Heading West to Kaena Point

A family trek that is good fun and good for you.

All too often, kamaaina families get so caught up in the daily grind of school, work, homework, chores and sports that months go by without a moment to remind ourselves why we’re so “lucky we live Hawaii.” It is our visitors who come from all around the world who end up exploring our island. They bring their families to Oahu for the sun, beaches, hiking, swimming and more. Right outside my office, buses unload happy tourists all day long and I think to myself, “Get out there and do something.” The idea for a Sunday family adventure began brewing. The goal: an exciting day together doing something interesting, healthy and educational.

Kaena Point is a 16-acre nature reserve that makes up the western tip of Oahu. It can be reached via a 2.5-mile trail at the end of the road on the far west side of Oahu, past Makaha, or a 2.5-mile trail at the end of the road on Oahu’s North Shore, past Waialua. At Kaena Point, there are sand dunes and tide pools, Hawaiian monk seals and, at certain times of the year, nesting albatross and breaching humpbacks. On a Saturday in February, we packed up the children and went west.

From downtown Honolulu, it’s 42 miles to Yokohama Bay, past Waianae, Maili and, finally, Makaha. That’s as far out of town as you can drive on Oahu. Our children, having never experienced a multistate road trip, asked if we were there yet six times between Ko Olina and Makaha. Past the beach park and the lifeguard towers, there’s a small parking lot where the road ends. We parked, put on sneakers, packed up our water, snacks, hats and sunscreen, and off we went. The trail is a flat, dirt road, wide enough for cars, but blocked by boulders that keep out all but a few fishermen’s trucks. The road is not strenuous, so it’s a great hike for children. It’s an hourlong walk out to the point, moving along at a quick-for-an-8-year-old pace. While the road is wide and quite safe, there are some spots along the way where a cliff runs along the makai side of the road; at those times, hand-holding is recommended.

The children stopped to point out tide pools and rock archways as we made our way to the point. When the whale show started, the hiking slowed down. A group of three whales swam along at a pace similar to ours, showing us their backs and tails, with the baby of the bunch breaching all the way. They were close enough to see the black and white patterns on the undersides of their tails, unique to each humpback, the way fingerprints are unique to each human. That tidbit of information led to a nice, long water break while everyone compared fingerprints.

As the thrill of the whales’ tails wore off, the children discovered the railroad ties. The old Oahu Railway track went around Kaena Point, transporting sugar cane from the north to the west side of Oahu. The rails are buried, but the wooden ties make excellent steps for children to hop along on parts of the trail.

There is a narrow portion of trail, just before you reach the point, where the dirt road was washed out by the ocean during high surf. A trail has been cut into the hillside above the former road, and is wide enough for an adult and child to navigate together. This potentially dangerous section of the trail is only a couple of hundred feet long.

Kaena Point is fenced off to protect its wildlife from predators. Beyond the fence, the albatross were immediately visible. A downy, gray baby sat on a nest five feet from the trail and, while we watched, her mother landed, wobbled over and fed her baby as the children gagged at the sight of this action. A little further off the trail, a pair of albatross did a strange, awkward dance that explained why they’re nicknamed Goony Birds.

A tower and bunker at the highest point of the sand dunes were made for climbing around, up and over. We stopped to take off our shoes before exploring the tide pools. The surf is rough, the currents unpredictable, and there are no lifeguards at Kaena Point, so swimming is not recommended. As we made our way to the shore, a large, shiny rock in the middle of a tide pool lifted up its head and looked at us. It was a monk seal, and he didn’t appear interested in our group of loud humans. He immediately rolled over and went back to sleep. We watched him from afar, marveling at his camouflage; unless he moved, he looked like a breathing rock.

We left the monk seal to explore the tide pools on the north side of the point, where we found cone shells, hermit crabs, sea urchins, reef fish and sea cucumbers. All the while, albatross soared low over us, showing off their six-foot wingspans. A perch on the side of the dunes made a lovely seat from which to enjoy the view and have a snack as we geared up for the hike back. On a few exceptionally clear days per year, it’s said you can see Kauai from Kaena Point. It wasn’t on our day, but we all felt it was exceptional enough.

The hike back to the car seemed longer. When the “Are we there yets” kicked in, we dangled the motivational carrot: late lunch next to the hammerhead shark and stingray pond at the Ihilani Resort at Ko Olina. By the time we reached our car, the whole family was ready for a sandwich and a place to sit.

A little more than 20 minutes on the road toward home, the Ko Olina exit snuck up on us. We followed the signs to Ko Olina Station to pick up food at the Island Country Market – the nicest ABC Store you’ll ever set foot in. In addition to the usual ABC Store snacks and souvenirs, there is a full deli with pasta, salads, sandwiches, wraps and hot food. The Thai chicken wrap is pre-prepared and delicious, but there’s also PB&J for the less adventurous palate, and even a cheeseburger for Dad. Lunch for five, including sandwiches, chips, drinks and dessert, cost $37. There’s seating out in front of the market, and the Ihilani Resort parking garage is just across the road. Once parked, we headed through the lobby and downstairs toward the pool. Just mauka of the pool is the large, shallow, saltwater pond with hammerhead sharks zipping around and stingrays slowly cruising the edges. We found a shady patch of grass, spread out our lunches and watched the rays laze through the water in the afternoon sun. The Ihilani Resort is like the aquarium without the crowds, with perfect shady spots where you can recount the day, recover and refuel before the long drive ahead. Not far along the road home, the entire back seat was snoring, a sure sign of a successful adventure.