This guide to the best waterfalls you can swim in Oahu (or O’ahu) showcases the subset of the waterfalls in the so-called “Gathering Place” where you can go for a refreshing dip to offset the tropical heat of the Hawaiian Islands.
We’ve compiled this page as a result of a few trips to the most developed of the Hawaiian Islands so we have a handle on the waterfalls that you can legally visit let alone swim in. That said, if you are going to go spend any amount of time in any of Oahu’s waterfall swimming holes, you definitely need to be fully aware of the risks (e.g. leptospirosis, flash flooding, etc.).
By the way, in addition to the swimming hole waterfalls on this page, we also have a list of the Top 10 Best Hawaii Waterfalls where we showcase our favorites throughout all of the Hawaiian Islands as well as a larger compilation of O’ahu Waterfalls. We even have a broader page of all the Hawaii Waterfalls that we’ve been to and made write-ups about. All of these lists include waterfalls that did not appear on this post.
In any case, for each of our write-ups, we show you how to visit the waterfall being discussed should it interest you in trip planning for your own waterfall chasing throughout the state let alone the Gathering Place.
The Best Waterfalls You Can Swim In Oahu
Let’s just cut right to the chase and show you what the best swimming hole waterfalls in O’ahu are, how to access them, and pictures of what they look like.
So without further ado, here are the best of the Oahu Waterfalls that you can swim in that we’ve personally seen and shared with our write-ups…
We’ll start with this somewhat locals waterfall that has a deep enough plunge pool that we witnessed some people do a cliff jump. While it took us a bit of a moderate hike with unsigned (head-scratching) trail junctions and a handful of stream crossings, it was quite the popular spot even on our first time here in January 2007. I can only imagine that its popularity had grown over the years, but its access may be uncertain as a result because the hike begins in an otherwise quiet residential area, and all it takes is a few disrespectful, bad actors to ruin it for everyone else.
Visit Maunawili Falls.
Of all the swimming hole waterfalls throughout the Hawaiian Islands, this could very well be the only one with an active life guard on duty as well as adjacent changing rooms. If these characteristics don’t tell you that this is indeed an inviting place for a swim at a waterfall, then perhaps the photo above of people actually doing that very thing will make it very clear. It’s definitely at the end of the serene and scenic Waimea Valley, which had been converted into a botanical garden so there’s something for the whole family to enjoy while on the North Shore of O’ahu.
Visit Waimea Falls.
Waimano Falls is somewhat of a locals waterfall that I only got to visit on a return trip to O’ahu nearly 15 years after my first time in January 2007. Perhaps this sanctioned waterfall was more elusive (despite being part of the ‘Ewa Forest Reserve) because it’s not easy to reach, especially with an upside down hike involving the infamously steep and slippery slope that locals have dubbed “Cardiac Hill”. But upon persevering, I saw that there was a rope swing that others loved to use at a lower cascade, and the main waterfall just upstream of it wasn’t so bad either.
Visit Waimano Falls.
Lulumahu Falls actually bucked a worrying trend of accessible waterfalls that became kapu (seemingly indefinitely) for whatever reason whether it be liability, perverse financial incentives, vigilante locals, etc. You see, back before my first trip to O’ahu in January 2007, there was a group of seven hikers that were charged with trespassing and ordered to show up in court. However, when I came back nearly 15 years later, I was quite surprised that the Honolulu Board of Water Supply issued permits to do this hike! In any case, the healthy flow of the Lulumahu Stream created a plunge pool that was deep enough for a deep wade (though technically I don’t think it was deep enough for a legitimate swim). Nevertheless, I wanted to acknowledge this falls because it is worth chilling out in provided there’s no threat of flash flooding on your visit.
Visit Lulumahu Falls.
LAIE FALLS (LA’IE FALLS)
Laie Falls (or La’ie Falls) was one waterfall that I went through the trouble to get a permit for (which I believe is still the case as it traversed land owned by the folks who run BYU and the PCC). Although the falls is only a modest 15ft tall (with more harder-to-reach lower tiers) while involving a bit of a sweaty 6- to 7-mile round-trip hike with 1200ft gain, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll have this falls to yourself (as I did). Moreover, it does have a bit of a pool for a swim, which you will have definitely earned by the time you get here! Plus, on the way back down to La’ie, you’ll get to enjoy the sweeping views that this trail has to offer. That said, some more hardier hikers do continue higher up the trail to the La’ie Ridge to really make a day out of it.
Visit La’ie Falls.
JACKASS GINGER POOL
I view the Jackass Ginger Pool as really more of a swimming hole than a waterfall attraction. As you can see from the photo above, the cascading waterfall wasn’t much (10-15ft height figure is pretty generous). However, being able to swim in a pool deep enough to have a rope swing that you can plunge from is surprisingly rare on O’ahu, and you can actually get to this somewhat unsigned spot from the Judd Trail. Although I’m partial to waterfall swimming holes, this diminutive one definitely checks the boxes of one that would qualify, and that’s why I include this entry on this page.
Visit Jackass Ginger Pool.
What About The Rest Of O’ahu’s Swimming Hole Waterfalls? Aren’t There More?
There are indeed more waterfalls in O’ahu that you can swim in than what I’ve put on this guide. If you care to see some of the other ones I’ve had write-ups about concerning the entire island in general, we have a page dedicated to our entire survey of Oahu Waterfalls.
That said, when it comes to whether the waterfalls qualify as a legitimate swimming hole that you can legally swim in, there’s a bit of a rather complicated and murky story with that aspect of chasing waterfalls (especially over all the Hawaiian Islands).
In fact, for one reason or another (maybe vigilante residents, high degree of danger, litigious society, etc.), the following waterfalls on the island of O’ahu fall under the question of prohibited (or at least uncertain) swimming access.
KALIUWA’A FALLS (SACRED FALLS)
I figure I’ll kick off this section of kapu waterfalls with my favorite of all the waterfalls in O’ahu. As you can see from the aerial photo above, it’s truly a beast as it dropped some 1100ft in total. However, there used to be a trail leading to the base of the 80ft last tier of Sacred Falls (i.e. the very last drop at the bottom of the photo you see above), which was also a very popular swimming hole. Unfortunately, a landslide that happened on Mother’s Day in 1999 and the ensuing lawsuits pretty much shut down this place indefinitely. Therefore, the only way to see this sacred place is now by helicopter, but it’s pretty much done as far as a sanctioned waterfall swimming hole is concerned. It seems like access to Hawaii Waterfalls that double as swimming holes are getting fewer and fewer as time goes on, and this waterfall was exhibit A when it came to justifying the nanny state approach to prohibiting access to once public places.
Read More About Sacred Falls.
In my mind, this waterfall is perhaps the most public of the waterfalls on O’ahu, and it almost feels like it’s old news or something. However, as far as it acting as a waterfall swimming hole, I can only refer to anecdotal evidence of what people were able to do before. In fact, during our January 2007 visit, we were met with a sign (as shown in the photo above) explaining how a landslide pretty much wiped out what might have been that swimming hole possibility. Moreover, another sign here explained that there had been measurable amounts of leptospirosis bacteria. Thus, for all intents and purposes, we can pretty much consider Manoa Falls to be no longer a legitimate swimming hole.
Read More About Manoa Falls.
Although Kapena Falls is a sanctioned waterfall that you can legally visit from the Nu’uanu Cemetery property during allowed hours, I hesitate to call this a legitimate swimming hole because of the leptospirosis risk. I guess you can make the case that this risk is prevalent in all of Hawaii’s freshwater streams, but I view this waterfall as an urban waterfall sitting underneath the Pali Highway with lots of developments surrounding it. You put all these things together, and you have the makings of a polluted stream that makes me think twice about getting in over my head in the water. That said, the two guys in the photo above didn’t mind, but then again, their risk posture is quite a bit different than mine…
Read More About Kapena Falls.
Hamama Falls is on a watershed that is managed by the Board of Water Supply as it supplies drinking water to millions of Hawaiians on the windward East Shore of O’ahu. While the “No Trespassing” signs had been routinely ignored in the past, the threat to water quality from its increasing popularity and the associated litter from the disrespectful few pretty much forced the BWS to enforce its boundaries. Thus, this is one swimming hole waterfall that I’ve never done, and probably won’t for the foreseeable future.
There’s a bit of ambiguity concerning whether or not you can hike to Wailele Falls due to a lack of clarity about easements, private property boundaries, and the ownership situation of one local who apparently actively turns people away. While I’ve seen some people manage to get to the falls since as late as September 2021, it’s unclear whether they were blatantly disrespecting property boundaries or whether a landowner nearby is overstepping the easements to public access. I personally haven’t done this waterfall, and I don’t intend to until there’s better clarity and guidance on this situation.
From my understanding regarding this series of waterfalls (said to be 7 in total) beneath the Ka’au Crater on the opposite side of the base of the Ko’olau Range from the drainage giving rise to Maunawili Falls, the area around the trailhead is on private property. So it seems that you can’t park at or near the trailhead, but it might be possible to extend an already difficult hike by parking somewhere much further down the mountain and then walking to access the trailhead before getting into the hike itself. I haven’t done this myself, and I’d imagine it’s a real dilemma regarding whether the risk is really worth the reward.
KALAUAO FALLS, MAKAUA FALLS, MALAEKAHANA FALLS
These three waterfalls are apparently still accessible by the public, but they all either require long and difficult hikes with plenty of head-scratching route-finding moments where it’s easy to get lost or even get injured. I haven’t had a chance to do any of these waterfalls (yet) so I can’t say anything more about them until I do.
I’m sure there’s more to this list, but I know personally it gets to that point where I’d really have to ask myself, is the risk really worth the reward?
Where Are The Waterfalls In Oahu?
Besides the detailed descriptions and directions to each of the waterfalls listed above, I thought I’d show you this map of the locations of Oahu Waterfalls.
As you can see, they are pretty much concentrated on the eastern side of the island, which pretty much coincides with the eastern slopes of the Ko’olau Range, which essentially acts as the eastern spine of O’ahu.
That’s because Hawaii experiences trade winds that scoop up moisture from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and blow into the islands as northeasterly winds.
These moisture-laden winds ultimately hit mountains, which then causes the vapors to rise and condense into rain clouds over these mountains.
As a result, it’s why the wetter east-northeast side of the island is considered the windward side while the drier west-southwest side of the island is considered the leeward side.
And as far as renting a car to enable exploring O’ahu on your own, we were able to drive completely around the Ko’olau Range via the East Shore, North Shore, and Central Valley. However, there’s no road going around the Wai’anae Range, which represents the drier western spine of the island of O’ahu.
When To See The Waterfalls In Oahu
The Hawaiian Islands tend to experience a “Wet Season” and a “Dry Season”. The Wet Season tends to occur between October through April while the Dry Season tends to occur between May through September.
Of course, Nature is a chaotic system so things work in terms of likelihoods (or probabilities) of things happening and not in absolute terms. Therefore, these Wet Season and Dry Season variations are merely guidelines based on statistical data along with some anecdotal observations.
Moreover, with Global Warming and Climate Change, these seasonal patterns are prone to changing, and the severity of the rains (and conversely the droughts) are intensifying.
Besides, you can still have good weather during the Wet Season and you can have wet weather during the Dry Season.
Nevertheless, when there is wet weather, the differences in the watercourses (and thus the waterfalls) can be dramatic. It’s the main reason why you need to be cognizant of the flash flooding risk whenever you choose to be near or in the streams and rivers.
In any case, I go into far more detail about Hawaii’s seasonal variations in this write-up.
Where To Stay In Oahu
There’s actually no shortage of places to stay on the island of O’ahu.
However, given that island time (i.e. a mentality about the slow pace at which things can move) tends to conflict with a limited-time itinerary where we wish to fit in as much as we can before going home, there are advantages and disadvantages to specific accommodation locations.
The vast majority of people visiting O’ahu stay in or near Waikiki Beach as well as Honolulu in general, and it’s for good reason.
That’s because the area between the Ala Wai Canal and Waikiki Beach is bustling with shops, resorts, and easy access to the famous beach itself.
Aside from the fact that parking can be expensive (or very difficult if trying to cheap out), and there’s a bit of a maze of one-way streets to navigate to get out of there, it’s actually within proximity of most of the interesting waterfalls on the island (especially those mentioned above).
Other than that, there are lesser known alternatives on the East Shore like Kailua, Kane’ohe, and La’ie among others.
The North Shore like Hale’iwa is really more for surfing buffs as it’s a bit further away from the developments of the south side of the island (as well as the majority of O’ahu’s waterfalls).
Final Thoughts / Conclusion
I hope you enjoyed reading and seeing what we had to say about the best waterfalls in O’ahu you can swim in (that you can legally visit).
More importantly, I hope you’ve been able to use this resource for your own trip planning needs so you can go out there and experience them for yourself!
If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the form below and tell us what’s on your mind!
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