Driving Along the North Shore of Oahu

Mountain so of Oahu's North Shore

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

Known as the "surfing capital of the world," Oahu's North Shore spans from La'ie to Ka'ena Point. Still, it's an area that far too many visitors never take the opportunity to see.

In this feature, we'll show you the best ways to get to the North Shore by car and then we'll take a look at some of the highlights of the area. You can get to the North Shore by bus, but it's a long, slow ride with many stops.

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Driving Tour of the North Shore of Oahu

Kualoa Ranch

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre 

Driving to Oahu's North Shore

There are two main ways of getting to the North Shore. The first way is to drive via Central Oahu.

Heading west on H1 from Waikiki, turn north on the H2. When the H2 ends in Wahiawa near Schofield Barracks, follow the signs for the Kamehameha Highway (#99). This road will take you past Dole Plantation on your right and right into Haleiwa town.

For the purposes of this feature, we're going to drive to the North Shore via the other route.

The other way to get to the North Shore is to take H1 to either the Likelike Highway or Pali Highway towards Oahu's Windward Coast near Kaneohe and Kailua.

If you choose the Likelike Highway (#63) once you drive through the Koolau Mountains, and down the other side, take the first right-hand exit (Kahekili Highway), which soon turns into Kamehameha Highway (#83).

If you take the Pali Highway, look for signs for the Kamehameha Highway (#83). Once you go under the H3, turn left on the Likelike Highway (#63). Turn right at the second stop light onto Kahekili Highway, which soon turns into Kamehameha Highway (#83).

You'll be on the Kamehameha Highway for about 23 miles along Oahu's most scenic coast that includes Mokoli'i Island (Chinaman's Hat), Kualoa Ranch and the Ka'a'awa Valley and Kahana Bay. Soon you'll enter La'ie.

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Polynesian Cultural Center

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

La'ie is home to the Mormon Temple, Brigham Young University, and the Polynesian Cultural Center.

Visitors to the Hawaiian Island of Oahu have the unique opportunity to learn about the culture and people of Polynesia, not from books, films or television, but from the actual people who were born and live in the area's major island groups.

Founded in 1963, the Polynesian Cultural Center or PCC is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of Polynesia and sharing the culture, arts, and crafts of the major island groups to the rest of the world. The Center has been Hawaii's top paid visitor attraction since 1977, according to annual state government surveys.

The Polynesian Cultural Center features six Polynesian "islands" in a beautifully landscaped, 42-acre setting representing Fiji, Hawaii, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga. Additional island exhibits include the great mo'ai statues and huts of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the islands of Marquesas. A beautiful manmade freshwater lagoon winds throughout the Center.

Near the PCC, La'ie Point is a great place to view the North Shore coastline.

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Hawaiian coot at the James Campbell Nature Wildlife Refuge
James Campbell Nature Wildlife Refuge

Just a few minutes north of La'ie is Kahuku, an old plantation-town camp that was established in 1890 when sugar was Hawaii's largest single source of income.

Still in existence at the century-old sugar mill are three of the original steam engines. One dates back to the Civil War and all are in working condition.

Surrounding the mill is a shopping complex and close by the town are several of the famous North Shore shrimp trucks where visitors have a chance to taste delicious shrimp that are raised nearby. It's a great place to stop for lunch or just a small snack.

Just north of Kahuku is the ​James Campbell Nature Wildlife Refuge where, from the third Saturday in October through the third Saturday in February, bird lovers can tour one of Hawaii's few remaining wetlands.

The Refuge provides habitat for approximately 119 species of birds and contains one of the largest concentrations of wetland birds in Hawaii, including four of Hawaii's six endangered waterbirds.

The refuge also serves as a strategic landfall for such migratory birds as the kioea (bristle-thighed curlew) and 'akekeke (ruddy turnstone) from as far away as Alaska and Siberia. Unusual vagrant birds include the northern harrier, peregrine falcon, black-tailed godwit, Hudsonian godwit, curlew sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, and snowy egret, making James Campbell NWR one of the top lowland birding sites in Hawaii.

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Turtle Bay

Turtle Bay Resort
Nikos Pantazis / Getty Images

Down the road from Kahuku is Turtle Bay, known as a prime spot for whale watching and home to one of Oahu's most isolated and least visited beaches.

Starting at the Makahoa Point, adjacent to Malaekahana State Park, the shore stretches five miles and often has no footprints from prior visitors.

It is also home to the Turtle Bay Resort. Imagine that you could take all of Waikiki and place it on one piece of property. That is how expansive the Turtle Bay Resort is - 880-acres of resort hotel and spa, swimming pools, golf courses, wetland preserves, ironwood groves, and some of the most amazing beaches and bays you'll find anywhere in Hawaii.

Horseback rides are offered through a forest of ironwood trees and across secluded beaches or if you don't ride, then just take a horse-drawn carriage ride.

If you've always wanted to learn to surf, you can take a lesson or two at the Hans Hederman Surf School. You can then say that you have surfed at Oahu's famous North Shore.

There's even a helipad located right on the property from which Paradise Helicopters offers 20 to 60-minute tours of Oahu.

You'll never feel crowded while at Turtle Bay, something you can rarely say when you're in Waikiki.

West of Turtle Bay is idyllic Kawela Bay, perfect for swimming, with a sandy bottom and a coconut-lined crescent-shaped beach.

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North Shore Beaches

Boy jumping from rock at Waimea Bay

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

Beyond Turtle Bay is the gateway to Oahu's famed surfing beaches. Sunset Beach, 'Ehukai Beach Park (home to the Banzai Pipeline) and Waimea Bay are famous locations that both the amateur and professional surfer are well aware. Many sites are visible from Kamehameha Highway, yet some remain known only by word of mouth from the local surfers.

During the winter, massive waves pound the North Shore of Oahu thrilling visitors and locals who come to watch one of nature's greatest spectacles.

Each November and December the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing takes place at beaches along the North Shore. The competition consists of three events for men and three events for women. The men compete at the Reef Hawaiian Pro at Haleiwa Ali'i Beach Park; the O'Neill World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach; and the Billabong Pipeline Masters at the Banzai Pipeline. The women's events are the Vans Hawaiian Pro at Haleiwa Ali'i Beach Park; the Roxy Pro at Sunset Beach; and the Billabong Pro Maui which is held at Honolua Bay, Maui.

When any of the events of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing are taking place, locals and visitors alike from all over the island flock to the North Shore, creating a traffic nightmare. If, however, you arrive early enough to park, you'll be treated to the best surfers in the world who tackle some of the world's highest and most exciting waves. 

During the summer, the roaring ocean turns into a calm body of water ideal for fishing, diving, snorkeling, and swimming.

Be sure to stop at Laniakea better known as Turtle Beach where you can enjoy seeing green sea turtles lounging on the beach almost any day of the year. It's located a little over two miles past Waimea Bay and about 1.5 miles before you get to the signs for Haleiwa town. Look for signs for Pohaku Loa Way on your right and you'll know you're there.

About a mile further down the Kamehameha Highway, you'll see signs for Papailoa Road. Drive to the end of the road, park and take the narrow path to the beach. Turn left and walk for about 15 minutes and you'll come to Police Beach, which has been used for the beach camp for ABC's hit TV series, Lost.

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Pu'u o Mahuka Heiau State Park

Sign for Pu'u o Mahuka Heiau State Park

Ken Lund / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr

A little less than two miles past Sunset Beach on the Kamehameha Highway (and before you get to Waimea Bay) watch for Pupukea Road on your left (across from Pupukea fire station). This road will take you up to the Pu'u o Mahuka Heiau State Historic Site and O'ahu's largest Hawaiian heiau (temple), covering almost 2 acres.

The name is translated as "hill of escape." Believed to have been constructed in the 17th century and expanded in the 18th century.

As indicated on the park's website, "Undoubtedly, this heiau played an important role in the social, political, and religious system of Waimea Valley which was a major occupation center of O'ahu in the pre-contact period."

Pu'u o Mahuka Heiau was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1962 in recognition of its importance to Hawaiian culture and history. Also in 1962, the 4-acre property encompassing the heiau was placed under the jurisdiction of State Parks to preserve this significant site for future generations.

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Waimea Valley

People swimming at waterfall in Waimea Bay

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

Just past Pupukea Road lies Waimea Bay, an excellent spot for spectacular surf watching. About halfway around the bay on the left is the entrance to Waimea Valley. These tropical gardens, filled with native flora and fauna, are where any outdoor enthusiast or plant lover can spend an entire day and wind their way to a beautiful waterfall.

One of Oahu's last partially intact ahupua'a (Native Hawaiian land use system), Waimea Valley consists of 1,875 acres and has been a sacred place for more than 700 years of Native Hawaiian history.

Waimea, "The Valley of the Priests," gained its title around 1090 when the ruler of Oahu awarded the land to the kähuna nui (high priests). Descendants of the high priests lived and cared for much of the Valley until 1886. As part of a cooperative conservation land purchase, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs acquired the property in 2006. In 2008, Hi'ipaka LLC was established to manage Waimea Valley and hold the deed.

78 ancient Hawaiian archaeological sites of interest have been identified in the valley, including religious sites and shrines, house sites, agricultural terraces, and fishponds.

The 150-acre Arboretum and Botanical Garden contain more than 5,000 documented species of tropical plants including native and endangered Hawaiian plants.

Several native and endangered birds including the Hawaiian Moorhen, the 'Alae 'Ula are found in Waimea. Also in Kamananui Stream, four out of five species of native freshwater fish can be found.

Several free walking tours (with paid admission) are offered at 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. including native plant, history, wildlife and 'alae 'ula interpretation.

Visitors to the Valley are invited to participate in several free activities (with paid admission) including lei making, kapa demonstration, hula lessons, Hawaiian games, and crafts, music & storytelling with küpuna.

An attraction of great interest and enjoyment is the Valley's 45-foot waterfall. Waihï is approximately 3/4 of a mile from the park entrance booth.

Ku'ono Waiwai, the Valley's retail store, showcases the work of North Shore artists and Hawaii crafters of locally made products. The store also hosts weekly demonstrations by featured vendors. The Valley's onsite concession services use locally grown, made-in-Hawaii ingredients for local dining at its best.

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Hale'iwa Town

Shops in Haleiwa

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre 

At last, you'll come to the historic town of Hale'iwa, the quintessential beach and surf town on the North Shore. This quaint locale is a mecca for beachgoers, surfers, fishing enthusiasts, craftsmen, artists, clothiers, visitors, and locals. It's the perfect place to park from your North Shore drive and take a walk down the town's main street with its art galleries, boutiques, cafes, and surf shops.

The prevailing architecture style in Hale'iwa is paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) style with many of the structures built in the early 1900s. The rustic charm of Hale'iwa ("house of the frigate bird") remains, although its roadside stands and hand-painted signs now compete with restaurants and surf shops.

You'll find a wide range of art for sale in Haleiwa from the most expensive glass, paintings and pottery to more affordable locally-made arts and crafts. In many of the galleries, you can meet and talk to the artists themselves. Be sure to stop in one of the surf shops to see the wide assortment of merchandise for sale as well as some classic Hawaiian surfboards.

Stop by the M. Matsumoto Grocery Store for shave ice, better known on the mainland as a snow cone or water ice. If you're looking for a more substantial meal, Hale'iwa has numerous small restaurants where you can get a snack or plate lunch as well as two larger restaurants, Hale'iwa Joe's Seafood Grill and Jameson's by the Sea that both have bar service, and full lunch and dinner menus that include excellent locally caught fresh fish.

Hale'iwa has two excellent beaches, both popular with surfers: Hale'iwa Beach Park (north side) and Hale'iwa Ali'i Beach Park (south side). If you've driven to the North Shore by Central Oahu, here's where you'll get a good idea if the north shore surf is up.

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Entrace to Waialua Coffee in the old Sugar Mill

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre 

Next to Hale'iwa is Waialua, the old sugar mill town that has survived by moving away from sugar and carving another niche market.

Waialua Estate Coffee is only grown on O'ahu and uses farmlands that once produced sugar. The same company also produces Waialua Estate Chocolate. Their processing facility is located in the old Waialua Sugar Mill. They have a tasting room which you can visit by appointment.

Waialua Soda Works produces gourmet sodas with unique tastes, such as lilikoi, mango, and pineapple. Their lightly carbonated, old-fashioned sodas come in a glass bottle are made with pure cane sugar, natural flavors, and ingredients from Hawaii (Maui Brand cane sugar, Big Island vanilla, honey from ​Kauai).

Also in Waialua, next to the rusting mill in the center of town, is the columned, stately, former Bank of Hawai'i building.

Today, Waialua is primarily a residential community, but it's one you'll pass right through if you head west from Haleiwa towards Mokule'ia and Ka'ena Point.

If you're a fan of ABC's hit series Lost, they've done lots of filming on the grounds of the old sugar mill.

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Mokule'ia Beach Park

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

The fertile lands of Mokule'ia, "Isle of abundance," once supported a large population of farmers and fishermen. Ironwood trees are a common sight in this area because the sugar plantations planted and used them as windbreaks. Mokule'ia also had several dairies including Dillingham Ranch.

Dillingham Ranch remains an active cattle ranch but it is also a prime location for the filming of numerous motion picture and television productions. The ranch has superb equestrian facilities and also offers very personalized trail rides with two guides accompanying a maximum of eight riders.

Devotees of polo attend weekend matches at the Mokule'ia Polo Field of the Hawaii Polo Club. You can even schedule a trail ride on one of the thoroughbred "ponies" that plays in the polo games on Sundays. These are the Lamborghinis of horses and you'll never have a more pleasant horseback ride. You'll take a winding ride through the ironwoods and Naupaka bush and along the Pacific Ocean. Small, intimate group rides are offered every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Private, couple and full moon rides are also available upon request. Children age 8 and up are welcome.

But, for the most part. today Mokule'ia is a much quieter and peaceful area with beautiful coastline and uncrowded beaches which many local families use as a picnic retreat and escape from urban life.

It was on these beaches that ABC's hit series Lost filmed much of their first season before moving to the more private Police Beach area east of Haleiwa when fans started seeking out the production.

For the adventurous, Dillingham Airfield and Gliderport is home to Honolulu Soaring, the Original Glider Rides. They offer scenic flights for one and two passengers that offer panoramic views of the Wai'anae Mountains and Mount Ka'ala. You'll see cattle trails and horse trails and may even see wild pigs. If you fly between December and April you will most likely be able to view the humpback whales that make Hawaii their winter home.

Without engine noise all you hear is the wind rushing over and under the glider. It's an amazing experience.

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The Golden Hour on Kaena Point
Bret David / Getty Images

The farthest point west on O'ahu is Ka'ena ("the heat"). Aptly named, this area appears almost barren and desolate. Ka'ena Point is no longer accessible, even to four-wheel-drive vehicles, but is a great place for a leisurely hike. One of the state's best examples of coastal lowland and dune ecosystems, it was made a nature reserve in 1983.

The old O'ahu Railway Train rounded Ka'ena Point and stopped briefly to allow passengers to take snapshots of the beautiful Wai'anae Mountains before continuing eastward toward the sugar fields of Waialua.

In 1913, first-class passengers paid $2.80 each for a roundtrip ticket to the sugar plantation town of Waialua and the nearby elegant Haleiwa Hotel. Oahu's north coast was an endless cane field rustling in the trade wind, and the Waialua Mill smokestack stood out against a blue sky.

If You Go to the North Shore

A visit to Oahu's North Shore is a full day trip. In fact, there's so much to see and do that you may want to go back again and again. You'll find new things to do on every trip and the ocean and surf will never look the same on any return visit.

During the winter, temperatures reach highs of 79 F and dip to 60 F. During the summer, temperatures range from 86 F to 66 F.