The grueling Koko Head hike takes you on a steep railway trail up the side of a dormant volcano crater in the island of Oahu, Hawaii. This one will make your legs sore the next day!
It’s not a very long hike in terms of distance, but the path is steep and there’s a lot of elevation gain, leading these to be nicknamed the ‘Koko Head stairs of doom.’
Many Hawaiian locals and tourists alike enjoy this hike for the good workout and calorie burn, and the Koko Head sunrise and sunset are also known for being spectacular.
I’ve hiked the Koko Crater trail many times over the years, and it’s always great fun. It’s not a dangerous hike and there haven’t been any falling deaths, but it’s a real fitness test and may not be fun for everyone.
This travel guide will explain how to get to the Koko Crater railway trailhead and parking lot, how to do the hike for sunrise or sunset, and everything else you need to know before you go!
Where To Stay In Oahu
- Distance: 1.6 miles (2.6 km) round trip
- Elevation Gain: 900 feet (275 m)
- Top Elevation: 1,207 feet (368 m)
- Duration: 1 – 2 hours round trip
- Difficulty: Moderate / Hard
Koko Head Hike: What To Expect
The Koko Head hike is a little bit like Hawaii’s version of the infamous Manitou Incline in Colorado. To be fair, Koko is not as hard as Manitou, but instead of high elevation to contend with, you do have the tropical heat and humidity of Hawaii.
Koko Head is also plenty steep. Even seasoned hikers will be feeling intimidated when they arrive at the trailhead and see the gargantuan climb that awaits them. From the very start, you can already see the tiny hikers ascending the mountain, looking like ants in the distance.
With that said, if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll reach the top before you know it! The first time you do the Koko Crater trail feels like a total slog, but each subsequent climb gets shorter and easier.
Still, this hike is no joke. I would highly recommend wearing good shoes and bringing lots of water. I’ve done the Koko Head stairs in sandals before, but it’s very awkward and I wouldn’t recommend it.
A hat and sunscreen are also imperative if you hike Koko Crater during the day, because there’s almost no shade at all on the trail. A good way to beat the heat and crowds is by starting earlier in the day.
Koko Head Stairs Of Doom
For this entire hike, you’ll be climbing a steep set of railway ties (‘stairs’) going up the side of an extinct volcanic mountain known as Koko Crater.
There are 1,048 stairs at Koko Head, to be exact. However, unless you’re a giant, each stair will actually take several steps to climb because they’re very big and awkward. The dusty trail and slick metal ties can also be slippery.
These stairs were actually built as part of a military railway during World War II, but they’ve been used by hikers for many years, so clearly they work alright for that purpose too!
One short section near the middle of the Koko Crater trail involves crossing a bridge over a ravine with an intimidating 10 foot drop, but you don’t have to walk across it if you don’t want to.
You can easily bypass the scary bridge section by walking through a clearing in the foliage to the right of the path.
This detour is marked with a helpful sign so you’ll know when to turn off the main path. Most hikers take the detour.
The last one-third of the Koko Head trail gets noticeably steeper and harder than before.
If any section of this hike deserves to be nicknamed the ‘Koko Head stairs of doom,’ it would be this dizzying final section of the trail.
At this point, you might even see some tired people climbing up the stairs on all fours, or scooting slowly on their butts as they go back down.
When you reach the end of the Koko Head stairs, you still have a little bit of walking to do to get to the top of the mountain. Just another 50 yards of easy walking and you’re there.
All in all, the total calorie burn on the Koko Crater trail is somewhere in the realm of 400 calories (roundtrip).
Top Of Koko Head Trail: The View
The views at the top of Koko Head trail are really amazing. You get panoramic views of Hawaii Kai and Hanauma Bay below, and you can even faintly make out Diamond Head and the Honolulu cityscape in the distance.
On the other side of this panorama, you can look down into the ‘bowl’ of Koko Head’s extinct volcano crater, which has been turned into a botanical garden, and in the distance you can even see all the way out to Makapuu Point.
It’s a great view, and you’ll no doubt want to stay awhile to relax and take pictures! At this point, you finally have a nice breeze hitting you, and some trees and bushes to hide under for shade.
There are several abandoned military bunkers (‘pillboxes’) at the top of the summit, as well as an elevated metal platform that gives you even better views of the whole area surrounding the Koko Crater trail.
When you’ve finished chilling and exploring everything at the top of Koko Head summit, you’ll have to go back down the same way you came. Take your time and don’t rush, because the stairs can be even more slippery and hazardous on the way back down.
Alternatively, for a change of scenery you can hike out via the Koko Crater Rim trail, but this route is more sketchy and it takes you away from the Koko Head parking lot, so you’ll need to figure out transportation when you reach the bottom.
I’ll share more details on the Koko Crater Rim trail later in this guide. It’s an adventure in itself.
Is Koko Head Trail Dangerous?
The Koko Head trail is not dangerous if you’re careful and watch your step.
To be fair, there’s one short section where the railway becomes a bridge with an unnerving 10 foot drop below it, but you can go around this bridge if you want to, and most people do.
There have been some accidents and injuries on the Koko Head Trail over the years, but no falling deaths. The only deaths here have been health-related issues like heart attacks.
This isn’t a great hike for kids or older folks. If you’re in one of those categories, please take your time and go extra slow on this trail, especially on the way back down. Bring lots of water and a hat too. Seriously. Bring more water than you think you’ll need.
When people get hurt on the Koko Crater trail, usually it’s because they were rushing back down the stairs and slipped. I’ve seen this in news reports and also seen it happen in person many times.
It’s fun to race to the top of the stairs, but there’s really no reason to race down to the bottom. It’s just not worth the risk of getting hurt. Save the speed runs for going up the stairs, and take your time going back down.
The Honolulu Fire Department rescues hurt hikers on this trail by helicopter several times per year. It’ll mess up your day and waste taxpayer money, and it gives the locals an excuse to call for closing yet another classic Oahu hike.
When a popular hiking trail in Oahu becomes a liability, the Hawaii government’s typical response is to close it down completely instead of working with the community and trying to find a better solution.
Let’s all do our part to hike the Koko Head stairs safely and responsibly so we can continue to enjoy this trail for many years to come!
How Long Is Koko Head Hike?
The Koko Head hike is about 1.6 miles roundtrip (2.6 km) if you start from the main parking lot. For most people, it will probably take about 1-2 hours roundtrip, depending on your pace.
Plan on probably at least 30 minutes to reach the top, and then almost the same amount of time to go back down. If course it’s possible to go faster if you’re super fit, and I’ve heard of people running to the top of the Koko Stairs in less than 10 minutes.
If you want to extend the hike and go even further, you can also hike the Koko Crater Rim trail and the Koko Arch, although these are a bit sketchy and not recommended for everyone. I’ll explain more about these side trails later in this blog post.
Koko Head Elevation
The Koko Head elevation / height at the summit is 1,207 feet (368 m).
That means if you start the hike from the main parking lot, like most people do, then there’s about 900 feet of elevation gain (275 m).
The entrance and parking for this hike are FREE at the time of writing, and you don’t need to book anything in advance.
If you enjoy this hike, consider donating to Kokonut Koalition. They’re a non-profit group that maintains the trail.
Is Koko Head Trail Open / Closed?
Yes, Koko Head is open! The hike is open all year long except for occasional trail maintenance. It was closed for 3 weeks of renovation in 2021, but it’s very rare for that to happen.
Here are the official Koko Head trail hours:
- Koko Head District Park: 4 AM – 11 PM
- Parking Lot: 6:30 AM – 11 PM
The trail can be accessed 24/7 (all day and all night), and people often hike the Koko Head stairs for sunrise.
However, you’ll need to figure out somewhere to park since the main parking lot is closed before dawn. You should be able to find a parking spot on the road near the tennis courts.
Best Time To Hike Koko Head
I would try to avoid hiking Koko Head in the middle of the day because the heat is brutal and there’s no shade at all. It makes it unpleasant and a lot harder.
Morning and evening are both great times to hike Koko Head, and if you plan it right you can even see the sunrise or sunset, which are both spectacular! More info on this below.
Koko Head Sunset
The Koko Head sunset is wonderful. In fact, it’s one of the best places to watch the sunset on the whole island of Oahu. I’ve done this hike almost a dozen times, usually at sunset, and it’s always such a great show.
The sun sets right over Hawaii Kai, and there are usually no clouds to block it. This corner of the island is almost always cloudless, after all. The colors at sunset are brilliant and there’s a nice sea breeze as the temps start to cool off.
You’re sure to have company from other hikers enjoying the Koko Head sunset, but remember to bring a good light because you may be hiking back in the dark, and it’s important to see where you’re stepping.
I would highly recommend hiking this in the daytime once or twice before you attempt it for sunset. Some spots could be dangerous in the dark if you’re not already familiar with the trail.
Koko Head Sunrise
The Koko Head sunrise is at least as popular as sunset, and the views of Oahu island are just as stellar.
The sun rises on the other side of the Koko Crater, so you’ll be watching it come up directly over the ocean and the volcano crater, with views of Makapuu Point in the distance.
You’ll want a good light for hiking Koko Head at sunrise, and again, I would highly recommend going in the daytime once or twice before you attempt it for sunrise. Familiarity helps a lot here.
Koko Crater Railway Trailhead: Parking Lot / Directions
The Koko Crater railway trailhead is located near Hawaii Kai, on the southeast side of Oahu island.
It’s about 10 miles from Waikiki, and the drive only takes 30 minutes. There’s a big parking lot at Koko Head District Park and it’s free to use for this hike. You can use the map below for navigation directly to the parking lot address.
It’s also possible to get to Koko Head by bus, although that involves 15 minutes of extra walking since the closest bus stops are about 1/2 mile from the Koko Head entrance.
When you arrive at the Koko Head parking lot, it’s a little confusing to find the trailhead at first. Follow the sidewalk that wraps around the baseball diamond, and then go up the dirt hill through the trees to another paved road, which will take you to the trailhead (GPS here).
Usually there are lots of other hikers coming and going, so it’s easy to find the trailhead by following the other hikers.
Koko Crater Rim Trail
If you want to mix things up on the Koko Head hike and do something different, you can combine it with the Koko Crater Rim trail, which loops in a circle along the top of the Koko Crater. This is your chance to walk along the rim of an extinct volcano crater!
The north rim of this crater is tough and dangerous, but the south rim (the side nearest the ocean) is quite a bit tamer and safer. If you only hike the south rim, I’d describe it as moderate. It’s definitely not suitable for kids or older folks though.
This hike is a great way to escape the crowds and see some alternate views at the Koko Crater. If you want to do three hikes in one, there’s even a side path on the south rim that intersects with the Koko Arch hike (more on that in a minute)!
Koko Arch Trail
The Koko Arch is a giant natural rock arch on the south slope of Koko Crater. It’s yet another photogenic and interesting feature of this extinct volcanic mountain.
Normally people hike to the arch on a short, easy trail that starts from the main coastal road by Halona Beach Cove, but you can also reach the arch from Koko Head via the Crater Rim trail.
In our case, a friend dropped us off at the Koko Stairs trailhead and we hiked to the top of the stairs, then we walked along the south Koko Crater rim until we found a spur path to go down to the Koko Arch. After taking some pictures at the arch, we walked down to the road at Halona Beach Cove and caught a bus home.
You’re in for a very tough hike if you do all of this in one day, and I wouldn’t attempt it if you aren’t plenty comfortable with heights. Even so, if you’re up for the challenge then it’s a great way to do three hikes in one!
History Of Koko Head In Oahu Hawaii
Koko Crater was formed by the same series of volcanic eruptions in Hawaii that created Diamond Head, but nowadays it’s dormant and the last activity is believed to have been at least 7,000 years ago.
The Koko Crater railway was originally built by the U.S. Army in 1942 to carry men and supplies to a radar station at the top of the mountain for the wartime defense of Oahu.
It was then used as an air force station by the U.S. Air Force starting in 1947, but with advances in technology it eventually became obsolete for tracking aircraft. The Koko Crater installation was deactivated in 1966, and the U.S. Air Force handed it over to the city of Honolulu.
In the years since then, the Koko Crater trail has become a very popular hike in Oahu Hawaii, and as many as 500 to 1,000 people climb it every day for the thrills, the views, and the free workout.
A non-profit volunteer group called Kokonut Koalition has been formed to maintain the trail and protect it from being closed by the Hawaiian government. Check out their website and consider donating if you’re a fan of Koko Head.
As always, please remember to keep the trail clean, be considerate of other hikers, and leave no trace. Thanks and happy travels!
Koko Head vs Diamond Head
So in a comparison of Koko Head vs Diamond Head, how do these two popular volcano hikes in Oahu stack up? That’s a good question, and I’ll try to answer.
Both hikes are roughly the same distance roundtrip (1.6 vs 1.8 miles), and they take roughly the same amount of time to complete, but Koko Head has about 50% more elevation gain than Diamond Head. That means it’s steeper and harder.
The path at Diamond Head is in much better condition than the Koko stairs, so it’s definitely more suitable for kids and older people. If you want a good workout and calorie burn, however, Koko Head wins there. Koko is also better for seeing the sunrise or sunset.
The views at the summits are different, but great on both hikes. Koko Head and Diamond Head are both extinct volcano craters, and you can see old World War II military bunkers (‘pillboxes’) at the top of either summit.
Diamond Head is closer to the city and it has amazing views of Waikiki and Honolulu, while Koko Head has amazing views of Hawaii Kai and Hanauma Bay. Overall, they’re both great hikes if you have time!
Read More: Diamond Head Hike
Koko Head vs Stairway To Heaven
You may also be wondering how Koko Head compares to the infamous Haiku Stairs in Oahu, also known as the ‘Stairway To Heaven.’
I’ve done both hikes many times over the years, and I have to say there is really no comparison in terms of difficulty. The ‘Stairway To Heaven’ hike is much longer, steeper, harder, and scarier than the Koko Stairs. It has about 3 times as much elevation gain and takes at least 3 times as long to climb.
The Stairway To Heaven also has much more epic views than Koko Head, but sadly it’s closed and illegal for the public to climb, even though the stairs are arguably in better shape!
Read More: Stairway To Heaven Hike
More Hawaii Travel Tips
Thanks for looking! I hope you enjoyed this travel guide for the Koko Head hike in Oahu, Hawaii. We always love climbing the Koko Head ‘stairs of doom’ for sunset when we’re back in Oahu.
Don’t forget to check out my other Oahu hiking guides and my complete list of the best things to do in Oahu Hawaii!
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