When people think of Hawaii, they don't often think of hiking. They think of beaches, and snorkeling, and surfing. Getting all hot and sweaty walking up mountains is not most people's idea of an island vacation.

Even so, Hawaii has some topnotch hiking.

Most tourists who visit Oahu only know about the Stairway to Heaven. A 24/7 guard blocks entry to the hike because it's so dangerous it's actually illegal to hike it. They will fine you up to $1,000 or 6 months in prison if caught.

Trust me. You do not have to risk your life or a fine to experience amazing hikes on Oahu. I learned Oahu in particular has some of the best hiking in all the Hawaiian islands. Below are 3 of my favorites with photos highlighting the best features of each.

Kaena Point Hike

Location: Northwest point of Oahu at the end of Farrington Hwy
Terrain: A rough, flat, dirt road and dirt path, constant sun exposure
Distance / Elevation: 6 mi / 200 ft
Time: 2.5 hrs return

Highlights:

This was a long walk with great payoffs. Most of the hike is along a sun soaked dirt road with towering cliffs to the left and gorgeous beach views to the right. Lava rock formations and cactus plants spot the way.

The road ends when you reach a gated area. This is the entrance to a reserve that protects the nesting seabirds found in the area. When I was there in January, I spotted dozens of albatross greeting their mates and sleeping in the grass.

Beyond the albatross is a beach and surf full of lava rock formations. Monk seals often hand out here, although they can be rather elusive. Since they are an endangered species, you must keep your distance at 150 feet. I looked at the beach and there were none to see, so I sauntered down the sandy slope to reach the water.

That's when I heard a rustling nearby. I looked over and there was a monk seal right next to me! I was so startled, I turned and bolted back up the slope. Monk seals are hard to spot so be careful!

If you're there in winter, you may be lucky enough to spot whales breaching off the point. I didn't spot any while I was there because the seas were rough.

Lanikai Pillbox Hike

Location: Park on Alapapa Dr, walk up Kaelepulu and enter at private driveway before gates
Terrain: Uphill path, minor rock scrambling
Distance / Elevation: 1.25 mi / 500 ft
Time: 20 minutes to the first pillbox

Highlights:

The WWII "pillboxes" (guard posts) on this ridge hike are as famous as the stunning sunrise views. The ridge overlooks the Lanikai neighborhood. Below is Kailua Beach, Lanikai Beach, and the "Moks" (Mokulua Islands).

Flashlight in hand, I climbed this ridge in the dark to reach the top by dawn. I made my way to the second pillbox, a 5-minute walk away the first. A third in the distance was less populated but would have taken another 15 minute walk. The sun was already rising, so I opted to stay put.

I explored the pillbox as I waited  for the sun to streak the clouds in vibrant light. I could drop down a ladder inside the pillbox and view graffiti on its inside. The windows looking out at the surrounding views was like peering into another world.

Make sure you're not only staring at the sun the whole time. Take in the panoramic view because seeing a rainbow as the sun comes up at Lanikai is likely. Hawaii has constant, passing rain clouds resulting in many rainbows. They are so common, the rainbow is even on the Hawaii license plate!

I also really love the way the Moks look against the turquoise ocean. Everything from this vantage point looks spectacular.

Even behind the ridge are the rippled Koolau mountains. View them on the way up or down for two different scenes.

Kuliouou Ridge Hike

Location: Behind Hawaii Kai at the end of Kalaau Pl
Terrain: Switchbacks, dirt and pine bed paths through forest, exposed parts and stairs toward the top
Distance / Elevation: 4.4 mi / 1,700 ft
Time: 2.5 hrs return

Highlights:

By far my favorite hike of all, the Kuliouou Ridge hike starts at the end of Kalaau Road. Find a spot clear of driveways to park your car. Walk down to the dead end to find a paved path leading into the valley. Take a dirt path to the right at a sign that says:  "Na Ala Hele Hawai'i Trail & Access System." You're on the right trail if you see the "Kuliouou Public Hunting Area" sign.

Switchbacks will take you through a steep jungle forest. The foliage will turn to Ironwood trees that provide a thick pine needle bed to cushion your path.

Peak holes out from the forest will give partial views on the way up. You'll see Hawaii Kai and look out across the valley to the next ridge over in the Ko'olau range.

The crazy roots and branches along the trail create natural steps and playgrounds. I gaped in awe at their intricate designs: a spider web of roots on the forest floor or "living doorways" to walk through.

My favorite part of the walk up was encountering the Norfolk Island Pines. Growing up high overhead, the Norfolk Island pines are an awesome sight! They grow in rows along the trail with knots symmetrically spaced up their trunks. I had never seen trees like this before I went on this hike.

Seeing them for the first time was enchanting.

I knew I had almost reached the peak when I encountered many man-made stairs. Reviewers had warned these steps were challenging after the steady incline all along. But no pain, no gain. As soon as I got passed the stairs, an epic 360º view greeted me.

From this vantage point, I could see Hawaii Kai, Waimanalo beach area, Rabbit Island, and the Moks. Absolutely breathtaking.

Hiking Oahu

Oahu is an excellent choice if you love hiking. There are many easy to challenging trails that will provide huge payoffs at the end.

Epic ocean views, wildlife, mountain ridges, and enchanting forests await you on Oahu!