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Best Hikes on Oahu: The Aihualama Trail

Basic Information

  • Name: Aihualama Trail
  • Where: Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Distance: 5 miles
  • Max Elevation: 1,685 feet
  • Elevation Gain: 1,385 feet
  • Time: 3-4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • More Information: The Hikers Guide to O’ahu

Topographic Map of the Aihualama Trail

Aihualama Trail Topo Map

Google Earth Map of the Aihualama Trail

Aihualama Trail Google Earth Map

Narrative

One of the best views from the Ko’olau Range is from the Nuuanu Valley Lookout just outside of Honolulu.  I had previously hiked up to the Nuuanu Valley Lookout via the Nuuanu-Judd Trail, but it was pretty cloudy the day I hiked it.  So I decided to try an alternative route up the Aihualama Trail to access the lookout and hopefully get better pictures of the view.  The Aihualama Trail begins at one of the most popular tourist locations on Oahu, the Manoa Falls Trail:


Since the Aihualama Trail is accessed via the Manoa Falls Trail this meant I had to get to the trailhead early.  This trailhead is an absolute nightmare once the tourists arrive later in the morning.  So I began my hike nice and early at 0630 from the Manoa Falls parking lot which had no other cars parked there when I left:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

There is a $5 fee for parking at the trailhead, but since I left so early there was no parking attended at the lot yet.  I ended up paying after I returned from my hike:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

From the parking lot I walked up the paved road towards the trailhead:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

I had not hiked up to Manoa Falls in about a year and was surprised to see they had fixed up the trailhead with a new sign:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Underneath the gazebo there are two new signboards in it as well:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

There was nothing I did not already know about the trail from the signboards, but they do provide a nice introduction about the area for new visitors to the island:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

From the gazebo is where the official trailhead for the Manoa Falls Trail begins:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Due to all the visitors this trail sees each day it is literally a superhighway compared to other trails in the Ko’olau Range:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Besides the new entrance I also noticed that new signboards had been put up as well throughout the trail.  These were much needed considering how trashed the previous signboards had become:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Around the signboard the lush vegetation at the base of the Ko’olau Range could be seen in all its glory:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

After checking out the signboard I noticed behind me that I could see the ridgeline where the Manoa Cliffs Trail is located about a thousand feet above me:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

The Manoa Cliffs Trail is a fantastic hike with multiple ways to access it that I highly recommend.  From the signboard I continued down the well defined trail:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

I came to another new sign that explained the ecology of the surrounding forests:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

What many people probably don’t realize when walking to Manoa Falls is how the vast majority of all the plant life around the trail is actually not native to Hawaii:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

I next came to a nice rest area before the main ascent of the trail begins:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

At the rest area I read another sign that described the wildlife that calls Manoa Valley home:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Along the trail many birds can be heard singing, but just like the vegetation around the trail, most of the birds are not native to Hawaii either.  Most of the native birds in Hawaii are now extinct due to over hunting by early Hawaiians and then the deforestation, introduced predators, and disease brought on later by western contact.

Picture of some extinct Hawaiian birds seen at the Bishop Museum

From the rest area I then proceeded to walk through this tunnel formed by a banyan tree that is a popular location for hikers to take photos of themselves at:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Just passed the banyan tree I then reached the longest stairway of the Manoa Falls Trail:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

A short distance from the end of the staircase and a little over one mile from the trailhead, I came upon the beautiful Manoa Falls:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Incredibly I had the entire waterfall all to myself which further shows the value of getting an early start on this trail.  Despite being there all by myself I respected the various warning signs and did not cross the roped off area to get near the waterfall:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

The waterfall has these warning signs up because of the threat of rocks falling over the falls and killing people.  This is a legacy from the 1999 Sacred Falls rock slide that killed 8 people.  In fact in 2002 Manoa Falls had its own rock slide, but fortunately no one was killed.  However, when the tourist crowd comes they have no respect for the signs.  I have actually seen parents allowing their little kids to play in the water below the waterfall completely disregarding the rock fall threat from this beautiful waterfall:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Manoa Falls is not my favorite waterfall on Oahu largely because of the hordes of tourists that flock here (Hamama Falls is still my favorite).  However, I did have a whole lot more pleasant experience when not surrounded by dozens of obnoxious tourists:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Something else I noticed at the base of the falls was a new signboard that explained the history of Manoa Valley:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

It may seem hard to believe today, but Manoa Valley at one point had most of its trees removed and was used for cattle grazing in the early 1900’s.  The removal of the trees led to a water crisis in 1915.  Dr. Harold Lyon was hired by the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association to research plant diseases and to find trees to reforest Hawaii with to end the water crisis.  Obviously by looking around Manoa Valley it is pretty clear Dr. Lyon’s efforts worked out quite well:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

After taking in one last view of Manoa Falls I then proceeded to hike up the Aihualama Trail.  The trailhead for this hike is located near the base of Manoa Falls:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

The start of the Aihualama Trail is a bit slick and rocky, but the trail improves substantially after this initial rocky section:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

As I worked my way through the rocks I also had to swat bugs off of me that filled the trail because of all the mountain apples that had fallen on to the ground that they were eating:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

After passing through the initial rocky section I then hiked up a well defined trail through a lush bamboo forest:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

According to the guidebook, The Hikers Guide to O’ahu this trail was built in early 1900’s by the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association to assist Dr. Lyon with his tree replanting efforts in the Manoa Valley.  Clearly bamboo was one of Dr. Lyon’s favorites because it composes the majority of the vegetation around the trail.  Today the trail is part of the Na Ala Hele trail system that is maintained by the State of Hawaii which is why it is in such good shape.  There were a few areas along the trail though that were overgrown with roots that I had to be careful with my footing at:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

About a half mile up the the Aihualama Trail the first of its fourteen switchbacks begins to snake up the side of ridgeline above Manoa Falls:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Once I reached the top of the ridgeline I found myself walking through another thick bamboo forest that covers the top of the mountain:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

The end of the Aihualama Trail is located at an intersection with the Pauoa Flats Trail:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

At the intersection I took a right on to the Pauoa Flats Trail in order to access the Nuuanu Valley Lookout:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

The short hike up the Pauoa Flats Trail was an extremely muddy one:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

After about a quarter mile of hiking I could see the end of the trail up ahead:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

At the end of the trail is the Nuuanu Valley Lookout.  The lookout has a small park bench and of course its accompanying warning signs letting hikers know it is not a good idea to fall off of the cliff:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

On the bottom of the bench is a plaque dedicated to a 19 year old man named Daniel Cassen Levey who died in 2003 while hiking down the Lanipo Trail:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Compared to the last time I hiked to this lookout I had a slightly better view of the Nuuanu Valley since it was not raining:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Down below in the valley I could see the Nuuanu Reservoir which was built in 1910 and is primarily used for flood control today:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

To the east I could see the gap in the Ko’olau Range where the famed Pali Lookout is located:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Here is a closer look at the Pali Lookout where I could just see a glimpse of Windward Oahu beyond it:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

On the right side of the above picture the Pali Notches can be seen which are man made cut outs in the cliff that some believe were used at one point to emplace canons in.  The canons may be have been used during the Battle of Nuuanu.  In 1795 this valley was the scene of the final battle between King Kamehameha and Chief Kalanikupule who ruled Oahu.  King Kamehameha had already conquered all the other Hawaiian islands except for Oahu and Kauai.  King Kamehameha’s forces landed at Waikiki and Kahala and initiated battle against Kalanikupule’s forces that had garrisoned the Punchbowl Crater.  After losing the battle at the Punchbowl Crater the Oahu forces retreated into the Nuuanu Valley.  It was here that the final battle for control of the island was waged that saw many of the Oahu forces pushed off the cliff at the Pali Lookout thus giving control of Oahu to King Kamehameha:

On the left side of the Pali Lookout I could see the small hole in the rock face known as the Pali Puka:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Looking down the valley I could see the lush forest that covers the Nuuanu Valley before it begins to meet the outer suburbs of Honolulu:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

Here is a panorama I took of the beautiful view from the Nuuanu Lookout:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

For the more adventurous there is actually a trail from the lookout that ascend ups the the 3,149 foot Pu’u Konahuanui, the highest peak in the Ko’olau Range:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

The trail ascends up this heavily forested ridgeline to the summit of the Ko’olau Range:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

I plan to do this hike some day when good weather and having time off coincide with each other.  In total I spent about 20 minutes taking in the views from the lookout before reversing course and heading back down the Pauoa Flats Trail:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

At the Aihualama Trail sign I took a left and began descending back down the mountain to Manoa Falls:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

On the way down the fourteen switchbacks I made sure not to cut any of them which is something some people have been unfortunately doing:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

I actually jogged most of the way down except for areas that were heavily rooted:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

I soon found myself working my way through the rocky lower section of the trail again:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

At the end of the rocky section the Aihualama Trail intersected again with the Manoa Falls Trail.  When I left Manoa Falls less than two hours prior there was nobody there.  Now it was about 9:00 AM and the falls were an absolute madhouse:

Picture from the Aihualama Trail

As usual the vast majority of the people did not follow the warnings on the sign and climbed over the roped off area to lounge in the water underneath the falls.  Just like with Sacred Falls back in 1999 conditions are ripe for another similar tragedy to happen at Manoa Falls as well; it is just a matter of time.  I did not stay very long at Manoa Falls because of how packed and obnoxious the people there were.  So I headed back down the trail feeling like I was part of a buffalo herd because of all the people in front of me plus all the people heading up the trail in the opposite direction.  In a little less than three hours round-trip I was so thankful to get back to the parking lot and off of that trail thus completing my hike.

Conclusion

The Aihualama Trail is a great alternative route to access the nice views from the Nuuanu Valley Lookout. The trail is of moderate difficulty being five miles long and featuring over 1,300 feet of elevation gain. The trail is mostly in great shape with a few rocky, muddy, and slippery areas to be aware of. Make sure to start this hike early since it begins at the Manoa Falls Trailhead which can be a madhouse later in the day. If you start early enough you may actually have Manoa Falls all to yourself along with the Nuuanu Valley Viewpoint further up the mountain.

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