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For the nature lover, the Hawaiian Island of Oahu has got it all: beautiful beaches, clear and warm waters, lush greenery, breathtaking scenic overlooks, and more. But if you never leave Honolulu – and many people don’t – you’re only getting a small glimpse of what’s waiting to be discovered.
Here is just a sampling of some spectacular places to explore nature in Oahu – all of which require you to venture beyond Waikiki Beach.
Best Hike: Makapu’u Point Lighthouse TrailSure, the views from the top of Diamondhead are postcard perfect. But from the lookout point at the end of the two-mile round trip Makapu’u Point Lighthouse trail, you’ll see not only amazing views of Oahu’s southeastern coastline (including both Koko Head and Koko Crater), but also a historic red-roofed lighthouse set against the backdrop of the deep blue sea below. Not too shabby – and you won’t have to deal with those pesky tourists.
The easy hike involves a steady uphill climb to a 500-foot elevation and takes about two hours to complete. If you time it right, you might spot a humpback whale during its migration (November through May).
Best Swim-Up Waterfall: Waimea ValleyWaimea Valley’s 1,800 acres include ferns, flowering plants like the hibiscus, birds, stream life (including native fish, shrimp, and mollusks). Add to that the big draw for many – Waimea Falls – and it’s easy to see why outdoor lovers are eager to visit.
Visitors can actually swim up to Waimea Falls (made famous by the hit show, Lost). There’s no additional fee to swim and lifeguards can provide life jackets to those who want them.
What makes Waimea Valley even more unique is its focus on giving guests the chance to experience Hawaiian culture in a natural environment. You’ll encounter cultural, botanical, ecological, and historical wonders - like a fully restored heiau (temple) that dates back to 1470 AD.
Best Rainforest: Lyon ArboretumLyon Arboretum is the only accessible tropical rainforest on Oahu. Just minutes from Waikiki Beach, visitors are transported to another environment completely. You’ll hike through a canopy of trees, hear the sounds of unfamiliar squawking birds, and spot brilliant flowers in all shapes, colors and sizes.
The one-and-a-half-mile round trip hike along the Main Trail to Aihualama Falls is the way to go. But don’t forget to let yourself wander along the way. The highlight for most is the view from Inspiration Point, marked on the trail map as simply a photo opp. It shouldn’t be missed.
Best Spot to Be a Kid Again: The Outdoor Maze at Dole PlantationWho would have thought the world’s largest maze – and one of only few permanent botanical mazes in the U.S. – would be found on a pineapple plantation in Hawaii?
The outdoor maze at Dole Plantation stretches over three acres and includes nearly two-and-a-half miles of paths crafted from some 14,000 local Hawaiian plants.
Your assignment, should you accept it, is to uncover all eight of the maze’s secret stations, obtain the requisite stencils, and complete the hunt. (They post daily times to beat at the entrance, so this isn’t just kid’s stuff.) As you seek your treasure, you are surrounded by the flora of the islands. There are colorful Hawaiian flowers, local birds aplenty, and butterflies galore waiting to be discovered throughout the maze’s twists and turns.
Best Tourist Trap Worth the Visit: Hanauma Bay Nature PreserveHanauma Bay Nature Preserve is one of the most spectacular natural resources in Hawaii. But when I visited years ago, there were no policies in place to limit the number of visitors to the area or to protect the wildlife.
Recognizing the damage done by years of neglect and abuse by visitors, the City and County of Honolulu laid out a plan some years ago to restore Hanauma to a much more pristine condition. The result is more controlled oversight of the bay.
I am happy to report these days Hanauma is a fabulously beautiful beach with a calm inner reef and plenty of tropical fish. Plus, the outer reef has coral gardens and green sea turtles in addition to amazing reef fish. You can bring your own snorkeling gear or rent it for a small fee.
Photos: Debi Huang
What’s your favorite place to visit in Oahu? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Awesome, awesome! We are heading to Oahu in October and I was looking for just this sort of info. Thanks!
I love Oahu, too! My sister-in-law has lived there for several years. Not far from Waimea Falls, be sure to visit the Waimea Valley Audubon Center, a park full of strolling paths, native trees gorgeous orchids and Waihi Falls, where you can also go for a swim.
@Erin: You're going to Hawaii this fall?!? Yay! Like Alaska, there's much to see & do on Oahu. The trick is getting off the beaten path.
@Melanie: Waimea Valley was one of our favorite spots, for sure!
Just last week my husband and I took the great (paved trail) hike up to the Makapuu Lighthouse AND snorkeled in Hanauma Bay. Totally agree these are great excursions on Oahu.
Unfortunately, Waimea Valley was *closed* due to heavy rains -- the water coming over the famous waterfall washed out a bridge! So, we couldn't visit, but it's on our list for next time we make it to Oahu. Would love to return.