5 Best Waterfall Hikes in Hawaii

Adventurers re-energize themselves aside the soothing and spectacular Manoa Falls. Marco Garcia
With so much breath-taking scenery in Hawaii, it's hard to choose which trail to head down. Here are five paths in Kauai, Maui, Oahu, and the Big Island that will lead hikers to waterfalls and stunning natural beauties.
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The Maunawili Falls Trail in Oahu, Hawaii. Heather Harvey
Maunawili Falls Trail is perhaps the most popular hike on the Windward Coast, and for good reason. It's short, easy (except for a steep section of man-made stairs near the end), and, most of all, it features a 20-foot waterfall that feeds a deep, wide swimming hole.

Like most of the island's trail-accessible waterfall areas, it is subject to heavy foot traffic throughout the year. Still, the trail is well maintained, with gravel fill and mostly unobtrusive lumber reinforcements preventing the sort of serious erosion present on many Oahu trails.

The trail head is located to the right of a dirt path opposite the start of Kelewina Street. To begin, follow a narrow pathway that cuts through a grove of mountain apple trees and coffee plants until you come to the first stream crossing. Under normal conditions, you should be able to hop across three or four medium-size boulders to get to the other side. If the stream is running high and fast, test the strength of the flow from the side before venturing across. If the flow is too strong for you to maintain your balance should you fall in, turn around.

1. Large Banyan Tree. Continue along a rooty trail lined with giant torch ginger. The next stream intersection appears soon after, marked by a large banyan tree. After crossing, follow the narrow trail to the right to yet another crossing; then bear left. After a gradual uphill walk, you'll reach a large intersection. Look for the sign on the left and follow the path away from the stream.

2. Mount Olomana Viewpoint. You'll do most of your climbing over the next quarter-mile stretch, aided by a series of man-made steps. After a brief but strenuous ascent, you'll reach a lookout with a bench and a fine view of Mount Olomana. Straight ahead is a path leading to an intersection with the Maunawili Trail. Bear left down a long flight of stairs that terminates back at the stream. Many hikers lose their way at the next stream intersection. When you reach the stream, cross carefully over a series of boulders and then bear left
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Akaka Falls is easily accessible by a step trail that runs along its right shoulder down into the gorge. Bruce Omori
Located near Hilo on the island's lush windward side, the paved trail circles through a lowland rainforest thick with bamboo, banana, bird of paradise, azalea, gardenia, hibiscus, and so much more you could fill the index of a field guide to tropical botany with it. The trail brings you to two waterfalls: 100-foot Kahuna Falls, and even more impressive 442-foot Akaka Falls.

The loop trail starts at the edge of the parking lot, drops down a short flight of steps, then immediately presents you with a choice: go left or go right? Go right. That way you'll come to relatively shrimpy Kahuna Falls first, building drama as you approach the marquee attraction.

1. Bamboo Grove. The trail is paved the whole way and lined with handrails to help with the drops and climbs. It soon descends a second flight of steps, then enters a grove of giant bamboo. Take a moment on the bridge over the little stream there to enjoy the towering walls of bamboo. The perspective isn't unlike what an ant in the grass might experience. I'm not suggesting that you're ant-like, but bamboo is the largest member the grass family, not to mention the fastest growing woody plant on the planet.

2. Kahuna Falls. A few minutes further along the trail and you'll come to a little spur that dead-ends at the edge of a gorge. Across the gorge is Kahuna Falls, which drops 100 feet into Kolekole Stream. Akaka Falls is located on Kolekole Stream. Kahuna Falls has a different source. From this point though, water from both falls courses through Kolekole Stream to the ocean, 3 miles away.

3. Akaka Falls. From Kahuna Falls the trail climbs a small hill, passes beneath some banyan trees, and then comes to the Akaka Falls overlook, the climax of this quickie hike. The falls form where the bottom drops out of a mountain stream draining the rainforest on the lush Hamakua Coast. Thousands of gallons of water per minute pour over the edge of the cliff, plunging 442 feet in a single, spectacular drop, and crashing into the dark pool below in a fearsome ball of exploding white water. It's not the tallest waterfall in Hawaii (that would be 2,953-foot Oloupena Falls on the north shore of Molokai), but it is the tallest Hawaiian waterfall plunging from top to bottom in a single, unbroken drop, without cascading over ledges along the way.

There's a little shelter at the overlook where you can duck out of the rain, which can exceed 250 inches per year on this part of the island. Of course, the more it rains, the mightier the falls flow. Hit Akaka Falls after several days of rain, when the afternoon sun is behind the falls, and you may get the coveted waterfall double-whammy: fiercely pounding water with rainbows.

Photo Caption: Akaka Falls is easily accessible by a step trail that runs along its right shoulder down into the gorge.
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Waimoku Falls along Maui, Hawaii's Pipiwai Trail. Rick McCharles
This wonderfully scenic trail follows a stream through Oheo Gulch, passing through sweet-smelling guava and dark bamboo forests before reaching 400-foot Waimoku Falls, a truly breathtaking waterfall-and one of the largest on Maui. The well-marked trail starts at the edge of the parking lot, crosses the street, and heads into a sparse forest of guava trees and grasses. In the distance, you'll have views of rolling farmlands and mountain slopes.

1. Makahiku Falls. The trail gains elevation quickly as it climbs stone steps, before flattening into a sunny clearing. At .5 miles, there's a marked overlook to Makahiku Falls. Rocky cliffs and folded mountains serve as a backdrop to the skinny ribbon of silvery water that tumbles down the lush mountain slopes. It's a bit disappointing, as the view of the waterfall is quite far-off and obscured by foliage. There's also no legal access to the water and park warning signs abound. Don't despair, as there's plenty of eye-catching scenery to go around, and big falls -- with access -- coming up.

2. Cascades. Pass through a gate: It's 1.5 miles to the falls from here. In short order, you'll come upon a giant banyan tree straight ahead. The trail flattens again with nice views of green mountain slopes. Take the short, unnamed .2-mile spur trail that leads to your right. It leads to a stream overlook and then down a rocky path to a further very cool gaze at frothy cascades. The two-tiered cascades drop to a broad ledge and pool before tumbling again to a deeper hole. Hanging stone cliffs, carpeted in vines, form a cathedral over the pool. It's a beautiful setting and well worth the short hump down and back out before the hungry mosquitoes make you. There's no water access, but the best swimming hole is yet to come.

3. Bamboo Forest. The trail follows the stream more closely now, with nice views of small cascades and pools to your right. You'll cross two bridges with good views left and right at two waterfalls. After crossing the second bridge, the trail veers left and enters a bamboo forest; it's .8 miles to the big falls from here. Hoof it up a set of stairs, where the trail turns into a wide boulevard through dense stands of bamboo. Take a few moments to look up at the arched canopy, to see it swinging and swaying in the wind, before wood boardwalks begin taking you further into the bamboo forest. he stream is now to your right, splashing and rippling over smooth, water-worn rocks.

4. Waimoku Falls. The trail becomes wetter and the surrounding foliage turns greener, a tangle of ferns and a carpet of mosses. Cross the stream as noted below until you get to the falls -- and then re-trace your steps back to the start. Rock-hop the stream, looking left for small cascades. Straight ahead, beautiful Waimoku Falls plunges down the towering rock cliff. In winter, the entire mountain slope is one big wall of gushing water, and the pool at the bottom is huge. But, even in the driest summer months, the falls are impressive, and the green, lush wall takes on a spa-like feel, with trickling water everywhere.

You brought your bathing suit, right? Take a plunge in the clear, cool water, and then dry out on the hot, sun-baked rocks that surround the falls.

Photo Caption: Waimoku Falls along Maui, Hawaii's Pipiwai Trail. Photo by Rick McCharles/Flickr.com.
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Hike to Oahu's majestic Manoa Falls, which spills 150 feet from a rocky cliff into a glistening tropical pool. Marco Garcia
Marrying easy access with a host of natural attractions, Manoa Falls is Oahu's most popular public trail. A photo of the roaring 150-foot waterfall is a must-have for many Oahu visitors. The trail head is located near the old Paradise Park in Manoa Valley, a quick 10-minute drive from downtown Honolulu. The area is known for its frequent rainfall, so bring rain gear or at least a change of clothes. Mosquito repellent is also highly recommended.

1. Aihualama & Waihi Streams. The trail begins on broad, flat ground and proceeds past a grassy meadow and over a small bridge. The path continues left alongside a second waterway that eventually splits into Aihualama and Waihi streams. A barely noticeable side trail crosses the stream and leads to Luaalaea Falls. While the path here is wide and relatively even, loose, slippery rock and veiny, toe-trapping roots demand attention, especially from novice hikers.

2. Steps to the Falls. The trail continues along Waihi Stream, past a towering bamboo grove, and rises gently along a narrow, rocky path. The trail steepens on the approach to the falls, but a series of steps shaped with plastic lumber and gravel fill eases the climb. Along the way, the trail cuts through a dense forest of fragrant wild ginger, guava, eucalyptus, African tulip, kukui nut, and lawae fern. And, if you listen closely, you can hear the trills of a half-dozen species of native birds, and maybe the squawk of a feral parrot or two, in the treetops. Due to the year-round high traffic to the falls, Na Ala Hele, the state's trails and access program, has had to take an aggressive approach to addressing wear and tear. Much of the first half of the trail is reinforced with gravel fill and lumber bracketing.

While some regular hikers avoid the trail because of this conspicuous maintenance, many others visit frequently precisely because it allows hikers of any age and skill level the opportunity to enjoy a true rainforest environment quickly and safely. The trail turns and narrows on the final, brief climb to the viewing area. You'll hear the falls before they appear, suddenly and dramatically, around the bend.

3. Falls Viewing Area. The viewing area itself is rather small, and it's not unusual for hikers to have to wait in line for a spot around the pool. Still, the roaring 150-foot waterfall is worth the inconvenience. For many visiting hikers, it's a must-have photo. In 2002, a major rockslide deposited some 30 tons of rock and debris from the upper slopes to the valley below. You can still see large boulders piled in the gully to the right of the trail. There are several signs posted in the area warning of the danger (loose rocks continue to fall during heavy rains).

Visitors to the falls should be aware of another potential danger: leptospirosis, a debilitating disease caused by bacteria present in many inland bodies of water on the island. Still, many ignore posted signs to take a dip in the pool, some even stealing a massage from the pummeling cascade. The state has removed a long rope that adventurous hikers once used to scale the cliff face next to the falls.

Photo Caption: Hike to Oahu's majestic Manoa Falls, which spills 150 feet from a rocky cliff into a glistening tropical pool.
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Hanakapi'ai Falls along Kauai's Kalalau Trail. roy.luck
This is the stuff of movies and fantasies: a tromp through a wet, tropical rainforest, dotted with sweet-smelling guava and mango trees, ending at a towering 300-foot waterfall. The misty cloud forest and rushing falls make for a very surreal, jungle atmosphere. Plus, there's a fine swimming hole at the base of the falls.

The first 2 miles of the hike begin on the Kalalau Trail. The trail climbs the steep pali (cliffs), switchbacking for 1 mile across wet rocks and slippery roots. But your reward comes quickly, with views of the gorgeous Na Pali coastline. And, in this case, what goes up must come down. The second mile brings an equally steep descent to Hanakapi'ai Beach.

1. Hanakapi'ai Beach. Take a breather; explore the rocky beach and sea caves, and enjoy a wade in the freshwater stream. When you're ready to continue, look to the back, valley-side of the beach for the trail heading inland. The trail follows the west bank of the Hanakapi'ai Stream into the narrow valley. The valley -- along with neighboring Hoolulu, Waiahuakua, and Kalalau valleys -- was once home to ancient Hawaiians, who planted vast, terraced taro fields. Today, the area is part of the 6,175-acre Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park and is off limits to permanent inhabitants. You'll pass guava trees and remnants of ancient stone walls as you climb into the valley.

2. Mango, Bamboo & Eucalyptus. Fed by streams and showered with sunshine, this fertile valley is home to a variety of tropical trees. Walk under a canopy of tall mango trees and enter a small bamboo and eucalyptus forest, ending at a small picnic area.

3. Stream Crossings. The trail gains elevation, gradually skirting the river and crossing it several times. Depending on the weather, these crossings can be tricky. In high water or threat of rain, it's best to turn back. Even in drought, plan on getting wet, as efficient rock-hopping is difficult, and the easiest way across is often wading your way through the stream. At about 1.5 miles, the trail gets muddier, and the stream crossings get wider, but the scenery is captivating. Rippling cascades and deep, clear pools are surrounded by steep valley walls.

4. Hanakapi'ai Falls. At 2 miles, the trail ends at the base of the stunning, 300-foot Hanakapi'ai waterfall. The thin, white ribbon of water cascades down a steep valley wall, splashing into a large pool. Misty clouds and spray from the falls create a lush, moist atmosphere; mosses, ferns, vines, tropical flowers, trees, and giant boulders crowd the edges of the pool. We never leave without a ceremonious (and refreshing) dip in the pool.

Photo Caption: Hanakapi'ai Falls along Kauai's Kalalau Trail. Photo by roy.luck/Flickr.com.
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