Diamond Head. (Photo courtesy of Adam Sparks)

The name glistens, the landmark beckons: Diamond Head. Ancient Hawaiians lit fires at its peak, a guide for canoe voyagers. They called the crater Leahi or wreath of fire. Then, 300 years ago, Western explorers mistook calcite crystals for pricier bling, hence the famous name for the prominent peak that rises toward the sky at the far end of Waikiki. In the early 1900’s, the military claimed the area as a site for coastal defense, creating the paths, tunnels and stairs that are part of the terrain today.

I once shot up Diamond Head several times a week before sunrise and relished the calm solitude. As the years brought increasing crowds to the historic area, I found myself frequenting less populated haunts. On a recent morning, it had been so long since I visited the area that I’m surprised to find a newly paved parking lot with many additional stalls. I arrive right at sunrise, in unison with several tour buses. A swell of bodies pours out onto the trail, infrequent trekkers, checking off their Hawaii to-do list.

I charge briskly along and folks taking photos or questioning whether they’re “almost there” allow me to pass, with pleasant nods, smiles and “good mornings.” Sometimes I stop and offer to take photos of the various groups, and suddenly I find myself falling in love with the place anew. All around me, fresh veins course with excitement, with curiosity, with the novelty of the mini adventure.

The ascent is quick and steep, spotted with rewarding lookout points offering views of the inner crater and Hawaii’s moody mountain backdrop, the lush Ko’olau peaks, the very range responsible for hoarding all the clouds and moisture, leaving Diamond Head parched. Even at this early hour, the path is dusty and the heat encroaching.

After a series of switchbacks, I reach the exciting part of the trail. First, is a set of 74 steps, then a long tunnel that used to be pitch black, but is now dimly lit. Then comes the 99-step whopper. It’s the infamous stretch that I used to run up and down twice in between my classes at Kapiolani Community College, which sits just at the base of Diamond Head. I would wobble back to class, my knees two little knobs of rubber. Today, the pounding of my heart is palpable and I haven’t even taken the first step. My embarrassment lessens when I realize those around me are equally flustered by the quick climb in altitude.

A spiral staircase and a straight-up metal staircase further and I’ve reached the summit. It’s packed shoulder-to-shoulder, a solid mass of bodies, but smiles abound as cameras click away at these fantastic heights overlooking crystal blue shores that reach out toward the cluster of high rises that make up Waikiki.

At the top, I discover a new, paved loop that guides the crowds along the crater rim and leads around and down back toward the tunnel, easing foot traffic congestion. With folks congregated at the top, it’s an easy run down the beloved Hawaii icon.

TRAIL: Diamond Head Summit Trail
LENGTH: 1.5 miles round trip
HOW TO GET THERE: From Waikiki, take Kalakaua Avenue and continue straight as it becomes Diamond Head Road. Stay on the road and follow signs for Diamond Head State Monument. The entrance to the crater will be on the left.