Catherine Toth Fox: Scheduling Visitors Won't Protect Our Natural Treasures But Respect Will - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Tourists aren’t the sole cause of overcrowded scenic attractions, residents need to take responsibility as well.

As a travel writer — and one who likes to hike — I tell people the best way to experience a new country or neighborhood is on foot. Not only is there less impact on the environment, but walking and hiking forces you to slow down, look around and appreciate the place — which is why we travel in the first place.

When I was in Costa Rica, I hiked around 5,357-foot Arenal Volcano, surrounded by palm trees, ferns and howler monkeys. In Japan I walked through thousands of vermilion torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine and into a wooded forest to Mount Inari.

And in New Zealand, I trekked along the 12-mile Tongariro Alpine Crossing, across desolate volcanic landscapes and passed green- and blue-hued acidic lakes sacred to the Maori people.

All three of these hikes taught me something about the place — and none of them required an advanced reservation or fee.

Balancing public access, crowds and safety has been an ongoing and complicated problem in Hawaii. Over 10 years ago, Kailua residents convinced the City Council to ban all commercial activity at Kailua and Kalama beach parks after they complained about kayak rental companies taking over parts of the beach without permits or regulations. Today, both beaches are noticeably less crowded.

In December 2020, during a decline in visitors due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve reopened to the public with a daily visit limit — 720, compared to the roughly 3,000 visitors a day — managed by an online reservation system. Fees for nonresidents are $25 per person. Early research showed the health of the bay improved during the statewide shutdown, proving that fewer people have less environmental impact.

And in an effort to ease overcrowding, the state implemented a similar reservation system for hikers to the popular Diamond Head trail in May 2022. Out-of-state visitors are now required to make reservations online and pay $5 per person to enter the Diamond Head State Monument.

State personnel check whether arriving tourists have reservations through the new system.
State personnel check whether arriving tourists have reservations for entrance to Diamond Head State Monument. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2022)

Similar requirements have been implemented at Haleakala National Park on Maui (for sunrise viewing), Haena State Park on Kauai, Waianapanapa State Park on Maui and, most recently, at Iao Valley State Monument on Maui, which reopened on May 1 after a nine-month closure.

In all these scenarios, Hawaii residents — with a valid ID — are not required to make reservations or pay an entrance fee.

Right now there’s talk about requiring reservations to hike other popular Hawaii trails, including Kaiwa Ridge Trail, otherwise known as the Lanikai Pillbox Trail. This comes after the death of a 68-year-old visitor from Maryland who fell roughly 40 feet from the trail last month. According to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, this is the first recorded death on this trail. (The following day another hiker, a 62-year-old woman, was rescued by firefighters after falling and injuring her face, back and shoulder.)

“The Division of Forestry and Wildlife is looking into reservations systems for trails similar to the one used by state parks on Diamond Head,” says Aaron Lowe, DLNR trails and access specialist. “It is too early to tell what trails this system will be used for. However, trails with high use will most likely be targeted for the new system.”

It’s easy for me — a fourth-generation resident of the Islands — to support the limiting of visitors on our trails. Who wouldn’t want our state-run trails — Kuliouou Ridge, Makapuu Lighthouse, Manoa Falls — less crowded, especially with tourists?

Trust me, I get it. I get frustrated, too, looking for parking at trailheads, waiting behind groups of Instagram-posting hikers, listening to music blaring from portable speakers. I’m tired of hearing about hikers needing to be rescued because they’ve wandered off marked trails or pushed themselves beyond their physical abilities.

But those aren’t always visitors. Residents have to take responsibility, too. We need to follow state rules, stay on trails, wear the right shoes, be respectful of other hikers, the people who live near these trails and the place itself.

When we travel, we’re tourists, too. I would hate to be turned away from a hiking trail because I wasn’t able to book reservations in advance — or I didn’t know I had to. (Try logging onto the reservation portal for Hanauma Bay after 8 a.m. You won’t get a slot.)

Reservations to hike a trail like the one at Kaiwa Ridge/Lanikai Pillbox Trail won’t keep people safe, but it will likely control overcrowding. (Catherine Toth Fox/Civil Beat/2023)

To me, reservations to hike a trail aren’t going to keep people safe. Yes, it will likely reduce crowds, especially on trails that are popular with visitors. But hiking, in itself, can be dangerous. Even the most experienced trekker can fall off a ledge or break her leg. People need to know — and respect — the dangers of any outdoor activity in Hawaii.

Lifeguards post warning signs about high surf and box jellyfish, but they’re also staffed at beaches to stop you from making poor choices — and to save you if you do. Many trails have signs that warn of dangers, including at Olomana Trail listing the people who have recently died there. But there’s no one posted at trailheads to stop you from venturing off marked paths or trespassing onto private property.

Where reservations make sense is in the effort to reduce impact on the natural environment and cultural resources in an area. This is the argument for Makena State Park on Maui. The state is planning to look into ways to better control the influx of tourists and managing parking problems at this popular 165-acre state park which sees an estimated half-million visitors a year.

There are a lot of state parks across the U.S. that require some kind of reservation or charge a fee at least for parking. California for example doesn’t charge hikers who access its state parks on foot but there’s a parking fee for cars. In Washington State a Discover Pass (annual is $30, day pass is $10) is required for vehicles to access state-managed parks and recreation areas. And several national parks — including Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Arches National Park in Utah and Olympic National Park in Washington State — require some kind of advance reservations now.

The state is gearing up to renovate and improve the Kaiwi Ridge Trail, then transfer management to the Na Ala Hele Trails and Access Program.

Lowe acknowledges that misinformation about trails — especially found online — is a “big problem statewide.”

Reservation requirements won’t keep people safe. That’s our own responsibility. But they’ll likely reduce the impact of millions of people treading on Hawaii’s natural environment. But we need to be careful about how much of our Islands we restrict to visitors. Many residents are here because they visited once, too, and probably hiked to the top of Diamond Head or lounged on a Maui beach.

The real problem is a lack of respect — for the land, for resources, for rules, for communities, for each other. And that’s something the government can’t fix on its own.

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Now all the author has to do is tell us how to teach people to respect the land, resources, rules, communities, and each other.

sleepingdog · 4 months ago

The problem is you can’t legislate respect and there are foments of other ways to manage natural resources and their destinations beyond registration for tourists. The motivation to actually get things done and not disappoint the tourism lobby is the issue. The mechanism itself should not be pricing in of itself but controlling visitor numbers. More people equals more environmental degradation.

NoLongerInHawaii · 4 months ago

Scheduling visitors will limit the number of people going to natural treasures, which will limit the damage done. The entirety of Hawaii is a natural treasure. Limiting the exposure of natural treasures is a good thing because the number of disrespectful will increase if you don't.

Fred_Garvin · 4 months ago

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