Denby Fawcett has been in Diamond Head crater more times than she can count and lived alongside the iconic tuff cone for 60-plus years. Sunrises to sunsets, she’s watched its flanks brushed pink, orange and blue in the day’s changing light.
She’s also seen it transform from an off-limits military property into one of Oahu’s most popular tourist attractions.
Anchoring the easternmost edge of Waikiki’s coastline, the profile of Diamond Head is unmistakable. From any high point, residents and visitors alike can immediately orient themselves when they see the arching face of the crater, a sharp contrast to glittering skyscrapers.
“I’ve always lived near Diamond Head,” Fawcett said. As a child, “I lived on Kahala Avenue but you couldn’t get in then because it was military so it was restricted but we were always curious, trying to sneak inside. I even tried to get in on my horse. I thought that that would so astound them and they would say ‘OK’ and let me in.”
But the guards were not impressed and Fawcett and her horse were sent home without seeing the inside of the crater. She’d have to wait another 24 years.
In 1978, Diamond Head fully opened to the public and Fawcett, sans horse, entered through the main tunnel for the first time. But the crater had many visitors before then, its history a narrative of human use and abuse.
Diamond Head was created within a few days 400,000-500,000 years ago during one of the final outbursts of Ko’olau volcano. Its soil is volcanic ash, rock and coral.
Native Hawaiians built heiaus — monuments to the gods — including Kamehameha I’s temple Papa’ena’ena, on its slopes. The name “Diamond Head” is said to have come from British sailors who thought crystals glittering in the cone’s ashy soil looked like diamonds.
It’s been the site of wars and rock ‘n’ roll concerts. In 1895, a battle was waged on Diamond Head by a group hoping to restore the throne to Lili’uokalani. From 1969 to 1974, the crater was occasionally opened for music events.
“It’s kind of seen everything, like the Sphinx of Cairo watching all these wars and things,” Fawcett said. “It’s quiet, but if it could talk, oh the stories you would hear.”
Enamored with the sloped giant in her backyard, Fawcett, went to work three years ago writing “Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide.”
A veteran journalist who wrote for the Honolulu Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin and then moved to broadcast news with KITV, Fawcett, has been telling stories for more than 40 years. Se currently writes a weekly column for Civil Beat.
She reported from Vietnam as a war correspondent for the Advertiser and in 2002 co-authored a book, “War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam,” about her experience as one of a handful of females covering the war.
“Secrets of Diamond Head” was published this year and traces the history of the landmark from its geological birth to its present-day status as one of Oahu’s most iconic places.
“I didn’t know much about it myself, I just knew the outside and the inside but I didn’t know all of the hidden parts of it, like there are more than 20 caves in there that are man-made,” Fawcett said. ” There are caves for search lights, there are military switchboards in there.”
While writing the book, Fawcett hiked Diamond Head every day to reconnect with the place.
Returning one recent morning, she pointed out some of the changes she’s seen over the years.
“When I first started hiking here you would see maybe one other person on the trail,” Fawcett said.
Today the park bustles from the moment it opens at 6 a.m. The parking lot inside the crater is usually full, creating a line of rental cars that idle with AC blasting and eager and impatient faces inside, eyes fixed on the summit, $5 dollars for the parking fee in hand as they wait for a spot.
Tourists’ habits have changed over the years, Fawcett said. They used to hole up in Waikiki, swimming, sunbathing and shopping, but now they are getting out and seeing more of the island, including Diamond Head.
“When I was young the tourists would just stay in Waikiki, now they want to go everywhere that we go,” Fawcett said.
At 7 a.m. the parking lot was nearly full. Fawcett found a spot between two large tour vans. At a newly erected visitor center, tourists stood in a self-imposed line waiting to take pictures next to the Diamond Head State Monument sign.
Fawcett pointed out the wooden sign’s fresh paint. Repainting is a common chore because of all the hands that touch it, dulling the color.
The trail begins wide but narrows with switchbacks up the side of the crater. By the time hikers begin the 99 steps up a narrow corridor to the summit, it’s hard not to feel like a spawning salmon stuck in a pinch point on the river.
“The big change is the hoards of people coming in,” Fawcett said. “You have to kind of steel yourself when you’re hiking here sometimes. It’s like being in Manhattan at Christmastime.”
The path has been enlarged, though it is still snug in most places, only allowing two abreast.
“The trail is wider and more wrecked,” Fawcett said, passing a group of tourists who had stopped to lean against the rails and take pictures to document their slow journey on a trail that is less than a mile in length.
Sealants have been added to prevent degradation of the fine dirt, though much of that has worn off. In some places, especially near the summit, the trail has been reinforced with cement.
The main tunnel running between the two large sets of steps — one of 74 and the other 99 — is now illuminated by low sidelights. Fawcett remembers when the tunnel was dark, making it more of an adventure.
“You have to kind of steel yourself when you’re hiking here sometimes. It’s like being in Manhattan at Christmastime.” — Denby Fawcett
Near the summit, visitors traverse two spiral staircases that lead to the final tunnel ending on the southern ridge of Diamond Head. It used to be that this tunnel was closed off and visitors had to go up a straight ladder, now blocked by a barred metal gate, that led to a small square opening to the observation station at the top.
“It was really scary,” Fawcett said, reminiscing about her days frightfully gripping each rung of the vertical ladder to reach the summit. The rickety and rusted ladder can still be seen through openings in the gate.
Emerging from the tunnel and ascending the final steps, people crowd the lookout point that offers a bird’s eye view of Waikiki. Cameras, iPhones and iPads fill the air as visitors try to capture a piece of the Diamond Head perspective.
At the summit, 761 feet above sea level, Fawcett pointed out other military infrastructure, terminals of unseen and inaccessible tunnels.
“So much of what you see is just this trail,” Fawcett said. “There are many tunnels you can’t access.”
While researching the book, Fawcett gained access to some of the restricted areas, including tunnels filled with military artifacts. In one, she saw a box filled with body tags.
“I saw them and asked if I could have some. I thought they would be good gift tags,” she said with a laugh.
She’s shining some light on childhood mysteries growing up in the shadow of the forbidden crater.
As a young girl she remembers seeing the concrete emplacements for a coast artillery battery; guns that used to protrude from the neighborhood now known as Papu Circle on Black Point, poised and ready to fire at foreign ships should they threaten Hawaii.
“They used to be sticking out, right in my neighborhood, two huge pieces of artillery and I used to come up here to collect centipedes, because it’s so dry up there, to take to my science class,” Fawcett said.
As the military presence on Diamond Head waned, structures were dismantled, including the guns.
“Nobody ever knew what happened to those emplacements, they knew the guns were sold for scrap metal (in 1946) and a big ritzy subdivision goes up there, so the best thing was finding them.”
Fawcett did what any life-long journalist would do: She started asking questions.
“I called around and asked, does anyone have two big holes in their yard?” she said.
Eventually, she found a homeowner who reported that he had a large circular hole on his property. It was the emplacement pit for one of the big artillery pieces from the 1930s. His family had turned the artillery emplacement into a swimming pool.
From a kid digging for centipedes to an author mining for answers to childhood mysteries, Denby has lived through a tumultuous period of change for Diamond Head. Now she’s documented these changes and her relationship to the landmark.
“Diamond Head is rock-solid simple but it has mirrored every period of history,” she said. “That’s the fun part about it, having it uncovered layer by layer by layer.”