Hawaii is known for some amazing natural sites. Among them are the waterfalls of the Honolulu Watershed. The two most popular waterfalls accessible to tourists on Oahu are Manoa Falls and Maunawili Falls. The trails are maintained by the city and county of Honolulu, so they are safe, but also rocky and wet. It is Hawaii and rain can happen anytime, from a drizzle to a downpour. So be prepared for rain anytime you hike in Hawaii.
Related: What is a Watershed?
While Manoa Falls is closer to Honolulu, both trails are only a 30-minute drive, in good traffic conditions. The waterfalls are about 16 miles away from each other. Unless you are an experienced hiker, I do not recommend doing both on the same day.
History of Honolulu Watershed Forest
This area has been inhabited for at least 600 years, some remains of ancient lava rock retaining walls still exist. But as the population changed in the region it became occupied by corporate farms and ranches. The cattle industry and corporate farming devastated the once pristine forest, leaving the region bare of vegetation.
Government funds and engineers repopulated the valley with the trees and plants found there today. Many native species inhabit the watershed. The lush beauty of the forest that surrounds the trail is amazing. The old growth belies the deforestation that made the watershed necessary in Oahu.
Manoa Falls Trail
Manoa Falls are located off Punahou St. in Honolulu. Tour bus, Uber or rented car are the best ways to get there; city bus will leave you with a 30-minute hike to get to the entrance. This trail tends to get very crowded, so try to come as early as possible.
The trail is a 1.6-mile hike round trip but will take most travelers about 1 ½ hours to complete. There are many rocks and tree roots to climb over and around on this journey. Good shoes like sneakers or trail shoes are recommended, also a light jacket, windbreaker or an umbrella. The area is a natural rain forest, so it is often raining or misting there.
Manoa Falls trail was filmed in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) and it is advertised by nature tour operators as “Jurassic Park Trail”.
The trail is not difficult, but very wet, rocky and slippery. Bring a lot of bug spray and hiking poles. If you hike in the rain, expect the pathway to be really messy, and the streams full of water and difficult to cross.
It’s a great hike for beginners and families. Most of the trail is shaded. After you walk through the arch, formed by banyan trees, you’ll get into a small bamboo forest, that is so tall it blocks out the sun.
Manoa Falls is the tallest accessible waterfall on Oahu at 150 ff high and a fantastic site to see. There is a landing to photograph from at the base of the falls. No swimming is allowed in the pool and rock slides around the falls do happen on occasion. The waterfall is at its fullest just after the rain.
There is a paid attended parking area at the entrance to the trail. Parking is $5 cash or you can try to find street parking for free. The building at the entrance houses public restrooms and a store/snack bar, plus a small art gallery.
Maunawili Falls Trail
You can reach the start of the trail by bus. Take the city bus to the corner of Aloha Oe and Maunawili Rd., then walk up Maunawili Rd. to the right. The trail head gate is 1/3 mile up the road on the left. This trail passes through private property in some areas, be respectful.
This hike is a bit more treacherous than the first one. The trail is not as well used as the Manoa Falls trail and is more difficult, not as well maintained. Maunawili Falls Trail is over 1-mile each direction, and takes about two hours to complete. It crosses three or four small streams or river beds depending on rainfall.
The forest is amazing with abundant old growth. You will truly feel lost in the jungle at certain points. GPS device or smart phone maps application is recommended. Keep your eyes open for spray-painted trail signs on trees and rocks.
When you come to the three-road fork, take the wider middle trail. You will see many relics of previous inhabitants from ancient terraced walls to cattle fencing from the late 1800’s. The path can seem quite overgrown in places, but you can still find the way.
As you get close to the falls you will find a lookout spot with a bench. This gives a terrific view of the Manuawili Valley and the mountain range. Best picture before the falls.
Maunawili Falls are only 30 feet high as the waterway winds through the mountains. At the base of the falls is a small pool that many like to swim in to cool off after the hike. Diving is not recommended. Caution is advised from the fresh water sources on the island, consumption of water or exposure to open wounds is not safe. Leptospirosis is present in the run-off from all fresh water supplies in this region. If you swim, do not drink the water or dive under.
Not many services on this trail, no restrooms, or snack bar. No trash facility or public buildings. Be cautious and respectful, do not litter or spoil the trail for others. The mud can be very deep (3-6 inches), wear hiking boots, bug spray and be ready for stream crossings and rain.
Two Great Hikes
I enjoyed both hikes. I would not advise taking small children or persons with limited mobility on the trails. The path is very slippery and there are no real resting spots along the way. Wear the right kind of clothes and shoes. Be ready for rain and insects. Have fun and climb safely!
More Oahu Hikes
Oahu Hikes: Laie Falls Trail and Kaiwa Ridge Trail
Koko Head Trail Hike: a 1048-Step Challenge
Waimea Valley and Waimea Falls – One of the Best Easy Hikes in Oahu
Crouching Lion Hike: a Walk Through the Jungle
Lanikai Pillbox Hike