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Tips for Hiking Diamond Head

June 30, 2019
11 min read
Aerial of Honolulu Hawaii Beyond Diamond Head
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It sits there, unmistakably dominating the southeast end of Waikiki Beach. You can't miss it. Even the greenest malihini, (aka newcomer to Hawaii,) knows its name: Diamond Head. It serves as a natural backdrop, rising abruptly 760 feet above the warm, translucent emerald green water, the sun-soaked sand, the surfers, swimmers, walkers, waders and sunbathers. The sun will rise over it each morning and cast it in a warming glow as the day is winding down and the sun is sliding behind the historic beachfront hotels. And there's the thing, Diamond Head is not only impressive and easily recognizable, it is accessible from the plethora of Waikiki resorts.

Diamond Head (Photo by Buddy Smith)

Hiking Diamond Head can universally be found on most visitors' to-do checklists when they are visiting O'ahu and especially those staying in the Honolulu/Waikiki area. It is part of the total package experience -- Diamond Head, shave ice, Pearl Harbor, surf lessons. In fact, close to one million travelers annually visit the Diamond Head State Monument with a daily average of 2,500 to 3,000 choosing to make the hike to the top. We were excitedly among that number on our recent visit to the Hawaiian Islands.

Related: Mommy Points Guide to 3 Weeks in Hawaii With Miles and Points

Diamond Head Logistics

If you have a rental car in the Waikiki area, the drive is easy and quick. Honolulu's transit system (The Bus) offers a regularly scheduled bus #23 that serves the area with pickups from many popular locations. The bus will stop just past 18th Avenue and a 10–15 minute walk will be required from there. Many choose to walk the hour or so from Waikiki or use Uber/Lyft, though we drove. All methods of entry take you through the Kahala Tunnel that goes through the eastern wall of the crater. The entrance fee is $5 per car or $1 per individual walk-in -- all paid in cash. Once you have arrived at the site, you are on the floor of the crater and only yards from the base of the 0.8 mile trail.

The state park opens its gates at 6am and closes them at 6pm, with the last hikers allowed up at 4:30pm. If you have an interest in catching a sunrise or sunset at the top of Diamond Head, the hours of access to the trail greatly limit such opportunities. It is logistically possible to catch a sunrise from the top of Diamond Head in the late fall and winter when the sun rises later but sunsets never seem to fit the operational schedule. There is parking within the park but the lot can and does regularly get full, especially early in the day. Additional parking is available below the entrance tunnel on Diamond Head Road.

The Hike Up

The trail follows the original 1908 route that was constructed for military reasons when Diamond Head was used as an observation point as part of the island's coastal defense system. You will pass several of the century-old concrete pillboxes on the route, and at the peak of the climb, you will be in and on top of the abandoned fire control station.

Beginning of the trail (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

It all starts simply enough on a concrete sidewalk with a gradual but steady climb. After about 350 yards, the natural trail begins with a more pronounced slope and winds its way up the interior side of the crater through a series of switchbacks. There are some uneven sections along the way that you need to pay attention, along with several benches are strategically placed to accommodate those wishing to rest for a few moments. Slightly more than halfway up and just before you encounter the first section of stairs, you come upon an overlook that allows a view into the crater and to the ocean beyond.

This concrete platform was originally an unloading area for supplies that were hoisted from the ground via cable and a winch that is still moored in its original position.

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Next comes the first section of concrete stairs: 74 steps at a significant incline. If you ever did "stairs" as an athlete, you might have flashbacks as you make this part of the climb -- 71, 72, 73, 74 and then you enter a 225-foot tunnel that is somewhat narrow with a moderately low ceiling. The tunnel is lit, but dimly.

The walk through the tunnel is relatively flat, but a 99-step staircase awaits your exit. A rest stop is near the base of the stairs so you can ponder the challenge ahead and wonder why you aren't just laying out by the beach.

Before long, and with a slight thigh burn, you have entered another tunnel that is the bottom floor of the four-story underground fire-control station. Soldiers originally used ladders to go up and down but a spiral staircase is now in place to facilitate your final ascent to the top.

If you go all the way up the spiral, you will climb out of the observation bunker to the open air and a last set of steps to the top of Diamond Head. There, with the other visitors, you will have awesome 360-degree views of the city, the beaches, the ocean, the crater, the hillsides and the lighthouse.

Photo by Buddy Smith

We started our hike around 3:30pm and encountered only minimal traffic on the trail. At the top, we shared the experience and the vista with about 30 fellow hikers with a few more at a separate lookout below. I would estimate we were at, or near the summit, for about a half-hour taking photos and just observing. OK, and perhaps resting a bit -- it was a warm day, even for Hawaii.

Photo by Buddy Smith

The Descent Down

There is a suggested loop down from the top that avoids descending back through the concrete bunker, the spiral staircase, the top tunnel and the 99-step stairs. It intersects with the trail at the bottom of the longest set of stairs and the top of the 225-foot tunnel. This is done primarily to promote a logical flow and to prevent overcrowding in some of the narrowest passageways. Logic forces me to acknowledge that, if one was looking for the easiest way to the top, the above-mentioned down loop could be taken upward to circumvent the 99 steps, the spiral staircase and the somewhat awkward exit from the concrete fire-control station.

Concessions and Other On-Site Facilities

The hike back to the bottom was, as expected, easy and stress free. Our total round-trip time was an unhurried 90 minutes. Awaiting at the base was a food truck that specialized in Hawaiian-esque foods and treats. We opted for a shave ice, but a nearby couple had an acai bowl that looked ridiculously good.

Also at the base of the crater, there is a visitor center (open 7am - 3:30pm) and restroom facility. The visitor center can provide you with information such as the history of the crater -- it was formed after a volcanic explosion about 300,000 years ago and the extra height on the hiking side was because of the prevailing winds that dropped more ash and material on the southwest flank.

You can also learn the origin of the crater's name: Native Hawaiians called it Le'ahi because the distinct top of the crater resembles "the brow of a tuna." The name Diamond Head came about later as Western explorers thought shiny calcite crystals found on the slopes were diamonds.

Who Can Hike Diamond Head?

Our party of three consisted of a 9-year-old, 38-year-old and 70-year-old. We thought the hike was of moderate difficulty as it does rise 560 feet in elevation over a relatively short span. But, it is so doable by anyone in modest physical condition, assuming their mobility permits for stairs and somewhat loose terrain at times. It is more than a walk around the block to be sure, but far less than a final prep for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail that traverses Washington, Oregon and California. Mommy Points doesn't recommend the hike for kids under school-aged unless they are used to this sort of activity or are young enough to be worn in a carrier.

Good shoes are suggested, as is sunscreen and a bottle of water for each hiker. During the most popular times, the trail can get congested and there are some that use the hike as a natural outdoor treadmill and are looking for available passing lanes to quicken their heart rate on their way to the top, so be on the lookout. Pets are not allowed, except for service animals, and strollers are not permitted -- nor what they be remotely feasible with all the stairs. The park amenities at the floor of the crater are available for those with mobility limitations but the hiking trail is not ADA accessible because of the steep stairs and uneven conditions.

Bottom Line

We are glad we made the iconic hike to Diamond Head. It posed enough of a challenge to be interesting and you feel a sense of accomplishment as you stand at the top of the crater's jagged rim. The diversity of the climb -- with the intermix of a traditional trail, extended flights of stairs, tunnels and concrete bunkers -- distinguishes this hike from most others. The views were rewarding and beautiful and if asked in the future, if we hiked Diamond Head, we can proudly and happily respond, "Yes, we did!"

Looking for more Hawaii trip advice? Here it is:

Featured image by Getty Images
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