The watery trek to tiny Mokuauia was adventure enough, even without knowing the bloody mythology behind the island’s beginnings.
Had we been wise to the heroic antics of the Hawaiian demigod Kana, we might have made an offering for safe crossing across the surf.
Instead, we strapped on our backpacks and stepped fearlessly into the Pacific for a low-tide excursion toward the rocky outcrop 400 yards offshore, in Laie Bay on the Windward Coast of Oahu.
I had come to Hawaii with my friend, Chris, on an eight-day trip to explore the many wonders of Oahu — the island known as a surfing mecca, the home of Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, and celebrated more recently as the birthplace of President Obama.
After spending two days frolicking in the cosmopolitan glow of Waikiki, we packed up our flip-flops and started hiking, hoping to dig deep into the wilds of Oahu without the tourist crowds.
That’s how we found ourselves pushing against gentle waves and teetering along the rocky bottom on the passage to Mokuauia.
It was a different sort of hike, which is what caught our fancy. At its deepest, the channel was about thigh-high, and it took about 15 minutes to cross.
In a show of melodrama, Chris dropped to his knees and kissed the sandy beach after we sloshed ashore. A couple we passed on the way out had wisely brought a bamboo pole for balance during the tricky walk.
Mokuauia’s more common name is Goat Island, an apparent reference to the animals that once grazed there. But others say it comes from the island’s shape. These days, burrowing seabirds are the main inhabitants of the low-slung 13-acre islet, which is now a sanctuary.
Ropes keep foot traffic off nesting spots in the center of the island, where the population of Wedge-tailed shearwaters has swelled to more than 6,500 from just a few hundred in the 1960s. The rutted and pockmarked appearance of the island is said to have come from their work digging nests in the ground.
A footpath on the perimeter of the island leads to many wonders. Waves crashed across a rocky lava field on one side. Giant limbs of driftwood on a sandy shore provided convenient seats to view the expansive harbor on another. Ringed by a shoreline reef with beaches on two sides, the place draws surfers, snorkelers and picnickers like us to its shores.
According to Hawaiian mythology, Mokuauia and four nearby islets sprang from pieces of the severed head of a bloodthirsty giant lizard. A plaque at Laie Point spells out the legend of the evil mo’o, which had lorded over the peninsula until it was destroyed by the brave Kana, who could turn himself into a rope and stretch.
In the modern world, our biggest challenge was to avoid the riptides and strong currents at high tide, so Chris and I made sure not to dally too long even though we had the island to ourselves.
It was one of the trip’s more memorable adventures, proving that the rugged beauty of Oahu is as spellbinding when wearing a pair of hiking shoes as it is when dipping a toe into the jeweled waters from a beach chair.
We didn’t scratch the surface of Oahu’s more than 80 hiking trails. We aimed for variety — hedonic tours of botanical gardens lush with tropical flowers; the paved, treeless path at Makapuu Lighthouse; the well-worn path up Diamond Head crater; a sandy footpath at Malaekahana state park, across from Goat Island.
For tourists wishing to see Oahu from a different angle, here are a few more trails — from easy to challenging — worth exploring.
Rather than hit the well-traveled Manoa Falls Trail, our friend and longtime Oahu resident Carolynn Bell-Tuttle suggested we explore the tropical rain forest at the adjacent Lyon Arboretum.
This 194-acre independent research center, managed by the University of Hawaii, has more than 5,000 tropical plant species, and one of the largest collections of palms of any botanical garden in the world.
Minnesota botanist Harold Lyon was the arboretum’s first director, and he planted more than 2,000 species of trees during his tenure. Technicolor flowers sprang from the ground and leafy branches and birds offered up their twills and screeches.
The three of us somehow got wildly lost somewhere between the Buddha statue and our destination of Aihualama Falls. One minute we were gabbing on a well-marked trail in the leafy rain forest, the next we were tripping through a dark bamboo forest on a hillside too steep to scale.
Eventually we found our way back to a switchback trail and our destination waterfall, laughing in disbelief when we passed a sign on the way out that read: “Notice: End of maintained trail! Staff only beyond this point.” (3860 Manoa Road, Honolulu; 1-808-988-0456; www.hawaii.edu/lyon arboretum)
A neighborhood cul-de-sac provided an unassuming trailhead up Mariner’s Ridge for a healthy 45-minute hike to the top of the Koolau Mountains and a view of both sides of Oahu.
The 1.5-mile trail began with dry, scruffy bushes and a wide view of an arid landscape, but it becomes narrower and steeper in no time. We stopped to cool off and rest at a shady spot under a stand of ironwoods strewn with pine needles.
At the top of the ridge, a view of Maunalua Bay alights to the east and the Mokulua Islands crop up on the windward side. While more adventurous hikers crossed to the windward side of the trail to Mount Olomana, we were content to gaze out on the blue-green water and jagged coastline. (Trailhead at the end of Kaluanui Road, Honolulu)
Makapuu Point Lighthouse Trail
The paved trail starts on the southeasternmost reach of Oahu and is gradual enough for any beginning hiker. The guidebooks suggest allowing two hours, but it’s a quick walk to the summit for those in good shape. The red-roofed lighthouse, built in 1909, isn’t open but it’s a lovely sight to behold, nested in the hillside. The breezy summit was notable for the hang gliders we saw in the distance along with Koko Head and Koko Crater. The ecosystem is dry and arid on this part of the island, so don’t forget sunscreen. We saw more cactus and low-lying shrubs than shade trees, but the view of the southeastern coastline more than compensated. Between November and May, bring binoculars to spot humpback whales on the move. (Kalanianaole Hwy., Waimanalo; www.hawaiistateparks.org/hiking/oahu)
As one of Hawaii’s most distinctive features, it’s worth spending a couple of hours exploring the volcanic Diamond Head crater just up the beach from Waikiki. It’s about three-quarters of a mile up to the crater’s rim. The popular trek provides a workout as you walk up about 175 steps and through a dark tunnel. We saw too many tourists in ill-advised flip-flops or heeled sandals. The U.S. government bought Diamond Head in 1904 and built the trail in 1908 as it sought to fortify the coastal defense system on Oahu, though no artillery was ever fired. Several military buildings, including pillbox bunkers, still exist on the ridge. (Diamond Head Road at 18th Avenue, Waikiki, Honolulu; 1-808-587-0300; Cost: $1 per person, $5 per vehicle; www.hawaiistate parks.org/hiking/oahu)