Hawaii: Diamond Head offers spectacular views of Honolulu and Waikiki

The peak of Diamond Head is the fire control station, considered an engineering marvel when it was built a century ago. It was constructed to resemble a natural outcropping. Wyatt Olson/Stars and Stripes

Hawaii: Diamond Head offers spectacular views of Honolulu and Waikiki

by: Wyatt Olson
Stars and Stripes
published: May 29, 2014
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After about four days of lying on the soothing sands of Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach, you might feel a yearning to get up and stretch your legs.

If so, look to your left and in the distance soars the wall of the Diamond Head volcanic crater. In about an hour, you could be standing atop its crest looking down on all of Honolulu.

OK, make that two hours because you can never be sure whether Oahu’s infamous traffic might slow your journey to the entrance of Diamond Head State Monument. But once you’re standing on the crater floor, the just-less-than-1-mile hike up Diamond Head Summit Trail is surprisingly quick and, except for a couple sets of grueling staircases, fairly easy.

The crater was formed about 300,000 years ago in what is believed to have been a single, massive eruption. Because the sea level was high at the time, it quickly cooled the volcano, leaving its distinctive full-circle wall intact.

In ancient times, early Hawaiians built five heiau, or places of worship, on and around the crater. The heiau that was on the peak is believed to have been dedicated to the god of wind.

The U.S. government bought the roughly 700 acres holding Diamond Head — so named because early European explorers mistook calcite crystals for diamonds — for $3,300 in 1905. The trail to the summit was built in 1908 as part of Oahu’s defense system. During the decade after purchasing it, the government developed Fort Ruger on the site, which was part of the U.S. Army Coastal Artillery defense system.

Two of the fort’s batteries — Harlow on the north slope and Birkhimer on the crater floor — were designed to fire toward ships at sea. Others faced the east and north to prevent land-based attacks.

A friend and I made the hike to the top on a recent Sunday, first driving a car through Kahala Tunnel, the one public road into the crater.

It was then we realized the first of two big mistakes of the day: The tiny parking lot was full. We’d gotten a late start and it was almost midday, but the lot holds so few cars that it would be unwise to depend on parking there even if you arrive in time for the park’s 6 a.m. opening.

We parked for free outside the crater, walked the half-mile to the trailhead ticket booth and paid our admission fee. Most climbers arrived by trolley bus or taxi, and many cabs waited near the entrance for fares.

The trail is a single path for most of the climb, but as you near the ridge it becomes a loop. The small park that surrounds the beginning of the path is dotted with picnic tables for eating before or after the hike.

The semi-arid climate and rocky soil make the landscape anything but lush. You have to feel sorry for the twisted trees beside the path, many half-dead from thirst under a beating sun and absence of breeze on the crater’s floor.

This highlights the second mistake of the day: lack of water. Sure, on the scale of hiking peaks around the world, the 761-foot-tall Diamond Head is a snap. But there’s nowhere to get water on the trail, so bring more than what you think you’ll need, particularly if the sun is blazing. Our water was gone before we got halfway up, and even though the round trip took only a couple of hours, it seemed longer without enough to drink.

By the time we reached a concrete landing just before the ridge loop, we felt the ocean breezes kick in. The landing anchors a cable-and-winch system that has been used to lift building materials to the ridge, although it looks abandoned now.

After a steep set of stairs, we reached a dimly lit 225-foot-long tunnel that led to the bottom of the peak holding the vacant remains of a fire control station built 100 years ago. We still had to climb another 100 steps and a spiral staircase to reach the interior of the station.

The station was once used to direct artillery fire from several batteries in the Waikiki area. Built in four levels and camouflaged to mimic a volcanic outcropping, the fire station was considered an engineering marvel in its day — but no artillery was ever fired during wartime from Diamond Head batteries.

Today, the station is used only as a perch for the thousands of hikers who reach the peak, crowding the station’s concrete top to snap photos of the Honolulu skyline, Waikiki Beach and the Pacific Ocean.

It’s a blast — the only one left here.

olson.wyatt@stripes.com

DIRECTIONS: Entry is through Kahala Tunnel off Diamond Head Road between Makapu’u Avenue and 18th Avenue, Honolulu.

TIMES: Hours are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Hikes are not allowed to begin past 4:30 p.m.

COSTS: Admission $1 per person, $5 per vehicle.

FOOD: Restrooms and vending machine beverages available at trailhead.

INFORMATION: Pets, camping and biking not allowed.

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