Field Notes: A Koko Crater Experience

Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vibrant and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: the Koko Crater Trail.

How many railroad ties to the top of Koko Crater? 1,048.


A popular, grueling climb up the steep railway track leading to the top of Koko Crater, high above Hawaii Kai. The track was part of a World War II -era tram system that served a now-defunct radar station. Today, hikers and fitness enthusiasts use it for the 1-mile, quad-burning trek to the mountain’s 1,208-foot peak.


Koko Crater is not a mountain to be climbed alone. Hundreds of people may tackle it on any given day, some more than once, and the sense of camaraderie among them is perhaps greater than along any other trail in Hawaii. Strangers cheer each other on, feed off each other’s energy, and laugh, sweat and gasp for breath together like friends.


  • Regulars, many of whom live in Hawaii Kai and use Koko Crater as the ultimate, real-world StairMaster. Overly ambitious first-timers who make the mistake of starting off too quickly, then have to stop to catch their breath as people they passed overtake them. Tourists. Locals. Military. People who don’t make it to the top because they sprain their ankles. A pregnant woman who regularly climbed to the top until her seventh month, when she could no longer hike safely because she could no longer see her feet.
  • People who go before dawn to watch the sunrise. People who go late in the afternoon to watch the sunset. People who hike up and run down. People who run up and run down. People who don’t make it to the top because they give up. Triathletes, CrossFitters, mixed-martial-arts fighters and other fitness fanatics who run up and down multiple times, sometimes carrying dumbbells or wearing weighted vests. Fitness lunatics who run wearing gas masks—“the new weighted vest”—to simulate the low-oxygen conditions of high altitude.


  • Former couch potatoes who began hiking Koko Crater religiously, shed all kinds of weight, then bought new wardrobes. People who don’t make it to the top because they pass out. People who time their ascents, and try to beat their previous times. People who don’t care how long it takes to get to the top, just so long as they get there. Yoga practitioners who Instagram photos of themselves doing arm balances and backbends against the lofty vistas of East O‘ahu. Dogs, some that make it on their own, and some that need human assists. Firefighters, who come to rescue the people who sprain their ankles or pass out. Graffiti artists, who are forever redecorating the concrete ruins of the radar facility.


  • “You’re almost there!” (A lie when told, as it often is, to people who have yet to reach the halfway point.)
  • “There’s a zipline down the backside of the mountain.”
  • “They’ve got ice water up there!”
  • “There’s air-conditioning at the top.”
  • “They’ve got margaritas up there!”
  • “You can make it!” (A lie, though not a terrible one, when told to people who clearly are not going to make it.)
  • “There’s free ice cream today!”


We spoke with hikers right after they conquered Koko Crater.