The popular Hawaiian Island of Oahu is best known for Waikiki Beach and the North Shore, but it's also home to some of the most scenic hikes in the USA. The island's distinguishable ridges and craters offer up dozens of incredible panoramic vistas, and while many trails are too extreme for most tourists, there are a handful of beginner-friendly hikes that still turn out amazing views to satisfy the most discerning adventurers.
The main thing to know with Hawaiian trails is that some are unmaintained by the government and considered "enter at your own risk" or completely off limits—like the Haiku Stairs, made instafamous for its dilapidated, dizzying stairwell up a ridge that's now monitored by security guards who issue $1000 fines to trespassers. The risk often lies in the muddy or crumbly ridges where even experienced locals have fallen and died. The Olomana Peaks and Crouching Lion trails are such trails known for their views and fatalities, and while we've hiked them and they can be safe'ish in the right conditions, we'll keep this list focused on the ones most appropriate for the risk-averse.
Here are the best day hikes on Oahu for families and the novice hiker:
Lanikai Pillbox Trail
A quick, fun climb for an incredible pano coastal view - my fav!
Skill level: Moderate - popular for families and dogs
Location: The small ridge line above Lanikai Beach in Kailua, 45 min from Waikiki (Google Maps link)
Best time of day: Sunrise!
Roundtrip distance: 2 miles
Duration: Approx. 20 min each way, plus time to take in views
Parking: street parking along Aalapapa Dr.
This is a short trail that starts in a neighborhood and has a quick, steep ascent up the side of a small ridge (500 ft). The trail is very slippery if muddy after a recent rain. Once you get through the brush in the beginning (10 min), the clearing offers panoramic views of the Kailua coastline. The unofficial terminus is a set of two pillboxes, or concrete lookouts, where people congregate to watch sunrise. The path winds further along the top of the ridge for an easy walk to catch more views or escape the crowds at the pillboxes.
Koko Head Crater Trail
A quick-yet-intense leg workout with epic views for those who can handle stairs
Skill level: Moderate to Hard - decent shape and capable of literally 1 mile straight up stairs, popular for families (surprisingly, since kids seem to enjoy climbing up the big stairs)
Location: Next to Hanauma Bay in an recreational park, 30 min from Waikiki (Google Maps link)
Best time of day: Sunrise and late afternoon/sunset
Roundtrip distance: 2 miles
Duration: Up to 60-90 min, plus time to enjoy the views at the top
Parking: There is a large parking lot near the trailhead
This is the most unique trail IMO - a decommissioned railroad that scales up the backside of the Koko Head Crater. The trail itself is the actual railroad ties (wood planks), so this is not a typical graded dirt path. There is dirt between most ties, but there is a stretch of about 50 feet where there is nothing between them, as the old train track is suspended a few meters above the ground. This may warrant a mini freakout for most of us, but it's very doable if you take your time. There's approximately 1000 steps to the top, so it's an intense stair workout... make sure you don't have any active knee issues. There is a large mix of people on the trail, ranging from students and tourists, to families with young kids, and impressively fit older folks who will run past you. The views at the top are truly epic and especially popular at sunrise. Crowds can be gnarly and there's no coverage for sun, so earlier the better. There is also an extended trail that continues on across the full ridge line of the crater but that's too intense to list in this category of doable trails. The terminus for this one is the lookout point at the end of the stairs.
Hanauma Bay Lookout Trail
Minimal effort for the best views of the iconic bay
Skill level: Easy, mostly paved uphill trail with dirt offshoot paths at top
Location: Hanauma Bay (Google Maps link)
Best time of day: Early morning (like 6-7am early) or late afternoon
Roundtrip distance: Approx. 1 mile
Duration: Approx. 30 min, plus time to meander and take photos
Parking: Hanauma Bay visitor parking. Arrive around 6am to park for free otherwise it's $7.50/pp after 7am - plus the 300'ish parking spots are usually all taken by then. Parking eases up again in late afternoon and closes at 7pm most days.
This is the easiest scenic trail around. It's an easy asphalt road that climbs up the backside of Hanauma Bay, offering amazing views of the entire bay, Koko Head Crater and down the coastline. There is a sign that says "don't enter" - ignore it. Everyone does, it's a very popular hike. While this one is technically unsanctioned (illegal) it's not dangerous nor does anyone ever get in trouble for using it. There are dirt trails that branch off from the road that you can explore. Makes for incredible photos, especially during golden hour (the hour after sunrise and before sunset). The parking is no joke. It will likely fill up before 7am, so if you can't make it early, plan on an afternoon hike after 3-4pm'ish. Either way, the early/late sun lighting over this bay is quite magical.
Diamond Head Crater Summit Trail
Heavily trafficked and minimally scenic trail with iconic views at the end
Skill level: Easy, mostly paved stairs/trail includes restroom and food/water facilities
Location: 10min from Waikiki (Google Maps link)
Best time of day: Early morning, when parking opens at 6am (entrance closes at 4:30pm)
Roundtrip distance: Approx. 2 miles
Duration: About 1 hour plus breaks
Parking: There's a parking lot halfway up the crater for the visitor center and trails. It fills up within an hour or so after it opens at 6am, and locks up at 6pm. Parking is $5/car and entrance to the park is $1/person.
Fair warning: This is not necessarily a scenic trail, but the view at the end is an incredible full pano of the Waikiki area. It's a relatively easy, paved stairwell suitable for anyone of modest fitness levels. It will also be very crowded starting around 8am through 2 or 3pm, due to it's popularity and proximity to Waikiki. But as far as iconic views go, this is on most tourists' to-do list. If you have a couple hours to spare and don't mind paying the fees, it is a very pleasant photo opp at the top. Just avoid the crowds and sun during midday.
Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail
Easy, family-friendly walk to a scenic overlook
Skill level: Easy, fully paved uphill trail suitable for strollers or running
Location: Near Hanauma Bay, 30min from Waikiki (Google Maps link)
Best time of day: Early morning/sunrise or late afternoon/sunset
Roundtrip distance: 2.5 miles
Duration: About 1-1.5 hours plus breaks
Parking: There's a parking lot at the bottom of the trail that often fills up by mid-morning leaving people to park on the main highway. Beware of break-ins, they're very common here.
Additional Trail info: AllTrails link
This is a heavily trafficked asphalt trail that gently climbs a hill to an overlook of a lighthouse and the coastline. It is very accessible for wheelchairs and strollers, and makes for a great hill run. Probably best suited for late afternoon/sunset as there's zero sun shade. Not the most dramatic of views, but it's a great couple hours out enjoying the ocean views without the challenges or effort of a dirt trail.
Manoa Falls Trail
A family-friendly, forested trail with a large waterfall at the end
Skill level: Easy, kid-friendly nature walk
Location: 25min inland from Waikiki (Google Maps link)
Best time of day: Early morning or late afternoon to avoid crowds
Roundtrip distance: 1.5 miles
Duration: About 1 hour
Parking: There is a $5 parking lot at the trailhead, plus street parking a 1/4 mile prior
Additional Trail info: AllTrails link
This is more of a nature walk than the typical steep hike, and it uniquely offers shade from the sun with big, lush trees. It can get quite muddy, so bring appropriate shoes if it's rained recently. The tropical landscape makes for a scenic stroll, and the waterfall at the end is a great photo opp (no swimming allowed). There's also a botanical garden and a second waterfall hike near the parking lot that has high reviews as well.
Hopefully you enjoy your time in the mountains as much as your time on the beach. Just remember to bring sunblock, lots of water, hiking shoes that can get muddy, and a hat - and never leave valuables in your car!