Hawaii is not all sand, sea, and surf. The islands are home to dramatic mountain ranges that offer fantastic hiking for varying levels of ability. Oahu is made up of the Ko’olau and Wai’anae mountain ranges that cut across the middle of the island, separating the rainy windward side from the drier leeward side. Honolulu is a cosmopolitan city nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the verdant folds of the Ko’olau mountains. Whether you are looking for a walk through the jungle, a quick afternoon hike to watch the sunset, or an all-day trek, there are plenty of options for every level of hiker close to the city.
With no dangerous animals, insects, or plants to beware of, and many hikes involving a waterfall or ending close to the ocean, you just need to pack your swimwear, running shoes, and some sun protection and you’re ready to hit the trails.
Diamond Head State Monument
It is impossible to talk about Oahu hikes without mentioning Diamond Head, as it is by far the most-hiked trail for visitors on the island. The iconic, crescent-shaped mountain overlooking Waikiki Beach is the state’s most recognizable landmark and part of Hawaii’s military history. The hike is short and sweet—the 0.8-mile trail leading up to its summit was built in 1908 as part of the state’s coastal defense system—but you’ll need to start early to avoid the crowds and unforgiving midday sun.
After driving through the tunnel that runs through the side of the mountain, you park inside the crater and start the ascent up the inside rim of the crater. The hike ends at a Fire Control Station at the summit, with views of military bunkers and a navigational lighthouse. But what you’re here for are the stunning views of the entire coastline from Hawaii Kai to Waikiki and beyond. In the winter, you may even get lucky enough to see humpback whales breaching in the water.
Trail length: 0.8 miles
Parking fee: $25 plus entrance fee of $5 for non-Hawaii residents
Manoa Falls Trail
If you’re looking for a waterfall hike in the Honolulu area and are short on time, Manoa Falls is for you. You’ll find the parking and trailhead located in the back of lush Manoa Valley at the end of Manoa Road. While it can be quite touristy, the scenery does not disappoint. The 1.7-mile beginner-friendly trail leads past towering trees, through lush greenery and a bamboo forest, and along a picturesque stream. The path is well-paved but often muddy as it rains frequently in the back of the valley.
The waterfall cascades from a cliff overhead, but the amount of water will depend on recent rainfall. However, there is always enough water in the pool at the bottom for a quick dip! The hike will take a little over an hour round-trip, and you are more likely to beat the crowds with a late afternoon start. The neighboring Lyon Arboretum, whose entrance can be found near the trail parking lot, is a 200-acre botanical garden with a 0.3-mile loop trail that makes for a nice addition to the day.
Trail length: 1.7 miles
Parking Fee: $5
Koko Head Trail
With the rise of social media, this trail has surged in popularity in the last few years. Koko Head is a steep, dry, cylindrical crater located in the residential neighborhood of Hawaii Kai, a short drive from downtown Honolulu. You’ll find the trailhead off of the free parking lot in Koko Head District Park, just off of Kalanianaole Highway. While the trail is only 1.4 miles roundtrip, don’t be fooled— it is not for the faint of heart.
The path is a series of 1,048 steps on an old, World War II railway track built into the side of the mountain. The trek upwards is arduous and punishing with a steep incline and a section of railway ties built over a bridge with nothing underneath that will make your legs shake. The hike ends at a couple of military bunkers on the summit, where you’ll be rewarded with impressive 360-degree views of the eastern part of Oahu, the Pacific Ocean, and neighboring islands. Start very early or go later for sunset as the midday sun will make this hike almost impossible.
Trail length: 1.4 miles
Parking Fee: None
Tantalus Trail System
Overlooking downtown Honolulu is a forested ridge called Tantalus which is home to a trail system with hikes of varying distances and degrees of difficulty. The road itself, a loop connecting Tantalus Drive with Round Top Drive, starts on Makiki Street on the western ridge of Manoa Valley and is a scenic drive not to be missed. Navigating hairpin turns, you’ll ascend through lush foliage and tall bamboo eucalyptus trees that feature various roadside lookouts with sweeping views of Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor.
Along the road, you will find trailheads to various hikes (Makiki Valley, Ualaka’a , Na Ala Hele, Pu’u Ohia Trails, etc), that cut across the ridge. Most are short (under 2 miles) and not too difficult and allow you to hike through the forest with glimpses of dramatic views, though there are longer day hikes that connect to the back of Manoa Falls Trail. Some paths are loops and some connect to other trails, so be sure to read the maps that are stationed at the trailheads to see where you’re going, or else risk a long return walk along the road to your car.
Trail Length: Varying
Parking Fee: None
If you are looking for a challenging, epic hike, look no further than Ka’au Crater. The trailhead can be found off of Waiomao Road in the back of Palolo Valley, but be sure to park in the residential neighborhood and not on the private road, and only enter through the proper entrance so not to anger residents. Beginner hikers should only hike the first 45 minutes into the valley to the first waterfall for a scenic dip and pretty, but often muddy, hike.
The full route is best for more advanced hikers, as the trail continues up the back of the valley, crossing 3 waterfalls (sometimes by rope) and up some very steep inclines on a narrow path with sheer cliffs. The trail leads past a bog—a natural wetland housed in a smaller crater—and comes to an end at the top of the Ko’olau Mountain Range, rewarding hikers with incredible views of the east side of the island, from Waimanalo to Chinaman’s Hat. Be sure to start this hike early and bring water and snacks, as the full route will likely take at least six hours.
Trail length: 5.1 miles
Parking Fee: None
A half-Dutch writer and photographer who grew up on Oahu, Hawaii. She has spent years exploring and enjoying the Hawaiian Islands for travel and lifestyle publications and assignments.
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