Five Beautiful Hikes on Oahu not Too Far from Honolulu

There are no shortage of amazing hikes on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. While the main tourist routes tend to be teeming with busloads of visitors – if you want to get a real sense of what Oahu is like – you have to get off your butt, leave the road, and get some excercise. The following five hikes will have plenty of visitors on them – but not nearly the same numbers as you’ll find at places like the Dole Plantation, Waikiki Beach, or your favorite commerical luau. I’ve listed these hikes from most busy to least busy – though the last two may flip from time to time.

Hike Diamond Head

Diamond Head

Less than a mile from your Waikiki hotel room you will find yourself inside a volcanic crater. Diamond Head is almost always a bit of a crowded hike, but it’s worth it. Once inside you can wind your way up the trail, through the tunnels, and finally enjoy the absolutely epic views of Honolulu and the South Coast of Oahu. Don’t forget to bring water and make sure your camera batteries are fully charged before you go. The guy selling ‘I climbed Diamond Head’ shirts at the top was one of the first tourists I took up there back in 2001 – when we got up there he said ‘Someone should be selling shirts up here’ – later he took his own advice. The state has been unsuccessfully trying to shut him down ever since.

Makapu'u LighthouseMakapu’u Point

You won’t find nearly as many people at Makapu’u Point as you do at Diamond Head, but it’s still a pretty crowded hike because the state has paved the path and increased parking due to heavy demand. Why do people want to hike around this point? Easy – the views of the lighthouse, the contrast of the dry south coast and the wet windward side, and the epic views of Lanai, the Pineapple Island just twenty-two miles to the Southeast. There is no entry fee and this is an easy stroll.

Koko Head StairsKoko Head Stairs

The Koko Head Stairs are part of a city and county park complex. You shouldn’t attempt this one unless you are in at least decent physical condition. You are climbing a WWII era railway track that goes straight up the side of a volcano. Take plenty of water and make sure that you take breaks along the way. Unless you are a complete fitness master, you will get passed by marathoners, yoga masters, and other type-A athletic types all heading toward the amazing views of Hawaii Kai, Hanauma Bay, and Maui off in the distance.

Kapena Falls OahuKapena Falls

There are three reasons you won’t find big crowds on the Kapena Falls hike. None of those reasons have anything to do with a lack of beauty or interest. Kapena Falls is a gorgeous rainforest waterfall with a trail that offers ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, tropical flowers, and a very close proximity to Honolulu. That last bit is why there aren’t crowds on the trails. Parking is in a cemetary and commercial vehicles are banned. Also because it is close to town and populated areas it isn’t uncommon to come across homeless encampments on the trail to Kapena Falls. You may find local kids swimming and leaping off the cliffs into the falls – but you will also find health department signs warning that the water may be polluted.

Koko craterKoko Head Crater

Koko Head Crater should be a more crowded hike than it is. Essentially it’s a beautiful dryland botanical garden filled with flowers and interesting plants inside an extinct volcanic crater. There is no entrance fee and no parking fee. I’ve never figured out why the crowds don’t go to Koko Head Crater – but their loss is your gain. Bring water, wear good walking shoes, and take your time. You can learn a lot about Hawaii in this crater.

Hike Oahu’s Diamond Head Volcano then Surf Diamond Head Break in Hawaii

As a guide, one of the top requests I get is to ‘see Diamond Head’ – which is funny, because often when I get the request – it’s in Waikiki where Diamond Head is most visible!  Diamond Head is just one of those monuments that people have heard of but don’t really know what it is – sometimes they know it’s a volcano, sometimes they know it’s a hike, sometime’s they know it’s a surf break – but Diamond Head is that and more. It’s also a neigborhood, a road, a direction, a crater, a park, a National Guard base, a historic military lookout, a lighthouse – and quite frankly – an experience and feeling – a sense of actually being in Waikiki.

Geologically speaking, Diamond Head is a tuff cone volcano that last erupted about 400,000 years ago. The Hawaiians called it Le’ahi which means ‘forehead of the tuna’ and from Waikiki – that’s exactly what it looks like. Western sailors gave it the current name because it was a visible landmark from sea – also known as a ‘head’. The shape of the top is roughly diamond shape which makes sense to me but there are other stories about sailors finding calcite crystals they thought were diamonds and even about the way the light refracted off of it at sunset.  At it’s tallest point, it is 762 feet tall (232 m). Diamond Head was the last gasp of the Oahu volcanos and took place millions of years after the main island-forming eruptions of the Ko’olau and Waianae Volcanos. The Pali Lookout sits at the top of the Ko’olau Volcano rim – sometimes people get the lookouts confused.

In modern times, the crater and nearby areas outside the crater were part of the U.S. Army’s Fort Ruger. Today there is still a National Guard Unit and Hawaii Civil Defense inside the crater. It was used as a lookout point for the U.S. Military in Hawaii during both world wars and the pillboxes at the top of the popular interior hike are the remnants of those bygone days.

Diamond Head is a U.S. National Monument and Natural Landmark – so it is protected. In the 1960s and 70s there were huge Woodstock style concerts in the crater with the likes of Jimmy Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, and more.  I would have loved seeing the Grateful Dead in there.

Today, most people who come to Diamond Head want to do the hike. It is less than a mile each direction but with some serious elevation gain (about 560 feet). Bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen,  and take breaks if you need to. The trail was built in 1908 by the U.S. Army. In ancient times, there was a Heiau (temple) dedicated to the God of Winds up near where tourists take in the view today. You’ll see why – so hold onto your hat! Admission is $5 per car if driving or $1 per person if walking. It is open every day of the year from 6am to 6pm with last entrance at 4:30 pm daily.

Parking is cheap but you may have to wait for a few minutes. To get there just drive up Diamond Head Road to Kapiolani Community College and turn right at the sign, drive through the tunnel into the crater, and pay for parking at the gate.

After you take the hike, drive back out through the tunnel and continue on around Diamond Head’s exterior. You will find several pullouts where you can take in the view of the surf on one side and the exterior of the Volcano on the other. Between the lookouts and the Diamond Head Lighthouse which is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard – you will see a trail that leads down to the surf break. Diamond Head is one of the most consistant and popular surf breaks on the island of Oahu. You will have to hike your board down (and back up) but it will be worth it. If you just want to watch the surfers, the lookout with the Amelia Earhardt memorial is the best spot.

Further down the road, you will enter the Diamond Head neighborhood, one of Oahu’s most exclusive and expensive places to live. Just a bit further and you will be back in Waikiki at Kapiolani Community Park. Don’t forget to turn around and enjoy the beauty and grace of Diamond Head as you enjoy Waikiki.

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