Exploring Kualoa Ranch and the Ka'a'awa Valley of Oahu, Hawaii

  • 01 of 09

    History of Kualoa and Ka'a'awa Valley

    Kualoa Visitor Center
    Photo by John Fischer

    The Kualoa Ranch and neighboring Ka'a'awa Valley are situated in one of Oahu's most historic areas. The Ka'a'awa Valley is also one of Oahu's most beautiful valleys - still largely untouched by modern development.

    The English translation of the Hawaiian word kualoa is long-back. Viewing the area from the air, you can easily see why. In ancient times, Kualoa was considered to be one of the most sacred places on Oahu and the training ground for the children of the most powerful of ali'i (chiefs). Here children of chiefs were trained in the arts of war and the ancient tradition of the Hawaiian chiefs. It is said that the bones of more than four hundred chiefs are buried in the caves above Kualoa Ranch. O.A. Bushnell's novel Ka'a'awa is an excellent resource for information about this area.

    It is an area steeped in legend. Legend has it that fishponds in the area were built by Menehunes (an ancient race of small, magical people who are said to be the first inhabitants of the islands). The area is also said to be home to night-marchers - the ghosts of dead chiefs and their warriors who proceed from their burial caves to the sea.

    Kualoa and Ka'a'awa is also said to be a place of refuge where those condemned to die could find refuge.

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  • 02 of 09

    Kualoa Ranch Background and Directions

    Ka'a'awa Valley
    Photo Courtesy of Kualoa Ranch

    In 1850, Dr. Gerrit P. Judd purchased the land today known as the Kualoa Ranch and Ka'a'awa Valley from King Kamehameha III and the property has remained in the family ever since. The owners strive to be role model stewards of the 'aina (land), by preserving and protecting it from development.

    Exploration of the ranch and Ka'a'awa Valley can only be done by special permit or on one of the tours offered by Kualoa Ranch. If you prefer to snorkel, swim, paddle a Hawaiian canoe, or play volleyball on a private beach "Secret Island" is available to you.

    Kualoa Ranch offers horseback rides, ATV rides, bus tours and jungle exploration tours of the valley. All tours begin at the Kualoa Visitor Center.


    From Waikiki and downtown Honolulu take the H-1 Freeway west to the Likelike (Highway 63) exit.

    Take the Likelike Highway towards Kaneohe through the Wilson tunnel. Look for the Kahekili exit on the right. It curves to the left and you will head north until you reach Kualoa Ranch (about 20 minutes). The ranch is across from Kualoa Regional Park.

    Go past the park entrance around the curve of Kamehameha Highway and look for the Kualoa Visitor Center sign on your left. Turn left into the entrance and follow signs to the parking area.

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  • 03 of 09

    Horseback Ride Through the Ka'a'awa Valley

    Kualoa Ranch Two-Hour Horseback Ride
    Photo by John Fischer

    I chose to explore the ranch and Ka'a'awa Valley on horseback. I made an advance reservation for their two-hour horseback ride that takes you to the northern part of the ranch and deep into Ka'a'awa Valley. The ride takes you through forested areas, past World War II bunkers, into Ka'a'awa Valley, with fantastic views of the Kualoa Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

    Our group consisted of about ten guests and two tour guides. The ride is somewhat more difficult than a standard trail ride mostly due to several steep inclines and downgrades through rough terrain. That being said, several riders were first time horseback riders and they encountered no difficulties - other than the standard problem of keeping the horses on the trail and stopping them from eating the brush and other foliage along the way.

    Our guides asked for an experienced rider to ride on one larger horse - someone with a strong hand. Lacking any other volunteers, I raised my hand. Interestingly, this larger horse made for a smoother ride and he got into much less trouble than some of the smaller horses that always wanted to leave the trail.

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  • 04 of 09

    Trailhead and Remembrances of World War II

    World War II Bunkers - Kualoa Ranch
    Photo by John Fischer

    The first part of the ride is the most challenging as you traverse along a mountainside path through numerous cattle gates. The path takes you from Kualoa into the neighboring Ka'a'awa Valley. Along the way you pass beautiful flowering trees and plants. You'll also pass by several World War II bunkers.

    Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the military appropriated portions of the ranch to build bunkers to protect the coast from the expected Japanese attacks which never came. Following the war, the bunkers were abandoned and they still remain intact, now over 60 years later.

    Before long, you pass around the face of the Moo Kapu o Haloa Cliffs and the Ka'a'awa Valley unfolds before you.

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  • 05 of 09

    Filming Location for Many Major Motion Pictures and Hit TV Series Lost

    Filming Site for Jurassic Park
    Photo by John Fischer

    Several trails make their way through the Ka'a'awa Valley. The two-hour horseback ride takes you deep into the valley along the 2.8-miles-long Kaaawa Valley Road which extends nearly 7/8ths of the way into Kaaawa Valley. The return trip takes you on a path along the valley's southeast wall.

    If suddenly you feel like you've seen this area before, it's because you probably have. The Ka'a'awa Valley has been used for location filming for numerous major motion pictures and television productions. Here scenes were filmed for 50 First Dates, Godzilla, Mighty Joe Young, Pearl Harbor, Tears of the Sun, and Windtalkers.

    You may recognize the ridge in the photo on this page as the place where actor Sam Neill and the two children ran from stampeding dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg's 1993 hit, Jurassic Park.

    Numerous TV productions have also been filmed here such as Fantasy Island, ER and from 2004-2010, the Ka'a'awa Valley has been used in the filming of ABC's hit series Lost in which survivors of a plane crash find themselves on a mysterious island with lots of secrets and constant dangers. It is in Ka'a'awa that Hurley set up his two-hole golf course and across which the survivors often hike to inland parts of the island.

    This is also where Sayid and his companions hiked the hills and heard the troubling radio transmission from the sadistic Frenchwoman, Danielle Rousseau.

    In 2012, the new ABC series The Last Resort began filming in the valley for a series premier in September 2012.

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  • 06 of 09

    Magnificent Views of the Ka'a'awa Valley

    Moo Kapu o Haloa Cliffs Ka'a'awa Valley
    Photo by John Fischer

    For the next hour or so, you ride throughout the Ka'a'awa Valley. It's unfortunate, but the two-hour ride takes place only in the late afternoon which places the sun over the back of the valley making views inland somewhat difficult. A morning ride into the valley would likely provide many different views.

    As you reverse course and proceed back towards the ocean, the views of the valley walls are magnificent. With the sun now behind you, the details of the valley walls are vivid reminders of the volcanic nature of the Hawaiian Islands.

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  • 07 of 09

    Reconstructed Hawaiian Village in Ka'a'awa Valley

    Reconstructed Hawaiian Village Kaaawa
    Photo by John Fischer

    As you near the trail head to take you back to the Visitors Center, the trail ride passes a reconstructed Hawaiian village and taro patch built for a former Hollywood production, but an accurate reminder that once this valley was home to many Hawaiian people.

    "Ka'a'awa valley is flanked by the most formidable peaks on Oahu: Puu Kanehoalani on the southeast wall, Puu Manamana on the northwest wall, and Puu Ohulehule at the head of the valley. The first two are extremely narrow and all approaches require rock-climbing, death-defying feats. The third peak entered the limelight when two Danish tourists stranded themselves atop of it when too scared to attempt the descent, they elected to remain for six days." (Backyard Oahu)

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  • 08 of 09

    Views of Mokolii Island (Chinaman's Hat) and Kaneohe Bay

    Mokolii Island Chinaman's Hat
    Photo by John Fischer

    As you once again ride along the trail along the ocean face of Moo Kapu o Haloa Cliffs, you get a beautiful view of Mokolii Island now commonly known as Chinaman's Hat and Kaneohe Bay in the distance.

    The legend behind Mokoli'i is that Hi'iaka, Pele's sister, created Mokoli'i Island by sleighing a threatening no'o, dragon, and setting his gigantic flukes in the water as landmark. She used the body of the creature to form the lowlands below the Kualoa Pali (cliffs) that provided travelers with the room for the path and current highway that runs around that edge of Oahu.

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  • 09 of 09

    For More Information About Kualoa Ranch and Reservations

    Kualoa Ranch Corral
    Photo by John Fischer

    Arriving back at the corral, we got off our horses that were all eager for a drink of water and a night's rest. After thanking our guides for a fun and beautiful ride and sharing some aloha in the form of a gratuity, it was time for the hour-long ride back to Waikiki.

    For more information about Kualoa Ranch and the activities offered, you can visit their homepage at www.kualoa.com.

    It is best to make reservations for any of the activities in advance since the capacity for each activity is limited and often sells out during heavy visitor seasons.