What first comes to mind when you think of Hawaii? I bet you said beaches. However, I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to combine the best hikes in Hawaii with a refreshing swim at a stunning beach. A wonderful mix of my two favourite travel pastimes.
However, as this was my first trip to Hawaii, I couldn’t decide on which Island would be the best. It was so hard to decide. But luckily, I had time on my hands as I was between jobs, so I decided to visit all 4 islands in a 2-month time span. I spent about 11 days exploring each island.
And I’m so glad I did. Each island was so different and so unique that I still can't tell you which one is my favourite. But I did notice that my days consisted of the same activities. Hike one day, beach the next. Find another hike, then beach the following day. On some days, I was able to do a hike and beach combo. Each day showed me scenery so different and unique, that I couldn’t stop this cycle of travelling.
So in this blog, I’m sharing with you two of the best hikes and beach spots I did on each island. I'll admit, it was hard to choose favourites but for the sake of time, I have selected the highlights for you.
Dubbed as the garden isle, its full of lush greenery. That means rainfall practically every day (true in October) but it was so pretty to look at. Don’t worry, it's still swimming weather. When the sun comes out, it's extremely hot. But when its cloudy, its pleasant.
I stayed in the town of Kapa 'a, on the east coast. This is where you can wake up to the most magical sunrises. It's located just north of the main town of Lihue. So there were a few rocky town beaches scattered in-between.
But I wanted something different. Something away from tourists if it was at all possible.
#1 – Poipu & Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
Although Poipu Beach has no town centre as such, it is still a bundle of human activity. This part of the coastline is lined with a string of large hotel complexes, such as Hyatt, Marriott, Sheraton and Plantations. And so, the beach does attract mostly families.
However, if you venture further eastwards along the coast, you’ll find the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. This is where I got the best of both worlds. A scenic hike alongside rugged coastline and isolated beaches. A hike and beach all in one.
Park your car at Shipwrecks Beach, on the east side of Hyatt Hotel. You can see a couple of shipwrecks at the edge of the reef. This beach is more open to the ocean and therefore more waves. People were jumping off the nearby ledge. Go to this beach if you want to be away from families.
The trail follows along the picturesque coastline. Ramble along beaches, bays and rocky ledges. Then followed the edge of a golf course. About 2 miles in, you’ll come across a cool sinkhole oasis called Makauwahi Cave. Said hello to the turtles at turtle farm. Had the opportunity to climb over cliffs and watch natural blow holes.
Took us 3.5 hours to walk to the end, as we took so many photos and made a couple of swim stops. And only 1.5 hours to walk back.
TG Tip: to see more exciting blowholes, take a 10-minute drive up the road to Sprouting Horn. It does seem to excite the crowd. And was nice to watch the sunset over the ocean.
#2 – Polihale State Park and Waimea Canyon
Travelling on the west side of the island displays two different landscapes.
Driving along the coast the land becomes flatter. It's not lush and green like the rest of the island. I guess its because the clouds tend to disappear on this side and therefore its dryer.
For the most impressive and isolated beach, I would head to Polihale State Park. A short drive along bumpy, rutted and sometimes sandy road rewarded us with a stunning beach. It’s a long wide sandy beach with few people around. Probably because they recommend to drive the dirt tracks with a 4wd only.
The northern end of the beach is flanked with the mountains of the famous Na Pali coast (more details below). Such a stunning backdrop as we swam in the ocean. There were lots of waves and a very strong undercurrent, so do be aware.
After our morning swim, we decided to head inland for some hikes. And this is where the landscape changes back to the lush greenery. We headed to back to Waimea to visit the tourist info and to grab some lunch as there are no shops at Polihale. And then took the road inland to head towards Waimea Canyon State Park.
There are a couple of scenic lookout stops along the way. But the first main attraction for me was Waimea Canyon Lookout. It was quite spectacular to see the red dirt and green trees in interesting formations.
TG Tip: From the bottom end of the carpark, you can walk up to several ledges to take photos without a fence in the background.
But if you drive further into the park to Kalalau Lookout, you will be amazed that the Jurassic type mountains do actually exist. The rugged mountain formations with the ocean in the background was impressive. It's quite often under cloud, so you may need to visit twice like I did. First time it was clouded and raining and the next day it was full blue skies. From here, we did the unofficial Kalepa Ridge Trail.
At the Kalalau Lookout, follow the paved footpath to your left until you come to a gate. There will be no signs, but you can open it. The trail starts immediately. The first section is a steep climb down. As it had been raining in the morning, it was so muddy and slippery. The trail then levels off and we traversed the undulating ridge with lots of hairy muddy sections. There were a few narrow sections too where we were looking down a sheer drop. It was a little scary when the wind picked up as we crossed.
But the majestic views of the stunning ridge across the valley urged us to push on. After two hours (one hour without mud), we reached the end of the trail. Such stunning views over Honopu Beach and Kalalau Beach.
Although the views get better and better as you walk along the trail, it also gets more dangerous. So I caution you to hike only when it hasn’t been raining and have good sturdy hiking boots.
There are many other hiking trails that you can embark on, to further immerse yourself into the Jurassic feeling! Just grab a map from the Waimea Visitors Centre in the town of Waimea. I also enjoyed the Waipo Falls Canyon Trail.
#3 – Na Pali Coast
This is another case of the hiking trail following in close proximity to the beach. So it's easy to do a hike and beach in one day.
The Na Pali Coast State Wildnerness Park is located in the northern section of the island. And this is where we get to walk through the Jurassic wilderness. Known as the Kalalau Trail, it begins at Ke’e Beach. The full trail to Kalalau Beach is quite long and you really need to camp overnight before you return. So instead, we set off at 9am to complete the short version of the trail in three sections.
After this hot and steamy day, it was so lovely to run into the beach to sooth the poor muscles.
TG Tip: although there are public buses that circuit around the island, they are quite infrequent. Lucky to have one bus an hour on weekdays and every two hours on weekends. Therefore, would recommend hiring a car to save you time. Eg. To travel from Poipu Beach to Kapa’a took 3 buses and 1.5 hours!
TG Tip: be prepared for all types of weather. Have a rain jacket with you for the occasional spits of rain. However, the temperature is quite warm, especially when the sun peaks out from behind the clouds.
I found this island to be the busiest of all the islands. Probably because the capital of Honolulu is located here. And many tourists flock to the hotel lined Waikiki Beach. Never the less, you can still find beaches and hikes without another soul in sight! The following are the best hikes in Oahu in my view.
#1 – Makapu'u
What a gem. This is a simple place with a simple walk that can be easily reached by public transport. So if you don’t have a car, catch bus #23 from Waikiki main drag and get off at Sealife about 50 minutes later. Walk across the road to the inviting waters of Makapu’u Beach. The water is so blue and clear that we had to jump in for a swim immediately. It’s a beautiful quiet beach sheltered by palm trees. No hotels or high rises in sight to ruin the natural views. Best to go before 2pm to avoid the afternoon shade as the sun drops below the mountains behind you.
Flanked on one side of the beach is the rocky hill of Makapu’u Lookout and lighthouse. To get there we walked along the main road from the beach to the lookout carpark. Instead of taking the paved pathway to the top, we decided to be adventurous. So we tramped through a little track we found above the top carpark. The ground was soft and muddy in parts, as it rained all day the day before. And there were lots of prickly bushes but we made it and the views were worth it. Magnificent views of the mountainous landscape bordered by light blue coastal waters.
As we walked down to the lighthouse lookout, we could see tidal rocky pools below. Its not clear to see how to get down there, so we had to go searching. Walk down the paved pathway for a little bit until we cleared the steep cliffs. Then we really went bush cross country until we found a well-worn path to the rock pools.
A word of warning. Although we watched the waves for 20 minutes for safety, unfortunately we got caught by a rogue wave. It happened to crash over us at the precise moment we sat in one of the rock pools. It knocked me into rocks and I grazed my elbow and stubbed my toe. That was enough to start making our way back to the top. This time, from below we could see the whole track leading back up to the paved walkway. I would recommend viewing the rock pools from afar! We had another quick swim at the beach before catching the last #20 bus at 5.20pm.
#2 – Kokohead and Hanauma
This is another option to do a hike and beach in one day in the same area. Just catch bus #22 from Waikiki to Hanauma Bay carpark. Only takes 35 minutes.
I would recommend to do the Kokohead Trail first, so that you can then cool down later at the beach. It’s a tough hike to do in the heat of the day, so early morning (best for photos) or late afternoon is ideal. This hike is on old railway tracks instead of a path.
From the Hanauma Bay carpark, walk across the main highway and turn into Koko Head Park Road. Walk all the way to the end until you reach the trail head. There is a parking lot on Anapalau St if you have a car.
This trek is an old abandoned railway track going up a steep craters edge. We were walking up old sleepers of different sizes, widths and conditions. So it’s not an easy hike. It took me 40 minutes to get to the top while the fit were running it in 15 minutes. But the views were commanding. Sweeping panoramic views from Hanauma Bay to Honolulu and the inviting blue ocean.
After you finish the Kokohead trail, walk back down and across the highway to Hanauma Bay carpark. There are some great views of the bay from here. After you buy your entrance fee, you are directed to sit through a video explaining the park rules. Then you can either walk or take shuttle bus down to the beach for a swim or snorkel. You can hire snorkel gear and there are lockers. Unfortunately, the coral looks all dried and dead but you do see a good variety of fish fairly close to shore.
#3 - More hikes
I cannot let you leave this island without briefly mentioning two very worthwhile but strenuous hikes you must add to your list. On both these hikes we didn’t see another soul in sight!
Crouching Lion Hike:
If you’re staying in the north or east part of the island, this short steep hike is well worth the treat. Its located between Kahana State Park and the town of Kaaawa. Park at the small carpark at the headland apex and cross the road. After the road sign for cars ‘Do Not Pass’ there is a small path leading into the bush. It does have signs that the area is closed due to danger but it seems everyone walks straight through it.
Firstly you climb over a fallen tree and then it’s a very steep climb up for 20-25 minutes. You wouldn’t be able to do it if it's been raining as you will simply slide back down. At the top is the most amazing views of a bay, the coastline and a shallow reef, all in different turquoise colours.
Monalua Valley Trail
This is by far one of the best hikes in Hawaii, but without access to a beach! The first hour is walking along the valley on what seems like an access road. There are several concrete slabs that cross over the river bed. Count each one. After you cross the 17th concrete slab, keep walking until you see the sign for the Kulana’ahane Trail. DO NOT TAKE THIS ONE. Instead, walk another 5 metres past this sign and you’ll see an unmarked trail on your left, in-between the reeds. This is the actual Moanalua Middle Ridge Trail.
Brush through the reeds, cross the river bed with a large black rock in the middle. Then it’s approx 2 hours of walking up a steep ridge all the way to the top. It's fairly steep at times. Luckily there are ropes strategically placed to help you hoist yourself up or down.
As you get closer to the top, the views behind are spectacular and you can see the ocean to the left. From the top you have a birds eye view over the east coast, including Lanikai and Makapu’u.
Unfortunately, you cannot head back down via the Haiku Stairs (as its illegal). So, it's another 2 hour walk back to the valley floor and another hour to reach the carpark. For a more detailed account of the hike, we used The Outbound’s blog for directions so we wouldn’t get lost. It’s the most amazing hike in Oahu.
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I like to dissect this island in half, based on the two distinct mountains that make up this island. The touristy west side, where majority of the mega hotels and snorkeling tours are located. Especially around Lahaina. And the cool, chilled vibe of the east side, starting from Paia. This was my favourite side.
#1 – Road to Hana
I don’t really like doing touristy things but the Road to Hana is a definite must. This 65-mile (100km) highway showcases forests, different coloured beaches, lava tubes, waterfalls and more. Whether you have hired a car or join a van tour, it is hard to see all in one day. But I will share with you the highlights.
Black Sand Beach at Wai’anapanapa State Park is a must stop. It is the most amazing beach with black sand, deep blue waters and surrounded by light green vegetation. There is an easy 3-mile coastal trail for more scenic vantage points. Also add to your list the mini lava tube, in case you missed the Hana Lava tube further up the highway.
Hike + beach:
The quiet village of Hana is the end of the route proper. But before you turn back or continue going around the island on unpaved roads, I urge you to do a little hike. Locate Hana School and walk through the oval to the far side of the school. Follow the narrow trail around the rocky coastline. It can get tricky a couple of times but the scenery keeps you going. When you finally reach around the corner, you see the most amazing red sand beach surrounded by red cliffs. With the lava rocks forming a natural swimming pool, this hidden gem is stunningly beautiful.
TG Tip: I would highly recommend to stay overnight in Hana to give you ample time to leisurely explore the nearby Black and Red Sand beaches. I would recommend the Hana-Maui Resort if you want to treat yourself.
#2 – Waihee & the North West
Along the northern part of the island, Waihee Ridge Trail stands out as an impressive hike. The trail showcases jagged forested mountains and gorges, with the deep blue ocean in the background.
From the carpark, walk through the gate up a steep concrete path to the trail start. It is a well-maintained trail with steps in certain places. The hike is uphill most of the way. About 4 miles (6.4km) return hike. As it rains a lot, do expect it to be muddy and slippery.
Unfortunately for us, we walked through clouds and drizzle the whole time. But I did manage to snap a couple of interesting photos, so it was still worth the walk.
If you feel like driving further north along winding roads for one hour, then I would recommend DT Fleming Beach Park. A beautiful beach that isn't lined with hotels or apartments. Therefore, it's not so crowded. And it has waves, lots of waves. So, the surfers stay to the right, and swimmers to the left. We had a lot of fun jumping the waves. Do be careful of strong undercurrents.
TG Tip: Hawaiian Airlines is the major inter island airline and has more schedules. But I would recommend to try Mokulele Airlines at least once. They are smaller aircraft but they fly at lower altitude. Therefore, you have fantastic close-up views of the islands coast which is great for taking aerial shots.
As the name suggests, this is definitely the largest of the Hawaiian Islands. So, as there is a lot to see and do, here are my two favourite and best hikes in Big Island that lead down to beautiful beaches.
#1 – Captain Cook Monument Trail
This little sheltered snorkeling beach is only accessible by foot or boat tour. So of course, I did it by foot!
Follow the Alii Hwy south of Kona and turn right into Napoopoo Road. Park on the left about 10m down the road where all the other parked cars are. The trail is on the opposite side of the road marked with a Trail sign.
It’s a one-hour gradual walk downhill all the way. At times, you had to brush tall reeds out the way. Towards the end the landscape changes again as you are walking over lava rocks. Finally, you arrive at a rocky beach with a white monument. This is the place where Captain James Cook met his death. Australians know this name very well. Captain Cook also discovered Australia 8 years earlier before Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands).
Remember to bring with you some snorkeling gear. This bay was the best snorkeling I had done so far in Hawaii. It was clear water with brightly coloured coral and lots of fish. And bring lots of water too because its extremely hot when the sun comes out and you sweat a lot.
#2 – Green Sands Beach
Can you believe that there is actually a beach with green sand? Never seen it anywhere else in the world.
You need to drive down to the southernmost point of the island, which is aptly called South Point. Follow the S Point Road right to the end where there is a carpark and lots of beat up 4wd’s. The drivers will offer you a ride to Green Sands Beach for $10 per person. But we decided to hike the one-hour coastal trail instead. From the carpark head straight for the coast and you’ll see the trail veer to the left to follow the coast.
It is a very windy hike, with the wind is pushing against you for most of the way. But it was so worth it for amazing scenery. It's all grasslands with rocky lava coastlines and waves crashing on to it. Follow any of the 4wd tracks you see and suddenly you arrive at a ledge overlooking the Green Sands Beach. The striking colours of a steep decline to a green sand beach, turquoise waters and lava rock formations was stunningly beautiful.
There is a path that leads down to the beach so you can go for a swim. Then you can walk back out the same or you can save time like we did. We paid $10 to those same guys with their beat up 4wd trucks and sat in the back tray.
Which best hikes in Hawaii + beach combo would you choose?
These suggestions are just a snippet of what you can do on all the islands. But I feel these are the highlights. Which beach & hike combo would be first on your list on your next Hawaiian holiday?