Oahu’s Pali Highway is a special road for a variety of reasons. It’s a vital link between the Windward Side and Honolulu. It’s incredibly rich with pre- and post-contact Hawaiian history. And it’s stunningly beautiful. More than just a means of getting over (and through) the Koolau Mountains, it’s possible to spend a whole day exploring the Pali, and the hidden wonders of Nuuanu Valley, which the Pali runs through on its way to Kailua. In fact, many people do.
When it rains, which is often, the walls of Nuuanu Valley can be seen streaked with jagged, white ribbons of temporary waterfalls. When the wind is blowing particularly hard, they become “upside down waterfalls,” the flow of water lifted heavenward by the rushing breeze.
Queen Emma Summer Palace
First up on the way over the hill is the Queen Emma Summer Palace. Its frame constructed in 1848 (in Boston, actually), the palace originally served as a cool mountain retreat for Queen Emma and her husband King Kamehameha IV. It’s now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and is lovingly maintained by the Daughters of Hawaii. Its lush gardens are full of native Hawaiian species, and its stately rooms hold some of the most important artifacts and treasures of the Hawaiian monarchy.
The palace is open to the public each day from 9:00am to 4:00pm, except on major holidays.
1913 Pali Highway, Honolulu 96817
A little deeper into Nuuanu Valley, just off of the Pali on Nuuanu Pali Drive, you’ll find the short “Judd Trail” to Jackass Ginger, a freshwater pool popular with young people and families. The trail takes you through a soaring bamboo forest and into a whispering stand of ironwood pines. The water is cool and clear, but the presence of waterborne pathogens means you shouldn’t drink it. Parking can be tight on the weekends. As with all hiking trails in Hawaii, be sure to bring plenty of water, and to pack out whatever you bring in.
At the end of Nuuanu Pali Drive, where it rejoins Pali Highway, is the trail head to Lulumahu Falls. About 2 hours round trip for novice hikers, the Lulumahu Falls trail takes you past the expansive Nuuanu Reservoir and through a magical bamboo forest on the way to the towering waterfall. There are a couple of stream crossings along the way, so be sure to wear sensible shoes.
This scenic and windswept outlook at the top of the Pali is famous for its panoramic vista overlooking Windward Oahu and Kaneohe Bay. It’s among the most dramatic views on Oahu with its sheer cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet straight down. This is the site where Kamehameha the Great sealed his victory in consolidating the Hawaiian Islands by driving his rival’s army over the cliffs. Keep in mind that parking at the lookout requires a modest fee.
Through the tunnels on the way down into Kailua is the popular Maunawili Trail at the end of Maunawili Road. It’s another waterfall hike, and just over three miles long. Because of the frequent rains the trail is often muddy, so sensible shoes are must. There is a small swimming hole at the base of Maunawili Falls. Because of the persistently damp conditions mosquitos can be pesky.
Most visitors to Oahu who rent vehicles will most likely find themselves traversing the Pali Highway in order to reach the Windward Side. The views along the drive alone are worth the trip, but those intrepid travelers that venture off of the highway into the forest and along the trails and streams the Pali has to offer are always rewarded.