On any given day, hundreds of hikers flock to Diamond Head State Monument to climb its summit trail with breathtaking views, jostling with a crowd of others that make it there by foot, car and tour bus.
The hike up historic Diamond Head, one of Oahu’s top visitor attractions, is promoted on tourist websites and in guidebooks and brings in more than a million visitors a year. This hike — not the unsanctioned hikes that many parks officials warn about — has consistently been the top spot for rescues.
The Honolulu Fire Department over a five-year period has rescued three times as many hikers from Diamond Head State Monument as from the outlawed “Stairway to Heaven” on the Windward Side of Oahu — 195 compared to 60 from Jan. 1, 2015 through April 30, 2019.
During this period, HFD responded to a total of 1,394 hiking related calls.
Over the intensely hot, humid summer, firefighters responded to calls at Diamond Head nearly 20 times from May to July — more than any other hike on the island of Oahu.
“You’ve got 1,000 people a day,” said HFD rescue Capt. Nalu Kukea. “It’s just a numbers game.”
By volume, Diamond Head is a popular hike. In fiscal year 2019, ending June, 30, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources estimated 1.2 million visitors entered Diamond Head State Monument. Approximately 95% of those visitors hiked the summit trail.
Many of the rescues at Diamond Head are calls to assist hikers experiencing syncopy, or fainting, according to Kukea. He said fainting is the No. 1 cause of rescues there, possibly due to heat and lack of water.
At Koko Crater Stairs, which is the second highest hike rescue site on Oahu, with 125 over the same five-year period, there are a growing number of hikers, as well, but more cases of twisted ankles. Some may trip and fall, and hit their head. Others suffer from heat exhaustion.
Jane Howard, president of the Kokonut Koalition, a group advocating for the renovation and maintenance of the stairs, said she has seen many unprepared hikers climbing up Koko Crater.
The rescues are inevitable, she said, due to people who are unprepared.
She regularly sees what she calls a “Waikiki contingent,” which includes visitors who go up casually in sandals, heels and dresses, and others who bring one bottle of water to share among four.
“I see people that underestimate how vigorous it is,” Howard said. “They may not have done real physical exercise in 10 to 20 years. You head on up, then you get fatigued.”
Fatigued hikers, she said, tend to not watch where they are stepping, which leads to falls and broken ankles.
Other hikes requiring frequent rescue include Lanikai Pillbox and Manoa Falls, which are not necessarily difficult, but have been getting larger volumes of hikers.
Manoa Falls, a maintained Na Ala Hele trail, gets an annual average of 200,000 hikers, according to the state, which announced over the summer that the trail would undergo repairs and safety upgrades. Work is slated to begin in October, requiring the weekday closure of the trail.
Lanikai Pillbox, fifth on the list of top rescue sites, required 54 rescues over five years. The climb features some dropoffs but is a relatively short climb up to the World War II era bunkers. Residents say the trail is eroding due to high usage by hikers.
A hike that has been requiring more rescues than in the past is “Lulumahu Falls” off of Nuuanu Pali Drive. The increasingly popular hike to a waterfall off Old Pali Road is accessible by permit only, but many without a permit still go.
It’s easy to get lost on the trail because it’s not well defined, according to Kukea. Firefighters have responded more than 20 times in the past few years. Hikers often get lost, as well, at Kaau Crater Trail.
The Honolulu Fire Department generally conducts a search for a missing hiker for three full days, then consults with police to determine whether there is enough information to continue, according to HFD Capt. Scot Seguirant.
“Ultimately, we want closure and we want to save everyone, but we can’t always do that,” he said. “We have to look at who are the other folks being affected. To have so many units assigned to this incident looking for someone, it affects the rest of the community.”
While an enhanced 911 system allows first responders to receive latitude- longitude information from a cellphone if someone calls, hikers should still have a backup plan, said Seguirant, and prepare for a hike as if they do not have one.
A third HFD rescue unit serving the Windward Side has been approved to serve growing needs, said Seguirant, and should be available starting next year.
On the Windward Side, Haiku Stairs, better known as the “Stairway to Heaven,” has signs posted saying it’s closed.
Many illegal hikers get lost en route to the stairs or try to bypass the security guard.
Veteran hiker Matthew Kievlan said many of the hikers requiring rescue are attempting to reach the stairs from the “back route” of Moanalua ridge, which is more than 12 miles. That trail, he said, is full of steep grades and for advanced hikers. On a cloudy day, it is also easy to get lost or disoriented at Moanalua.
HFD warned it can take hours to reach wayward or injured hikers in the Moanalua Valley area.
Friends of Haiku Stairs, a group advocating to reopen the stairs under managed access, said that the steps themselves are perfectly safe to climb.
The Diamond Head summit hike offers an information booth and brochures with a map and safety tips.
The brochure advises hikers to bring a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water for the 0.8-mile, 560-foot climb from the crater floor to the summit, and to take their time on portions of the trail, which involve steep stairways.
Many visitors still do not understand that the Diamond Head hike is strenuous, according to Yara Lamadrid-Rose, Division of State Parks Diamond Head Park coordinator.
“Many of the visitors who do the Diamond Head hike will not do any other hike and are not hikers, meaning that they are not prepared for a strenuous hike,” Lamadrid-Rose wrote in an email. “Many think they are going for a short ‘walk in the park.’ If you are a fit, experienced hiker, the Diamond Head summit trail is an easy ‘walk in the park.’ However, for many non-hikers, it is a strenuous hike.”
She said State Parks has worked with the visitor industry and tourist publications to highlight the strenuousness of the hike and the heat in the crater — and to encourage visitors to bring adequate water and proper shoes.
Many people are dehydrated before they even start the hike, she said, and conditions get worse on the trail due to heat and humidity.
Kukea said more public outreach on hiking safety would be ideal for places like Diamond Head, whether on flights or in hotel rooms.
TOP HFD RESCUE SITES
Diamond Head, 195
Koko Crater Stairs, 125
Stairway to Heaven, 60
Lanikai Pillbox, 54
Maunawili Falls, 53
Kaau Crater Trail, 49
From Jan. 1, 2015 to April 30, 2019
Number of rescues has fluctuated
>> 2019, 117 rescues*
>> 2018, 346
>> 2017, 288
>> 2016, 361
>> 2015, 282
* Through April 30, 2019
HIKING SAFETY TIPS
>> Hike with a partner or a club.
>> File a flight plan with someone who knows where you’re going, who’s going with you, and when you’re expected back. When finished, let the person know you have returned safely.
>> Get information about the trail.
>> Wear adequate clothing and hiking boots.
>> Check weather conditions.
>> Know your own capabilities.
>> Bring a cell phone, something brightly colored, a whistle, rain gear, a first aid kit, 2 or 3 liters of water, a flashlight and a space blanket.
>> Stay on the trail, stay together or regroup.
>> Look where you step.
>> Watch the time.
>> Monitor the weather and everyone’s condition.
>> Avoid undue risks.
IN AN EMERGENCY
>> Call 911 and ask for fire rescue.
>> Be visible. Use that brightly colored jacket.
>> Be audible. Use the whistle.
>> Stay calm, and stay put, which increases your chances of being found.
Source: Hawaiian Trail & Mountain Corp.