Only five miles from Honolulu’s downtown, the Nuuanu Pali Lookout offers a spellbinding prospect of Oahu’s windward flank. This wind-blasted state wayside surveys some lush, impressively rugged terrain that comes drenched in history. And there are adventurous hiking opportunities in the vicinity.
The wayside gives you a thrilling look up and down the Nuuanu Pali, the steep cliffs forming the windward rim of the Koolau Range. This is the heavily eroded ridge of the Koolau Volcano, the eastern of the two shield volcanoes composing Oahu. Geologists surmise the spectacular cliffs (pali) likely derive from a long-ago, catastrophic landslide off Koolau’s northeastern flank, leaving a steep rampart then gnawed into by runoff.
Unlike some of the other famous Hawaiian cliff-lines, the Nuuanu Pali lie a little inland of Oahu’s windward coast. The state wayside is set in a pass in the cliffs, with the Nuuanu Valley falling away to the southwest. The northeasterly trades funnel through this “wind gap,” resulting in major gustiness up here. In fact, the winds here are often strong enough that you can literally lean into them without falling. (Don’t be testing this along the guard rail.)
That wind means the Nuuanu Pali Lookout can be a nippy place, so you might want a light jacket along. We don’t recommend wearing a hat here, though, given how easily it could be blown off your head!
From the lookout, you can gaze from the pinnacles and crests of the Koolau down over coastal lowlands and hills to the Pacific. The views include the communities of Kailua and Kaneohe, the Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden, and the Mokapu Peninsula, host to Kaneohe Marine Corps Base.
One of the several interpretive signs at Nuuanu Pali State Wayside helps you identify these and other landmarks. The steep-rising walls, horns, and spurs of the pali themselves—often half-cloaked in the mist—are the indisputable highlight of the viewshed.
Another sign explains the dramatic Native Hawaiian history summoned by this extraordinary windward scenery. In 1795, Kamehameha I endeavored to unify the Hawaiian Islands into a signal kingdom, battling the forces of Chief Kalanikupule, who then ruled Oahu. Retreating up the Nuuanu Valley to the cliff-line, Kalanikupule’s warriors were hemmed in by Kamehameha’s, and many were pushed—or outright leaped—to their deaths. (Hundreds of skulls were found below the pali in the late 19th century by construction crews.) Kamehameha emerged victorious from the fight, called Kalelekaanae— ”Leaping of the Anae Fish/Mullet,” a reference to the plummeting warriors—and now often referred to as the Battle of Nuuanu.
A number of hikes along the Nuuanu Pali are reachable from the lookout. These include the Old Pali Road as well as the more treacherous and challenging Pali Notches and Pali Puka trails. If the wind’s really howling at the overlook, you’re likely better off skipping those tougher treks, which are mighty steep.
The Nuuanu Pali Lookout is a classic stop on Oahu: an unforgettable gateway between Honolulu and the windward side. Don’t miss it!
-Keep an eye peeled for the wild chickens that commonly patrol the vicinity of the Nuuanu Pali State Wayside!