Our Family Guide: Waimea Valley on O‘ahu

Our Family Guide: Waimea Valley on O‘ahu

Explore a jungle, swim beneath a waterfall and get hands-on with some Hawaiian cultural activities.

 Laura Dornbush

Waimea Valley Swimming Waterfall Laura Dornbush

Where: Waimea Valley, a 1,875-acre botanical garden and cultural site on O‘ahu’s North Shore

Who: Our ‘ohana with 5-year-old son and auntie and uncle in tow

When: A weekday morning during holiday break


We decided to take our family visiting from San Francisco to Waimea Valley, which ended up being a great excuse for us to (re)discover it again, too. Plus our 5-year-old son, Duke, was pumped up to swim in his first waterfall ever.


We arrived shortly after the valley opened and scored a great parking spot right up front. After applying liberal amounts of mosquito repellent and sunscreen, we were sticky but excited. We entered the visitor center to visit the bathroom and purchased our tickets. I was shocked and relieved to find that it wasn’t crowded. Another surprise as we entered the lush botanical gardens was a juxtaposing view of two ginormous wind turbines turning in the hills overlooking the valley.


Waimea Valley Greenery Photo Laura Dornbush

Photo: Laura Dornbush


Our mission (according to Duke) was to hike straight to Waihi waterfall. He was nervous about how far he’d have to walk, but the interesting plants—including the yellow lollipop plant—heiau sites and bridge views distracted him. It took us about 30 minutes to walk to the waterfall along a three-quarter-mile path with a gentle incline.


The waterfall was gushing due to recent rains, but it wasn’t too intense for swimming. I normally do not let Duke swim in streams or waterfalls for fear of bacteria or sharp rocks, but I was reassured by the presence of lifeguards who require all swimmers to wear life vests, which are provided in adult and kid sizes. Bonus!


Waimea Valley Waterfall Photo Laura Dornbush

Photo: Laura Dornbush


Be prepared: The water is cold! I was proud of Duke for swimming the distance from the shore to the waterfall and back before complaining of the temperature. Uncle won the prize for staying in the water the longest. The experience was thrilling, even for the adults.


Afterwards, we took advantage of an outdoor shower and changing rooms to put our dry clothes back on. Feeling refreshed and headed downhill, we easily made our way back to the visitor center, stopping along the way to visit Hawaiian cultural practitioners who were eager to share their crafts. Cultural activities vary but four sites are always around to explore: the Kauhale ancient Hawaiian settlement, kū‘ula stones fishing shrines, Hale ‘o Lono Heiau and a Hawaiian games site. Duke mastered blowing a conch shell and learned to play a short tune on an ‘ukulele.


Waimea Valley Conch Shell Photo Laura Dornbush

Photo: Laura Dornbush