The Biggest Big Wave Surf Spots in Hawaii
Hawaii is the birthplace of surfing, so it only makes sense that the archipelago is home to world-class waves. Sure, there are plenty of iconic waves like Waikiki and Hanalei Bay. But Hawaii is known for its big wave scene that attracts surfers from all over the world.
But be warned. Each of these breaks poses their own unique challenges - shallow reefs, strong currents, sharks, heavy localism, and steep takeoffs. Proceed at your own risk.
When are the waves the biggest in Hawaii?
Big wave season in Hawaii typically runs from November to March. Low-pressure systems in Asia send groundswells pulsing across the north Pacific to north and west-facing coastlines.
Where are the biggest waves in Hawaii?
Located on the North Shore of Maui, Jaws is the biggest, heaviest, gnarliest wave in Hawaii. Winter storms bring waves as big as 100+ feet, creating insane conditions for the brave souls who paddle out.
Largely undiscovered until the 1980s, Jaws was catapulted into the spotlight by Laird Hamilton, who pioneered tow-in surfing at the offshore break. But he wasn’t the first – three Hawaiian surfers conquered the wave in 1975 and gave it the iconic nickname, based on the Steven Spielberg film.
Today, hundreds of big wave surfers travel to Maui every winter to surf the best swells in the Pacific. It’s been featured in countless surfing movies, is a stop on the WSL’s Big Wave Tour (the Pe’ahi Challenge), and is considered one of the scariest waves in the world.
Jaws is at its best when big north-northeast swells approach from the Northern Pacific and are met with breezy, offshore winds from the south-southwest. If you’re watching from shore, you’ll see mountains of water crashing over the deep-water reef. If you’re paddling out, good luck.
The Banzai Pipeline might be the most famous wave in the entire world. Breaking just 100 feet off of Oahu’s famous North Shore, this heavy reef break is a sight to behold.
Technically, there are a few breaks on this stretch of the island, so let’s get a few things straight:
- Pipeline (or “Pipe”) is the left that breaks over the shallow 1st reef. It’s the most consistent and iconic of the waves here.
- Backdoor is the right that breaks over the 1st reef. It’s less consistent than Pipe and only works on mid-period NW-NNW swells.
- Second Reef is further out than Pipe and turns on when swells near the 12-15 foot range.
- Third Reef is even further than Second Reef and only breaks on XXL days. We’re talking 25-30+ feet. And at that size, it’s practically un-rideable.
- Off the Wall is another right that breaks just a bit west of Pipeline/Backdoor. It works on a N-NE swell, but not for the faint of heart – it closes out more often than it lets you out.
This famous stretch of reef is home to the Volcom Pipe Pro and the Billabong Pipe Masters, one of three stops on the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.
If you’re courageous enough to paddle out, you’ll be surrounded by Hawaii’s best. But be careful, long hold downs and shallow reef are no joke.
Waimea Bay is considered the birthplace of big wave surfing. And for good reason. Located just a few miles from Pipeline on the 7-Mile Miracle, 30+ foot waves roar through the Bay during winter swells.
Every big wave has its’ own challenge. The Bay is no different – it’s truly a big wave break, turning on only when the swell is double overhead. If you manage to paddle out through the strong rip currents, good luck. The takeoff is nearly a freefall, especially as swell height increases into the 20-30+ foot range.
Like every wave in Hawaii, Waimea Bay has a rich history. It hosts the Eddie Aikau Invitational, a surf contest honoring Eddie Aikau, a Hawaiian legend. “The Eddie” first ran in 1985 and only gets the green light when wave heights hit the 40+ foot range, a tribute to the big wave hero. As they say, “The Bay calls the day.”
To call Aikau “a legend” would be an understatement. On top of slaying the Bay, he saved over 500 lives on the North Shore as a lifeguard and is considered one of the greatest watermen of all time.
Sunset Beach has been a proving ground since the 1950s, twenty years before big wave surfing even entered the limelight. Another North Shore staple, Sunset lights up as winter swells from the NNW pummel the shoreline.
Home to the Vans Pro, Sunset Open, and Vans World Cup (2nd stop on the Vans Triple Crown), Sunset is unlike other big wave spots. It’s not always hollow, nor is it consistent. It’s a big playground that requires adaptive, powerful surfing – even Kelly Slater struggles to surf big Sunset.
Haleiwa (Gateway to the North Shore)
Haleiwa’s Ali’i Beach Park is a powerful right-hander that is accurately dubbed the Gateway to the North Shore. Haleiwa is the first stop on the Vans Triple Crown and home to the Hawaiian Pro, two of the biggest events on the islands.
The V-shaped reef bowls up as a fast-moving right with hollow sections, open faces, and heavy closeouts. On bigger days, the wave ends with the Toilet Bowl, a nearly impossible closeout section that’s broken hundreds of surfboards.
But before you even catch any waves, you have to put yourself in a position to do so – it’s not that easy. There’s a rip that moves right across the outer edge of the reef, pulling you right into the impact zone.
It’s pretty ironic. On smaller days, groms ride it like a regular old beach break. On other days, only the bravest paddle out.
Just because the big wave season runs throughout the winter months, doesn’t mean that it’s small during the summer. In fact, that’s exactly what makes Ma’alaea special.
Summer swells from the south-southwest pound the Maui fishing harbor to create the fastest wave in the Pacific. No seriously, its nickname is “Freight Trains.” See for yourself – the best swell in 20 years.
It doesn’t come around often. But when it does, thank the locals. In 2012, the state killed a Ma’alaea Harbor expansion project that would’ve destroyed the wave. A big shoutout to local activism – it works!
Surrounded by pineapple fields and steep cliffs, Honolua Bay is the crown jewel of Maui. As massive groundswells cut through the Kalohi Channel, the quiet Bay comes alive. It’s one of the most iconic breaks in Hawaii and host to the WSL Women’s World Championship.
Shaped by four main peaks, Honolua has a little something for everyone (as long as you’re a local). Starting with a fast, rocky section, the right walls up for fat turns and hollow tubes before the inside bowl where bodyboarders and groms battle each other for leftovers.
Big wave greats like Greg Noll and Buzzy Trent were slaying giants at Makaha well before it became popular. One of the best breaks on Oahu’s west coast, Makaha has a little bit of everything.
Most of the time, you’ll find locals cruising on longboards, funboards, and bodyboards. That’s simply because it doesn’t get very big that often. But when it’s on, it’s on.
With the heavy influx of tourists, it’s a locals-only break. Since the 1950s, locals have been incredibly territorial over the west side of Oahu, even resorting to violence – Makaha is no different. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Sandy Beach is another Oahu gem, but not for the same reason as the others. When waves break at Sandy’s, they break right on shore. This punchy wave is a playground for bodyboarders and bodysurfers looking for neck-break shorebreak (think Hawaiian version of The Wedge).
With ambulances on standby and red flags everywhere, the mix of heavy shorebreak and strong currents make this break one of the most dangerous waves on the list. It’s common to see tourists washed away by white water after underestimating the strength of this break.
Further past the shorebreak, there are some gentler waves that are surf-friendly, save from the patchy coral.
With 750 miles of shoreline, there are plenty of waves for every surf ability. But if you're paddling out at one of these spots, make sure you can handle it. These waves are no joke.