Whether it’s an extreme hiking adventure or a day at a tropical beach, this wonderful island provides.
I was lucky enough to find myself living in Hawaii from 2013-2016 and in that time I did my fair share of exploration and photography. I miss it a great deal and love going back to Oahu to photograph couples and elopements! I’ve taken notice of the places that were popular among photographers and also scouted some locations that were a bit more hidden. Some of these destinations require serious trekking, others merely require you to roll out of your car and make your way to a quiet beach a few yards away. If you’re looking for an active day or something a bit more relaxed for your Oahu elopement, this beautiful little slice of paradise affords you many opportunities to do either or both!
To orient yourself to the map, we will start our journey on the bottom right of the island and travel in a counter-clockwise fashion, each location is numbered as such. The island itself is fairly easy to navigate as there are not many highways and for the most part, as you drive, the ocean will always be on your right.
1.) Hanauma Bay – Sea to Summit and Back!
One of my favorite destinations on the island of Oahu, Hanauma bay has it all (with a small entry fee for the beach). A gorgeous, crescent-shaped shoreline with easy surf and beautiful turquoise water; as well as a somewhat strenuous hike around the rim of the bay, and a cool rock bridge over the churning sea at the end! The hike itself is about 4.5 miles round trip and has some steep slopes to navigate, but nothing that you have to use your hands for. The burning in your legs will be worth it when you get to the top of the mountain and also at the end when you see the rock bridge. Although many people stand on the rock bridge itself, I don’t recommend it. Extreme caution is a must near the rock bridge because rogue waves knock people into the ocean occasionally and once you are in the water, it’s extremely hard to get you out. People die here because they misjudge the tides and the power of the water. Enjoy it from a safe distance and you’ll have nothing to worry about while you observe nature’s beauty!
2.) Lanai Lookout – Rock & Roll.
This location is just down the road from Hanauma Bay but is easier to get to and requires no day-use fee. Cool-looking rock formations and an eastern-facing orientation give you a lot of things to explore and photograph! On clear days, you can see the islands of Molokai, Lanai, and Maui from here. This is one of my personal favorite places to take pictures of the night sky because the sky is free of light pollution and generally a bit less cloudy than the rest of the island. You can use artificial light to illuminate the rocks around you and make it seem like you are on another planet altogether. It’s a lot of fun and you are a safe distance from the ocean so you don’t have to worry about the water soaking your belongings or sweeping you away!
3.) Halona Beach Cove – Secret Beach with Hike-able Surroundings
One of my favorite little secret spots on the island, Halona Beach Cove is a small patch of sand and ocean hidden away beneath the highway and in between two cliffs. If you park at the Halona Blowhole parking lot, you can take a short, 100-meter hike down to the beach and hang out for the afternoon. Feeling the urge to explore? You can turn inland and hike a short but steep distance up to a natural rock bridge the formed on the side of the famous Koko Head Crater! It looks like something you would see in the American Southwest but with an ocean view.
4.) Lanikai Beach – Picture Perfect.
Some of the prettiest blue water I’ve ever seen with a photogenic backdrop of two small, triangular rock formations in the distance: the Mokulea islands. I was once wading in the water and two large sea turtles came right up to me and popped their heads up to say hello. It was wild! The waters are generally calm here as well because it is on the eastern shore and the distant reef keeps the breaking waves far away. Don’t forget to stop at Lanikai Juice in Kailua and grab a smoothie or Acai Bowl!
5.) Kualoa Regional Park – “The Chinaman’s Hat.”
This park has been getting increasingly crowded but is worth it if you want to explore. You can kayak or wade (at low tide) out to the rock formation known as Chinaman’s Hat and hike to the top for a cool view, or you can follow the beach along to the east and find some interesting hidden gems in the trees. There is also a dock hidden in the woods that is used by the Secret Island Resort that stands in a lagoon called the Moli’i Fishpond. It faces a beautiful mountain backdrop that looks great for photos. If you are interested in shooting here, you’ll have to contact the Kualoa Ranch and get their permission because it is on their property. I miss this area a great deal. Due to the beach’s eastern orientation, this is a great place to watch the sun come up as well! I Highly recommend it.
6.) Crouching Lion – Now with More Hidden Dragon!
Sea level not your thing? As you approach Kahana Bay, on your left side will be a large, hillside rock formation known as the Crouching Lion. It is a steep and muddy hike up that can be done in a couple of hours, featuring gorgeous views of Kahana Bay and the northeastern coastline. Once you get to the top, there are plenty of great places to take photos! If you wish to continue on upwards, the trail eventually leads to Pu’u Manamana (Pu’u means “hill” or “mount”), one of the most extreme ridge hikes on the island of Oahu. I have personally witnessed people being rescued/airlifted from the narrow ridge on Manamana on two separate occasions and is not recommended for beginners or people unfamiliar with the loose and unpredictable Hawaiian terrain. One slip from this trail and you are at the very least taking an expensive trip to the hospital!
7.) Laie Point – Enjoy the View!
Have you ever seen the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall?” Do you remember the scene where they go cliff jumping? This is where they filmed it. Although I don’t recommend jumping in the water, this is a great spot to take in a view of the northeastern side of the island and the Koolau mountain range before you. Great for sunrise photos as well because the light will bath the island in a warm orange glow and create a beautiful background for each shot!
8.) The North Shore – A Getaway in a Getaway.
The North Shore is it’s own little world on the less-populous side of the island as opposed to the hustle and crowded nature of Waikiki. It’s more of a secluded beach town and the locals want to keep it that way. This is also where big wave surfing was invented. In the winter months, enormous swells pound the island and the craziest of the crazy swim out into them with surfboards. Every few years, the Eddie Aikau competition is held if the conditions are right. What are those conditions? I’m glad you asked: a swell with waves of 40 feet or taller is required for the competition to even take place. It’s truly insane. The island basically shuts down and everyone flocks to the beach, many camping out overnight the day before just to witness it.
If you yourself are looking for the best places to spend an afternoon or to watch the waves or sunset on an average day, I recommend Shark’s cove or Waimea Bay. Waimea Bay also has a neat little rock formation that people like to climb up and jump from into the ocean from, a nice bonus if you want to get your heart rate going during your day at the beach. Shark’s Cove is a bit more relaxed and family-oriented. Large tide pools form during the day when waves crash over lava rocks in the area. People come here to snorkel in the calm water and take pictures at sunset. If you are interested in a more conventional beach experience and want to see waves pounding into the sand, Banzai Pipeline beach is directly to the right of Shark’s Cove and after a short walk, it’s a nice place to park yourself for a few hours as well. As you can imagine, a beach with “Pipeline” in the name is popular with surfers, so enjoy the show.
9.) Ka’ena Point – Edge of the World.
If you enjoy taking pictures of the Milky Way at night or enjoy rugged, rocky coastlines and sunsets, Oahu’s westernmost point is worth a drive. As you pass through Haleiwa and Waialua, you’ll eventually come to the end of the road and find yourself on a dirt trail that ends with a large gate. From this point on, you have to walk. You’ll pass numerous stone coves until you get to the very end of the island. The tip itself is quite visible and obvious, much like standing at the stern of a very large ship! Once you get out to the end, you can see for miles along the North and Southwest shores, a truly beautiful place to watch the sunset.
10.) Yokahama Bay – West Side, Best Side.
Since Ka’ena point is the end of all roads from the North Shore (no road circles the entire island), you’ll have to travel inland and take the H2 highway if you want to drive to the southwest shore. You can also walk here from Ka’ena point, but it will take a really long time and may turn your day into an overnight camping trip. Either way, the west side has some of the best beaches on the island and far smaller crowds because of the time it takes to get there. Yokahama Bay/Makua Beach is a great combination of beautiful blue water, white sand, green mountains, tide pools and picturesque sunset weather. The sky is usually a little bit clearer on this side of the island, so it’s not a bad place to spend a full day and night.
Bonus: to the east of the beach, there is an old limestone cave carved into the side of a mountain near the road that you can hike up to and get a great view of the bay. The Makua Cave sits at the top of a steep, crumbly hillside trail that traverses a narrow goat path before ending in a set of caves. Bring an ultra-wide lens if you want to get a cool shot inside the cave! You can spend the night up here as well, but legend has it that the ghosts of old Hawaiian warriors—the Nightmarchers—will come to visit you if you stay too long. If you listen closely, you can sometimes hear them beating their drums in the night.
Extreme Bonus: Moanalua Middle Ridge to Haiku Stairs – Not for the Casual Hiker.
No doubt you’ve heard of or seen pictures of the Stairway to Heaven (AKA Haiku Stairs). One of the coolest and most illegal hikes of all time, the stairs themselves are illegal to hike. Access at the bottom is restricted and I do NOT recommend going that route as you can be fined and arrested. You, however, can still see and access the stairs from the top. The Haiku Stairs are a steep set of 3900 metal steps bolted into a cliff just after the Pearl Harbor attack to give workers access to a communication tower (Haiku Station) on top of the mountain (Puʻu Keahiakahoe). Long abandoned, the near-vertical stairs have been continuously climbed by thrill seekers for decades since. There is a full-time guard and a gate at the base of the stairs meant to deter would-be climbers from making the trek over private land to begin their adventure, so the only legal way to get to this amazing place is by climbing up and traversing the southern face of the mountain and then looking down the stairs from the top a bit before turning around. The easiest (although by no means easy) way to do so is by hiking up the Moanalua Middle Ridge, a 10+ mile round trip up a steep, muddy, narrow and extremely windy section of the Koolau mountains.
The trail starts at the Moanalua Valley Park and is a flat walk with many stream crossings for the first 3 miles. Keep your feet dry if you can. Once you make it to the ridge trail on your left, you’ll quickly gain elevation. You’ll find yourself walking on a muddy, slippery ridge only a foot wide with sheer drop-offs on either side of you. You’ll have to use your hands and fixed ropes to successfully climb at times. I recommend checking the weather for wind, rain and temperature because it is a long trip (8-10 hours) and if any of these three things are not optimal, it could be too dangerous to go. Give the trail at least 2 sunny days prior to dry out and do not start your hike after 10am. I also recommend micro spikes, a packable outer layer, gloves (for fixed ropes) and lots of extra water. Starting early is crucial because you’ll make it through the hardest part of the hike before it gets too hot and usually the clouds don’t appear on the top of the mountains until later in the day. Once you make it to the top, it is also a good idea to break out your extra layer to keep the wind off of you. You will be sweaty and the strong wind will feel freezing cold. You must exercise extreme caution on the ridge, because it is narrow, steep and dangerous. Be realistic about your level of fitness as well. This hike has around over 2600 feet of elevation gain and is over ten miles long in a hot, humid, buggy valley. Plenty of people are lured here by cool instagram photos to realize that they are out of their element halfway up the ridge and have to make a dangerous hike down totally exhausted. People die here as well, so give this hike and this mountain their due respect. If you are a physically able, confident hiker and heights don’t bother you, this is an insanely rewarding experience that you will remember for the rest of your life. Note: unfortunately, the state has decided to remove the stairs so there might not be much time left to see them!
If an elopement in Oahu sounds like something that you are interested in, contact us today and we can discuss setting up your ideal Hawaiian adventure.
Love scenic locations? We also have a post about the incredible Big Sur for you to check out!