Driving Tour of Oahu's Leeward or Waianae Coast

Aerial View of Leeward Coast

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

Oahu's Leeward or Waianae Coast in Hawaii remains largely undiscovered by the vast majority of tourists to the island.

In part, this occurs simply because the area is not well known and ignored by the most popular guidebooks. For many visitors, the area is simply too remote and appears uninviting. In recent years, a number of beach parks have been home to many homeless people including entire working families who simply cannot afford a house and have no other options available.

Few tourists ever make it around Barber's Point, Ko Olina and Kapolei much less than drive north to Waianae, Makaha and Kaena Point.

Our exploration of the Leeward Coast begins by driving as far north as possible, where the Farrington Highway, Route 930, ends at Yokohama Beach, just a bit south of Kaena Point.

The coastline here is rough. Some of the oldest lava on Oahu can be found along this shore. The beaches are lovely, but the surf is somewhat unpredictable, so care must be taken when swimming or surfing in these waters, especially in the winter months when the waves are considerably higher than in summer.

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Makua Valley

Makua Valley in Hawaii
Henris94 / Getty Images

Only a short drive south of Yokohama Bay and Beach lies the Makua Valley which, at one time before Western contact, had a thriving Hawaiian community. Since the 1930's a portion of the valley has been used by the U.S. military for live-fire training exercises.

The valley is home to numerous endangered species of plants and animals and sites sacred to the native Hawaiian people. The U.S. military's use of the valley remains a source of contention between native Hawaiians and the government.

Robi Kahakalau, one of Hawaii's top female musicians describes Makua in a mele (song) of the same name as "the place where we Hawaiians can still be free". Needless to say, the government's use of this land in a destructive fashion makes that very difficult.

Nearby Makua Beach is beautiful with great swimming opportunities in the calm summer months. It was used for principal filming in the 1965 film version of James Michener's novel Hawaii starring Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow.

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Kaneana Cave

Entrance to Kaneana Cave (Mokua Cave), Oahu, Hawaii
EJJohnsonPhotography / Getty Images

Just a tad south of Makua on your left is the Kaneana Cave.

Kaneana is named after Kane, the Hawaiian god of creation. One story holds that from inside the depth of Kaneana, symbolic of the earth goddess' womb, mankind emerged and his existence spread throughout the Waianae Coast.

It is told that in ancient times entry in the cave was forbidden, as it was said to be the home of Nanaue, the shark-man of Kaneana.

The cave is huge - a hundred feet high and four hundred and fifty feet deep. It is dark and wet so you'll need a flashlight and appropriate shoes if you decide to enter it.

Unfortunately, the beauty and sacred nature of the cave is overshadowed by lots of graffiti. It is not maintained by the County or State.

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Makaha Beach Park

Makaha beach at sunset in Oahu Island, Hawaii
Photographer and videographer from Ukraine / Getty Images

Our exploration of the Leeward Shore took us past the beautiful Makaha Beach Park, a narrow 21-acre park, which features an exceptionally long and wide beach. The park and its sandy beach are bordered on the west by Kepuhi Point.

Like most Leeward Shore beaches, this beach often sees high waves in the winter - up to 25 feet high break off Makaha Point, providing some of the most challenging big waves on Oahu.

While the waves of spring and summer are considerably smaller in height, in winter Makaha sees severe backwashes and rip currents.

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Makaha Valley

A rainbow over Makaha Valley

TripSavvy / Kili La'a

Makaha Valley was once home to the Makaha Valley Ranch and a favorite place for Hawaii's royalty. Also in the valley is the restored ​Kane'aki Heiau. Built over 300 years ago, the temple was dedicated to Lono, the Hawaiian god of harvest and fertility. 

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Waianae and Pokai Bay

Pokai Bay Beach Park, Waianae, Oahu, Hawaii
EJJohnsonPhotography / Getty Images

From Makaha we continued south past Waianae, the largest residential community on the Leeward Coast and home to the Waianae Small Boat Harbor from which several ocean tours depart.

We drove past and Pokai Bay where the beach is the most protected on the coast and where the water is calm most of the year. The US Army maintains a recreation center here. In 2003, the center was renamed the Pililaau Army Recreation Center (PARC) in honor of Herbert Kaili Pililaau (October 10, 1928 – September 17, 1951), a U.S. Army soldier and recipient of the Medal of Honor, for his actions in the Korean War.

At the southern end of the bay is a coconut palm covered peninsula known as Kaneilio Point which is home to the three terraced Kuilioloa Heiau.

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Kolekole Pass

Enjoying Hawaii off the Kolekole Pass
Jared I. Lenz Photography / Getty Images

Once we reached the town of Nanakuli, we turned off the highway and headed inland towards the Waianae mountains. Most visitors need to continue south around Kapolei in order to return to Waikiki or proceed through Central Oahu to the North Shore area.

If, however, you or a member of your party is a current or former member of the U.S. military with a valid military ID, you can proceed through the U.S. Naval Magazine (weapons storage facility) and cross the Waianae Mountains through the Kolekole Pass into Schofield Barracks, a U.S. Army base, and Wheeler Army Airfield. The road is closed to the public, but open to military personnel and their dependents on most days until sunset.

The drive across the mountains on Kolekole Pass Road offers great panoramic views of the Waianae Coast.

Being able to cut across the mountains shortens your travel time considerably especially if you intend to head to the North Shore since it leaves you right in the middle of Central Oahu near the towns of Waiawa and Mililani.

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