Koko Crater Trail: Everything You Need to Know About Oahu’s Most Unique Trail

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Koko Crater Trail, also known as the Koko Crater Tramway or Koko Crater Stairs, is one of the most famous hikes in Oahu, providing spectacular views over the Honolulu skyline, Hanauma Bay, and the southeastern shore of the island.  But this is no average trail- this unique hike follows along a defunct World War II tramway up a dormant volcano, with some quirky obstacles along the way.

So if you’re ready for the challenge, lace up those hiking shoes and fill up that water bottle- here’s everything you need to know about the Koko Crater Trail. 

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About the Koko Crater Trail

This challenging 1.6-mile out-and-back hike winds 1200 feet (in less than a mile!) up a steep hill as you climb a series of old railroad ties to the top of the Koko Head Crater (also called Pu’u Mai summit of Kohelepelepe). The track that you’ll be climbing along was previously a tramway, built around 1942, which carried soldiers and supplies to a military bunker at the summit, used as a lookout point and to house radar and other operational equipment.

Back in its heyday, the tram track used to have 1,048 ties to reach the top, but due to decades of erosion and disrepair, only about 800 remain. Luckily, there’s a non-profit group, Kokonut Koalition, that’s working on rehabilitating the stairs- you can see how you can help their mission here. Want another fun Koko Crater fact? This volcanic cone, the tallest and most preserved in the area, is believed to have last erupted about 7,000 years ago- pretty cool, huh?

Geological trivia aside, if you, like me, think that a series of stairs for 0.8 miles doesn’t sound all that challenging, get ready to get your butt kicked- the elevation gain on this hike is pretty killer and between several broken and missing railroad ties and erosion along the trail, there’s some technical aspects to the climb as well. So if you’ve never hiked before or are not in the best shape, you might consider checking out one of these easy hikes on Oahu instead .

Railroad ties along Koko Crater Trail in Oahu

How to Get to the Koko Crater Trail

The trail is located about a 25 minute drive east of Waikiki in Koko Head District Park. There’s a free parking lot right near the trailhead (located here), as well as a decent amount of additional parking in the park’s other lots. My husband, Justin, and I visited on a Sunday afternoon and were lucky enough to snag a spot close to the trailhead, but we saw people parking in all kinds of unusual places (like in the middle of a grassy median strip that obviously was not meant for parking).

In addition to the trail, the park offers a baseball field and other grassy areas that local families use, so please be respectful and only park in designated spots. This hike is quite popular, seeing over 1,000 hikers per day on weekends, so if you’re anxious about finding parking, I’d suggest coming early on a weekday or getting dropped off by Uber/Lyft. 

Once you’re in the parking lot, you’ll see a path to the right of the lot. The path will lead you along the flat Koko Head Park Road and eventually bring you to the foot of the tramway– where the fun really starts!

Woman hiking up Koko Crater Trail

What to Expect Along Koko Crater Trail

The good news? Following the trail itself is very straightforward- you’re literally just climbing along a railroad track so it’s kind of impossible to get lost. 

The bad news? Well, you may have noticed this trail has all kinds of names- in addition to the ones listed above, it’s also called the “Koko Stairs of Doom”, if that tells you anything about the experience!

Actually, “Stairs of Doom” is something of a misnomer- with respect to the ties that remain intact, they’re quite a bit further apart than your standard 7-inch stairs, so they’re more of a workout than your typical Stairmaster. With the added challenge of climbing over the deteriorated and missing ties, you’ll definitely be working up a sweat. The incline along the trail, at least, starts off fairly moderate, but gradually becomes more and more challenging as you make your way to the top. 

About 0.5 miles in, you’ll reach the trickiest part of the trail- there’s an area where, for about a  150-foot stretch, the ground has completely eroded away from the ties, leaving them suspended in the air along the track. You can use the ties as a bridge to climb over this area (I literally got down on my hands and knees and crawled across it), but fair warning, doing this is pretty freaky- at the deepest point, the ground has eroded to about 15 feet below the ties, so if you fell, you could seriously hurt yourself.

If you’re not in the mood to climb over a rickety old railroad track literally suspended in air, there’s a much safer bypass trail to the right that curves through some brush and spits you back on to the trail where the trail erosion has ended. 

Eroded portion of rail ties along the Koko Crater Trail in Oahu

Despite the elevation gain and technical challenges, you’ll see all kinds of folks along the trail- in fact, many locals climb the stairs multiple times a week to stay in shape. Even if you’re a beginner hiker, so long as you’re in decent shape, you’ll be able to conquer this trail- just go slow, take lots of breathers (the views are great!), and you’ll make it to the top!

At the summit, you’ll find bunkers covered in colorful graffiti and spectacular, panoramic views of the southeastern tip of Oahu, making the climb up totally worth it. 

Woman sitting at the summit of Koko Crater, overlooking Honolulu at sunset

When you’re ready to head back down, remember to take it slow- while not quite the cardio workout as the climb up, the way down can be just as challenging. Due to the broken ties and crumbly ground, there were times I had to slide from one tie to another on my butt- do what you need to keep safe! Also, a friendly reminder that hikers going up have the right of way- the trail is pretty narrow in spots, so you may have to move off the trail to let hikers climbing up pass. 

When to Hike the Koko Crater Trail

Oahu is wonderful to visit year round, so, regardless of the season, you can enjoy this unique hike and its incredible views. That being said, I would definitely recommend against doing this hike in or after any rain- the hike was challenging enough whilst dry. I’d imagine that, between the slippery ground and wood and steel ties, slick with rainwater, this hike could be downright dangerous.

With respect to what time of day to visit, both sunrise and sunset are great options. Since the summit overlooks the east side of the island, sunrise here would be pretty epic. Plus, this will be your best chance of getting this popular trail mostly to yourself.

We did sunset here and I have no regrets- while the trail is almost certainly more crowded at this time as compared to sunrise, the climb up for me was less mentally draining, given that I could visually track my progress up the trail. Plus- sunsets are stunning here! 

Sunset from the Koko Crater trail on Oahu

If you’re going to avoid any part of the day, it should be mid-day- there’s little to no shade along the trail and between the Hawaiian sun and all the stair-climbing, I suspect the climb up would be pretty miserable.

What to Bring for the Koko Crater Trail

Since this trail is short, there isn’t a ton you’ll need, but there are a few things to include on your Hawaii packing list that will come in handy along the trail:

  • Reusable water bottle: Did I mention that this hike will kick your butt? Accordingly, bring along way more water than you think you’ll need. Justin and I both have giant Nalgene bottles that we take everywhere to make sure we stay hydrated, while being kind to the planet and cutting down on wasting money on purchasing bottled water.
  • Hiking shoes: While most people laze around Oahu with flip-flops, I would strongly advise against doing that on this trail, given how technical this hike can be in some spots. At a minimum, you should wear hiking sandals, like Tevas (options for women and men) or Chacos (options for women and men), to provide better traction and support.

    I wore actual hiking boots (here’s my boots and men’s equivalent) and personally think, if you’re planning on doing this and other moderately challenging hikes in Hawai’i, it’s 100% worth the luggage real estate to bring along some hiking or trail shoes.
  • Headlamp: If you do this hike as either a sunrise or sunset hike, please be sure to bring along a headlamp- on our way down the trail, we saw many hikers climbing down the steps, either with a very weak cell phone flashlight or without any kind of lighting source to help them at all. Unsurprisingly, we saw one of the hikers fall off the trail and hurt himself- don’t be that guy!

    We have these headlamps that came in a pack of two AND are rechargeable, so you don’t have to mess around with carrying extra batteries (perfect for traveling).
Woman wearing a headlamp hiking down the Koko Crater Trail at sunset
That little light down the trail is me- hi!

Tips for the Koko Crater Trail

  • As a friendly reminder, please be sure to understand and follow the Leave No Trace principles while you’re on the trail, particularly disposing of waste properly (pack it in, pack it out) and leave what you find (take only memories, leave only footprints).

    Hawai’i has a complicated history, especially with the United States, with the U.S. invading and overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy in the late 1800s and exploiting its land and people ever since (if you want to learn more, here’s a helpful article regarding the colonization of Hawai’i).  If you’re a visitor here, it’s imperative to respect Hawai’i’s beautiful land, culture, and people.

    On a related note, Koko Head District Park is located in a quiet residential area- be respectful of the people who live here. I’ve read reports of hikers urinating on residents’ lawns, dumping trash on the street, and blasting music at all hours at night. Hopefully, this is obvious, but don’t do these or other jerk-y behaviors. 
Couple holding hands at the summit of Koko Crater Trail on Oahu
  • Reportedly, dogs are not allowed on the trail. Even if they were, it’s really not a good idea to bring them along, given the whole climbing over broken ties and “rickety railroad track elevated in the air” section I described above.

    Want proof? Ask the guy who we saw fall off the trail- he was carrying his terrified dog down the trail and fell on top of her. They both ultimately got off the trail alright, but make good life decisions- please leave your furbaby at home.

In your opinion, did the trail live up to its “Stairs of Death” moniker? And are there any tips that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!

Woman overlooking Honolulu at sunset

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