Travel Log: A Diamond in the Rough

Ala Moana Park

(Niceville, Florida; Apr. 27, 2018) Hi’iaka (“he-ee ah-ka”) was the younger sister of Pele, the goddess of volcanoes. As these divine siblings searched for a permanent home, they crossed many islands. On one, which would eventually be known as the “Gathering Place,” they saw a circular mountain on a prominent headland that, when viewed from the side, resembled the lae (brow) of the ahi (tuna). Hi’iaka named the moutnain Leahi (“Lay-ah-hee”).

Later, when western explorers first sighted the island called Oahu (“the Gathering Place”), they were amazed as the sands around Leahi glittered liked diamonds; in fact those first western explorers thought they were looking at diamonds. On their charts they named this unique mountain Diamond Head.

Those British sailors in the 19th century were mistaken. There are no diamonds; calcite crystals in the sands create the glittering effect. But the British had inadvertently created a name that would become famous around the world, so famous in fact it’s nearly a synonym for Hawai’i itself.

Diamond Head, Punchbowl, Koko Crater, Hanauma Bay, Ulupa’U, and Manana Island (also called Rabbit Island) are not necessarily true volcanoes. These small craters are believed by many geologists to be vents of the gigantic Ko’olau volcano that forms the entire eastern half of Oahu (similarly the massive Waiʻanae volcano forms Oahu’s western half). Less that half of each of these giant caldera walls remain. Much of Wai’anae has been lost to erosion, but Ko’olau suffered a catastrophic collapse about 1.5 millions years ago or so that sent nearly half of the island crashing over a 100 miles northeastward into the Pacific.

Diamond Head has been unusually green this year due to the excessive amount of rain Oahu has received this spring. (Nathanael Miller, 24 April 2018)

Around 700,000 years ago the Ko’olau volcano roared to life again. It blurped and belched and exploded until about 30,000 years ago during a sequence of eruptions known as the Honolulu series. During these eruptions, explosive events formed the world-famous landmarks we know today—Koko Crater, Punchbowl, Diamond Head, and many other features. Diamond Head itself is about 300,000 years old and today stands 761 feet above sea level. It is a nearly perfect circular crater 3, 520 feet in diameter—another feature attesting to its rather speedy creation as the result of debris falling back to the earth after an explosive event creating a tuff cone. Tuff cones are rather erosion-prone, and Diamond Head’s lost an estimated 100 feet off its height since it formed (so go see it quick—it’s only going to be there for another few hundred thousand years!).

As big as Diamond Head and Punchbowl seem, think of how small they are when set next to the gigantic Ko’olau monster that forms half of the island. When compared to the staggering power of the ancient Ko’olau volcano…Diamond Head’s eruption was tiny indeed. Based on geologic research, it’s believed Diamond Head formed in one single blast.

Diamond Head has played a large role in Oahu’s history. Long, long ago a heiau (“hey-ee-ow”, an ancient Hawaiian temple) occupied the summit. The U.S. military built a spotting post at the summit to direct coastal defense guns while using the crater floor as a firing range. Finally, the tourist age took off and Diamond Head’s unique silhouette became the volcanic face of the Hawaiian islands.

Today a state park exists inside the crater, and offers access to a somewhat short, but very intense, hiking trail to the summit. Visitors only climb a little under 500 feet, but the path is steep, narrow, highly uneven, and, during the peak climbing hours, crowded. There is a $1.00 admission for pedestrians who walk into the park, and a $5.00 parking fee for cars (these fees are cash only). To get to the park you’ll drive (or walk) through a tunnel that pierces the crater wall and emerge into a land both rolling and flat—the crater floor. The only restroom facilities are at the trail head, so go before you climb! It gets crowded quick, and parking is limited. Go early or go late, but avoid peak hours.

Climbing Diamond Head
You can get an idea of the steep grade and and narrow trail up Diamond Head from this image that shows three levels and two switch-backs all in one view.  (Nathanael Miller, 18 Apr. 2018)

On April 18th, my dad and I decided on a whim to climb Diamond Head after meeting with our family’s financial advisor (part of ensuring the trusts that care for my grandmother and elderly cousin remain solvent). Pop’s done it before when my brother was stationed at Hickam, and he wanted to show me the view. The park closes at 6:00, but the gate closes to climbers at 4:30 to make sure everyone is down and gone by 6:00. Pop and I made it through the standard Honolulu gridlock traffic and paid our $5.00 right at 4:00 p.m.

Hikers are advised to take water and be ready for a round-trip hike of one-and-a-half to two hours. My dad and I did the entire round trip hike (including time at the summit to look around and be amazed) in one hour and fifteen minutes. Even when I wasn’t stopping to take photos, I had a bloody damned hard time keeping up with pop. He is a speedy little devil on level ground, and it turns out that speed is not diminished climbing a trail that averages a 6.3% grade over uneven ground.

Oh, did I mention my pop is 75 years old?

I really want to be like him when I grow up!

Climbing Diamond Head
Seen from the summit of Diamond past another World War II-era pillbox, Honolulu basks in the afternoon sun.  Punchbowl crater, home of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, can be seen just beyond the city.  (Nathanael Miller, 18 April 2018)

The trail is very narrow, so watch you footing. You’ll get a very up-close and personal look the geology of the while also climbing through the Army’s old lookout post system as you make your way to the top. The hikers you’ll encountered will be a very motley and courteous lot. Pop and I met Japanese and Koreans, French and Germans, Australians and plenty of Americans. As a rule the crowds made way for small children or parents carrying babies in slings (and by making way I mean pressing themselves into the rock face to make room). No one pushed or shoved, and the crowd had a jovial, humorous and friendly demeanor going up and coming down.

Once at the summit, you’ll see southern Oahu in a way that is certainly not in many tourist brochures! Look northwest for a stunning bird’s eye view of Honolulu that goes almost all the way to Pearl Harbor. You’ll be able to see Punchbowl crater and the walls of the Ko’olau Range. Turn east-northeast and you’ll see Koko Crater rising up past the ridge that hides Hanauma Bay. If you’re very lucky, you’ll witness a rainstorm come out of the valleys and perhaps give you a rainbow arcing across the island into the Pacific. It is an advanced hike due to the ground and grade, but it is worth it!

Eons have passed since Pele and Hi’iaka crossed the Hawaiian islands, but Diamond Head (or Leahi) has been enchanting visitors to the Gathering Place ever since. Take the time to enter the crater and climb to the head of this jewel of the Pacific. You’ll experience Hawai’i in a way few visitors ever do!

Climbing Diamond Head
This multi-image composite panorama shows Koko Crater rising in the distance past a rainbow arcing into the Pacific.  (Digital illustration by Nathanael Miller, 18 April 2018)

Attraction information:

Diamond Head State Monument:

History of Diamond Head:

A story of Pele and Hi’iaka:

Another story of Pele and Hi’iaka:

Another version of the story of Pele and Diamond Head:

Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

Instagram: @sparks1524


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