Off Oahu's Beaten Track

Chinaman's Hat
By Michael McWilliams
Chinaman's Hat
Chinaman's Hat

Chinaman's Hat—known formally on the maps as Mokolii ("little lizard")—is a cone shaped pop of lava resembling the quintessential peasant's chapeau worn by rural folk in China. Punctuated by a few lonely coconut palms and one diminutive but lovely beach on its ocean-facing side, it provides an experience found few other places in Hawaii—and certainly nowhere else as accessible.

The island's eponymous profile is well-known from numerous vantage points on Oahu's windward coast, and its image graces many a calendar and coffee table picture book about Hawaii. But its real attractions are accessible only to those who take the trouble to visit it.

By far the best way to get to Chinaman's Hat is by walking across the reef. The island sits a few hundred yards off the Kualoa Point State recreation Area, a popular park reachable by car or public transportation via the Kamehameha Highway, the main road circling Oahu.

At low tide, all but the very smallest children can make it out to the island; many folks push their toddlers across on small inflatable rafts. The trek requires some sort of footwear to protect feet from sharp coral. Traditionally, that has meant old sneakers; now however, visitors wear slippers known, appropriately, as reef walkers.

The reef supports an abundance of marine life, most of which pose no safety hazard of any kind. However, when we came upon the baby hammerheads, our first thoughts were of their larger relatives possibly cruising the area nearby. The spear fishermen out on the reef with us seemed unconcerned, though, so we took our cue from them.

Once you get to Chinaman's Hat, you have two basic options: circle around the island to the small beach, or climb the steep volcanic cone for an unmatched panorama of the windward coast and the Koolau mountains that form the spine of Oahu. Families with little children might forgo the climb and head around the island to the beach at the back, but nearly everyone else should make for the summit.

The 20-minute climb is strenuous and somewhat tricky as it ascends through thick brush down below, along crumbly dirt and cinders further on, and finally up over ancient lava ledges to the peak. But nearly everyone who tries can make it to the top.

During one climb, we were astonished to pass right over and along seabird nests—many of them occupied by eggs, chicks, and wary parents. Considering the regular traffic heading to the top, we could only surmise that the birds have struck an acceptable accommodation with invading humans. Still, it gave us pause to realize that the small island was a vital and fragile habitat for these creatures and others.

Once you gain the summit of Chinaman's Hat, you are rewarded with an unforgettable view: the enormous mountain fortress of Kahaluu right in front, and the open Pacific behind and to the north.

Looking south from the peak, you can see the distinctive profile of Kamehameha's Turtle, nickname of the mysterious Mokapu peninsula. Legend holds that the giant turtle guards a secret undersea tunnel which was used by Kamehameha I, Hawaii's great warrior monarch, to reach the island of Molokai, sometimes faintly visible in the distance beyond. Jutting out into the Pacific from the towns of Kaneohe and Kailua, the peninsula is now the home of a marine base, evidenced by the helicopters buzzing about and the fighter jets twirling high above like dueling pairs of acrobatic bugs.

Nestled in a secluded cove, the beach on the outer side of Chinaman's Hat is worth the trip regardless of whether you climb the cone or not. It adjoins a small cave carved out of the lava and is continually washed by deep-sea waves coming in from the open Pacific. Our kids loved exploring the cave and found the cove a perfect place to mingle with local fish and examine the numerous urchins and sea cucumbers on the lava walls. Despite its small scale and relative accessibility, Chinaman's Hat can be a genuine adventure and a worthy destination for a family reef hike.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 11 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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