Hiking is a great way to get in touch with nature, and that is why many people are choosing to take up the activity on Hawaii’s two most populated islands: Maui and Oahu. Both islands offer spectacular views of the natural wonders that each one has, but which island is better?
In this post, we will compare hiking routes on both islands and other factors such as accessibility for beginners and prices.
Though both islands are on flat land above the sea, Maui has more of a mountain feel while Oahu is more of an ocean-atmosphere. Being a bit farther from the beach means that Maui gets a slight advantage because the peaks in the central parts are taller than those in Oahu.
However, Oahu’s high-elevation hiking trails offer some pretty outstanding views of the islands and involve some pretty tough climbs. If you’re an experienced hiker looking for something to challenge yourself, hike up Haleakala with experienced guides or go climbing on Mauna Loa on a guided hike through Rainbow Mountain Adventures (read our full review here).
The best parts of either island for hiking are around the west coast, where you’ll be able to catch that perfect scenic view of the ocean while still being far enough away from the beach.
Both islands have very similar opening times for hiking. You can start hiking on both Maui and Oahu at sunrise until about 9 AM, though you will need to call ahead to reserve a spot for sunrise hikes; they don’t occur every day.
There is a closed period for opening the trail in Oahu called “winter hours,” from November to April. Thus, you won’t be able to start your hike on Oahu until November, and you’ll be unable to hike after 4 in the afternoon. On Maui, sunset time varies according to the month of the year.
FACILITIES FOR BEGINNERS
Hiking on both islands is accessible for beginners who are comfortable with basic hiking skills such as starting by themselves with hiking sticks and keeping up with others within a reasonable distance (generally less than 5 miles per hour). Both islands have maps available online that show all of these trails, and also mention their difficulty levels as well as how long each trail takes.
On Maui, the Maui Hikes website has a trail map for outdoorsy beginners in their “The Beginner’s Guide,” while Oahu has its own beginner’s guide called “Oahu Hiking Trail Guide.” If you’re looking for something that focuses on specific hiking trails, consider using the Oahu section of Hawaii Hiking Trails.
PRICES FOR HIKE
Both islands have relatively low prices for hiking, which is why they are among the top places to visit in Hawaii. On Maui, you can expect to pay between $30 and $50 per person for a guided hike. The prices go from $50 to $85 per person on Oahu.
For a customized price, contact Hawaii Hiking Trails or Rainbow Mountain Adventures. The first option will have you hiking with experienced guides who are also experts in botany and culture. The latter option is for those seeking something different than the usual hike: an adrenaline-pumping experience where you climb on natural rock ladders that lead up to beautiful views of the island from the mountain’s peaks.
Overall, Maui is a better choice for hiking, not only because of its spectacular views but also because it has more open hiking trails and activities. However, the variety of hiking experiences on Oahu will satisfy those who want something different than the usual hike.
Which Hawaiian island is the best for hiking?
Oahu, hands down.
You’ll hear Maui touted as the place to go hiking in Hawaii, but, with rare exceptions, that is a big misunderstanding.
- Oahu has much better trails. Maui’s trails are often poorly maintained and not kept up to the standard hikers expect.
- Oahu has better weather. Maui gets much more rain and higher humidity. Even Honolulu, which is a bit dryer, gets less rain than Kula on Maui and high humidity most days in the summer.
- Oahu has better infrastructure for hikers. Camping facilities are available both public and private in at least five locations across Oahu, including two right at the trailhead base. There is no camping on Maui other than a few primitive sites that are hard to find, hard to get to, and generally not available for those hiking into a summit crater anyway.
- Oahu has simpler driving logistics. It is much easier to drive from the city to the trailhead in Oahu than Maui. While many trails on Oahu include a drivable road to the trailhead, it is not necessary for most.
- Oahu has better access to water and shade. At least some water and shade are available at every trailhead on Oahu, while on Maui, many drive and hike great distances without ever seeing a water source or the relief of natural shade (only the occasional plantation trees).
- Almost every summit shared by Oahu and Maui can be reached more easily from an Oahu base camp than a Maui base camp.
Should I go to Maui or Oahu first?
If you want to climb a few mountains and camp out in the crater at one of Hawaii’s most famous volcanoes, set your hiking pants or shorts and your hiking water bottle or bladder then Maui is the place for you.
Do I have any other options?
Big Island has the most and best trails in Hawaii. Not only does it have excellent weather year-round, but its trail system is also consistently well maintained and offers some of the most interesting cultural scenery on all four islands. However, it is not as well known as Maui and Oahu. The only downside is that Big Island is a bigger island, and driving routes are longer than on the other islands.
Kauai is also an excellent choice. Its trail system has expanded in the last decade and there are dozens of great hikes available year-round. It would be easy to spend several weeks exploring the trails of Kauai and still not see it all.
How is Maui different from Oahu?
Maui is the largest of the four Hawaiian islands. It has a unique topography – cliffs on one side of the island and a gentle slope on the other, with two spectacular volcanoes in between. Maui has a higher population density than either Oahu or Hawaii island.
Maui is also an ancient island with numerous differences from the other islands:
- Volcanic craters and lava flows, including Haleakala (sandstone) at its base;
- The oldest Hawaiian settlement sites on Maui date back more than 4,000 years to early Polynesian settlers;
- There are no special cultural or natural areas on Oahu or Hawaii island that are older than 500 years.
- Mauna Loa is the largest shield volcano in the world. It has two summit craters – one for each island.
- Many waterfalls are accessible only by hiking, such as Alakai/Pipiwai and Waimoku Falls.
Which is better Maui or Kauai?
That depends on your hiking goals.
Maui has fewer trails – about 30 compared with 40 on Kauai. However, the trails on Maui are generally longer and include more spectacular scenery and interesting cultural sites.
On both islands, the best hiking is in the northwest area around the peaks of Haleakala and Mauna Kea (Mauna Loa). Most trails there are not technically challenging (except for Halemauu Trail), but they require some walking through lava fields and a little scrambling over sharp lava rock.
If you like to see different kinds of topography, then choose Oahu or Kauai first.
Where should I go for my first time in Hawaii?
For your first trip to Hawaii, plan on spending at least ten days. Start with Oahu and do the North Shore hike, Diamond Head crater hike, and maybe a few more trails. Then move on to Maui for volcano hikes and waterfalls. Finally, visit Kauai for its tropical rainforests and waterfalls.
Where should I go for my first multi-day hike?
If you want to hike a big trail, we recommend visiting Oahu or Maui first. If you do not have time to stay overnight in an area, then Kauai is a good choice.
What is the best hiking in Hawaii?
No single trail or hike on Hawaii has “the best” (or “the worst”), but there are many trails that are worth visiting on any of the islands, which we describe below.
Many of the trails on Oahu are short and easy, yet offer some of the most interesting scenery and cultural sites in all of Hawaii. For example, the Halona Blowhole at Diamond Head State Monument is one of the most popular sites for visitors to Oahu.
On Oahu, you may want to try a few of the following:
For a steep climb and panoramic view, try Koko Crater Trail, which offers great views of Honolulu and Waimanalo as well as good chances to see Nene birds.
Hike around Waimea Valley and along the nearby beaches. It is very popular with residents. The Nakula trail is fairly easy with beautiful ocean views.
Oahu hiking difficulty ratings
Most of the hikes on Oahu are easy, except Diamond Head and the North Shore, which are moderately difficult.
Haleakala National Park
Haleakala (or Mount Haleakala) is reasonably close to Maui and is a popular day-trip destination. The crater at its summit is one of the best places to see the sunrise in Hawaii and view the Pacific Ocean from 18,000 feet up. In addition, you can hike around the crater rim.
Our favourite Haleakala hike includes a visit to Kilohana, an old Hawaiian village that is now part of Haleakala National Park. Kilohana is one of the most interesting places we have seen on any Hawaiian island. The old village offers an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean, and it is surrounded by beautiful tropical rainforest.
Pu’u Maka’ala (Haleakala Crater Lookout)
Hike to this overlook, where you can look down into the crater at 18,000 feet (5,500 meters). This is a short hike that’s hard to beat for the crater and ocean views.
Lanai (“Island of Flowers”) hiking
Lanai has many interesting hiking trails that are well worth exploring. You can find waterfalls, a lava tube, and a rugged coastline on Lanai.
We have found that Lanai has some of the nicest people in Hawaii, and it provides a great alternative to the hustle and bustle of Maui or Honolulu. It is also less expensive than Oahu or Maui.
Molokai (“Friendly Isle”) hiking
Molokai has lush rainforest, a rugged coastline, and 17 miles of spectacular shoreline that includes both white-sand beaches in the south part of the island (Kaunakakai) and black-sand beaches to the north. There are many interesting sights on Molokai that only hiking can reveal.
Oahu Skyline Trail (“Diamond Head” – “Diamond Head Crater”)
The Oahu hike of the Honolulu Marathon is an out-and-back trail that traverses the entire Oahu island starting at the Diamond Head crater (1,079 feet) to the shoreline. It is one of the few treks in Hawaii with an altitude gain of over 3,000 feet (one way). You are rewarded with some stunning views that encompass Honolulu’s skyline and Diamond Head.
Big Island trails
Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea
Hawaii is famous for its volcanoes, which are some of the most prominent natural landmarks on earth. The Hawaiian islands are volcanic by nature, and there are over 100 that have been active in the last 35,000 years.
Oahu has two active volcanoes
Kilauea on the Big Island and Haleakala on Maui. The Big Island has another (Mauna Loa) that is dormant but still considered “active” because it rises over 13,000 feet above sea level. Due to the relatively low elevation of its crater, Mauna Loa is one of the best places in Hawaii to see the sunrise.
Hawaii’s other two active volcanoes are Mauna Kea and Hualalai. The summit crater of Mauna Kea is also a popular hiking destination, and it can be climbed from the Kahului airport in Maui or from Cape representation in Oahu.
Mauna Kea (“White Mountain”) is the tallest mountain in Hawaii, and its summit crater is one of the most interesting sights in all of Hawaii. It is only a few degrees below the equator and has a 3,000 year-old cinder-cone crater that may be as much as two miles across. The trailhead has almost everything you need – water, food, restrooms, shade, parking – making it an ideal day hike destination for most people.
Hiking Mauna Kea is a great chance to see an ancient Hawaiian volcano that otherwise might not make it to your “must visit” list (especially if you are flying into Kona airport in the west).
Molokai trails – Hiking Molokai is really an island within an island – Taiohae State Park. The park itself has a nice trail system that is well maintained, but you may spend more time hiking through lava fields than walking on the trail to your campsite. However, the park has some of the most interesting sea cliffs you can imagine, and there are many waterfalls on the island to explore. You can camp for free on any of the Big Island forests (including Kahoolawe).
Kauai trails – Much of Kauai is undeveloped in terms of hikers’ infrastructure (parking areas, campsites, trailhead signs), but there are still dozens of great hiking trails that are well worth exploring. We recommend you spend at least a week exploring Kauai’s hiking trails.