Our Family Guide to a Town Treasure: The Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu
Discover hidden trails, tucked-away huts and thousands of plants at this Mānoa oasis.
Editor’s Note: This story was first published in 2016. Some details have been updated in 2021 to reflect current COVID restrictions including the new reservation system which you may need to plan for in advance. See the details in our tips.
Lyon Arboretum got its start in 1900 as a test site for sugar cane seedlings and trees slated for reforestation. Today, the 193.5 acres at the end of Mānoa Road offers 7 miles of hiking trails and more than 5,000 species of plants throughout 12 gardens. The Arboretum is located just past the new Tropics restaurant (the old Paradise Park, for O‘ahu natives) and, once you get past the droves of hikers heading to and from the bustling Mānoa Falls trail, it is much quieter.
First stop should be the Visitors Center. You will need to sign in, then you can pick up a trail guide, make a requested $5 donation, pick up liliko‘i jam and haku lei volunteers make to sell and, most important, use the Arboretum’s only restroom. On the right of the center, you’ll find the lily pond and gazebo of the Young Memorial Garden. We spent several minutes gazing at the abundant waterlily plants, then walked down a few steps to the Herb and Spice garden where kids can smell and touch allspice, clove, mint and other fragrant plants from around the world.
To the left of the center, a path leads down to the main part of the Arboretum. Along the way, rain shelters and a little bridge over the grass demanded we stop for a little playtime, before we hit the Great Lawn. This wide stretch of lawn has shady benches around the perimeter, making it a perfect picnic spot and a big space where little ones can stretch their legs. Then we headed to the Hawaiian Ethnobotany area. There, we spotted kalo plants, ducked into the large Hale Halewai, a traditional Hawaiian meeting place, and spent about five minutes listening to a friendly bird that landed on the roof and cheeped back to our calls.
The main attraction for our family was the walk to ‘Aihualama Falls. The trail is just 1-and-a-half miles long, well-marked and easy to navigate. Little kids will want to start from the parking lot entrance where the trail is wide, gravel-lined and mostly flat. Older kids will enjoy the entrance from the Great Lawn where the trail is steeper and even uses giant tree roots for steps. Take your time. At any point you may spot a huge tree trunk or stashed-away steps carved out of a hill leading to another garden. About 15 minutes into the walk, watch for an old seismograph station (some blogs say it’s haunted) right off the path. The trail does get less defined in the last stretch before you find the waterfall trickling down the mountain, so little ones may need to ride on your shoulders.
If you skip the trail, walk up to Inspiration Point for a beautiful view of the valley, again with benches parked all around the perimeter. On the way back down, you can pose for a photo with the Walking Buddha statue, duck into the rain shelter or climb on a big log lying sideways nearby. Whatever you do, be prepared to meander. Even with map in hand, we got lost several times in the vast grounds. But when we let our kids’ curiosity lead the way, we were never disappointed.
Our Top 7 Tips
1. Make reservations early. As of May 2021, the arboretum is only open a few days a week. Reservations open online on Friday for the following week and fill up quickly. You can choose from two 2-hour time slots: 9 to 11 a.m., and 1 to 3 p.m. The gates to the parking lot will open 15 minutes before the end of your time slot.
2. Bring mosquito repellent, bottled water, mosquito repellent, a rain jacket and, did we mention, mosquito repellent?
3. Watch the weather. No matter the season, you should expect light showers—it is Mānoa, after all—but we did notice windy days largely kept mosquitoes away. Also note that the Arboretum sometimes closes when storms are expected.
4. Want to see the waterfall? Call ahead. When it is dry, the waterfall stops running. The best time to go would be right after a big rain, but, keep in mind, the trail will be muddy.
5. Go before you go. As of May 2021, the bathrooms and gift shop are closed.
6. Pack a picnic. Food isn’t available there but you can picnic at the gardens. Just make sure to pick up your rubbish on the way out. Dogs are not allowed.
7. Leave the stroller at home. Even jogging ones with bigger wheels won’t make it up the trail.
Where Lyon Arboretum, 3860 Mānoa Road
Rates Free admission, with a suggested $10 donation per person.
Parking Free and on site
Hours Weekdays: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Closed Sunday.
Phone (808) 988-0456