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Oahu may lay claim to a large population and cosmopolitan ways but, when it comes to natural beauty, it’s hard to beat. In practically no time, visitors can escape from the city and discover the wonders of the great outdoors during a variety of Oahu hikes. Armed with sturdy walking shoes, they need only follow their feet to discover wild, untouched landscapes, from native forests to mountain ridges to windswept coastlines.
Trails on Oahu are generally well maintained and their trailheads are usually easy to find. That said, it’s important for visitors to stick to main routes and employ the buddy system, sharing the experience with friends or family. They should bring along plenty of water as well as insect repellent, a hat, sunscreen and a camera to document the unforgettable views.
Over the years I’ve come to learn that hiking is subjective, and each trail evokes different responses from those who follow it. But for first-time explorers, the following five Oahu excursions won’t disappoint.
Diamond Head Summit Trail
The trail to the top of Diamond Head is a great activity for a vacationer’s first day on Oahu. While more people head here than to the other trails on my list, it’s still well worth exploring the famous dormant volcano.
Built in 1908 as part of Oahu’s coastal defense system, the trail winds up one of the crater’s inside walls for nearly one mile. It gains 560 feet as it snakes around switchbacks, leads up steep stairs, goes inside bunkers and takes a detour through a lighted 225-foot tunnel.
The views from Diamond Head’s 760-foot-high summit provide the perfect overview of Waikiki, the southern shoreline and beyond, so it’s good to allow two hours from start to finish in order to savor the experience.
It costs $5 to drive inside the crater to park. Pedestrians pay $1.
Koko Head Crater Trail
A daunting vertical challenge awaits at Koko Head Crater, notable for its staircase of over 1,000 steps. A recent second-season episode of the television show Hawaii Five-0 showed two of the stars playfully jogging up the trail but, trust me, hikers shouldn’t follow their lead. Instead, it’s best to take it slow and get an early start before the sun gets too hot.
The beginning of the trail is a bit hidden because it runs past a little-league baseball field, but it evolves into more of a trail once you get beyond the field. At one point the path becomes a bridge comprised of spaced-out wooden crossbeams, but wimps in the group (like me) can take an alternative route that runs below and to the side of the bridge.
If the climb doesn’t leave hikers breathless, the views from the top will. Distant neighboring islands seem to float in the sea, while beaches and a golf course add to the lovely scenery.
Makapuu Point Lighthouse Trail
Presiding over Oahu’s southeastern coastline, the red-roofed Makapuu Lighthouse was built in 1909. A one-mile gradual, uphill trail leads hikers not only to that landmark, but to a magnificent panorama of the windward coast with its beautiful beaches, pristine waters and dramatic mountains. When conditions are right, hikers can even see the islands of Molokai and Lanai in the distance.
Although the trail is paved, the route can feel strenuous due to the steady climb and exposure to the sun, with no trees to protect hikers. However, abundant rewards await at the top. From November through May, it’s a perfect vantage point for seeing humpback whales that migrate to Hawaii’s waters. Visitors should bring binoculars to help them spot various Hawaiian seabirds such as the iwa, frigate bird and tropicbird.
A free parking area with access to the trailhead awaits right next to the coastal highway.
Manoa Falls Trail
Amazing but true: on Oahu, a mere one-mile hike can lead to a dazzling 100-foot waterfall. Located at the base of the Koolau Mountains, this trail meanders through a grove of eucalyptus trees, then enters a rainforest highlighted by stands of rustling bamboo. Frequent passing showers translate into muddy going, so don’t forget to wear good walking shoes.
Once hikers arrive at the falls, it’s important that they heed the signs for no swimming or diving due to falling rocks, and no drinking the water due to biological impurities. But that doesn’t detract from the delights of this scenic oasis, which is so lovely that producers of the movie Jurassic Park and the television show Lost used it as their stage set.
Parking in the trailhead lot costs $5. I recommend parking for free on the residential streets just outside the entrance, adding an additional quarter-mile of walking in each direction.
Maunawili Falls Trail
Located in Oahu’s windward region of Kailua, this gentle 1.5-mile hike runs mostly flat through a jungle setting with occasional river crossings. At one point the trees part, allowing mountain, coastal and city views. Once again, sturdy shoes are a must due to mud, especially if it has been raining.
About one hour from the trailhead, hikers descend a staircase and end up at a picturesque 15-foot-high waterfall with a mountain pool. Many people enjoy jumping into the cool water after the warm hike, but as I mentioned before, swimming is frowned upon due to a risk of contamination. Instead, think of this a refreshing spot for picnicking. It’s pretty buggy, so be sure to coat up on the insect repellant.
To avoid getting tickets, hikers should park in the adjacent residential area and follow the signs for the trailhead. Since this is a favorite hike with locals, it’s pretty hard to miss it.