Hawaiʻi Family-Friendly Hike: Camp Pālehua in West Oʻahu
Explore a forest high above O‘ahu, where you’ll feel on top of the world.
What: Nānākuli Overlook Trail, a 2-mile round-trip self-guided hike
Who: Two families with keiki ages 3, 5 and 7
Where: Camp Pālehua, on privately owned conservation and agricultural land in the Wai‘anae Mountains above Makakilo
When: Sunday at 9 a.m.
Sundays are made for family adventures. On a beautiful fall morning we headed out of town for a nature outing on the West Side with our neighbors and their fellow condo kids. As usual, Duke, my 5-year-old son, was worried about how long the hike would take and if he could make it all the way. The only thing that convinced him to buckle into his car seat? His hiking buddies, Ariana and Jason, were coming too.
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The H-1 was a breeze early Sunday morning, so we made it to the Camp Pālehua gate earlier than expected. There was a feeling of exclusivity when we punched in the gate code and were granted access. But that access requires filling out extensive COVID-19 screening and liability waiver forms online in advance.
Once inside the gate, it’s a 1.7-mile drive to the camp home base. We passed cows grazing on dry grass and peeked at the stunning views down to Ko Olina. The massive hotels looked so tiny from 1,400 feet above. After parking and piling out of our SUV, we immediately appreciated the cool temperatures (mid-70s) at the high elevation—perfect weather for hiking.
We checked in at the camp office and received our instructions and directions. Before we could rally the troops to the trail, the kids spotted a treehouse named “Keiki Klubhouse.” After a 15-minute detour to climb and play inside the two-story fort, we made a pit stop at the bathhouse. It was much better than the latrine I had imagined in my head.
There are two self-guided hikes on the property. We opted for the Nānākuli Overlook Hike which is shorter and suitable for beginners. If your kids are 10 years or older, challenge yourself with the Puʻu Manawahua Hike, aka the WWII Bunker Hike, a 4-mile round-trip trail with views of Diamond Head and Mākaha.
Everyone was excited and energetic at the beginning. The kids wanted to lead the way, which made the adults a little nervous, so we followed closely behind. The trail was a dirt path, partly exposed, partly shaded by trees. We encountered two steep inclines where the 3- and 5-year-olds needed help maneuvering.
Along the way, the kids fashioned hiking sticks from fallen branches and used them to draw in the red dirt. “It looks like Mars,” said 3-year-old Jason, a space lover who appropriately wore a NASA baseball cap. The adults were delighted and surprised by the quiet, interrupted only by the birds, the wind and the chatter from the kids. It felt like we had the whole mountain to ourselves. We did eventually pass one other group on the trail – a family with four kids about the same ages as ours.
It took us about 45 minutes to reach the overlook, which offered an impressive view stretching from Nānākuli Valley out to the ocean. We took advantage of a picnic table in the shade to stop for snacks and water. The mood took a turn and the whining started when we headed back to the base camp. I’ll attribute our sanity and safe return to the game 20 questions, which we played as a group the whole way back.
On the way back to our cars, we passed the campfire pit, mess hall, pool and bunkhouses, leading me to reminisce about sleep-away camp times when I was young. It made me excited for Duke to have camp adventures in the future, too. But I was also very happy to return to my plush Cal King bed that night.
- Make reservations. Unlike government-managed trails, you’ll need to call or email the camp to secure a time slot, especially if you want to stay the night in a bunkhouse or tent.
- Wear hiking shoes. Even on the easier Nānākuli Overlook Hike, we were slipping and sliding on a couple of steep inclines. Tennis shoes with good tread or hiking boots are recommended.
- Bring a picnic. Have lunch with a view at the shaded picnic table at the end of the Nānākuli Overlook Trail.
- Follow the ribbons. The trails are marked by colorful ribbons tied to trees. Keep kids engaged and looking ahead by having them search for the next colorful ribbon: orange for the Nānākuli Overlook Hike and yellow for the Puʻu Manawahua Hike.
- Search for native plants. Ask for the laminated scavenger hunt cards at the office to hunt for native species around the camp property.
Camp Pālehua offers self-guided hikes daily between 8 a.m. and noon. Reservations are required. $10 for adults, $5 for children,free for keiki 5 years old and younger. 1 Pālehua Road, Kapolei, (808) 347-0736, camppalehua.org, @camp_palehua