I’m a Kailua girl, but these days you might not know it. Since moving to Honolulu (just a 30-minute drive but light years away), instead of days by the beach I seem to regularly stalk Diamond Head—the 300,000-year-old volcanic crater first given the name Lē‘ahi by Pele’s sister, Hi‘iaka, because it resembles the brow of the ‘ahi. I walk around it for exercise, drive by (and lose cell reception) en route to nearby Waikïkï Aquarium, use its color as a rainfall barometer, and can just spy it from my deck. I thought we should meet face-to-face.
My afternoon arrival at Diamond Head State Monument missed the peak hours and left a thinner crowd and ample crater-floor parking. Park Coordinator Yara Lamadrid-Rose told me earlier that a daily average of 2,100 paying visitors hike the historic Summit Trail. Open to visitors since 1978, it was built in 1908 during the crater’s 1906–1950 incarnation as Fort Ruger Military Reservation. The annual count has climbed steadily since tracking began, from 453,000 12 years ago to 750,000 in 2012.
“Diamond Head is the symbol of Hawai‘i more than any other—it’s on everybody’s to-do list,” Lamadrid-Rose explained. “While most park guests are visitors, about 20 percent are residents. It’s their exercise, their recharge. Some people run up and down the stairs every day. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”
The uncomfortable contradictions and alliances that have shaped the Islands throughout history hit hard.
From the crater floor, I could see only a few concrete pillboxes dotting the rim and, near the summit, the metal glint of the loop pathway added in March to improve visitor flow. That and the concrete sidewalk ahead reminded me this wouldn’t be a traditional nature hike, though a plot of fledgling native plants are a pleasant reminder that some naturally occurring native species, like ‘ilima and ma‘o, find refuge here.
In no time, the sidewalk gave way to the historic trail, framed by weathered metal safety railings and switchbacking 560 feet from the crater floor to the fire control station built inside the iconic apex. The snaking footpath is sturdy thanks to recent concrete stabilization work designed to mimic the original trail surface—a commendable balance of historical preservation and sustainability under a volume of use the initial builders, planning for man and mule traffic, never envisioned.
I passed several sets of hikers maintaining ant-like single file and paused occasionally to inspect houses swarming like fish over Honolulu’s distant ridges. After about 30 minutes, I approached the top and the new outdoor loop stairs—a glaring metal eyesore that saves 15 steps or so. (After the renovation, visitors will reach the outdoor observation deck the old way, up 99 steep concrete stairs, through a dark tunnel, and via a metal spiral staircase. They will use the new path to descend.)
Once on deck, the 360-degree view—from the Wai‘anae Mountains down the coast to Koko Head—was simply spectacular. I easily spotted competing icons like The Royal Hawaiian hotel and Waikïkï Shell, and quieter fixtures like La Pietra-Hawaii School for Girls, Diamond Head Lighthouse, and assorted surf spots. I snapped a Japanese couple’s photo, and even asked someone to take one of me, Waikïkï rising confidently in the background. Its powerful vista connected me to past and future generations, but standing atop this military construct and surrounded by tourists, the uncomfortable contradictions and alliances that have shaped the Islands throughout history also hit me hard.
I admit I’ve always considered this hike a perfunctory stop on visitors’ checklists, but as I watched the crater appear in my rearview mirror on my drive home, I realized it has provided a provocative and lasting window into Hawai‘i’s complex past and present. It’s much more than just another pretty view, and something every resident should do, if only once. LL
Written by Christine Thomas. Read the full story here at AAA Hawaii.
Diamond Head State Monument opens its gates 6 a.m.–6 p.m. year-round; the final trail entrance is at 4:30 p.m. Note that about 70 percent of the park’s guests visit from 8 a.m. to noon and the popularity of 6 a.m. Japanese sunrise tours. “If you come around 7 or 7:30, they’re on their way down and it’s nice and cool,” suggests Lamadrid-Rose. Allow about 90 minutes round-trip. Entry fees are $5 per car or $1 per pedestrian, cash only. hawaiistateparks.org/parks/oahu/index.cfm?park_id=15.
Stay where it all began at the oceanfront New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel, whose late ’70s management suggested guests hike the then–newly opened summit trail and collect a USGS marker rubbing. (808) 923-1555; kaimana.com. The 51-room Aqua Lotus Honolulu features impressive ocean and Diamond Head views, and complimentary beach cruisers perfect for biking the perimeter. (808) 922-1700; aqualotus.com. The Beaux-arts Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa first opened in 1901, and features a 108-year-old banyan tree. (808) 922-3111; moana-surfrider.com.
Walk makai to Diamond Head Market & Grill, where sinful house-made cakes and scones complement elevated plate lunches, breakfast, and dinner. (808) 732-0077; diamondheadmarket.com. Nearby South Shore Grill features fish tacos, hand-pattied burgers, and desserts. (808) 734-0229; southshoregrillhawaii.com. Near the zoo, paninis and picnic fare are ready and waiting at Tucker & Bevvy. (808) 732-0050; tuckerandbevvy.com
Written by Christine Thomas
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Veteran journalist Denby Fawcett published a superb new history and guide to Diamond Head.