Oahu is the most populated of all the Hawaiian Islands, housing about 75% of the state’s population. Home to Waikiki Beach, Pearl Harbor, a unique food scene, and countless hikes, Oahu really does have something for everyone. In this blog post, we are going to go over the top adventurous activities in Oahu that you do not want to miss!
First things first, let’s talk about setting your trip up for success. Where should you stay? How long should you visit? Do you need to rent a vehicle? Is camping an option? Well, this all depends on what’s on your to-do list in terms of activities in Oahu.
If you’re like us, you’re probably not looking for the “average tourist” Hawaiian holiday.
I might be going out on a limb here, but I’m assuming you’ve arrived at this blog post because a) the title says “epic outdoor activities in Oahu” —and you’re all about the adventure— or b) you are familiar with our type of travel and came by to see what we would recommend.
Either way, WELCOME! We could not be more stoked to have you here.
When it comes down to it, the length of your trip, where you should stay, and whether or not you need a vehicle will all depend on your activity level and what kind of things you are interested in doing.
For example, if you are looking to lay by the pool, relax on the beach, and soak up the good food and sunshine while you completely unwind, you can get away with not having a vehicle. Your ideal duration will be 5-9 days and you can choose to stay anywhere on the island as long as you are happy with your hotel’s amenities.
In contrast, if you are looking to hike, surf, dive, kayak, and take a few tours, 10 days to two weeks is more realistic. In this instance you will certainly want to rent a car—check out Turo for budget rentals— and you will want to stay closest to the majority of things you want to do!
These are the 3 most common areas to stay in Oahu:
Waikiki is a great place to stay for convenience, but it is certainly the most crowded and touristy area. There are infinite food, accommodation, and shopping options while being close to the airport and a ton of great hikes. It is easy enough to rent a vehicle if you want to make day trips to explore the rest of the island from here.
The North Shore
On the flip side, the north shore has a laid-back vibe with fewer hotels, mouth-watering food trucks, and incredible beaches. The north shore is my personal favourite place to spend the day, and there are a few great beachfront campgrounds that make exploring this area easy! Although less populated than Honolulu, the north shore can get very busy, especially at rush hour and on weekends!
The East Coast
The east coast of Oahu is filled with charming towns and gorgeous beaches. They do have a number of hotels along this stretch if you are looking for a bit of a quieter vacation. The only downside of staying here is that you may not have great access to the highway running from Honolulu to the north shore through the middle of the island. All that means is you will spend a bit of extra time driving the scenic single lane road that winds around the perimeter of the island.
I have camped through Oahu as well as stayed at a nice resort in Waikiki. Honestly, the island is super accessible either way, it just depends on the type of vacation you want to have. Camping is incredibly budget-friendly if you enjoy it and don’t mind hauling your gear to Hawaii. Plus, almost all of the campgrounds are beachfront!
Now that we’ve got the housekeeping items out of the way, let’s get into it! Below are our favourite adventurous activities in Oahu, Hawaii!
Hike Kuli’ou’ou Ridge Trail
Without a doubt, a hike is number one on our list of activities on Oahu. The lush cliffs and ridges in Hawaii are unlike anywhere I have ever been before. This place is paradise!
This 6.5-kilometre out and back hike is truly one of our favourites in all of Hawaii. The entire trail is incredibly beautiful and the views from the top are out of this world. For the first few kilometres, the trail consists of switchbacks in the trees while you make your way up from the valley floor.
During this time, there are a few areas where the trees break up and you can start to see some of the unbelievable ridge lines in the area. From there, the trail gets more and more exposed as you make your way up some stairs.
Once you finally make it to the top, you will be rewarded with a picturesque view of the island. The summit offers a ton of space to spread out and take in the beauty of Oahu while recuperating from your journey up. There is also an option to hike past the summit to an incredible viewpoint, check out this post for more details!
Snorkel With Sharks
This one honestly took a LOT of convincing on my part, but in the end, I am so happy that we had this once-in-a-lifetime experience. David and I have dove with small reef sharks in the past, but it did not prepare me in the slightest for this day.
One Ocean Diving is a research and conservation-based tour company providing a ton of education and interactions with many types of sharks including the whitetip reef shark, the blacktip reef shark, the sandbar shark, and occasionally hammerhead and tiger sharks.
The staff is very knowledgeable and we felt very safe the entire time. Well… as safe as you can possibly feel being a few feet away from a 12-foot shark!
Kayak to The Kaneohe Sandbar
The Kaneohe Sandbar is located about 1 mile off the east coast of Oahu near Kahaluu. Only accessible by boat or kayak, this is a great morning adventure where you can swim, snorkel, and take in the views of the island.
The Kaneohe Sandbar is quite large — 3 miles (4.8 km) long and 1 mile (1.6 km) wide — leaving tons of space to spread out and have a secluded experience. HINT: Make sure to check the tides before you go! At low tide, the sand is completely exposed and you can lay out on the beach. At high tide, however, the entire sandbar is covered in 2-3 feet of water.
We rented a kayak, life jackets, snorkel gear, and a dry bag from Kama’aina Kayak and Snorkel Eco-Ventures. By leaving shore an hour before low tide, we were able to enjoy the sandbar for a lengthy period of time. We then finished off with some snorkelling as the tide came back in. Although this takes a little extra organization, it is truly one of our favourite activities in Oahu!
NOTE: There is no shade or place to change once you arrive. Snacks, lots of water, reef-safe sunscreen and a dry bag are a must!
Hike to Lulumahu Falls
Lulumahu falls is gorgeous cascading waterfall in the middle of the forest. The trailhead is right off of the Pali Highway and it only takes 30-45 minutes to reach the falls. AllTrails says this hike is 1.6 miles (2.6km) & 284 meters of elevation gain, though it felt like much less to us! After wondering through the forest and along a river, you will arrive at this 50 foot waterfall. Don’t forget to bring your swimsuit, you can swim at the base.
NOTE: Because it is located just off the highway, the parking lot for this hike is notorious for theft. Don’t leave anything valuable in your vehicle to minimize the risk of a break-in!
Catch The Views From Above
This helicopter tour was truly one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had while traveling! I would highly recommend choosing the “doors off” option because you feel completely immersed in the remarkable scenery around you. We could actually feel the mist from the waterfalls. It was surreal. Although this is one of the more expensive activities in Oahu, it is one thousand percent worth every penny.
Try The Food Trucks
Wondering if it’s possible to eat a ton of fantastic food without breaking the bank on your trip to Hawaii? You’re in luck! Oahu has several unbelievable food trucks and great cheap eat restaurants. From açai bowls to steam bun sandwiches, this island really does have something for everyone. The north shore was home to most of our favourites, but you can find little gems in every town around the island!
Learn to Surf
Hawaii is known for its surfing and Oahu has some excellent spots for beginners! You can easily rent a board or take a lesson on numerous beaches around the island, but some places are much better than others. For more information on which beaches are best for learning, check out this post.
The Stairway to Heaven Hike
The Haiku Stairs, commonly known as the “Stairway to Heaven”, offer a jaw-dropping, iconic view over the landscape of Oahu. Many eager hikers travel to this Hawaiian island with hopes of getting to experience this unbelievable trail for themselves.
The staircase is more like a ladder in many parts and not much wider than you or I. Climbing almost 2,500 feet along one of the most beautiful ridge lines in Oahu is absolutely exhausting! We stopped every few minutes to catch our breath and soak up the views.
Unfortunately, the stairs have actually been closed to the public and deemed illegal since 1987. So how is it that you keep seeing recent photos of hikers summiting this incredible peak? We get into all of that and more in this blog post.
Snorkel in Sharks Cove
If snorkelling wasn’t on your list of activities in Oahu before, bump it up to the top! It is cheap, easily accessible, and Hawaii is chock full of sea life! Rent some gear or bring your own and swim out to one of the many snorkel spots just offshore. Sharks Cove is located on the north shore and is named because of its “hammerhead appearance” from above.
There are several amazing snorkel spots around the island — including the famous Hanauma Bay — but Sharks Cove was our favourite! Fewer people, tons of turtles, a laid-back beach, and amazing food trucks right across the street. How can you say no to that?
Take a Catamaran Tour
A catamaran tour is a great way to spend a day or an evening in Oahu. There are several options to choose from including snorkel-based trips, sunset sails, and even moonlight trips to mix things up. Most of these tours promise sea life sightings and include lunch, drinks, and a relaxing afternoon.
Explore The Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden
In 1982, this garden was actually designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide flood protection for Kāneʻohe. Today, the grand palm-lined entrance with the Koolau Mountain Range backdrop is gaining a ton of attention on social media and there’s no question why.
Other main attractions include a picturesque lake, numerous walking trails, and a variety of plants from around the globe on this 400-acre plot of land. The gardens are free to visit and, without a doubt, one of the can’t-miss activities in Oahu.
A Day Trip to Lanikai Beach & The Mokulua Islands
Lanikai Beach has consistently been rated the most beautiful beach in Oahu and I am inclined to agree. The soft white sand leading into a turquoise oasis with mystical islands in the background is hard to beat. This little slice of paradise is an excellent place to spend the day, but there is limited parking so get there early.
If you are up for more of an adventure, Lanikai Beach is a great access point for The Mokulua islands (AKA Na Mokulua or The Mokes). Located 3/4 a mile (1.2km) offshore, you can kayak out to the larger island, Moku Nui. Here you will find incredible snorkelling, monk seals sunbathing, and a stunning white sand beach.
Please note that these islands are protected seabird sanctuaries. The entire small island and a large portion of the large island are off-limits to people. For more information on how to get there via kayak, permit information, and more, check out this very helpful blog post!
The Lanikai Pillbox Hike
Lanikai Pillbox Trail, also known as Kaiwa Ridge, is the best bang for your buck hike in all of Oahu! The trailhead is a few blocks away from Lanikai Beach and the 1.6 mile (2.6km) trail brings you up to an incredible lookout over Lanikai Beach, the Na Mokulau Islands, and the entire coastline. This hike gets its name from the pillbox buildings located at the top of the 191 meter climb.
This would be an incredible sunrise hike as you would see the sun coming up over the horizon. When we visited at around 5 PM, there were several paragliders floating on the breeze near the summit which was magical to watch.
Hang Out on The North Shore
The North Shore of Oahu is known for its surfing, snorkelling, and the fifty-one beaches that span over 11 miles along this incredible coastline. You can catch professional surfing contests at Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach or snorkel alongside tropical marine life. Make sure to stop in at as many food trucks, surf shops, and art galleries as you can while exploring this laid-back piece of coastline.
Visit The Waimea Botanical Garden
The Waimea Botanical Garden is located on the north shore and features a diverse ecosystem of plants as well as a beautiful waterfall. There is a fee to enter and you can choose to pay extra to take a shuttle to Waimea Falls if you have mobility issues.
If you are able, I would highly recommend walking through the garden instead of driving. In total, the paved trail to and from the falls is 1.9 miles (3.1km) with about 83m of elevation gain. Bring your bathing suit and jump in the water to cool off once you arrive!
Camping is a great way to save money while experiencing the natural beauty of Oahu. With most campgrounds being right on the ocean and only $3-6 USD per person per night, you really can’t go wrong! Although this does mean you will have to either pack or buy camping gear, you will more than make up for the cost of a hotel after just one night.
Hike The Pali Notches
The Pali Notches is known for being one of the most dangerous and stunning hikes in Oahu. The steep and rocky cliffs offer panoramic views of the island and a thrilling climb for those daring enough to attempt it. Although short, this hike is anything but easy and is only recommended for advanced hikers and climbers.
First, you will make your way up a steep and muddy tree-covered slope to the first viewpoint. From there, the trail becomes much more exposed and the views get better by the minute. As you scale along the ridge up to the first notch, your footing becomes important and looking down over the edge becomes petrifying. The views out over the ocean, however, are out of this world!
IMPORTANT: Weather plays a crucial role in the safety of many trails in Hawaii and I cannot stress that enough! Are the winds howling? Is it pouring rain? Is the ground muddy and slippery? Wait it out. For the Pali Notches hike, the views don’t really improve as you proceed to climb the second notch and the “chimney”, just the risk.
Hiking rule #1: Feel confident in what you are doing and don’t push yourself past that point. Trust your gut, it’s just not worth the risk.
Relax With a Day of Beach Hopping
As much as we recommend trying all the activities that Oahu has to offer, it’s also important to give yourself a few rest days during your trip. Oahu is a goldmine for stunning beaches, so why not take advantage of it? Spend the day checking out different pieces of coastline and enjoying the sun, sand, and beautiful blue ocean!
You are sure to have a great time no matter where you go, but a few of my favourites are Lanikai Beach, Three Tables Beach, Waimea Bay Beach, Sunset Beach and Kailua Beach.
Visit The Byodo-In Temple
This one isn’t exactly an adventurous activity, but it’s a peaceful place to stop for some photos and a little walk. This temple is a replica of a historic Japanese Buddhist temple featuring manicured grounds and meditation sites. The road to the temple is absolutely stunning! It costs around $10 USD to enter, but in my opinion, it’s well worth the fee.