Top 10 North Shore Oahu Beaches
When you want to escape Waikiki and explore the island of Oahu, the North Shore is a great place to check it out. Sometimes considered the opposite of Waikiki and Honolulu, the North Shore has mostly single-lane roads, clusters of beach homes, miles of agricultural land, and a more rural and rustic feel than the urban hustle of Waikiki. And, although the northern end of Oahu has recently become a popular alternative destination for many vacationers, unlike Waikiki, you can usually find a quiet spot to enjoy the beach, breathe in the eucalyptus trees, and feel like you’re in your own little bit of paradise. One thing we request, and it’s very important, please please please use reef safe sunscreen when you go in the ocean.
If you want to experience Hawaiian relaxation, explore places outside of the mainstream tourist scene, hit a different kind of wave for surfing or surf-watching, check out beautiful the shoreline, have a bite at famous local holes-in-the-wall, or just see another side to our most populated island, head on up to Oahu’s North Shore.
In fact, you might even recognize some of the beaches from popular Hollywood movies and TV shows like 50 First Dates, Soul Surfers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Lost, Hawaii Five-O, Magnum P.I., and Bay Watch Hawaii.
Here are the top beaches we think will be worth checking out. The bottom of the post has FAQ regarding North Shore Beaches.
Ten Oahu North Shore Beaches to Visit
Haleiwa Alii Beach
Most people heading toward the North Shore will stop at the historic Haleiwa town, and as they exit Haleiwa, most will veer right (east or north east) and continue to the North Shore. That’s totally fine – we’ve done it multiple times ourselves – but what many miss is Haleiwa Alii Beach tucked on the left side of Haleiwa Boat Harbor.
Because it’s not as famous nor as popular as the other beaches on the North Shore, this beach tends to be a less crowded than the other ones. We have made many memories on this beach, which is a fun place for our kids to go body boarding and we’ve even spotted a few sea turtles as well!
While the beach famous for sea turtles is Laniakea Beach, sometimes they make their way over to Haleiwa Alii Beach to rest (and probably avoid the fame?!). Some even call this the real turtle beach of Oahu.
Another nice thing about this beach is that it’s easier than most other beaches to find parking. That’s always a huge plus on Oahu. For many other beaches, just to park often means having to wait in the car for awhile for a spot to open up, sometimes while trying not to block the flow of traffic, or trying to squeeze and park along the road – right up against cars zooming by in a way that doesn’t seem too safe. Other people will just park in no-parking areas and hope for the best (not a great idea since people will call on you, especially if you’re accidentally blocking private property access or a fire hydrant.)
As the final sell, a lifeguard station is present on this beach. This always made us feel safer, especially with four kids to corral! We’ve never had a issue arise, but it still nice to know they’re there.
Haleiwa Beach Park
This is another spot where a lot of locals like to go. The shoreline lies a lot more vertical (north to south) and the north end sticks out a bit so it seems to block the waves, or at least the waves aren’t as big here.
Because the water is calmer, it’s a good place to let the kids hang out, learn to surf, or try stand-up paddle boarding. This is why you’ll see a few of North Shore surf lesson operators out here.
This is also next to Haleiwa Boat Harbor, which gives you some idea about the waves being calmer than some other parts of the island.
This beach is also connected to a local park so there are some covered areas and picnic tables nearby. If you like shooting hoops then there are two basketball courts here too. Parking is relatively easy here as well but even if it’s crowded, you can usually find a spot to legally park along the road.
A lifeguard station is present on this beach.
Past Haleiwa as you go north east are Kawailoa Beach and Papailoa Beach (Papa‘iloa Beach).
Kawailoa is a little harder to access and it’s not as popular because there are no facilities on this beach. So, if you’re primarily looking for some space to yourself, this beach may be a nice place to visit. Some of the rocks can be slippery, so use caution when you step on them.
Papailoa Beach is probably most recognized for having the TV show Lost filmed there. It’s a nice white sand beach that’s pretty long and wide, but it’s quite easy to miss as most people will go straight from Haleiwa Town and Laniakea Beach. This beach doesn’t have any facilities on site and there are no lifeguards.
Sometimes people think it’s a private beach, but guess what? There are no private beaches on Oahu (or on the entirety of the Hawaiian islands). Whenever there is any development by a beach, the public must be given access to the beach so there will generally be some kind of pathway access.
*That also means that as residents and tourists we are meant to share these beaches, so please, whether you’re a local resident or visitor, please don’t be obnoxious, entitled, or disrespectful about these shared spaces. (My little public service announcement.)
You can sometimes spot turtles here, if you’re lucky. 🙂 People also enjoy snorkeling off this beach, although we suggest snorkeling with water shoes as the rocks and coral in this area can be pretty sharp and poke-y. If you turn onto Papailoa Road, a few houses before the dead end you will see the beach access (access 269A). Across from it there is a small parking lot or more like a patch of dirt with enough space to park as well as some possible street parking spots alongside the road.
This is the famous turtle beach. “Lani” means heaven and “Akea” means spacious or broad. Like the name says, when you step down onto the beach, you will feel the open sky.
Huge Hawaiian sea turtles (aka. green sea turtle, honu, hawksbill, ea) like to regularly rest on the shores here so there is a good chance you’ll are going to see a turtle or two (or five!) 🤩. Sometimes, the State Marine Life Agency will be on site to observe, be a resource for those interested in learning more about our native sea turtles, as well as protect this endangered species from crowds approaching the turtles.
*Please note that sea turtles are protected by state and federal law; you must keep some distance from the turtles and you may not approach or touch them. Feeding is also illegal. The Department of Land and Natural Resources of Hawaii suggests keeping a distance of at least 6 to 10 feet for resting turtles. Please respect their space.
A lifeguard station is present on this beach.
Waimea Bay Beach
A trip to the Waimea Bay area will be a full day of fun. During the summer months, this is a great swimming beach and there is plenty of wave action for body boarding. In the winter months, however, the waves can be huge – like taller-than-4-story-buildings huge. There is also a popular jump rock where you will frequently see people jumping off into the water.
There are a decent number of parking spaces, however since it’s quite popular, you’ll often find the lot full during busy months and many people will park along the street, even though some areas are quite narrow alongside the road.
Waimea also has the famous Waimea Waterfall nearby and you can hike up into Waimea Valley and swim in the natural pool below the waterfall. Just FYI, there is an admission fee to enter Waimea Valley and you have to put a life vest on to swim at the Falls.
*Also note that depending on the weather, the access to swim may change. It’s recommended that you call before you go: (808)-638-7766.
A lifeguard station is present on this beach.
Ehukai Beach Park – Banzai Pipeline
Ehukai means “atmosphere of the ocean.” “Kai” means ocean and you may hear people in Hawaii refer to the ocean-side of anywhere as “makai” – ma (of) kai (ocean).
The Banzai Pipeline is a surf reef break off of Ehukai Beach. This is one of the most famous surf spots as it hosts international contests like the Triple Crown of Surfing and Billabong Pipeline Masters during the winter months when the weather conditions are right. It might even be the most famous surfing beach in the world thanks to these competitions. The Billabong Pipeline Masters brings in the top surfers from around the world for the World Surf League. This event basically determines the world surf champion each year.
So, if you are lucky to be around during the competitions, head on over to the North Shore and check them out (it will be crowded and traffic-congested during these times). Even if there is no competition going on, this will be a great place to pull up a chair and just watch the massive waves. Don’t worry, you won’t be alone in doing this. You’ll see plenty of others just watching the waves in awe.
Waves in the summertime are definitely calmer, but, as it is a spot famous for big waves, be sure to check the water condition before jumping in.
A lifeguard station is present on the beach.
Sunset Beach is another surfing hot spot and a crowd favorite. The conditions are pretty similar to the surrounding beaches: Ehukai Beach Park and Velzyand Beach.
Another non-beach perk to going to Sunset Beach is the famous Ted’s Bakery nearby. This bakery is famous for their Chocolate Haupia (coconut) Pie or their yummy Chocolate Custard Pie. They also serve sandwiches, burgers, and hot food plates; it’s a nice place to stop by for lunch or dinner (with dessert! You really must try their pies!). There isn’t a lot of room to eat there, but we usually didn’t have a problem waiting a couple of minutes for a space to open up so we could sit down. Uh, also, you are a minute away from the beach, so you could just walk over beachside and eat there too.
A lifeguard station is present on this beach.
If you keep going from the famous Banzai Pipeline, past Sunset Beach (and Ted’s Bakery), you’ll come to another popular surf spot at Velzyland Beach. It’s not right off the main road, so kind of like Kawailoa Beach and Papailoa Beach, it’s easy to overlook.
There are surf breaks on both sides which make it more fun for surfers. If you are looking for a more off-the-beaten-path beach, this will be a great choice for you.
Turtle Bay is located at the end of Oahu’s North Shore. Primarily known as the luxurious resort and adjacent golf course, this place offers many activities like horseback riding, family bikes, frisbee golf, etc. To get to the beach, you have to go to the road that leads into Turtle Bay Resort. While this might make you think that you’re entering a private beach area, remember, as we mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as a private beach on the island, even if the beach is surrounded by a luxury resort!
When you drive into the parking lot, you will see a small section of parking dedicated to people who are visiting the beach. You can park there and walk over to the beach. As the name suggests, you might come across some turtles here too.
It’s a nice sport for snorkeling as well, but a little rocky, so water shoes might be a good option to have with you if you want to walk around in the water comfortably.
From Turtle Bay, if you venture out to the east a little bit, you will get to Kaihalulu Beach. This is probably the only beach our family ever went to where we were the only ones around at the time. It was fun to be the only people on the beach. It wasn’t a great place for swimming but the kids had fun chasing the small waves from the shore and it was a beautiful place to relax, walk on the sand, and enjoy the rock formations. Just be careful of pregnant little crabs, our oldest stuck his fingers in the sand and was pinched for disturbing what turned out to be a tiny pregnant crab. Poor kiddo! And the little crab even drew a dot of blood which ended that little beach expedition on a bittersweet note.🦀
FAQ – North Shore Oahu Beaches
Can you swim on North Shore beaches?
Yes. On most months and at most beaches. During most of the year, North Shore beaches are relatively calm and beautiful places to sunbathe and swim. In fact, North Shore surfing competitions and huge waves typically occur in the winter and some of the surging events can only take place when the swells are more than 30 feet – that’s like 3 story building! In those situations, you’ll hear updates all over the news as the waves are monitored and measured in preparation for a potential surf event so, if it’s during those times, unless you are a pro-surfer, feel free to drive up the the North Shore to watch, but please don’t go in the water.
*As a side note, those competitions have gained quite a following in the past few decades so the normally quiet, unpopulated areas of the North Shore can get pretty congested. With so many single-lane roads and limited parking, if you don’t head out early, you may find yourself in gridlock traffic with no way out (there is only one road that goes from central Oahu through the North Shore and to the east/Windward side of the island so if you’re stuck in that traffic, you’re stuck.)
On the outskirts of the primary winter surfing areas are a few beaches that might be swimmable even in the winter: Haleiwa Beach Park and the beaches near Turtle Bay. Of course, if the swells and waves are really high or strong, please be careful – the ocean is quite powerful and you need to respect it.
Anyway, in the spring, summer, and fall, you can pretty much comfortably swim at any of the North Shore beaches.
Here is a link for current beach conditions by the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association: https://hawaiibeachsafety.com/oahu. Check it out before you head out and into the water, no matter what beach you visit.
How long is the drive from Waikiki to the North Shore?
From Waikiki, there are two main ways to get to the North Shore: the direct way via H-1 and H-2 and the scenic route along the South shore and up along the east/Windward side of the island (I digress, but there are also a couple hybrid versions of these routes: 1) H-1 to Kailua on the Windward side via Pali Highway, and 2) H-1 to Kaneohe via H-3. Both of these hybrid routes bypass the beautiful South Shore but will still give you a scenic drive up the east side of the island and they probably cut about 20-30 minutes from the full South Shore scenic route.) I would assume a 2+ hour trip for any of the more scenic routes and I would consider making that drive into a full day trip so you can take your time and explore as you go).
Anyway, assuming you’re going the direct route via the freeway, I’d budget one hour to Haleiwa town. The furthest beach is probably 1 hour and 15 min away assuming good traffic. On that note, I would strongly encourage you to avoid rush hour times. If you’re going from Waikiki toward West/North/Central Oahu, mornings from about 6 AM to 8 AM will be highly congested but it will mostly center on going into Honolulu and downtown Honolulu so once you pass the major downtown exits, you should be okay. In the evenings, I would avoid heading out toward the West/North/Central parts of Oahu as much as possible; most websites say rush hour time is from 3:30 PM to 6 PM, but I’ve left downtown Honolulu at 6 PM and it still would take an additional 30 minutes to get home (central Oahu) and that’s assuming there are no stalled vehicles or traffic accidents. The traffic jams are pretty notorious on Oahu and it could easily turn into a frustrating couple of hours. Also, unlike many mainland states, there are no real alternate roads/routes to get you where you need to go (or they are also all congested, trust me, I’ve tried…a lot). Before you head out, feel free to check Google Maps or Waze, but from experience, if there are any stalled cars, accidents, or special events, the estimated travel time will be wrong (I’ve had my Google or Waze ETA continuously reassure me I was 30 minutes away from my destination for 50 minutes of traffic straight. It was dumb.)
Should I stay on the North Shore?
If you want a relaxing Oahu vacation where you can focus on certain activities like surfing, swimming, skydiving, or quiet walks along the beach then the North Shore maybe a good option for you. If you want the constant energy of city life, have more choices for dining, quick access to more activities, or you like bars and clubs or a late night movie, then the Waikiki area will be a better choice. At the same time, if you are renting a car then pretty much any place on the island is less than a 2-hour drive, so you can pick a place based on the kind of space you want stay at and drive everywhere else.