Oahu’s North Shore runs from Kaʻena Point to Kahuku along the island’s north coast and features over 7 miles of sandy beaches. This region is best known for massive waves, surfing competitions, snorkeling spots, and stunning beaches, drawing in thousands of annual visitors.
For example, before my visit, I knew I had to see the famous Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay in person. Plus, at just over an hour’s drive from Waikiki, the North Shore feels like entering a different world!
After leaving Honolulu, the scenery drastically changes, especially once you pass the Dole Plantation. From my own experiences, I firmly believe that no Hawaiian vacation is truly complete without dedicating a few days to exploring the unique charm of this coastal area.
So, to help you plan an epic Hawaii trip, this travel guide covers the 15 best things to do on the North Shore of Oahu. Discover the best beaches, hiking trails, places to eat, and snorkeling spots. However, I’ve also included hidden gems that I wish I had known about during my first trip!
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Table of Contents
The best things to do on the North Shore
Hit the beach at Waimea Bay Beach Park.
Waimea Bay Beach Park is one of the most beautiful beaches on the North Shore. It’s also perfect for family fun, where you snorkel, swim, boogie board, or surf! Plus, the clear blue-green water and white sand make an excellent backdrop for some photos.
Another significant advantage to visiting Waimea Bay is that the park offers public bathrooms and outdoor showers. Therefore, you can rinse off and avoid tracking sand everywhere when you leave!
Although it’s one of the best surf spots on the island in the winter, it’s ideal for swimming and snorkeling on the North Shore during the summer months. Especially if you’re visiting during high season, you can expect Waimea Bay to be pretty crowded.
So, we recommend arriving early in the morning to secure a nearby parking spot. However, if you’re not an early riser, you can find additional parking lots for $10-20 across the street.
Pro tip: Having cash on hand is always a good idea before heading to the North Shore. You may need it for beach parking, meals from food trucks, or other purchases.
Hike the Waimea Valley Trail.
The Waimea Valley Trail is a 1.9-mile hike that leads to Waimea Falls (also called Wailele Waterfall), a 45-foot cascade. Since most of the trail is paved, it’s both easy and family-friendly!
Plus, there’s even a shuttle from the gate to the falls if you don’t feel like walking. The entrance fee is approximately $20 per adult or $12 per child and contributes to the general upkeep of the Waimea Falls area.
After you pay, you’ll pass through the botanical gardens and a Hawaiian cultural site on your way to the falls, with detours along the trail for cultural activities. Waimea Valley features over 5000 types of tropical and subtropical plants, including Wiliwili trees, Hibiscus Hybrids, and Cannonball trees.
Another big draw to Waimea Valley is that you can go swimming in the falls when a lifeguard is on duty! Lifeguards make the call on whether or not swimming conditions are acceptable each morning at 9 a.m. If you choose to enter the water, you will be required to wear a life vest (available for free).
Observe the sea turtles at Laniakea Beach.
One of the best North Shore activities is to visit Laniakea Beach (also called Turtle Beach) to see Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles. The best time to observe the turtles is during lunchtime–between 11 a.m.-1 p.m.–especially during the summer months.
However, you may also be able to see them around sunset. To find the right location, park in a free parking spot across the street and then walk to the far right end of the beach.
If you’re planning to watch for sea turtles here, please remember that touching or harassing these animals is illegal. Hawaiʻi’s Division of Aquatic Resources suggests maintaining a distance of at least 10 feet (3 meters) from all turtles.
Moreover, you’ll notice that Honu Guardian stations volunteers here to educate visitors about this protected species and keep the sea turtles safe. Feel free to ask the volunteers about the turtles–they’re happy to answer questions.
Pro tip: check out the Malama na Honu website to see photos of the turtles who make basking appearances on the beach!
Hike the Ehukai Pillbox trail.
The Ehukai Pillbox Hike, also called Sunset Pillbox Hike, is a 2.3-mile moderate trail that takes you to two World War II-era pillboxes. Although steep at times, the summit provides stunning views of the North Shore. Plus, it’s one of the most beautiful places to watch the sunset on Oahu!
In fact, this hike begins behind Sunset Elementary School, so you should be able to see the Banzai Pipeline and other parts of the coast from the top! It only takes about 20 minutes to reach the first pillbox or approximately 1.5 hours to reach both pillboxes and return.
Like most hiking trails in Oahu, Ehukai gets pretty slippery and muddy when it rains. With this in mind, saving this trail for a dry day is probably best! As an additional precaution, we highly recommend wearing hiking shoes with solid traction during your trek.
If you’d like to avoid the crowds at this spot during the high season, start your ascent early in the morning or towards the evening. It also tends to be easier to find parking here in the early morning!
Watch the waves and surfers at Banzai Pipeline.
Visiting the Banzai Pipeline (also known as Ehukai Beach Park) is one of the best things to do on the North Shore if you enjoy watching surfing and big swells. The Pipeline is part of the famous North Shore surf break strip and is best known for its perfect barreling waves.
Therefore, you can find high-level surfers from all over the world on this beach, especially during December. Remember that this spot is best left to the surfing professionals as a safety precaution.
After all, “the Pipe” is home to some of the world’s most dangerous waves. Instead, check out Chun’s Reef for beginners and intermediate surfers, popular for North Shore surfing schools and instructors!
Sunbathe at Sunset Beach.
Sunset Beach is one of the top North Shore beaches to visit, stretching for two miles along the coast. It features soft beige sand, making this spot ideal for relaxing, sunbathing, and watching the surfers catch waves.
In fact, like most beaches on the North Shore, Sunset Beach comes alive as a big wave surfing destination during the winter months (November through February). In fact, it’s one of three surf breaks in the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.
As you may have guessed from the name, another popular activity at Sunset Beach is to watch the sunset over the ocean! Grab some Ahi Poke and other supplies at Foodland if you want to make your experience a dreamy picnic.
Pro tip: For an off-the-beaten-path spot to watch the sunset on the North Shore, we recommend Kawela Bay.
Grab a smoothie at the instagrammable Sunrise Shack.
Directly across the street from Sunset Beach, you’ll find The Sunrise Shack. This vibrant food stand offers a selection of healthy foods, including smoothies, smoothie bowls, juices, bullet coffee, and other organic snacks.
If you’re having a hard time choosing what to order, my favorite is the Tropical Bowl, followed by the Jungle Matcha Bowl. Make sure to add on the delicious macadamia nut butter!
Before you head out, don’t miss The Sunrise Shack’s adorable merchandise. I bought a yellow T-shirt and bucket hat, which are some of my most prized Hawaii souvenirs.
Go snorkeling at Shark’s Cove.
Shark’s Cove, part of Pupukea Beach Park, is one of the best snorkeling spots on the North Shore. Snorkelers can observe an array of marine life here, including butterflyfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, tang, sea turtles, eels, and more.
Thankfully, you won’t find actual sharks among the sea creatures here. In fact, the name “Sharks Cove” comes from the shape of the reef in this area, which looks like a shark from above!
The best time to visit Shark’s Cove for snorkeling or swimming is during the summer months when the current is calm (April through October). The swell rises during the winter, making snorkeling unsafe due to the big North Shore waves and strong currents.
However, like with most popular places on Oahu, this spot can get crowded during the summer. So, we recommend arriving early in the morning to secure your parking spot and snorkel!
Pro tip: We strongly recommend wearing water shoes at this snorkeling location, so make sure you include them in your Hawaii packing list!
Take a photo at the Haleiwa surfer sign.
If you drive from Honolulu to the North Shore, you’ll pass through the adorable town of Haleiwa. As you do, watch for the highly Instagrammable Haleiwa surfer signs. In 1996, an artist named Carole Beller created these installations to draw attention to Haleiwa Town.
Since then, these signs have become a popular photo op on the North Shore. Note that there are two versions that face opposite directions: the surfer girl Haleiwa sign is located at 62-330 Kamehameha Hwy, while the surfer boy is at 62-400 Joseph P. Leong Hwy.
With this in mind, the surfer boy will most likely be facing you on your way to the North Shore, and you’ll notice the surfer girl sign on your return trip to Waikiki. Both Haleiwa signs are on the side of the highway, so take all of the proper precautions when taking photos!
Try the best açai bowls on the island at Haleiwa Bowls.
If you plan to explore Haleiwa Town during your trip to the North Shore, don’t miss Haleiwa Bowls! Located along Kamehameha Highway, this cute kiosk serves the best açai bowls on the island, ranking it among the best places to eat in Oahu.
Haleiwa Bowls offers affordable menu items, like custom açai bowls, smoothies, cold-brew coffee, and tea. For a small fee, you can even add extra toppings, including an assortment of fruit as well as bee pollen, hemp seeds, almond butter, coconut, honey, and more.
We highly recommend dropping by Haleiwa Bowls on a weekday if possible! It can get swamped during the weekends in the high season. Note that there is a small parking lot directly behind the kiosk to make things easy.
Eat at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck.
One of my favorite things to do on the North Shore is grabbing lunch at the food trucks in Haleiwa Town. In particular, the Garlic shrimp from Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck is out of this world!
This dining establishment is another North Shore institution, receiving customers from all over the world. It may even be the most popular place to eat (especially for visitors) in Haleiwa.
Regarding the menu, Giovanni’s serves a selection of jumbo shrimp plates accompanied by two fluffy scoops of rice. However, the most popular menu item is the Shrimp Scampi, which comes with 12 jumbo shrimp marinated in olive oil, garlic, and lemon butter.
Due to Giovanni’s reputation, you can expect to wait in line for about 30 minutes to place your order. Since all food is prepared fresh, you’ll wait approximately 15 more minutes for your food to be ready. We suggest arriving when Giovanni’s opens at 10:30 a.m. if you’d like to skip the line.
Pro tip: Grab a handful of napkins once your order is ready because the garlic shrimp is messy to eat!
Are you looking for a vegetarian option instead? We really like the Beet Box Cafe, a vegetarian/vegan eatery specializing in breakfast and lunch, offering a variety of items such as smoothies, freshly squeezed juices, baked treats, gluten-free choices, açaí bowls, and more.
Sample Matsumoto’s famous shave ice.
If you want to try authentic Hawaiian cuisine on your trip to the North Shore, head over to Matsumoto’s for shave ice. For those who haven’t tried this dessert before, it’s essentially ice flavored with syrup. Moreover, you can choose to top it off with ice cream, azuki beans, or condensed milk.
As far as Matsumoto’s goes, this family-owned shop is a local institution and one of Oahu’s most popular places for shave ice. Therefore, you can expect to wait in a long line during your visit. The good news is that the queue tends to move along quickly!
You can try various tropical flavors at Matsumoto’s, like guava, lilikoi, papaya, lychee, mango, coconut, and more. Most people choose a flavor combination to sample multiple flavors in one treat.
For example, the “Hawaiian” is a guest favorite, blending Pineapple, Coconut, and Banana. We always recommend adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream to make your dessert exceptionally tasty! You can read the full menu here ahead of your visit.
Enjoy the scenic drive along Kamehameha Highway.
Kamehameha Highway is the main road running along the North Coast, making it one of the best places to road trip on Oahu. Keep in mind when planning that this route only has one lane in each direction. Therefore, you can expect to hit some traffic along the drive, especially during the high season.
For example, June and July are peak months for travel to the island. However, the North Shore receives its highest number of visitors during Hawaii’s surf season, between November and March.
For first-time visitors to Oahu, we suggest spending at least one full day discovering the North Coast along the Kamehameha Highway. Take the time to stop and explore each spot that strikes your fancy–remember that things are taken at a slower pace here, so there is no need to rush!
Popular spots along Kamehameha Highway include Haleiwa Town, Laniakea Beach, Waimea Bay, Shark’s Cove, the Banzai Pipeline, and Sunset Beach. Essentially, if you take a road trip down this highway, you’ll pass all of the most famous locations on the North Shore.
Moreover, this scenic road continues past the North Shore onto Oahu’s windward side. So, if you have time, we highly recommend extending your drive down the east coast. If you do, don’t miss the Polynesian Cultural Center!
Hike Kaʻena Point.
Ka’ena Point State Park is the westernmost point of land on Oahu, and hiking is the only way to visit. There are two trailheads: one in the Mokuleia Section (north coast of Oahu) and the other in the Keawa’ula Section (west side of Oahu).
Since we’re focused on seeing the North Shore, we recommend the Ka’ena Point via Farrington Highway Trail. This five-mile trek provides beautiful views along the North Shore and is suitable for all skill levels. Plus, you may even see monk seals during your adventure!
Drive to the end of Farrington Highway to reach the trailhead. Be aware that the trail can be hot with little shade, so bring water and sunscreen. Additionally, restrooms are not available on this particular route, so plan accordingly.
Take a surfing lesson.
The North Shore is a famous surfing mecca. So, why not take a surfing less while you’re nearby? After all, Oahu is the best Hawaiian island for surfing–even surpassing Maui and Kauai. The world-famous waves and rich surf culture here provide the perfect backdrop for a surfing lesson.
Uncle Bryan’s Surf Academy is an excellent option for surf lessons, with availability at Haleiwa Beach Park in the winter and Chun’s Reef in the summer. Whether you’re a beginner or looking to improve your skills, this academy ensures a safe and authentic introduction to the sport.
Where to stay on the North Shore
Are you in search of the coziest hotels on the North Shore? We’ve compiled our top three suggestions, catering to a wide range of budgets, from luxury travelers to more budget-conscious individuals.
Turtle Bay Resort
Turtle Bay Resort stands out as the most luxurious choice available on the North Shore, boasting a beachfront setting and two championship 18-hole golf courses. Moreover, every type of accommodation, including hotel rooms, suites, Beach Cottages, and Ocean Villas, offers breathtaking ocean vistas.
Ideal for families with children or adults looking for proximity to famous Oahu surfing spots, Turtle Bay Resort is just 5.5 miles from the iconic Banzai Pipeline. Plus, it was featured in the 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Courtyard by Marriott Oahu North Shore
The Courtyard by Marriot Oahu North Shore is just steps from the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Hawaii. It’s also a short 20-30 minute drive to popular North Shore beaches, offering 144 guest rooms with complimentary high-speed WiFi, flat-panel TVs, and comfortable bedding.
Backpackers Vacation Inn and Plantation Village
Backpackers Vacation Inn and Plantation Village is an economical hostel situated in Haleiwa, right across from Three Tables Beach. They provide various lodging choices, from shared dorm beds to private beachfront studios and whole cabins.
If your goal is North Shore surfing, Backpackers is an excellent pick. Keep in mind it’s one of the few affordable options and books up fast, so early reservations are advised.
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This article was first published in September 2021 and has since been updated.