Oahu's massive city of Honolulu is the beating cultural, political and economic of the Hawaiian islands. It's home to the state's largest airport, and the city's resort-lined Waikiki Beach is perhaps the most photographed spot in all of Hawaii. But the island of Oahu is so much larger than Hawaii's bustling metropolis.
Head inland for just a few minutes, and you'll be introduced to the densely forested interior of the island. This part of Oahu is flush with life, and tropical waterfalls wait to be discovered deep in the rainforest.
Maunawili Falls is one of the most accessible jungle waterfalls on the island, and the short out-and-back hike is popular with tourists and locals alike. The waterfall sits a relatively easy 1.75 miles into the rainforest which makes this interior Oahu day trip popular with families.
Stepping onto the Maunawili Falls is like stepping back in time. Kind of. You'll be far removed from the hustle-and-bustle of Hawaii's biggest city, but the terrain here has changed quite a bit since ancient times.
The original settlers of Hawaii were brave Polynesian adventurers. They were called upon to leave the Polynesian Empire in search of new land when the home islands became overpopulated. So, they loaded up outriggers with coconut trees, pigs and taro, and they set off into the wild blue yonder.
Some of them were lucky enough to find Hawaii, and the islands looked incredibly different than they do today. In fact, there were only a few endemic species to Hawaii in ancient times, and they included only a few low-lying shrubs and plants. So the interior of Oahu looked pretty barren when the first settlers arrived.
The original settlers quickly propagated their coconut trees to give Hawaii its hallmark swaying palm trees, but it would be centuries until new plants arrived from all over the world after Hawaii was discovered by Captain James Cook in the 18th Century.
So, when you step foot into the thick rainforest of Oahu's interior, try to imagine a barren land with only low-lying shrubs. Then marvel at how all the plants around -- from the weeds to the towering trees -- have been imported to the islands on a series of ships throughout the century.
Along the hike, you'll be surrounded by passion fruit (lilikoi) vines, towering monkeypod trees, and otherworldly palapalai ferns, and they were all imported to the island over the centuries
About three-quarters of a mile into the hike, you'll be treated to a stunning view over verdant valleys across the interior of Oahu. You'll have a clear shot all the way to Kailua and Kailua Bay which offer up some of the most beautiful white-sand beaches on Oahu's windward side, but the real beauty might be behind you. Look "mauka," or towards the mountains, to drink in the awe-inspiring view of the densely forested range just northeast of Honolulu.
You'll find locals and tourists of all ages challenging this out-and-back trail, but the hike itself isn't exactly easy. The trail gains 715 feet which will get your lungs burning just a bit as you climb towards the waterfall. And you'll actually have to climb just a bit. The trail crosses the path of a few boulders that you'll have to navigate.
You'll want to pack some sturdy shoes for the bouldering along the path. You'll also want to bring plenty of water to combat the humid heat of Oahu's interior rainforests. Bug repellent might not be a bad idea either, as you'll be under the cover of a jungle-like canopy for much of the hike. And bugs love the shade.
And don't forget the sunscreen. Most of the hike takes place under the shade of trees, which makes the hike suitable for a midday excursion when the sun is at its highest. But you'll still want to protect yourself from the tropical sun. Make sure to apply sunscreen that's at least SPF 30 in the shade 15 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every two hours. That means you'll have to hike with your sunscreen because the 1.75-mile out-and-back trail takes about three hours to complete.
You'll be greeted by an informational sign at the trailhead teaching you about the history of the hike. Diverted water from a nearby stream made this land an important agricultural site that dates back to the 1800s. You'll see how the land has been terraced for cultivation and how rock walls helped parcel the land. Some of the rock walls and taro planting sites have been dated to 1100 AD.
At the very end of the trail, you'll find a black bench that marks the spot of a steep climb down to the falls. Carefully climb down the rocky path, and you'll be rewarded with a 30-foot waterfall pouring into a refreshing pool that's surrounded by the jungle-like canopy. It's a vision of paradise.
The water will be shockingly cool, but it's well worth a dip after a long, hot and heavy hike. Be careful when entering the pool because the rocks can be slippery. In fact, you might even want to think about wearing water shoes to protect your feet as you slip into the water.
Or you can simply sit on a rock at the edge of the pool to cool your feet. Make sure to look closely into the water for freshwater shrimp darting about. And let the thunderous roar of the falls bring you to peaceful tranquility in the heart of Oahu.
The trailhead is only about 22 minutes from the heart of Honolulu. Drive east out of the city on HI-61 for about eight and a half miles before turning right onto Auloa Road. Keep straight for about a mile as the road turns into Maunawili Road. Turn right onto Aloha Oe Drive and follow for about a half mile before turning right again onto Maleko Street. The trailhead is about 400 feet down Maleko Street.
If you're making the trek through the mountains to Maunawili Falls, then you might want to keep driving to Kailua Bay and its sugary white sand beach after the hike. You'll need to head out onto the trail early in the morning to make a day of it, but you can grab lunch in the town of Kailua before enjoying an afternoon on the beach to make it an unforgettable day.