Denby Fawcett: Diamond Head's Reservation System Has Led To Fewer Rescues On The Trail - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

While booking a slot online, tourists also get a warning about the challenges of hiking up the crater in an effort to better prepare them.

I remember the chaos on the day the state launched its new plan to require tourists to make reservations before they could enter the Diamond Head State Monument.

It was May 12, 2022. Hundreds of out-of-towners were turned away because they lacked the requisite reservations. That left many of them furious, disappointed or both.

Critics said the new system would never work. Carefree tourists would balk at the hassle of having to make reservations coupled with the $5 per person fee to enter the crater and an additional $10 to park, they said.

Flash forward 14 months. State parks deputy administrator Alan Carpenter says he is surprised at how quickly people adapted to the new rules. Local residents may still enter the Diamond Head State Monument at any time during opening hours for free and without a reservation.

Besides alleviating crowding on the Diamond Head trail, there has been an unexpected benefit from the reservations system. Fewer hikers today need to be rescued and treated for medical emergencies.

The State Parks Division launched the reservations system to relieve a crowding problem that had become unmanageable with thousands of hikers showing up each day — many ill-prepared — bunched like ants as they inched their way to the top of the famous volcanic feature.

Park managers vowed never again to allow a day like Dec. 27, 2019, when 6,000 visitors crowded into the crater at the same time. “It was a human disaster. It simply won’t ever happen again,” says Carpenter.

Local residents had stopped coming to the crater, fed up with the mobs of people, the lines of cars waiting to enter and the lack of parking spaces when they got in.

Diamond Head State Monument state parks hiking reservations reservation system
Many signs line the road into the crater to warn out-of-town visitors they must have a reservation to enter the Diamond Head State Monument. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

The parks division says the reservations system at Diamond Head State Monument has been so successful it is looking at imposing the same requirement in at least three other state parks.

In the first year of the reservation system, Honolulu Emergency Medical Services statistics show about 50% fewer hikers on the Diamond Head trail needed emergency care compared with the year before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

In 2019, 76 hikers needed emergency medical treatment. That number dropped to 40 between May 2022 and May 2023 under the new reservation system.

Paramedics and EMTs typically treat Diamond Head hikers for heat exhaustion, dehydration, sprained and fractured ankles, wrist sprains and other bone fractures, feeling sick, heart issues and faintings.

“The numbers definitely went down,” EMS spokesperson Shayne Enright wrote in an email.

The Honolulu Fire Department says it also had fewer 911 calls to rescue hikers on the Diamond Head trail in the first year of the reservations system — 18 compared with 36 in 2019.

“The statistics support that requiring reservations seems to favor a more prepared visitor,” Carpenter says.

When making reservations online, visitors are led to the official trail description with recommendations for hiking safety.

“The 0.8 mile hike from trailhead to the summit is steep and strenuous, gaining 560 feet as it ascends from the crater floor,” the site warns.

But no matter how many precautions are mentioned, some clueless tourists will always get in trouble.

“The hike is described to be easy, yet it is hot and uphill. If you come after drinking mai tais all night, thatʻs when things start to happen,” says Carpenter.

He says with the reservations system the same number of people are showing up to hike as before —about 3,000 a day — but the benefit is they are spread out from the crater’s opening at 6 a.m. until it closes at 6 p.m.

Previously, hikers were packed in like sardines during the most popular visiting hours from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Now entries are limited to 150 walk-ins per hour and 60 vehicles every two hours.

“You do not get the same accordion effect with everyone squished in together. At some times of the day on some places a hiker can feel like they are the only person on the trail,” says Carpenter.

The trail leading to the top of Diamond Head, just before the tunnel
The trail leading to the top of Diamond Head, just before the tunnel. (John Hill/Civil Beat/2023)

Another key benefit of having the visitors spread out all day is that local residents have a better chance of finding a free parking slot inside the crater. About 20 of the 78 parking spots on the crater floor have been set side for locals to park at no cost.

Although locals before got into the crater free with a state driverʻs license or ID, they sometimes turned around and went home when the parking lot was full.

The Parks Division is moving ahead with a series of other improvements to make Diamond Head an even better experience, but the next set of initiatives will take longer.

Lawmakers this year gave the Parks Division $1.7 million to begin planning and construction to open up another entrance into the crater that will be for pedestrians only. Thatʻs the Kapahulu Tunnel — the original entry built by the Army in 1908 on the northern slopes of the crater, across from what is now Makapuu Avenue. It’s currently closed.

A portion of the appropriation also will be used to begin planning and construction to open up Battery Harlow for interpretive visits and to create more visitor parking outside the crater.

Diamond Head State Monument Parking spaces reservations reservation system
Parking is more plentiful under the new reservation system, with visitors charged $10 while locals still get to park for free. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

Battery Harlow — the first permanent battery of Oahuʻs extensive coastal defense system — was built on the north side of Diamond Head in 1910. The battery was home to eight 12-inch mortars able to fire over the crater almost nine miles out to sea to pierce the decks of enemy ships.

Providing more places to walk and historic attractions to experience beyond the summit trail should further spread out hikers to make visits more relaxing.

Carpenter says the other state parks under review to require reservations for tourists include Wailua River State Park on Kauai, which has a very crowded parking lot and too many boat activities dominating the river; Kekaha Kai State Park on the Kona Coast and Mauiʻs Makena State Park, where tourists already pay to enter but do not need reservations.

Even with the progress, there are always new challenges at Diamond Head.

A weird one last month was when the crater had to be closed to the public because no water was coming into the facility — meaning the bathrooms and water fountains could not be used.

According to state parks, the water problem was apparantly caused by homeless people who had tampered with the parkʻs backflow prevention system.

Earlier in the month, a citizen reported that a hose had been attached to pipes to siphon water from the craterʻs plumbing into a homeless encampment on the lower slopes of Diamond Head.

Parks Division personnel removed the hose going to the homeless tents They believe homeless people then wrecked the backflow prevention system in retaliation.

Homeless campers reside on the slopes outside the crater and until this episode have had little impact on the visitor experience on the summit trail.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Fantastic news! I hope more of this on overcrowded tourist-packed areas on neighbor islands as well!

EhNoMake · 2 months ago

Who would've imagined that management, organization, and accommodation would lead to a better visitor experience!

studephan · 2 months ago

I used to run up to the green shed about halfway up the Diamond Head path, but then the crowds got to thick it was impossible to pass anyone. Maybe I'll try it again. And that pedestrian path into the monument... scary!

manoafolk · 2 months ago

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