Diamond Head crater is visible from many parts of Honolulu. Oahu Nature Tours
Enjoy fabulous new images added to this perennially popular active walking tour article!
By Alison Gardner
When I learned about a sunrise hike to the summit of Honolulu’s famous landmark, Diamond Head, I figured that was about as adventurous as I cared to get at six o’clock in the morning. I was familiar with the shape of this rugged little mountain, so often outlined in photos, postcards and movies featuring Waikiki and Honolulu, but I confess that I had no idea it is a classic example of a volcanic tuff cone nor that it is open for hiking between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day of the week.
Diamond Head’s natural walls once made it a popular cattle “corral”, quickly leading to the destruction of most native plants and trees. Now protected, re-introduced indigenous flora attracts many birds into the crater. Oahu Nature Tours
My guide, Lorraine, and I drove through the gates of Diamond Head State Monument and straight into the perfect circle of a clearly defined crater roughly 175 acres. A number of football games could be played simultaneously in this stadium! Named Le’ahi by the Hawaiians, archaeologists have identified five heiau‘s or sacred temples on the volcano, indicating that the area’s earlier residents were as impressed with the significance of this 300,000-year-old piece of geology as I fully expected to be.
Purchased in 1904 by the American government as a coastal defense outpost, several barracks buildings on the floor of the crater still bespeak a military presence, but not for long. Within two years not only will the National Guard and their structures have cleared out completely, but all parking will be moved outside the crater, with shuttle buses to the trailhead for those who want to save their stamina for the upward climb. Plans are afoot to return the area to a more natural state where low shrubs, native tree species and fragrant wild herbs will re-establish more of the dryland forest within this semi-arid mini-climate zone.
Yellow Hibiscus.Oahu Nature Tours
Introduced from South America in 1930, red crested cardinals add flashes of color to the crater. Oahu Nature Tours
Sketch courtesy of Dept. of Land & Natural Resources, Hawaii.
Upon arrival, Lorraine opened the back of her van to offer me a handful of energy bars, a large bottle of spring water on ice, a rain poncho, and a very solid-looking flashlight. I thought I was going on a brisk morning jaunt of 3/4 of a mile or a little over a kilometer each way. Was I missing something here?
Starting out from the crater parking lot at 200 feet above sea level, daypacks appropriately loaded and slung, we had a bit of a head start; however, the remaining 560 feet is not for the faint hearted nor the inappropriately dressed.
We set off on a relatively flat concrete path for the first bit, but then launched into an uneven dirt trail with numerous switchbacks originally designed for mule and foot traffic. My guide talked history and pointed out birds, plants, and other natural and geological specialties while I gratefully saved my breath for the climb.
Ninety-nine steps deliver a work-out on the way to the summit. Alison Gardner
Beware the Steps!
The pitch-black, 225-foot long tunnel, built in the 1940s, made me grateful for my flashlight, and the two staircases of 74 and 99 steps respectively put my body through the equivalent of a couple of step aerobics classes. We met one mid-life Honolulu resident who makes it a weekly Sunday morning ritual to briskly climb and descend the 99 concrete steps 20 times each way. Already on her fourteenth lap of the morning, I must say she looked bright-eyed and healthy, but I wondered what comment her knees would have if asked for a quote. I know what mine were saying with just one ascent!
A rewarding 360 degree view from the top includes Waikiki and beyond. Alison Gardner
The view from the top was worth every gasp, as the clear morning air brought sharply into focus a continuous ribbon of white sand beaches, several offshore islands, and a panorama of the city and its thickly forested backdrop leading into Oahu’s interior. Certainly no need of a rain poncho on this occasion. An earlier arrival, perched on a precarious ledge below a military fortification built in 1910, played a wistful melody on a silver flute, and somehow all seemed right with the world.
Dating from 1899, the Diamond Head Lighthouse is nestled on bench land below the crater lookout. Oahu Nature Tours
When we arrived back at the van, it was 8 a.m. and the day was still young. I clutched my signed certificate declaring that I had indeed climbed to the 763-foot summit of Le’ahi and experienced the soft sounds and early morning fragrance of Hawaii. Between the parking lot and the park gate just a few hundred yards back towards the big city skyscrapers, we counted five shiny white stretch limousines descending upon the crater stuffed with exclaiming Japanese tourists. I felt certain there was not an energy bar, a water bottle, or a pair of sturdy shoes among them. Odds are they would not be climbing to the summit on this excursion.
Follow Up Facts
Oahu Nature Tours, www.oahunaturetours.com, based in Honolulu specializes in small, guided tours to see Hawaii’s unique native bird and plant species. Its Sunrise Excursion, offered daily from 6 to 8 a.m., is US$24 including round trip transportation from your hotel, bottled water, use of a daypack, binoculars, and rain gear as required. Online reservations get 15% discount. The same tour is offered daily, 9:30 a.m. to noon. Tel: (808) 924-2473.
Other alternatives include taking a city bus to the park gate and walking into the crater or self-driving.
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Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine. Email: email@example.com