O‘ahu is an island of impressive contrast, and our tropical mountains and valleys and out-of-this world ocean views are perhaps best enjoyed while playing outdoors. Some great ways to explore our island are going on one of our famous ridge-hikes, swimming under a waterfall, driving an ATV through the jungle, or exploring our paradise-like white sand beaches.
There are, in short, many adventures to be had, and we summarize the most popular outdoor activities you can enjoy while keeping your feet on the ground below.
Table of contents
Table of Contents
- ATV Tours
- Horseback Riding
- Luau shows
- Parks and Botanical Gardens
- Volunteering Opportunities
ATV and Off-Road Tours
A fun adventure for off-road driving fans, ATV tours are an often muddy adventure where you get to explore especially scenic parts of the island. ATV tours take a few hours and include driving instructions and multiple stops at scenic places. On O’ahu you have the choice of 3 ATV tours.
|Price:||Duration:||Good to know:|
|Gunstock Ranch||$99||1.5 hours||Only passenger rides offered|
|Coral Crater||$199.99||1 hour||Lower prices available half drive / half passenger combo|
|Kualoa Ranch||$89.50||1-2.5 hours||Longer tours are also available|
Read more detailed reviews about these providers in our guide to ATV tours on O’ahu.
Tip: Bring a clean pair of clothes. ATV tours go out rain or shine and that’s a good thing, as racing through the mud and crossing seasonal streams are a BIG part of the fun.
Long stretches of soft white sand lines by palm trees, azure blue waters, and especially in the winter some of the best surf in the world… O‘ahu truly has some of the best beaches of all Hawaiian islands, and of the world!
Some of our beaches, such as Waikīkī beach, need no introduction. There are many other beaches however, each with its own personality and vibe, that are ready to be discovered. You can read more about those in our guide to the 28 most popular beaches on O‘ahu.
Here is a preview of some of our recommendations:
- Best beach to take kids: both Waikīkī beach and Kailua Beach are very family-friendly beaches.
- Best beach to see turtles: Laniakea beach (see picture below). This is a rocky/sandy beach know for being a resting place for sea turtles.
- Best beach to go snorkeling: Hanauma bay! The beach and the water can get crowded in the mid-morning and beyond, so we recommend going first thing when they open at 6 AM. This way you can catch the sunrise and be done snorkeling by the time the crowds show up.
- Best beach to get away from the crowds: Kahana Bay Beach Park is located on the upper windwardside, out of the way of popular tourist destinations. The beach is boxed in by tall, jagged cliffs and a large, horseshoe bay.
As the second-oldest island in the present-day chain (2-3 million years old), O‘ahu has aged beautifully. Millions of years of erosion have whittled away at its volcanoes, creating the dramatic, spine-like peaks and ridges we see today. Some lush and shaded, others dry and exposed, Hawai‘i’s micro-climates create a diverse range of ecosystems to walk through, many with, of course, ocean views.
Some hikes we highly recommend are:
- Easy: The Waimea Valley hike (1.9 miles round-trip) over a shaded and paved track takes you through a curated, outdoor botanical garden in pristine Waimea Valley, ending at a 45-foot waterfall where you can swim.
- Intermediate: The hike up the Diamond Head crater is an iconic hike here on O‘ahu. Once you arrive to the summit you are rewarded with sweeping views of the Koʻolau Range, the south shore, and a fantastic overlook of Waikīkī and Honolulu.
- Hard: The Ka’ala trail lets you climb over 3,500 feet to the highest point on O‘ahu, Mt. Kaala (4,026 feet). The views along the way are spectacular, and the cloud forest at the top contains a high concentration of native plants.
Read about the 15 best hikes on O‘ahu on our website, where we break them down into groups of 5 easy, 5 intermediate, and 5 advanced hikes.
Horses and horseback riding form and important part of the (more recent) cultural heritage through ranching culture starting in the 1830s. We even have local cowboys called ‘Paniolo’. You can get in touch with that part of our heritage through one of the many horseback riding tours offered primarily along the northern and eastern shores.
Our horseback tours take you through open land, through majestic valleys, and even through fine-white sand along the ocean. Learn more about Paniolo history and find our what our favorite horseback tours are in our guide to horseback riding on O‘ahu
A Luau is a cultural show celebrating Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. In Hawai‘i tourism they include storytelling and (hula) dancing, an all-you-can-eat buffet (centered around a pig roast), and some sort of bar arrangement. Audience participation is often a part as well.
Luaus are held around sunset and are a great way to learn about our local history and culture, and to try out some delicious local foods. The nine Luaus on O‘ahu each have their strong points and you can read all about them in our local Luau guide. As a teaser here are some of our recommendations for:
- Best Luau for families: The Ka Waa Luau at Disney’s Aulani Resort is a great family Luau because it incorporates a lot of pre-luau cultural activities for kids. See the video below for a teaser.
- Best Luau for foodies: The Diamond Head Farm to Table Luau has a healthy obsession for fresh and local ingredients, making its food offerings the best among the O‘ahu Luaus.
- Best value Luau: Chief’s Luau features a combination of cultural knowledge, fire-knife dancing, and emcee skills for a reasonable (but not lowest) price.
State Parks & Botanical Gardens
There are over 20 state parks on O‘ahu that span a variety of interests – state monuments, parks, recreation areas, cultural sites, and scenic coastlines. Some of these, such as the Iolani Palace and Diamond Head Crater, are well know, well others are little more than a very scenic spot next to the road.
You can find an in-depth description of all our state parks, together with a map, in our guide to all O‘ahu State Parks.
O‘ahu is known for its beaches, but did you know we also have amazing tropical botanical gardens? Our gardens often form a combination of the lush indigenous flora together with unique plants and trees from across the globe that happen to thrive in our climate.
- The Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden is the most famous of our botanical gardens. Geographical regions represented by our botanical collections: Philippines, Malaysia, Tropical America, India & Sri Lanka, Melanesia, Hawai‘i, Polynesia, and Africa.
- The Waimea valley botanical garden with 5,000 kinds of tropical and subtropical plants is another local favorite. Part of the reason? They have their own swimmable 45-feet waterfall!
Read about all gardens in our guide to Botanical gardens on O’ahu.
Volunteering some of your time to give back and help making the island a better place can be a very rewarding and memorable experience. As is the case everywhere most volunteer positions are longer term, but we have some that are very well-suited to visitor.
For example, you can help the Waikīkī Aquarium the clean up invasive algae (website), help out the Hawai‘i Nature Center (website), and/or find more local volunteering opportunities on e.g. the GoHawai‘i or the Eventbrite websites.
Three volunteer opportunities we’d like to highlight are:
Best know for their beach cleanups, 808 Cleanups is a 501(c)(3) local nonprofit supporting community volunteers to restore the Islands of Hawaiʻi from Mauka (mountain) to Makai (ocean). Cleanup events are usually organized on a weekly basis and everyone is welcome!
Read more about how to get involved on the 808 Cleanups website.
Hui o Ko’olaupoko
Hui o Ko’olaupoko is a local non-profit organization working to improve ocean health by focusing on community-based watershed restoration. They offer a variety of monthly volunteer opportunities suitable for all ages, current volunteer opportunities include work on the He’eia Estuary Restoration and the Kaha Native Plant Garden.
Read more about their projects and how to volunteer on the Hui o Koʻolaupoko website.
The Sanctuary Ocean Count
Did you know you can go whale watching from the shore and help our our whales?
The Sanctuary Ocean Count is organized three times per year during peak whale season and provides a snapshot of humpback whales sightings from the shoreline. Participants to the count tally humpback whale sightings and document the animals’ surface behavior during the survey which is from 8 am to 12 noon.
The count is organized on the first Saturday on January, February, and March, and advance registration is required. To find out more about the count and the registration procedure go to the Ocean Count website.
Compared to the Big Island and Maui, whose size and elevations are much greater, O‘ahu’s waterfall scene may seem limited. While that’s generally the case – you won’t find the same quantity – there are several beautiful, quality waterfalls to visit on O‘ahu, many of them accessible for families.
We have made a list with the 10 best waterfalls on O‘ahu that includes a map and all you need to know to visit these 10 waterfalls. Some highlights of our list are:
- Closest to Waikīkī: The Manoa Falls
- Best for swimming: Waimea Falls (but also check out the Maunawili falls)
Ziplining is a popular activity for visitors of all ages, combining a rush of adrenaline with scenic beauty. Of the 4 zipline courses on the island, 3 offer multiple-hour tours, while the one lets you buy rides on a per-zip basis. We summarize the most important differences between the zipline tours in the following table, and refer you to our complete ziplining guide for O‘ahu for more details.
|# of lines:||Best for:||Price:||Duration:|
|Climbworks||8||Thrill Seekers||$169||3 hours|
|Jurassic Ziplines||7||Scenery||$169.50||2.5 hours|
|Coral Crater||6||Families||$140||2 hours|
Land activities on Maui and Kauaʻi
We have made similar overviews of the land activities on Kauaʻi and Maui in which we list the respective highlights for the islands and give a few recommendations for tour operators. Make sure to check those out if your trip takes you to one of those islands: