(Note: The Pali Lookout is currently closed indefinitely due to rock slide damage to the Pali Highway in February 2019. The Hawaii DOT has reopened one side of the Pali Highway during peak travel times on weekdays, but the lookout will still remain closed. Check the Division of State Park's website for updates..)
The Nu'uanu Pali Lookout is a popular stop for most first time visitors to Oahu and most island tour companies.
The park is easily accessible from a clearly marked access road off of the Pali Highway (Highway 61). Driving from Waikiki, you can reach the Pali Highway by driving into Honolulu on Ala Moana Boulevard or on H1. It's about a 30-minute drive, depending on traffic. If you're planning on visiting Kailua or Lanikai, it's a great place to stop along the way.
While there is no entrance fee for Hawaii residents, visitors to the park who arrive in rental vehicles are required to pay a $3.00 entrance fee per vehicle. Visitors who come to the park in tour groups should rest assured that the entrance fee is included in the cost of their tour.
What's in the Name
In the Hawaiian language, the name Nu'uanu Pali is comprised of three Hawaiian words nu'u (elevation or height), anu (cool) and pali (cliffs). Thus Nu'uanu Pali means "cool elevation cliffs." As anyone who has visited the Nu'uanu Pali Lookout can attest, it is often extremely windy on the lookout, but the views make it all worthwhile.
What You'll See
From the lookout, you can see a large part of the Windward Oahu coast from the Kaneohe Bay all the way to Kualoa Regional Park and Mokoli'i (Chinaman's Hat) to the north. You'll have great views of Kailua, the Ko'olau Mountains and the Mokapu Peninsula which is home to the Kane'ohe Marine Corps Base.
Historic Significance of Nu'uanu Pali
The area of the Nu'uanu Pali Overlook is one of the most important places in Hawaiian history, and even the source for some local ghost stories and urban legends. It was here that in 1795, Kamehameha I, from the island of Hawaii (the Big Island) defeated the forces of Maui's Chief Kalanikupule, who had previously conquered the island of Oahu. Both sides had received arms from European merchants and military, including muskets and cannons to go along with Hawaiian weapons, consisting mostly of spears. However, Kamehameha's weaponry, obtained from British Captain George Vancouver, was superior.
After several battles elsewhere on Oahu, Kamehameha was able to drive Kalanikupule's forces high up into the valley to the area of the current lookout where there is a near 1000 foot drop to the coastal plain below. Battle of Nu'uanu, called Kaleleka'anae (leaping of the 'anae fish) by Hawaiians, refers to the men forced off the cliff during the battle. With Kamehameha's victory on Oahu and the peaceful surrender of the island of Kauai by its king, Kaumualii, in 1810, Kamehameha became the first king of the Hawaiian Islands.
Before the Days of the Pali Highway
Of course, it has not always been easy to get from Oahu to the windward side of the island.
While today it takes under an hour to drive from Honolulu to Windward Oahu, in the early 1800's you either had to hike around the southeastern part of the island or hike over the Ko'olau mountains on the Pali Trail which was quicker and more direct, but much more dangerous.
In 1845 the Pali Trail was paved with stone and widened to six feet shortening the trip on horseback to about three hours. In 1897, portions of the cliff were blasted away and a new 20-foot-wide "carriage road," supported by stone walls, was built below the old trail. That road, able to handle the newly invented automobile, continued to be used through the first half of the 20th century.
It was not until the 1950's that construction of a paved highway began. Tunnels were excavated through the mountains and the Pali Highway was opened in 1957.
Today island residents and visitors use the Pali Highway regularly, rarely thinking of the history of the area. Folks who stop at the Nu'uanu Pali Lookout can take a few minutes to appreciate the view and reflect on the past at this historic part of the island.