Day 3: Manoa Falls & Southeast Coast Road Trip
The third of these 5 days in Oahu is a combination of a classic “road trip” with short stops, along with a couple of short hikes.
Pro tip: this is an action-packed day in some of Oahu’s most scenic spots. Don’t stress if you can’t manage to fit everything mentioned here into your own itinerary. You can simply start tomorrow’s itinerary where you finish off today’s.
Logistics for the day
Get an early start to the day (by 8 am) and be prepared for both hiking and the beach! I’m including two short hikes in today’s itinerary so a change of clothes and comfortable hiking shoes are required in addition to the usual beach gear and sun protection.
Tantalus Scenic Drive
This ain’t exactly the Hollywood Hills, but believe it or not, Honolulu has a pretty spectacular scenic drive just minutes away from downtown. Pick up Tantalus Drive and snake your way up the forested mountains, home to million-dollar homes and panoramic views of Honolulu and Diamond Head. The winding road, which is crossed by several hiking trails, then becomes Round Top Road and eventually heads back down completing sort of a loop.
Manoa Falls Hike
The hike to Manoa Falls is recommended for those who will not be visiting other islands in Hawaii. Otherwise, you can opt-out if your itinerary feels too congested. There’s a proper parking lot at the trailhead ($5 but at least your car is safe) as well as restrooms and gift shops. The trail is a very easy going 1.6-mile 2.7 km (return) and leads hikers (more like walkers) through a pretty forest before reaching the 100 ft (30 m)waterfall.
Coffee in Manoa
Since you’re already in the affluent neighborhood of Manoa, you might as well pause for a refueling stop. At Morning Glass Coffee, not only is the caffeine dose superb but they also have delicious pastries and proper breakfast dishes. Literally two minutes away, you can also try Andy’s Sandwiches & Smoothies and grab something to go.
Scenic Road Trip
After freshening up, it’s time to hit the road. Pick up Highway 72 and drive along the southeast coast. Eventually, the road will bend north and merge with Highway 61 back to Honolulu.
A pretty roadside stop slightly reminiscent of Bixby Bridge on California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Technically, you should be able to spot the Island of Lanai from here on a good day, and maybe even Maui and Molokai. Feel free to hop over the fence and inspect from up close (but not too close) the pancake-like lava rocks with their fine layers.
Halona Blowhole & Cockroach Beach
A very short drive from Lanai Lookout and you’ve made it to the Halona Blowhole Lookout. From here, you can admire the natural spectacle that never gets tired. To your right, walk a few steps and look down to Halona Cove – better known as Cockroach Beach. This gem is hiding right beneath the coastal highway and is easy to miss if you don’t stop to watch the blowhole.
Unless you’re an experienced body surfer, visit Sandy Beach just to admire the colors: turquoise and gold meeting each other with Koko Head in the background. It’s one of the prettiest beaches in Oahu but also one of the most dangerous so admire the beauty of Sandy Beach with a delicious shrimp plate lunch from the food truck parked in front!
Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail
This is one of the most rewarding hikes in Hawaii, and considering it’s just a mile in each direction, this stop should be a no brainer. Park the car at the designated parking lot and begin walking uphill on the paved road which leads all the way to the lighthouse and viewing area. Along the way, you’ll be treated to magnificent views of Koko Head and the valley beneath it, along with sublime coastal views atop the Pacific Ocean (be on the lookout for sea turtles, dolphins, and whales).
Once at the top, catch a glimpse of the old lighthouse and learn about its interesting history on this strategic and windy location. Before wrapping up this hike, treat yourself to breathtaking views of Makapuu Beach, and the bird sanctuary islands off the coast. Makapu‘u Point has to be one of the prettiest if not the prettiest spot in Oahu!
Logistics: the trail is paved from start to finish but it is completely exposed to the elements, meaning you’ll need to protect yourself from the sun, drink plenty of water, and be prepared for windy weather (watch out for your hat and sunglasses).
If you hiked to the lighthouse, this quick stop is not a must, but if you opted-out, this is your best shot of catching panoramic views of the dramatic coastline in front of you.
Makapu’u Beach Park
As is the case with Sandy Beach, Makapuu Beach is more for watching rather than for swimming, unless you’re an expert body surfer… After the scenic lookouts up the road and from the lighthouse trail, I just stopped for a quick glance from the side of the highway.
Make sure you have at least 1-2 hours of sunshine for Waimanalo Beach because it is so pretty out here. Waimanalo is one of the best beaches in Oahu, the island’s version of Hanalei Bay in Kauai due to the generous size of this crescent of white sand.
Waimanalo is good for both surfing and for swimming, just find your own spot and enjoy the last few hours of this road trip before starting the drive back to Honolulu. If you feel like you need more time on this beach, you can actually start tomorrow’s itinerary in Waimanalo, or either skip the Manoa Falls or lighthouse hikes.
For a sneak peek of what’s ahead tomorrow, take the scenic Highway 61 back to Honolulu. Known as the “Pali Highway” this ancient trail was transformed into a main artery that also doubles as a scenic highway. You definitely want to catch the gorgeous views from the Nu’uanu Pali State Wayside ($3 parking). The lookout is also the starting point for the challenging Pali Notches K1 and K2 hikes.
From the 1200 ft lookout, you can get a sense of the unique scenery of the windward coast, with its crowning feature – the eroded emerald cliffs of the ancient Koʻolau Volcano (if you’ve been to Kauai, think of the Na Pali Coast). This exact spot was the site of a violent battle in which the winning forces of King Kamehameha the Great literally tossed about 500 enemy soldiers to their death – an act which led to King K’s victory and eventual unification of the Hawaiian Islands under his crown.
Pro tip: optimal viewing times from the Pali Lookout are in the morning hours when the sun’s rays directly shine on the eroded cliffs. Nonetheless, the views are pretty spectacular throughout the day (even in heavy rain) and you can even start tomorrow’s itinerary at this very same spot.