The beach might be the obvious first choice for outdoor adventuring in Oahu, but in addition to picturesque coastlines, the Gathering Isle is also home to some of the most lush and verdant gardens in the world. Tear yourself away from the ocean for a day and explore some of the island’s collection of tropical ferns and fauna, sure to give the Pacific views a run for its money.
Foster Botanical Gardens: If you’re staying in Waikiki, you won’t have to travel far to find this tropical garden, conveniently located near downtown Honolulu. The 14-acre garden opened in the 1850s and is one of the oldest botanical gardens on the island, featuring trees planted by Dr. William Hillbrand, who helped create the green space. Highlights include a prehistoric glen, showcasing primitive plants from across the globe, an open-air butterfly garden and a rare and large amorphoplallus titanum, known as the corpse flower for its powerful smell when in bloom.
Liliuokalani Botanical Garden: Tucked just minutes away from Foster Botanical Garden, this 7.5-acre garden was once owed by Queen Liliuokalani. The park was later donated to the City and County of Honolulu so the public could enjoy the last reigning monarch’s favorite picnic grounds. The botanical garden is small, but with the bubbling Nuuanu stream and Waikahalulu waterfall, is a relaxing place to enjoy quiet serenity. The shaded gardens are the only space in Honolulu to exclusively feature native Hawaiian plants.
Lyon Arboretum: Named for the arboretum’s original director, Harold L. Lyon, the nearly 200-acre tropical rainforest and tropical garden is managed by the University of Hawaii. Tucked in Manoa Valley watershed, the wide, wooded garden offers much to explore, with more than 5,000 tropical plants spread throughout 12 themed gardens in addition to more than seven miles of hiking trails and waterfalls. A one-hour guided tour is available daily Mondays through Saturdays.
Manoa Heritage Center: Created by Sam and Mary Cooke in 1996, the mission of the nonprofit organization is to promote the thoughtful stewardship of Hawaii’s natural and cultural heritage through preserving and interpreting historic sites. The site is home to Kukaoo Heiau and an early 20th-century Tudor-style home, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also on-site is a native Hawaiian garden, available to tour by reservation only. The garden features endemic and indigenous plants and Polynesian-introduced plant species. The guided tour leads guests through the heiau and garden, discussing Native Hawaiian cultural practices as well as uses and origins of plants seen.
Koko Crater Botanical Garden: Set in the mouth of the extinct volcano in east Oahu, the 60-acre basin shows off Oahu’s diverse landscape with an impressive collection of rare and endangered dryland plants. The two-mile trail makes for a relatively easy hike, where visitors can take in beautiful plants, cacti and tropical flowers from Madagascar, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific as well as exotic Hawaiian species. Although the grounds are flat, it’s recommended to wear covered shoes on the somewhat rocky dirt path.
Hoomaluhia: Hawaiian for “peaceful refuge,” this fertile garden is suitably named, framed by the majestic Koolau Mountains and filled with plant species from around the world. Built by the US Army Corps of Engineers to provide flood protection, the rainforest garden spans 400 acres and is the largest City and County-run botanical garden in Oahu. The park includes a 32-acre lake, where families can catch-and-release fish with bamboo poles on the weekends. Guided nature hikes, picnic facilities and camping options are also available on the lush grounds.
Senator Fong’s Plantation and Garden: This little known family-owned botanical is tucked beneath the Koolau Mountains and sprawls over 700 acres, which is larger than all of Waikiki. Purchased 1n 1950 by Senator Hiram Fong, the lush plantation is divided into five sections, named after the United States presidents who served office during Fong’s 17-year career. The garden features valleys and plateaus of fruit and nut orchards, tropical flower gardens and native plants, including a palm garden with over 80 varieties. Garden walking tours with seasonal fruit tastings can be booked by reservation only.
Halawa Xeriscape Garden: This collection of xeric (dry) plants first opened in 1989 by the Board of Water Supply as a way to educate residents about saving water in lawns, gardens and landscaped areas. The garden showcases efficient irrigation systems, using less water than traditional gardens, splitting the space into three sections. The International Garden features plants from dry tropics around the world; the Bromeliad Garden showcases pineapple relatives from the Americas; the Hawaiian Garden introduces a collection of native species that adapted to hot and dry conditions; and the Tree Garden boasts drought-tolerant and experimental species of trees from across the globe. Free tours are offered by appointment.
Moanalua Gardens: Located near a busy highway, you wouldn’t expect this garden to be peaceful, but the 24-acre park drowns out the noise of city life. The site is home to rare plants, a koi pond and Kamehameha V’s cottage. A large monkeypod tree in the park, nicknamed the Hitachi tree, was famously used in a Japanese advertising campaign and many visitors from Japan are often spotted snapping photos with the popular tree. The garden also plays host to the annual Prince Lot Hula Festival, the largest non-competitive hula festival in the state. The summer festival honors Prince Lot Kapuaiwa, who reprised the once-forbidden dance in Moanalua.
Wahiawa Botanical Garden: Cradled between the Waianae and Koolau mountain ranges, this 27-acre rainforest was once used as an experimental arboretum for sugar planters in the 1930s. Perched at 1,000-feet above sea level, this cool and humid climate is the perfect habitat for showcasing Hawaiian palms and non-native plants from Africa, Asia and Australia.
Waimea Valley: Once home to native Hawaiian descendants of high priests, this 1,875-acre sacred historical nature park consists of cultural activites, ancient Hawaiian archaeological sites and a 150-acre botanical garden with more than 5,000 tropical and subtropical plants from around the world, including very rare Hawaiian plants. With over 35 themed gardens, there’s much to explore. A 30-minute hike will lead you to the famed, 50-foot Waimea Falls, where visitors can take a dip into the cool, freshwater pool, so be sure to bring a swimsuit if you plan on jumping in. Lifeguards are on duty and life jackets are available to use.