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O’ahu’s Best Basecamps for Hiking and Swimming

By: Hipmunk + Save to a List

Hiking on O’ahu is a popular and rewarding pastime thanks to the island’s natural beauty, diversity of landscapes, and killer vistas. And what better way to reward oneself for completing a trek than to take a cool dip afterwards or along the way? Check out these suggestions for hike + swim combos that will put you alongside locals and take you to some unique, off-the-beaten-path swimming spots. We’ve also matched them with hotels that can serve as your relaxing base camps for each adventure.

1. Maunawili Falls Trail

Photo: Chris Aguilera

If you’re in the mood for a lush jungle hike, head to Maunawili on the Windward Side of the island, about a thirty-minute drive from Waikiki. The trailhead is located off the Pali Highway at the very end of Maunawili Road, and it’s about 3.2 miles through covered rainforest to the falls, where hikers are rewarded with a sizable natural swimming hole. Swim under the pounding water for an au naturel massage, jump off the roughly fifteen-foot ledge, or venture above to a higher pool if feeling even more adventurous (all at your own risk, of course). It rains frequently in the area so the trail is often muddy and slippery; make sure to wear shoes you won’t mind getting very dirty.

Base Camp: The Moana Surfrider. One perk of vacationing on O’ahu is that its small size makes any adventure doable as a day trip. Any of the Waikiki area hotels serve as excellent base camps for hikes on the southern and eastern sides of the island, and the classy and historic Moana Surfrider is no exception.

2. Makapu’u Lighthouse + Cliff Jumping at Alan Davis

Photo: Lisa Bao

The Makapu’u Lighthouse sits on a cliff at the southeastern-most tip of the island. It’s an easy, short hike (more of a walk, really) with a paved road and convenient parking lot at the bottom, but don’t write it off too quickly—the ocean vista is spectacular, and on clear days you can usually see the western coast of Moloka’i in the distance. Afterwards, turn off the beaten path and make your way to the coastline on the south side of the pu’u (hill). Simply leave your car parked in the trailhead lot and take the small trail that leads downhill instead. After about ten minutes you’ll find yourself at a rocky shoreline with telephone poles conveniently stuck into the rock faces, ready to be jumped off of into pristine inlets. Make sure to jump at high tide to ensure the proper depth.

Base Camp: When not adventuring outdoors, it’s easy to spend all day at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, thanks to its multiple pools, shops, restaurants, and easy access to Waikiki.

3. Koko Head Stairs

Photo: Kanaka Menehune

This challenging hike climbs straight up the face of Koko Crater, the taller of two adjacent volcanic hills. Be prepared to work your thighs and glutes, since the trail consists entirely of stairs formed by an old funicular track. Luckily, the roughly 1200-foot climb takes most people only around 45 minutes to ascend, and the panoramic view at the top is breathtaking. Go early in the morning for cooler temperatures and make sure to bring sunscreen and water regardless, since there’s no cover. Afterwards, drive through the Portlock neighborhood on the south side of Koko Head (the hill that juts out into the ocean) and look for parking near Hanapepe Loop before making your way past the houses to China Walls. This popular local hangout and surf spot consists of a flat shelf of rock at the edge of the water. Jumpers only—there’s no easing yourself in here. If shallow water is more your style, famous snorkeling spot Hanauma Bay is nestled in on the other side of Koko Head.

Base Camp: Stay in the more secluded Kahala Hotel & Resort for an easy twenty-minute drive past the Hawai’i Kai Marina to Koko Head.

4. Waimea

Photo: Brian Heifferon

Waimea isn’t exactly unknown to tourists, but a day exploring the lush North Shore valley and bay offers an opportunity to dip in both fresh and salt water. Pay a fee at the Waimea Valley visitors’ center for access to the botanical gardens and a 1.5-mile trail that ends at a swimmable waterfall. Then, cross Kamehameha Highway to Waimea Bay Beach Park, where swimmers often spot sea turtles and sometimes dolphins, and where a large rock leading from the beach out into the water makes for perfect cliff jumping. This outing is best on a weekday, since beach parking can fill up quickly on weekends.

Base Camp: Turtle Bay is situated in Kahuku on the northern tip of the island, and is by far the most convenient resort for all of the North Shore’s attractions.

5. Pillbox Trail + Lanikai Beach

Photo: Brooke Wilson

Back on the east side (or “Windward Side”) of the island, locals enjoy getting their blood flowing in Lanikai by trekking up to the Pillboxes before hitting the beach. The Pillboxes are a couple of bunker-like structures strewn along what’s officially known as the Kaiwi Ridge Trail. Park along Kaelepulu Drive or the adjacent neighborhood streets to find the trailhead, and climb atop the roofs of the pillboxes for unrivaled views of Kaneohe Bay, the Mokulua Islands, and Waimanalo Bay. Then, head down to Lanikai Beach for swimming, kayaking, or kite surfing along its pristine white sand shore dotted with palm and ironwood trees.

Base Camp: The Sheraton Waikiki offers a relaxing resort environment, and is a scenic forty-minute drive from Lanikai through the mountains on the Pali Highway. Alternatively, take the long way round (about one hour) on Kalanianaole Highway, which will provide a different kind of scenery by taking you along the shore past Koko Head, Makapu’u, Sandy Beach, and Waimanalo.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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