When I visited Oahu in August 2023 to explore World War II history, the Lanikai Pillbox hike instantly became a must-do. My friend in the Navy told me about this hike where you can visit old WWII bunkers and get some amazing views. Obviously, I was sold.
I did this hike all by myself, just after sunrise, and I can attest to how awesome it is. I’ve written this guide to help you have the same incredible hiking experience I did (with all the info in one place). Everything you need to know to hike the Lanikai Pillbox Trail is in this post!
The Lanikai Pillbox hike is part of my Oahu Bucket List. Read the full post in that link and get the printable checklist here:
What is the Lanikai Pillbox hike?
The Lanikai Pillbox hike is one of the most popular hikes on the island of Oahu (just behind Diamond Head of course). It travels along the Ka’iwa Ridge down on Oahu’s southeastern edge and passes by two former World War II pillboxes.
This hike is relatively easy (especially when compared to the Koko Head Crater hike!) and won’t take you more than about an hour and a half. It’s super easy to navigate, the views are incredible, and whole experience is hella rewarding. Read on for all the beautiful details.
History of the Lanikai pillboxes
In 1943, in the thick of World War II, the U.S. Army installed these two pillboxes up on the Ka’iwa Ridge. However, they really aren’t “pillboxes” in the traditional sense. True military pillboxes have defensive purposes and are typically armed with huge guns.
The ones here on the Lanikai Pillbox hike were never intended for such a purpose and thus never armed. Instead, these two served as observation stations and command centers. Instead of guns, high-tech binoculars and other observational equipment were installed.
Troops stationed here would scan the water for possible enemy ships and communicate that information with the actual gun batteries located on the Mokapu Peninsula, on Pu’u Papa’a, and at the Kane’ohe Bay Naval Air Station. As the story goes, once their use became unnecessary after the war, the two structures were abandoned.
You’ll encounter two “pillboxes” on this hike. The first you come to (Station 29A) is a single-tiered structure. The second one is a two-tiered structure (Stations 29B & 29C).
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Where is the Lanikai Pillbox hike?
The Lanikai Pillbox hike is located on the far southeastern edge of the island of Oahu, Hawaii. You’ll find it up on the Ka’iwa Ridge bordering the towns of Lanikai and Kailua. (See map below.)
Lanikai Pillbox hike map
The map below contains the most helpful sites to know for hiking the Lanikai Pillbox trail including: where to park, where to pee, where to start the hike, and where to find the two pillboxes.
Save this map: Clicking on the star ⭑ next to the map’s title will save this to your Google Maps. Use this map: Once you get there, open Google Maps on your phone, click “Saved” at the bottom, then click “Maps.”
Where to park for the Lanikai Pillbox hike
Due to this hike’s location in a residential area, there’s unfortunately no parking near the trailhead. (Please don’t park along the private residential streets! They frown on that, as do I.) However, there’s an easy (and free) solution.
Free parking is easily available nearby at Kailua Beach Park. From here, it’s just an easy (and beautiful) 15-20 minute walk to the start of the Lanikai Pillbox hike. There are two parking lots at Kailua Beach and I’ve marked them both on the map above.
The “smaller” parking lot is the closest so check here first. There are 90 parking spots here including 4 accessible spaces. There’s also a small building here with restrooms and showers.
The larger parking lot is just a tiny bit further away but has 152 spaces including 4 accessible ones. By “larger” I really mean longer as these spaces are spread down a series of narrow roads more so than an actual lot. As the main entrance to Kailua Beach, there’s a larger structure here also with restrooms and showers.
All parking spaces at these lots are free and have no time limits. Both of these lots close daily at 10pm and reopen at 5am.
Need a rental car for your trip? (It’s really the only way to get around the island and to hikes like this one.) Check out the best rental car deals on Oahu here.
How to get to the Lanikai Pillbox hike
To get to the Lanikai Pillbox hike, it’s about a…
- 45-minute drive from Waikiki
- 30-minute drive from Pearl Harbor
- 6-minute drive from Kailua Town
- 45-minute drive from Ko’Olina
- 45-minute drive from Kualoa Ranch
- 1-hour drive from the North Shore/Haleiwa
These times include driving from the above-mentioned starting points to the Kailua Beach parking area. Don’t forget to factor in another 15-20 minutes for walking from the parking lot to the start of the hike.
How to find the Lanikai Pillbox hike trailhead
If you’re using the Google map I’ve included above (don’t forget to save it to your phone!), you can simply follow the walking directions to the “Lanikai Pillbox Trailhead.” Otherwise…
From the smaller, closer parking lot at Kailua Beach: Take the sidewalk path towards the beach from southeast corner of the lot. Follow that past the shower building, past the park pavilion, until you get to the boat ramp area. Go straight past that until you hit the sidewalk that goes alongside the road (Mokulua Drive).
Continue to follow that uphill and past the Lanikai Monument. You’ll know it when you see it and you’ll be like, “Hmmmm.” But I digress. Keep going straight and, when you get to a fork in the road, veer right onto Aalapapa Drive.
Continue on this road until you get to the next big 4-way intersection; turn right onto Kaelepulu Drive. Continue until you pass the Mid-Pacific Country Club on your right. (You’ll know it when you see it.) The Lanikai Pillbox trailhead will be on your left, just past a private road entrance, under a couple of big telephone poles. Look for the small sign with the yellow arrow. Follow that dirt path.
Lanikai Pillbox hike at a glance
Here’s what to expect when hiking the Lanikai Pillbox trail:
- Distance: 1.6 miles roundtrip
- Route type: Out and back
- Difficulty: Easy to moderate
- Time to complete: 1-1.5 hours
- Elevation gain: 565 feet
- Terrain: Loose dirt, big rocks, tons of cacti
- Conditions: Fully exposed, hot and humid, lots of bees
I’ll explain all of those details in this post; keep reading!
Every hike (especially in Hawaii) comes with its own risks so don’t forget you hike at your own risk! Things to remember when starting a new hike:
- Never push yourself beyond your abilities
- Know your mental and physical limitations
- Always follow the advice of medical professionals
- Always follow the rules and guidelines of the hike/area
The advice I’ve put in this post is based on my own personal experience hiking the Lanikai Pillbox trail. What works for me may not work for you, so always remember to apply what you read to your particular limitations/capabilities. Stay safe! Happy hiking!
Is the Lanikai Pillbox hike legal?
Yes, hiking the Lanikai Pillbox trail is perfectly legal. However, flying drones on the Lanikai Pillbox hike is illegal (due to laws surrounding drones in private/residential areas). Do not fly your drone on the Lanikai Pillbox hike.
Additional note: You’ll see when you get to the second pillbox that the trail continues along the Ka’iwa Ridge. But, continuing past this point puts you on unsafe private property which is highly inadvisable. Do not continue past the second pillbox.
Lanikai Pillbox hike, the back way
At one time, local residents would continue this trail along the ridge and back down into Lanikai on the other side. (Or start on the other side and visit the pillboxes this way.) This is why you’ll sometimes see a “back way” listed for the Lanikai Pillbox trailhead.
This route is more dangerous in terms of stability and is not regularly maintained. This side of the second pillbox is also all private property. It’s more of a “locals-only” route, if you will. And since trespassing is, you know, just generally discouraged, do not hike to the Lanikai pillboxes the back way.
Who maintains the Lanikai Pillbox hike?
The Lanikai Pillbox hike, as part of the 4+ acres of the Ka’iwa Ridge, is managed by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (with the help of the Lanikai Association).
That being said, for now there’s no regular trail maintenance on the Lanikai Pillbox hike. You’ll see when you get here, this trail is pretty wild. There’s also no garbage pickup (therefore, no receptacles) so please please please take with you whatever you bring in. That includes dog poo! The state is allegedly working on an almost-$1 million plan to improve conditions and increase warning signage on the trail though.
Lanikai Pillbox hike length (distance)
The Lanikai Pillbox hike is about 1.6 miles roundtrip. This includes starting from the trailhead, turning around at the second pillbox, and heading back to the starting point. This does not include the nearly 1 mile walk from the parking lot to the trailhead, and the nearly 1 mile walk back to the parking lot afterwards. Just something to keep in mind.
Lanikai Pillbox hike length (time)
The average time to complete the Lanikai Pillbox hike is somewhere between 1 hour to 1.5 hours, depending on a few factors. Again, this is just from the trailhead to the second pillbox and back. It does not include the 15-minute walk to the trailhead from the parking lot, nor the 15-minute walk back to your car afterwards.
Here’s how my hike looked, time-wise
From the start of the trailhead to the second pillbox and back the Lanikai Pillbox hike took me 1.5 hours. But what you need to know about this is I tend to spend a lot of time taking photos (and huge gulps of water).
I left my car in the Kailua Beach parking lot at 6:25am, hiked the Lanikai Pillbox trail, and made it back to my car at 8:15am. Ergo, the entire hike took me just under two hours.
How long the Lanikai Pillbox hike will take you
The actual hiking part of the hike is pretty easy going so you’ll move at a reasonable pace. If you didn’t spend too much time taking photos or exploring the pillboxes, you could easy make it out and back in under an hour.
On the flip side, there are several steep climbs that could slow you down. If you’re not a strong hiker and choose to take this trail relatively slow, it would still only take you about 1.5 hours.
Lanikai Pillbox hike difficulty
I always hate describing difficulty when it comes to hiking. This is so relative that it’s hard to nail down a quick answer. (And I always try to be mindful of different abilities.) That being said, I would still call the Lanikai Pillbox trail an “easy to moderate” hike.
For the most part, the trail is simply a dirt path that winds around, slightly up and slightly down. However, there are a couple of places where the trail is extra steep and may require the use of ropes to get up and down. One of these spots is towards the very beginning.
On my visit, the weather had been super dry so the dirt was extra dusty and slippery. And I imagine in wet conditions it will be just as bad. I was able to get up these two spots by climbing on the boulders that are around and never needed to use the ropes myself.
But do note that certain parts of this hike are pretty dangerous and difficult for more inexperienced hikers. (Especially those who are here for Instagram and aren’t wearing proper footwear or clothing.)
Otherwise, there isn’t anything more technical than that and the trail is more or less “level” throughout. (There is some consistent elevation gain, but it’s more spread out and nothing like the Koko Head trail.) At first, I was going to call this an “easy” hike, but when you compare it to others like the Makapu’u Lighthouse trail, this one is definitely a step more difficult than that.
Can you do the Lanikai Pillbox hike with kids?
Whether or not you bring your kids on the Lanikai Pillbox trail is up to you. I saw plenty of younger hikers here and, naturally, they were all wildly outmaneuvering the adults. The steep parts and rock scrambling would be nothing to them.
Just remember to keep them calm around the bees, and keep them safe around the cliff edges and pillboxes. (I don’t have kids myself so I’m just going off common sense here plus what I saw on my hike.)
Lanikai Pillbox hike elevation
The second pillbox on the Lanikai Pillbox hike sites at an elevation at 565 feet above sea level. And if you start at, well, sea level where the parking lot is, that’s your total elevation gain. (Which is really nothing in hiking terms!)
Lanikai Pillbox hike incline
The Lanikai Pillbox trail winds up and down throughout, but most inclines are minimal. There are two spots, however, where the incline is pretty much vertical. At these spots there are several large boulders and even ropes that you can use to get up and down the trail. Otherwise, you can expect only moderate inclines up and down.
Lanikai Pillbox hike calories & steps
In terms of how many “steps” I earned on this hike and how many calories I burned, the results aren’t insignificant but they also aren’t the most I achieved on this trip. Everyone’s results will look different of course, but here are the results of my Lanikai Pillbox hike according to my Fitbit Versa: (Only the red lines on the graph represent the hike.)
- Steps taken: 8,274
- Floors climbed: 57
- Calories burned: 626
Lanikai Pillbox hike terrain
The fact that the Lanikai Pillbox hike is not maintained will be immediately apparent to you. This trail is very little more than just a worn dirt path up a hill. The terrain is not too terrible, but it’s also not without its challenges either. On the Lanikai Pillbox hike, prepare for:
- Loose dirt in dry weather; mud in wet weather (both of which are serious slipping hazards)
- Uneven surfaces
- A super narrow path in some parts
- Lots of roots, bushes, branches, and cacti lining the trail
- Boulders of all shapes and sizes to navigate around
Lanikai Pillbox hiking conditions
Given this hike’s wild nature, you can expect equally wild hiking conditions. This trail is fully exposed and offers almost no significant shade anywhere. Even just after sunrise it’s going to be super hot and humid on this hike.
You’ll encounter some steep cliff edges with zero guardrails of any kind. Stay on the path; stay away from the edges. (A man literally died here just a few months before my visit.)
Crowds on the Lanikai Pillbox trail
As far as crowds, this is one of the more crowded hikes on Oahu thanks to its popularity. (Some reports even say up to a thousand people a day at times.) However, it wasn’t too crowded during my visit on a Thursday morning in August. I’m sure the levels of crowds vary depending on day and time of year, etc.
I wasn’t anywhere close to being alone on this trail, but I never had to wait for tons of people to pass or anything. Most people move along the trail at a steady speed, and it’s really only at the two pillboxes where you encounter groups of people. You’ll also find some bottlenecks of hikers at the two extra steep areas that take a little scrambling to get up and down.
Bees on the Lanikai Pillbox hike
One other thing I feel is important to mention are the honeybees. This trail is pretty narrow in parts and lined on both sides with dragon fruit cacti. Besides all the fun sharp needles that cacti bring to the trail party, you also have to watch out for the thousands of honeybees that pollinate the flowers of these plants.
Since I’m actually a beekeeper myself, I found this beautiful and fascinating, but I know I’m in the minority here. Dragon fruit cacti flowers bloom from early summer to late fall, so if that’s when you’ll be here, take note! You won’t be able to avoid the bees since these plants are all over the trail, but you can let them not bother you.
How to coexist with the bees on this trail
- Stay calm, above all else.
- Keep your arms in close to your body as you walk through these sections.
- If you have long hair, wrap your hair in a bun. (Bees get angry when they get trapped in your hair–a lesson you can only learn the hard way.)
- Don’t swat at them or flail your arms around.
- Keep walking until you get past them.
- Don’t eat any bananas before your hike. (The smell of bananas sets off alarm bells for honeybees. And we do not want our honeybees to feel alarmed!)
Though there are tons of them, the honeybees never stung or threatened me. In fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t give two craps that I was all up in their business taking their photos. Just remain calm and you’ll beee fine.
However, if you are critically allergic to bees, I would consider avoiding this hike altogether. There were that many of them that I would legit worry for your safety and there are no ways around them.
Views on the Lanikai Pillbox hike
With the exception of the very beginning, this entire hike rewards you with spectacular views! From the top of the Lanikai Pillbox hike you can see:
- The Mokulua Islands
- Kailua and Lanikai Beaches
- The gorgeous green mountains of the Kuli’ou’ou Forest Reserve
- And all the surrounding residential areas that are probably out of your price range but a girl can dream, right?
You’ll obviously also get to see and explore two former World War II observation bunkers. Each of these comes with its own risks (due to age, rust, varying stages of decay, etc.) so be careful inside and around them, as well as climbing on and off.
The Mokulua Islands
The two islands you see offshore are the Mokulua Islands, also known as Nā Mokulua or just “the Mokes.” The bigger one on the left is Moku Nui (“Big Island”) and the smaller one on the right is Moku Iki (“Small Island”).
Both of these islands serve as official state seabird sanctuaries so access to them is either prohibited altogether (like on the small island) or restricted to certain areas (like on the big island). Despite this, they’re still popular areas to explore, and by kayak is the only way to get there. If this is something you’d like to try, please remember to do so carefully and respectfully!
Check out this super popular 5-star kayaking tour of Kailua Bay. You can kayak out to the bird sanctuaries on the Mokolua Islands, snorkel with sea turtles, and it includes lunch too!
Lanikai Pillbox sunrise hike
Sunrise hiking is extremely popular in Hawaii and the Lanikai Pillbox hike is probably the most popular sunrise hike on Oahu. Many factors contribute to this:
- Its perfect location
- Its ease of hiking in the dark (with proper lighting and much care and attention!)
- The vast amount of area from which to view the sunrise
- This is the best time to snag a parking spot
- Hiking this trail before the sun comes out is going to make a huge difference in your hiking conditions
- And for what it’s worth, honeybees don’t fly in the dark!
The parking lots at Kailua Beach open at 5am so there’s still plenty of time to get to one of the pillboxes before the sun comes up. (Check sunrise times on Oahu here.) And don’t expect to be alone up here. When I arrived shortly after sunrise, I was shocked at how many people were coming down from this hike.
The Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail is another fantastic sunrise hike you should consider!
Lanikai Pillbox hike reservations
You do not need a reservation to hike the Lanikai Pillbox trail. They have talked about possibly instituting a reservation system for this hike in the future (to help with safety, erosion, noise, etc.), but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. If things change, I’ll update this post to reflect these developments.
Though some hikes (like Diamond Head) do require advance reservations, as of now this is not one of them. You’re free to come and go as you please.
Tips for hiking the Lanikai Pillbox trail
To make sure you have nothing but an awesome time on the Lanikai Pillbox hike, here are some of my top tips for this trail:
1. Take your time
Give yourself plenty of time to do this hike so that you don’t have to rush through it. Though it’s not super technical or anything, there are still plenty of ways to injure yourself here. Don’t forget to factor in the time it takes to walk to and from the Kailua Beach parking lot when working this hike into your awesome Oahu itinerary.
2. Reconsider bringing your dog
I’m not a dog person, but I know many hikers are and I see dogs on almost all the hikes I go on. The Lanikai Pillbox hike is no different, but maybe reconsider before you bring your dog on this particular hike.
There are warning signs at the entrance and many places online about dogs overheating on this hike. (Some have even died of heat stroke.) If you still want to bring your dog, definitely heed the warnings and bring plenty of water for them. I mean, just imagine doing this hike yourself barefoot in a fur coat. Brutal.
3. The best time to do the Lanikai Pillbox hike
The best time to do the Lanikai Pillbox hike is just after sunrise. (Yes, that’s when I did it!) This is going to be coolest time of day which is critical for hiking in Hawaii. And because the sun has already come up, you won’t have to hike up this trail in the dark.
4. Wear the right stuff
So maybe now’s a good time to remind you to not wear a fur coat on this hike. Even if you’ll be hiking at sunrise, it doesn’t take long at all for things to heat up. Be sure you’re wearing the right stuff:
- Light layers, preferably moisture-wicking stuff
- Legit hiking shoes (no flip-flops for crying out loud)
- A hat of some sort
5. Pack light
This isn’t a long hike so you really shouldn’t bring that much stuff with you. Bring along a super light hiking day pack (linked in the section below) and leave behind anything you won’t absolutely need. Reducing your load will keep this an “easy” hike for you.
6. Stay hydrated
But if you do want to pack a lot of something, make sure that something is water. The sun and heat in Hawaii are no joke and this is one hike you’ll need a lot of it. Make sure you have plenty of water with you at all times. Drink plenty of it before, during, and after your hike.
7. Watch where you’re going
The Lanikai Pillbox hike is not without its fair share of obstacles and tripping hazards. (Do you really want to trip on a rock and fly face first into a swarm of bees? I didn’t think so.) Even on the parts where you’ll want to just take off running, keep it slow and watch we’re you’re going at all times.
8. Make way for other hikers
As is always the etiquette on hiking trails, make sure you’re looking out for other hikers and getting out of the way when necessary. Move over to let faster hikers pass, regardless of direction. (And keep in mind that hikers going up have the right of way.)
9. Stay calm (around the bees)
I mean yeah you should always try to stay calm on the trails, but in this case I’m specifically talking about the bees. Follow the precautions I listed earlier and stay calm when walking through the areas filled with honeybees. They’re not worried about you; they’re just trying to go about their bee-siness.
10. Be careful on the pillboxes
These structures are over 80 years old and have been neglected for the majority of that time. They’re crumbling and uneven and they have rusty parts sticking out. They’re on the cliff edges and like a surefire way to pick up some fresh tetanus.
People love climbing on them for photos but getting on and off of them is not easy. (At least, not for short people like myself.) It’s really going to require some hoisting up and jumping down which is super dangerous. I managed to get up on the second one but I didn’t even attempt the first one. I’m determined to not let my first time in a helicopter be on the way to the hospital.
I did end up having a tetanus scare during my Hawaii trip though – oops. Read the story here in the list of my worst travel moments of 2023.
11. Always take out what you bring in
As with all hikes, always make sure to take out everything you brought in. If you eat snacks, please don’t just toss the wrappers on the ground. Don’t leave your water bottles or other trash. Don’t wipe your ass and leave the paper on the ground. If your dog poops on this hike, that goes with you too. There’s no one here to clean up after you.
12. Be courteous of the neighbors
Don’t forget that this hike is located in a residential area and these people have been generous enough to loan you this trail when they honestly don’t have to. Don’t park in front of their houses. Don’t blast loud music. Keep the trail clean and drama free. Do not trespass. Be respectful of your surroundings at all times.
13. Kailua Beach is a total hidden gem
My last pro tip is to have your bathing suit and sandals ready to go for after your hike. Kailua Beach is quite the hidden gem and you very well might have the whole place to yourself to relax and cool off after your hike!
What to pack for hiking the Lanikai Pillbox trail
When prepping for your Hawaii trip, be sure to pack the following items for hiking the Lanikai Pillbox trail:
- Proper clothing – Light layers, moisture-wicking, hiking-appropriate clothing is best
- Good hiking shoes – I love my Merrell hiking shoes for hikes like these (also available on Amazon and REI) but as long as you wear actual hiking shoes or boots (and not flip-flops) you’ll be fine!
- A hat – Either a sun hat or baseball cap is necessary for hiking under that blazing Pacific sun.
- A small towel – Bring a small gym towel since you’re going to sweat so much.
- Hiking poles – If you prefer to hike with poles, you could definitely use them here. They don’t have to be expensive; something around $20/pair is great.
- Sunscreen –There’s so much sun exposure on this hike, don’t forget your sunscreen. (And remember that Hawaii’s sunscreen laws mandate it be reef-safe. I use Badger.)
- Water bottle or bladder – You’ll want something like this 48oz. Nalgene with you at all times. I also use my 2-liter Platypus on most of my hikes.
- Liquid IV – And it helps to enhance your water with extra electrolytes. I bring Liquid IV on all my hikes. (Açai Berry is my favorite.)
- Super light hiking daypack – I use my REI Flash 18 pack because it’s so light and packs up nicely too.
- Fitbit – So you can track all your own Lanikai Pillbox hike stats. I have a Fitbit Versa.
- Small first-aid kit – Because there are so many ways to hurt yourself on any hike. These travel-sized kits are small enough to hike with and have what you’ll need on the spot.
More info for your Lanikai Pillbox hike
- Hotels: Read reviews and book your Hawaii hotel room here on Booking.com (Check out Expedia and Hotels.com for good deals too.)
- Rental car: Check out the best rental car deals on Oahu here.
- Sightseeing: The Oahu GoCity pass can potentially save you tons of money on your trip.
- Local tours and activities: Check out the many options on Viator and Get Your Guide.
- Trip planning: Pick up a Hawaii guidebook for the rest of your activities and this pocket size USA customs and culture guide if you’re joining us from abroad.
What else would you like to know about the Lanikai Pillbox hike? Ask your questions in the comments below! (Someone else is probably wondering the same thing.) Happy trails!
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