In this post, we will share our favorite places to explore and enjoy the outdoors on the island of Oahu. Since we like to start each morning with a hike before visiting a beach, most of the suggestions center around the Windward Coast, the Hawaii Kai area in the south, and Waikiki/Honolulu.
China Walls: Stunning sunsets on cliffs built from lava flow are only a short walk through the Koko Kai Mini Beach Park to reach China Walls. Built up from lava flow, the smooth rocks are a reminder of how old Oahu is and how it was also formed by volcanic eruptions. When the water is calm, you will be entertained by cliff jumpers but we don’t recommend taking part in this very dangerous activity.
Diamond Head: Diamond Head is the most accessible hike from Waikiki and is heavily trafficked 1 mile 760 foot elevation gain trail. This extinct volcano was also used by the US military as a base and is an iconic landmark in Waikiki. Not so much a workout as a sightseeing excursion, you’ll climb the trail and eventually reach the top where you have a nice view of Waikiki. Be prepared to share the view with crowds as it is a very popular selfie spot. If you are not planning on leaving Waikiki, this is the best option for a hike with a scenic vista.
Downtown Honolulu: For an urban hike, you can walk through downtown Honolulu to see some landmarks and absorb culture. In addition to landmarks, lovers of street art will appreciate the ever-growing collection of murals (see a map below) that have appeared in the last few years. You can also visit Oahu Market and grab lunch or dinner at some of the new restaurants in the area. Due to expensive and limited parking spaces, we recommend hopping on a Biki and biking over or taking the bus from Waikiki.
Ka’au Crater: This epic 5 mile loop hike has been on our to-do list for years but it is pretty technical in some spots and recommended as a dry season activity. We’ve listed it here in case someone is interested in an advanced/very difficult hike with a level of danger associated to it.
Koko Crater Stairs: If you’re looking for a great workout and nice views, Koko Crater is our recommended alternative to Diamond Head. With an elevation gain of 1,200 feet over 1.8 miles, the Koko Crater stairs are Oahu’s version of the Grouse Grind. Once you get to the top, you’ll be rewarded with a 360 degree view of the island, including Hanauma Bay. Built in WW2 as a lookout, supplies were hauled to the top of the crater where a pillbox is located. We would rate this hike as a moderate to difficult hike because the terrain is essentially a train tracks and makes for awkward footing at times. It took us about 45 minutes to reach the top and 75 minutes to go back down and since there is no shade, you’re best to start early in the day or bring at least 2 litres of water per person, wear sunscreen and a hat.
Lanikai Pillbox: This is an easy hike 1 mile hike and you get great views of Lanikai beach. If you want to get up super early, this is the best place to watch the sunrise. The only thing that gets a little tricky with this one is the smooth rocks on the way down which can be a little slippery. We would consider an easy hike for most and more about the view than getting a good workout.
Makapuu Lighthouse: If you’re looking for an easy to moderate workout, this 2 mile trail with an elevation gain of 500 feet is perfect for everyone, including anyone who has a stroller because the trail is paved. Once you get to the top, you will have a nice view of the Windward Coast. Again, there isn’t a lot of shade here so bring water, sunscreen and cover up. The parking lot gets very busy around 11:00-12:00 so this is a good hike to start by 09:00.
Oahu has great beaches that are all very accessible and I’ll focus on the ones that are the most suitable for casual ocean swimming.
Kailua Beach: Kailua Beach used to be our favorite until we discovered Lanikai Beach. Due to the ease of access and facilities (shower/bathroom), Kailua is a lot busier. It’s also the spot where many kayakers start their journey so if you’re planning on renting a kayak or a sand-up paddleboard, this is a good place to do so. The surf can be a little rough at times and since the beach faces east, there can be Portuguese-man-o-war jellyfish here at times so exercise caution.
Lanikai Beach: This is one of our favorite beaches in the world; white powder sand, clear calm aqua waters, and the scenic backdrop of the Mokolua Islands in the distance, you will have found paradise here. There isn’t a lot of shade and there are no facilities here so bring extra water to rinse your feet off. We have seen man-o-war jelly fish here too but less than on Kailua beach and since the water is very calm here, they are easier to spot. Other than the lack of facilities, families with small children will enjoy the conditions here a lot more and you can always drive to Kailua after to rinse off.
Waialae Beach: Near The Kahala resort is Waialae Beach Park. It’s not as nice as other beaches as the sand tends to be less soft and the water is shallower but it is a good spot for a beach picnic as they have lots of picnic tables and facilities (shower/bathroom).
Waikiki Beach: Waikiki Beach is the most popular beach on the island and also the most crowded because it is surrounded by many large resorts. It is a very swimmable beach that also offers other water activities like stand-up paddleboarding, outrigger canoeing, and surfing to name a few. In the last few years, a major sand reclamation project was completed in order to fight beach erosion that occurred. Sure, Waikiki beach can be crowded but it is possible to find a spot to relax and swim and just enjoy the view of Diamond Head in the background. The most annoying part of swimming here are the numerous catamarans that come in and out and require you to move so that they can dock on the beach.
Am I missing any great swimming beaches on this list? What is your favorite beach on Oahu?
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