Escape to Maunawili Falls With This Little-Known Trail

The popular hiking trail to Maunawili Falls is closed until at least 2023, but the falls are still accessible from the epic Maunawili Demonstration Trail.
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Maunawili Falls. Photo: Gary Saito

Early on a crisp morning I flee rush hour in Honolulu for solitude in the Ko‘olau Mountains.   

I set out on the Pali Highway, the view through my windshield gradually changing from concrete towers and sprawling neighborhoods to dense forests and rugged mountain ridges.   

O‘ahu is known as the Gathering Place, where fast urban pursuits intersect with the easy-going life. One hour you can stand in the shadow of a skyscraper and the next, under a palm tree on a secluded beach. Among O‘ahu’s bustling districts, I search for these pockets where nature is a comforting refuge and Hawai‘i’s native ecosystems thrive. Fortunately, the island has plenty of public hiking trails, often the only way into and out of many of these places.   

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The trailhead begins off the Pali Highway.
Photo credit: Aaron K. Yoshino

Unfortunately, these same trails can be a nuisance for the residents who live near them. In July 2021, Hawai‘i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources temporarily closed a portion of the popular Maunawili Falls hiking trail that begins in the Maunawili Estates subdivision. For years, area residents voiced their frustrations to the state about the rush of local and visiting hikers trekking through their quiet neighborhood to access the trail to Maunawili Falls. According to them, hikers would leave trash along the streets and block their driveways. The trail was also eroding from overuse. The closure is aimed at addressing these issues by the trail’s expected reopening in the summer of 2023. In the meantime, the state is working on trail enhancements and developing plans for on-site parking and other facilities to alleviate the stress the trail’s popularity has brought to the neighborhood.   

But the falls are still accessible via the Maunawili Trail, also known as the Maunawili Demonstration Trail. The trailhead is far enough from any residential areas but be prepared: The hike itself is twice as long as the other one. The out-and-back route covers about 7 miles.   

At the trailhead off the Pali Highway, my friend and I sliver through a break in the trees a few feet from the highway. Immediately, we’re engulfed in an intensely beautiful forest. Towering trees are entwined by slim shrubs and a stream trickles by.   

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A boardwalk path leads us deeper into the trail.
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

For the first half-mile, the well-marked trail features slabs of boardwalk and a canopy of trees provides plenty of shade. When we come upon breaks in the forest, my gaze locks on the striking ridges of the Ko‘olau Mountains. I can even discern a chute where a waterfall once flowed.   

As we venture farther into the forest, the boardwalk slabs gradually give way to slippery mud, and with every step I kick up clumps of it. The trail is usually muddy, especially if it’s been raining, but trudging through the sludge is part of the fun. (Don’t expect to finish this hike clean. I didn’t.)  

Snaking along the base of the Ko‘olau Mountains, we make it to a ridge where Olomana’s three peaks come into view. The path is lined with native ferns and in the distance, I catch sight of budding red ‘ōhia lehua.    

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Trudging through mud, crossing boardwalks and zigzagging through a stream comprise the hike to Maunawili Falls.
Photo: Catherine Toth Fox

Here on the ridge, I pluck plump strawberry guava from low tree branches for a sour snack. Unfortunately, the invasive species is rampant on the trail. It’s a reminder of how our choices, including what we carry on these trails, have lasting effects on the island’s fragile ecosystems. The same can be said about the conscious steps people can take to prevent the spread of rapid ‘ōhia death, a fungal disease with the potential to kill ‘ōhia trees statewide. After all, allowing the land time to heal is one reason a section of the popular Maunawili Falls hiking trail is closed.  

And after 90 minutes on this trail, we come to the junction where the Maunawili Demonstration Trail connects to the Maunawili Falls hike—and we still haven’t come across any other hikers. It’s this solitude I came for.   

Not far from the intersection, we begin our descent to the falls. We climb down a series of steep, muddy stairs and from the soothing sounds of moving water, we know we’re approaching a stream. I take it one step at a time and before long I’m standing in the ravine. Along the stream the delicate white flowers of the Cheilocostus speciosus plant, or crêpe ginger, are in bloom. These flowers mark the beginning of the more precarious portion of the hike.  

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After snaking along the base of the Ko‘olau Mountains, Olomana’s three peaks come into view.
Photo credit: Catherine Toth Fox

From here there’s no clear path forward, so we zigzag across the stream. Both my friend and I carefully step onto rocks, testing how slippery they are before committing. And when I can, I step into the shallow pools in the stream figuring it’s safer and less slippery. Our descent takes just 14 minutes, and all told, we’ve been hiking for two hours.   

But we’re finally here. The beautiful Maunawili Falls flows 20 feet into a pond large enough to swim in. Today, my friend and I just lean against the rocks listening to the cascading water, relishing the tranquility and solitude. No one else is here, a rarity, and so we sit next to the stream surrounded by enormous hāpu‘u ferns, free from the noise of rushing cars.   

This morning, even just for a few hours, we’ve escaped the confines of town.  

My friend and I will have to return to the city soon, trekking along the same path only this time uphill. It doesn’t trouble me knowing it’ll be another two hours until we reach my car. Troubles are for later. For now, I’ll just savor my surroundings. 

Maunawili Trail begins off the Pali Highway on the Kailua side of the tunnels. Look for the state trailhead sign. The out-and-back hike covers about 7 miles. 

This story was originally published in our HAWAI’I Magazine Winter 2023 Issue. Buy a copy here.

Categories: Adventure, From Our Magazine, Hiking, Oʻahu, O‘ahu What To Do