairs, and the more intimidating “Koko Stairs of Doom.” 

I like to call it my own personal Stairmaster to Heaven. The Koko Head hike is a beloved adventure for both local fitness enthusiasts and visitors looking for a scenic way to work off last night’s luau feast.

The trail consists of over 1,000 railway ties (the aforementioned stairs) straight up the side of the Koko Head Crater. And I do mean straight up

Notorious for its steep 3/4 mile ascent, the Koko Head trail challenges even the most seasoned hikers with an elevation gain of nearly 1,100 relentless, heart-pumping feet. 

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you choose to book through these links, I receive a small commission, which I will likely blow on mai tais, poke, and shave ice.  All of this internet voodoo takes place at no additional cost to you. 

Koko Head Crater Sunrise Oahu Hawaii
Koko Head Crater at Sunrise

History of the Koko Head Tramway

Built by the US Army and completed in 1943, this gas-powered tramway was originally used during World War II to transport supplies and personnel from a base camp (now Koko Head District Park) to bunkers atop Pu’u Mai summit via a cable-pulled rail car. 

In 1947, it became the Koko Crater Air Force Station, one of two vital radar sites on Oahu that tracked all aircraft approaching Oahu. Over time, this mission became obsolete and the US Air Force turned the land and the cable car tram over to the City and County of Honolulu. 

The tramway originally consisted of approximately 1,048 cross-ties or “stairs.” But over time the railway tracks have lost a significant number of cross-ties due to erosion, rot, and increased foot traffic. Today, only about 800 stairs remain in various states of disrepair due to a lack of maintenance. 

Yet it remains one of Oahu’s most popular hikes. On a quiet day, the tramway sees around 500 hikers. While on a busy weekend or holiday that number could be over 1,000.

Quick Tips for the Koko Head Hike

Get There: The drive from the Waikiki hotel zone takes about 30 minutes and there’s a free parking lot near the trailhead. 

Start Early: To avoid the intense sun and heat, it’s best to start early in the morning. This also helps in beating the crowds.

Bring Water: There’s no shade, so bring plenty of water. The hike can be quite exhausting, especially on a hot day. It’s crucial to stay hydrated.

Wear Proper Footwear: Sturdy shoes are recommended as the “stairs” can be uneven and, in parts, quite steep. You don’t need hiking boots for this one, tennis shoes with decent tread will be fine. Just don’t attempt it in flip-flops. 

Take Breaks: Don’t hesitate to stop and catch your breath. The hike is tough, but the views along the way and from the top are worth it.

Sun Protection: Anytime after about 10:00am you’ll be in full sun on this trail. I recommend plenty of sunscreen and a hat.

Shooting Range: There’s a shooting range inside the Koko Head Crater and if it’s open during your hike you’ll definitely hear it. It’s LOUD and can be unnerving while you’re trying not to break your neck on a steep descent.

Best Time to Hike Koko Head

By far, the early morning is the best time to hike Koko Head. It’s a popular hike for both sunrise and sunset due to the panoramic views from the summit.

But keep in mind that there is zero shade on this hiking trail. If you finish it before 10:00am, you’ll have mostly shade. After that, you’ll be doing it in the sun so bring plenty of water and sun protection.

I’m not a fan of Koko Head for the sunrise because I like to have full light due to the uneven surfaces along the abandoned railway steps. I prefer to start the hike around sunrise when there’s enough light to see but still cooler temperatures and total shade on the trail. The views are fantastic around that time of the morning. 

Also, the railroad ties are especially slippery when wet so don’t try this one if it’s raining when you get there. 

Is Koko Head an Easy Hike?

I’ve seen this hike classified on a few sites as an “Easy Hike.” I can only assume these people hike Everest in their spare time. To me, and to most non-Olympic athletes, this is a MODERATE hike.

I won’t say it’s a difficult hike because it’s short by hiking standards and there are steps all the way up. So you won’t need any actual gear or serious hiking boots for this one. 

Koko Head Crater Warning Sign Oahu Hawaii
Koko Head Trail Warning Sign

But it is a challenging hike. It’s not a good hike for kids or anyone will mobility issues. It also won’t be fun for anyone with a fear of heights. 

With that said, if you’re looking for a great easy hike on Oahu, there are plenty of other great options: 

5 Easy Oahu Hikes for Those Who Love Nature But Hate Hiking

Which is better – Koko Head or Diamond Head?

These are two very different hikes so it depends on what you’re looking for. Both have breathtaking views over Oahu at the top, but they differ in level of difficulty. Diamond Head is more of a fun, family hike. While Koko Head is a better choice for those more interested in a good workout with a panoramic payoff.

The Koko Head Trail, with its steep climb and old railroad ties, is more physically demanding than Diamond Head. If you’re looking for a serious workout, choose Koko Head. On the plus side, Koko Head is free and open to the public daily with no reservations needed. And it’s far less crowded than Diamond Head.

Diamond Head is a different experience. It’s a much easier climb with a gradual incline, safety railings, and cool military bunkers. It’s suitable for a broader range of fitness levels and fine for younger children.

The only negative is that you’ll need a reservation to hike Diamond Head and there is a nominal fee of $5 for non-residents plus $10 to park. Also, this hike is widely considered one of the best things to do on Oahu so it’s popular and crowded.

How long does it take to hike Koko Head?

The ascent up Koko Head isn’t a quick one. For most, reaching the top of the crater requires significant effort and sweat. How long it takes depends entirely on your fitness level. 

For the average reasonably fit person (I put myself in that category) the hike from start to summit will likely take about an hour. That will vary depending on how often you pause to catch your breath or soak in the gorgeous views of Hanauma Bay and Hawaii Kai. I like to stop more often the closer I get to the top. 

But some people will do it much faster. For example…

The first time I did this hike, I had just finished taking pictures at the top and was getting ready to head back down. At the top of the stairs was a drill sergeant type calling out times with a stopwatch as several men and women reached the top step looking barely out of breath.

The times were in the 29 – 30 minute time frame. Meaning these people got to the top in 30 minutes!! 

Did they run? Are they superheroes? Was there a chair lift I missed? 

I’m not going to say I don’t like these people. But we can’t be friends. 

My real friends will need 60 – 90 minutes to reach the top of this beast.

Astoundingly, the record time blazed by Conrad Newfield stands at a brisk 8:32. I cannot even fathom that but then I always marvel at how people run marathons in less than 3 hours, too. I consider myself more of a marathon jogger. 

Read More: 3 Reasons the Honolulu Marathon is the Best US Marathon for First Timers

Breaking down the Koko Head Hike

Okay, let’s break down this hike step-by-step from the parking lot. It’s worth mentioning that the only restrooms are located in the parking lot area by the baseball field. 

Oh, and you will need a car to get here. For rental cars on Oahu, my go-to is Discount Hawaii Car Rental:

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Discount Hawaii Car Rental

For rental cars in Hawaii, go to the local experts. They’ll find you the best rate among all the major companies with no booking fees. And their customer support is top-notch.

From the parking lot by the baseball field, a short walk along a sidewalk leads to a dirt path that connects to a road. That road will lead you to the Koko Crater Railway Trailhead. It sounds more complicated than it is. Don’t worry you’ll find it. 

The Ascent – What to Expect

The trail starts out easy enough. The lower stairs are in good condition and the incline is more gradual. The first half of the hike is a good warm-up for the second half. And the amazing views over Hanauma Bay and the neighborhood of Hawaii Kai get better with each and every step. 

Koko Head Hike Trailhead Oahu
Koko Head Hike Trailhead – Marker 25

Be sure to stop and take breaks when you need them so you conserve some energy for the more difficult half of the hike. This one gets harder as you go. 

As you approach the midpoint, you have a decision to make. 

Murphy’s Bypass

Around the halfway point of the hike (at Marker 13) there is a short section of the old railway track where there is no longer earth below it and the steps have open air in between them. There is a very obvious sign posted that says “Unsafe Tramline Bridge! Stay off the Bridge“. 

Koko Head Stairs Bridge Warming Sign Oahu Hawaii
This seems like a sign to take seriously

Thankfully, there is another option to get around this hazardous section. It’s called Murphy’s Bypass (which makes me laugh because, you know, anything that can go wrong).

It’s off to the right side of the trail and it’s a safe way to navigate around the small section that is dangerous and rejoin the railroad tracks a short distance up.

Take. The. Bypass.

Koko Head Trail Murphy's Bypass Oahu Hawaii
Please take the bypass

Yes, you will see plenty of other hikers continue straight up the stairs completely disregarding the sign. I’m willing to bet many local residents who do this hike all the time just take the stairs. And hey, it’s probably fine.

But consider Murphy’s Law. Do you want to be that person who has to be rescued on your vacation because you disregarded a very specific warning sign? Of course not.

Trust me when I say you do not want to make the local news during your Hawaii vacation. Better safe than sorry. 

Koko Head Stairs Bridge Damage Oahu Hawaii
Damaged portion of the bridge – take the bypass

Once you get past Murphy’s Bypass, it’s time for the second half of the ascent. And this is where the real fun starts. The trail gets steeper, the railroad ties get farther apart, and you’ll really need to pace yourself.

Luckily, there are plenty of small break areas off to the side of the stairs where you can stop for a breather. Some even have makeshift wooden benches or square concrete structures where you can sit for a moment and hydrate. 

Koko Head Hike Views Oahu Hawaii
Koko Head Hike Views

The Summit – Worth the Pain

When you finally reach that top step, you’re not quite done yet. Getting to the observation platform at the top of the Koko Head Crater requires one last bit of exertion and a decision. 

Koko Head Stairs Summit Oahu
Marker #1 at the summit

To your left, yet another flight of stairs (seriously?). Or, to your right, a bypass trail to the top. The stairs are in good shape but they do have open air underneath them instead of solid ground so I prefer the trail side. It’s a bit longer but to me, it’s worth it. 

Koko Head Hike Summit Stairs Oahu
Summit stairs to viewing platform

Blessedly, once you survive that last bit of nonsense, you’ve finally made it to the top of Koko Crater. 

At the summit, hikers are rewarded with breathtaking 360-degree views of the eastern side of Oahu, including Hanauma Bay, the Hawaii Kai neighborhood, and the vast Pacific Ocean.

You can see the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the rugged Windward coastline, and the city of Honolulu and Diamond Head in the distance. 

It’s truly spectacular and you might even forget that your legs are on fire.

The Descent – Take it Slow

On most hikes, the descent is the easy part. On the Koko Head hike, that’s not necessarily the case. 

Sure, it’s WAY easier than going up. But by now, your legs are tired, the railway ties are steep and uneven, and the view on the way down is so gorgeous it’s completely distracting. So this is one descent that will test your knees and your patience.

Take it slow and steady. I prefer an alternating sideways approach on the way down instead of facing forward. It’s not graceful but it’s easier on my knees and joints. Go with whatever strategy gets you back down to sea level safely. The loose gravel on the path requires careful foot placement and watch out for those steps that are a big drop down. 

Regardless of how you decide to tackle it, try to save some water for this final portion of the hike. It helps. 

And once you’re safely back to ground level, congratulations! You’ve just completed the grueling Koko Head Crater hike and, yes, you will feel this one tomorrow. 

Support the trail through the Kokonut Koalition

Maintaining the Koko Crater Trail has been a labor of love for the Kokonut Koalition. This all-volunteer group formed in 2018 to preserve and rehabilitate the Koko Crater Stairs and their work helps maintain one of Oahu’s most cherished trails. 

Kokonut Koalition Volunteer Oahu Hawaii
Kokonut Koalition – Donate or Volunteer

You can support them with a donation or by volunteering at one of their Trail Days. The Kokonut Koalition’s dedication to maintaining the trail highlights the community’s commitment to preserving its legacy. 

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After your hike – what to see nearby

After conquering the Koko Head hike, you may be wondering what else this stunning part of Oahu has to offer. Or, you might just want a nap and an ice bath.

But let’s assume you’re up for more fun while you’re in the area. The good news is the adventure doesn’t have to end with the hike, there are several fun things to do nearby. 

If you’re interested in Hawaiian flora and fauna (and your legs are not totally done for the day), you’ll love the Koko Crater Botanical Garden. Here, a 2-mile self-guided loop winds through 60 acres of Hawaiian plants including an aromatic plumeria garden. 

If you couldn’t get enough of the panoramic views of Hanauma Bay during the hike, go get a closer look. Many hikers combine their visit to Koko Head with a trip to nearby Hanauma Bay for snorkeling or to simply relax at the beach after the rigorous climb. 

Not only does Hanuama Bay offer some of the best snorkeling in Hawaii, but its crystal-clear waters and abundant marine life make it an unforgettable place to visit.

Unfortunately, you do need a reservation for Hanauma Bay so it’s tough to combine it with the Koko Head hike. However, it’s not impossible. Just give yourself at least 2 hours for the hike before your Hanauma Bay reservation time. 

Here’s more information on how to score a good reservation time at Hanauma Bay and what to bring for your day: 

The Foolproof Guide to Hanauma Bay for Snorkeling

An easier option after your hike is a visit to the Halona Blowhole. This one is just a delightful lookout point so it’s the perfect amount of post-hike effort.

After that, continue your drive along Oahu’s scenic Windward coast to the Makapu’u Lighthouse lookout (if you’re still feeling athletic there’s also the fantastic Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail hike).

Or just head back toward Waikiki and stop in lovely Hawaii Kai for lunch. The Kona Brewing Hawaii Kai location is a great choice for water views.  

If you did the hike for sunrise and now you’re ready for breakfast, head straight for one of my favorite Waikiki breakfast spots:

7 Divinely Delicious Waikiki Breakfast Spots You Can’t Miss

The Koko Head Hike is a unique and memorable experience and one of the most popular hikes on Oahu. Whether you’re an avid hiker or just looking for a good workout, the Koko Head Crater Trail delivers with its stunning views and demanding ascent. 

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