Day-tripping in the Islands #6:
Climb a Potent Hawai‘i Landmark

By: Christine Thomas
Spirit of Aloha, November/December 2007


Have you always been able to drive right into the crater?” my friend asks the attendant seated inside a glass booth at Diamond Head State Monument. She scrunches her brow and looks at us—just two of the hundreds of people who stream by each day—like we’re a little bit crazy. “I mean, ever since the military opened it?” he continues, and she nods, taking our $5 and handing back two brochures and a receipt.

“I never knew that,” he says. “And we grew up here.”

Although more than just an ordinary fixture of the landscape, a visit to Diamond Head seems perfunctory, not unlike going to the Statue of Liberty when in New York City or driving across San Francisco’s Gold­en Gate Bridge. It’s easy, especially for locals, to think of this and many of Hawai‘i’s other typical visitor experiences with skepticism. Sure, you’ve been to (fill in the blank: Hanauma Bay, Pearl Harbor, Waikīkī, etc.)—but you haven’t really been to Hawai‘i.

Perhaps that’s why it has taken me 30 years to arrive at this potent landmark—and why in preparation I felt like a tourist in my hometown, ferreting online directions, scanning conflicting guides to discover how long it takes (about an hour-and-a-half, roundtrip), wondering if it could be true that I needed a flashlight for the tunnel (no, it’s well lit). But as I lace up my shoes in the parking lot, I feel something like pride that I have come here on my own.

In the years I’ve been doing other things, and since 1950 when it opened to the public, more than a million people a year have climbed the rocky trail up 760 feet to the summit of Diamond Head, where an observation deck offers a 360-degree view of southern O‘ahu. From there many of the island’s competing icons—like the Royal Ha­waiian Hotel, Waikīkī Shell, Tripler Hospital and Koko Head—and lesser known sights like La Pietra School for Girls—are easily viewed.

My 6:30 a.m. weekday arrival was de­signed to beat the crowds and the heat, but during the hike we see at least 50 other people already on the trail. It’s soon apparent that climbing Diamond Head is not a “na­ture hike” by any means—it’s not rugged or quiet, nor is it breathtaking. And though endemic plants are cultivated in an adjacent arboretum, gone are the early-19th-century gardens, replaced by the buzz of conversation and evidence of visitors past in the form of plastic bottle caps, candy wrappers and other rubbish littering the ground. Instead of a rough, narrow trail there’s a wide, concrete sidewalk winding past introduced kiawe trees, leading to a dusty footpath lined with a rusted metal railing that curls up easily to the peak.

It takes about 40 minutes to reach a dim military tunnel near the top, a remnant of the crater’s 1906–1950 incarnation as Fort Ruger Military Reservation. But it isn’t until I’m out the other side, after climbing a set of steep concrete steps and another cobwebbed and rusted metal spiral staircase to get to the observation deck, that I realize Diamond Head’s apex—which led to its pur­ported christening by the goddess Hi‘iaka as Le‘ahi (brow of the ‘ahi)—has been hollowed out and replaced with a five-story, concrete military bunker.

As I look out at the surfers resting like birds in the waters off Waikīkī, the Wai‘a­nae mountains clear of clouds, the glassy ocean wrinkled with a gentle swell, and down to the runners on Diamond Head Road, I can see that my expectations have been both accurate and untrue. From up here the dramatic beauty of Hawai‘i does unfold, even in the city’s towering glass-and-concrete sky­scrapers and houses swarm­ing like fish over every ridge, and the surreal experience of standing on the rim of a dormant volcano caressed by sun and breeze.

This climb may not be a calming commune with nature, but its panorama of Ha­wai‘i’s past and present is as provocative and substantial as touring Pearl Harbor or visiting ancient heiau.

Before descending, I take a last look at the shadow the volcano casts on the Gold Coast, a collection of homes and buildings huddled on the edge of Kapi‘olani Park. Though from this height Le‘ahi’s famous profile isn’t visible, the shadow traces what is no longer seen. Here, like Hawai‘i itself, the outside isn’t always what lies within. I don’t think I’ll ever look up at the brow of the ‘ahi and see the same thing again.

Photo: Douglas Peebles