Our Family Guide: Waimea Valley on O‘ahu’s North Shore

Our 8 tips for swimming and playing games at a sacred spot and cultural park on O‘ahu’s North Shore.


Editor’s Note: Prices and park information were updated in 2019.


Photo: Lavonne Leong


Where: Waimea Valley, an 1,875-acre, partially intact ahupua‘a on O‘ahu’s North Shore.

Who: Three adults, four kids ages 2, 3, 8 and 9.

When: We visited from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. But the park never feels crowded.


My definition of a great family day out is a place that works on many levels, for many ages. That’s why we like Waimea Valley. Parents’ version: Waimea Valley is a gorgeous botanical garden and educational cultural park with archaeological “sites of interest,” several native bird and fish species, and a pleasant, shady walk with a waterfall at the end.


Kids’ version: Waimea Valley is an awesome swimming hole you get to by a mysterious maze of paved paths, each with its own little adventure, and a bunch of fun activities. You may also learn stuff, and there is shave ice.


Photo: Lavonne Leong


Cultural activities vary from day to day. Four sites are always around to explore: including the Kauhale ancient Hawaiian settlement, kū‘ula stones fishing shrines, Hale ‘o Lono Heiau and a Hawaiian games site. The kids we were with were really impressed by the heiau and played a round of hide-and-seek in the Kauhale without paying any attention to the educational elements. You can also stroll through the botanical garden to learn about the plants and play three cultural games.


Don’t miss Wā‘ihi Falls, the waterfall and swimming hole at the head of Waimea Valley and, in our opinion, one of O‘ahu’s best and safest waterfall swims. Passing only through undeveloped areas before tumbling down the falls, its waters seem to be some of the cleanest on the island. And at up to 30 feet deep, this is a true swimming hole, not a splash pool. Lifeguards are on duty at all times, and they hand out life jackets in a range of sizes for no additional charge.


Photo: Lavonne Leong


Our Tips


1. Bring: mosquito repellant, a bathing suit, and a towel.


2. Call before you go if you want to go swimming. If there hasn’t been enough rain and it is too dry, the falls are closed. So call the park the day before to make sure the falls are open for swimmers.


3. The water is cold! Just so you know.


4. Walk up, ride back down. Shuttle transport to the falls costs $14 roundtrip and $10 one way. We recommend walking the three-quarter of a mile up to the falls, swimming, and then getting the shuttle back down if you have little ones who get tired. The path is paved but slightly uphill and can take up to 2-plus hours if you stop and play at all the sites along the way.


5. Stop by the bathroom before you go. There is a clean restroom at the beginning of the path and there isn’t another one until the end, which can be as much as 45 minutes later.


6. Skip the first parking lot. There are three and the first one you encounter is not the closest to the Visitor’s Center. Keep driving; during uncrowded times (which is often) it’s worth holding out for a space nearer the entrance.


7. No pets except service animals. Endangered species call this valley home.


8. Best for last: the third Sunday of every month is Family Day, when kama’āina and military rates are cut in half. That means five bucks for adults, three for kids, and a beefed-up activity roster, with artisans, more cultural demonstrations, a scavenger hunt and more.  Here’s the best part: the employee I called told me that the family days are not more crowded than other days, which is to say, not crowded at all, since the park is so large. I associate “Family Days” with throngs of wild-eyed children, so this alone is a major reason to go.


Photo: Lavonne Leong


Waimea Valley

  • 59-864 Kamehameha Highway, Hale‘iwa, 96712
  • waimeavalley.net
  • (808) 638-7766
  • Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. during the summer.
  • Prices: Kama‘āina rates range from $12 for adults to $6 for ages 4 to 12 years. Kids 3 years and younger are free.
  • Parking is free and on site.