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Best Hikes on Oahu: The Maunawili Falls Trail

Basic Information

  • Name: Maunawili Falls Trail
  • Where: Kailua, Hawaii
  • Distance: 3 miles
  • Max Elevation: 522 feet
  • Elevation Gain: 371 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Time: 2-3 hours
  • More Information: The Hikers Guide to O’ahu

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Topographic Map of Maunawili Falls Trail

Maunawili Falls Trail Topo Map

Google Earth Map of Maunawili Falls Trail

Maunawili Falls Google Earth Map

Narrative

I have heard much about how pretty Maunawili Falls is, but at the same time I have heard how crowds flock there and how bad the trail is.  Due to these concerns I have not made it a priority to check out Maunawili Falls.  However, due to rain in the Ko’olau Range preventing another hike I had planned I decided recently to go and check out Maunawili Falls instead.  Getting to the trailhead I found to be quite easy since it is located a short drive off of the Pali Highway on Windward Oahu:

From the Pali Highway I made a right on Auloa Street and followed it for a short distance until it became Maunawili Street.  The street goes through one nice neighborhood before driving on a narrow road through the jungle before emerging into yet another nice neighborhood.  This neighborhood is located in the middle of the jungle and has some incredible views of the Ko’olau Range.  What it does not have is a parking lot for the popular Maunawili Falls Trail.  The trailhead marked with a locked yellow gate is located immediately to the left after driving into the neighborhood:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Since I arrived early in the morning at 06:15 AM I was able to get street parking next to the trailhead.  However, I can imagine how packed this neighborhood can get during the day so please be respectful of the residents in the neighborhood when parking.  According to the sign at the trailhead access to the trail is only allowed between the hours of 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Also at the trailhead was a sign warning about the dangers of leptospirosis which is a bacteria found in the fresh water of Hawaii from pigs pooping in it.  Leptospirosis can make people very sick and can be deadly if not treated:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

From the yellow gate at the trailhead I followed the paved road a short distance until I reached a big sign that said “Waterfall”:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Across from the waterfall sign there were three plaques that explained the history of the Maunawili area.  According to the markers this area was once used by ancient Hawaiians who created terraces and irrigated crops here.

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

The early Hawaiians grew their staple crops they introduced to Hawaii such as taro and sweet potatoes in the terraces. These terraces have been dated back as far as 1100 AD:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

With the arrival of Europeans came a different form of agriculture, cattle ranching.  It may seem hard to believe today considering the thick jungle covering the Maunawili area, but in 1859 a cattle ranch owned by William G. Irwin (1843-1914) once thrived here.  Not only did he graze cattle here, but he also planted coffee trees and grew sugar cane:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Today there is no sign of the past cattle ranch along the trail.  Instead the trail is surrounded by a thick jungle:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

The lushness of the surrounding jungle is caused by the frequent rains that fall on Windward Oahu especially this close to the Ko’olau Range.  All this rain means the trail is a muddy mess:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

To make matters worse is that the popularity of the trail has caused it to become extremely eroded and make it look like a herd of buffalo have been rampaging through the jungle:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

The trail was so muddy and eroded that it was extremely slippery which made me concerned I could sprain an ankle or twist a knee.  So I stopped and put on my microspikes which gave me enough traction to where I was no longer concerned with slipping:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

After a short distance the Maunawili Falls Trail began to run adjacent to the Maunawili Stream:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

This stream is really beautiful and quite pleasant as it flows through the valley:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

As I walked along the trail I began to look for a rock marked with the letter X on it which is supposed to designate where to cross the river according to my guide book, The Hikers Guide to O’ahu:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

I eventually spotted the X on the rock and crossed over the stream to notice that there wasn’t much of a trail on the other side of the creek:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

What I figured was that the directions in my book were inaccurate and decided to just follow the buffalo herd trail everyone else had already trampled down.  Along the way the trail passed over one of the old rock walls constructed during the area’s agricultural past:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

As I continued down the trail it just became a bigger mud hole:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Fortunately my hiking boots are waterproof and I was able to just walk through the mud with no issues.  However, I do not recommend people wear flip flops on this trail because they will likely get lost in the mud.  Additionally for anyone thinking of wearing tennis shoes I recommend wearing ones you don’t care about because they will get completely encrusted in mud on this trail.  A sturdy pair of sandals are an option for this trail, however I don’t like to wear them because of the leptospirosis threat. Hikers with small cuts on their feet or legs can get infected with the bacteria.

As I continued up the trail I next came to a small clearing that had a view of the adjacent Ko’olau Range:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

The trail next came to the Ainoni Spring which is a natural spring that had a small concrete shoot directing its waters towards the Maunawili Stream:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

From the Ainoni Spring the trail continues to follow the left side of the stream:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

About a mile up the Maunawili Falls Trail I came to a stream crossing:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Interestingly on the other side of the stream I saw my first Maunawili Falls Trail sign:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

You would think the State of Hawaii on a trail with this much foot traffic would have signs with arrows like this placed throughout the hike.  Besides the directional sign there was also a sign warning of a explosive hazard which I have no idea why it is there:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

On the other side of the stream the trail conditions did not improve much:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

I next came to some stairs that ascended up to a ridgeline:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Along the way I passed this large tree trunk covered in graffiti:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

This section of the trail even had more signs pointing hikers in the proper direction which would have been helpful much earlier in the hike:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Here is the final flight of stairs I ascended before reaching the top of the ridgeline:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

At the top of the stairs the trail traverses a ridgeline that opens up with some nice views of the Ko’olau Range:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Due to the rain that was falling the day I did this hike, the Ko’olau Range was cloaked with thick clouds:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

However, the famed fluted cliffs of the Ko’olau Range could still be seen despite the clouds:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

At another lookout on the ridgeline, I could see Konahuanui, the highest peak of the Ko’olau Range with an elevation of 3,150 feet:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Here is a panorama view of Konahuanui which like the rest of the Ko’olau Range was draped in clouds:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

As I continued on the ridgeline I actually began to hike adjacent to a grove gums trees that seemed out of place in the jungle surrounding the trail:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Eventually the trail along the ridgeline comes to a park bench:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

At the bench there is a trail intersection where going straight leads to the 9-mile long Maunawili Trail while going left leads down a steep staircase to Maunawili Falls:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Like the rest of the trail the staircase was badly eroded and very slippery in some areas:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

At the bottom of the staircase the trail comes to a fork of three streams:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

The stream that leads to the falls is the one that was directly in front me.  To continue on the trail I found some rocks to hop across to get across the creek:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Once across the creek I spotted a trail, however, the trail went both to the left and the right.  This is where I made the mistake of following the trail to the left because of how well defined it was compared to the trail to the right.  Going to the left ultimately led no where so I turned around and returned to the stream fork and proceeded to follow the trail in the other direction.  The trail in the other direction almost immediately leads to another stream crossing which is why it was not very well defined.  Once again a directional sign would have been nice here:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

I crossed the stream again and the trail became rocky as it followed the stream up to the waterfall:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

I could soon hear the waterfall ahead of me and I eventually could see it:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

As I walked up to the waterfall I found the view to be quite stunning, this really is a beautiful waterfall:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Here is a closer look at the waterfall:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

I had heard about the extreme crowds that flock to this waterfall, but by starting early it was me and only one other guy sharing the waterfall:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

This photo from Hawaii Magazine shows how crazy crowded this waterfall can become:

For people who want to avoid the crowds that this waterfall is infamous for, get up early like I did  because in total on the weekend morning that I did this hike, I saw four people on the trail.  I did not go swimming in the pool I just found a rock to sit on and enjoy the ambience of this beautiful part of Oahu:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

The pool below the waterfall is supposed to be quite deep and people frequently jump from the cliffs into the pool:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

However, there has been a number of injuries from the cliff diving over the years and a big warning sign has been put up because of this:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

I hung out at the waterfall for about 30 minutes before turning around and heading back down the trail:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Here is one final view of Maunawili Falls as I walked back down the trail:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

After crossing the river again I then hiked up the steep staircase back to the ridgeline:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Once back on the ridgeline I noticed that the Ko’olau Range was still cloaked in clouds:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

However, the 3,150 foot Konahuanui was more visible than before despite still being cloaked in clouds:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

As I walked across the ridgeline I also noticed a nice view looking back towards the city of Kailua where the Kawainui Marsh, the largest marshland in Hawaii could be seen:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

After descending the ridgeline I then followed the buffalo herd trail all the way back to the trailhead to conclude my hike:

Picture from Maunawili Falls Trail

Conclusion

After concluding my hike to Maunawili Falls I had mixed feelings about the trail.  There is no doubt that the waterfall and surrounding jungle is quite beautiful to hike through, however the trail is an absolute joke.  It may seem easy to blame the trail’s condition on the number of hikers it sees every day, but I think that is a poor excuse.  The Manoa Falls Trail sees far more hikers due to its proximity to Honolulu and the tour bus crowd that are allowed there.  Despite the crowds that trail is in great shape and can support the large number of hikers.  It is clear that little to no effort is being made to maintain the Maunawili Falls Trail.

To make matters worse the parking situation has got local residents upset as well which I can sympathize with.  It is clear something needs to be done and what is interesting about the situation with the Maunawili Falls Trail is that the Royal Hawaiian Golf Club is responsible for managing the entrance area for the trail while the State of Hawaii is responsible for maintaining parts of the trail on its property.  The nearby Royal Hawaiian Golf Club has been operating since 1986 on a conditional use permit with the stipulation that they manage the trail entrance area.  With criticism from local residents growing the golf club has offered to close the trail to give them time to fix access issues.

I think the only way the problems with the Maunawili Falls Trail gets fixed is by building a parking lot to relieve the street parking problem in the community and constructing a number of boardwalks over the muddy and eroded sections of the trail.  Plus more signs and possibly fencing needs to be installed to keep people on the trail to reduce erosion caused by social trails.  This will take a lot of money which is probably why the Royal Hawaiian Golf Club and the State of Hawaii have been dragging their feet to deal with this issue.  In the meantime the craziness on the Maunawili Falls Trail continues.

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