During Diamond Head State Monument’s nine months of COVID-19 closure, the 761-foot-high summit was clear of the hikers who used to cluster there, taking in the panoramic vistas of East Oahu from Waikiki to Koko Head Crater to the green Koolau Range.
On Thursday morning people reappeared atop the crater known as Leahi, forehead of the tuna, to Native Hawaiians, after the monument reopened to the public at 6 a.m. with new vehicle and pedestrian traffic controls and COVID-19 health and safety protocols, including mandatory mask-wearing and 6-foot physical distancing throughout the state park.
In addition, the crater and its hiking trails, formerly open 365 days a year, will now be closed Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays as well as Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Although the crater was historically most overrun at its 6 a.m. opening hour, this was not the case Thursday, said Curt Cottrell, administrator of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of State Parks, in an interview at the summit at about 8:45 a.m.
“Only between 200 to 300 people have entered the crater so far,” Cottrell said, noting that pre-closure, the park received an average 3,000 visitors a day.
“Our nightmare was it would be like last December, when we had 6,000 people, the most ever, and they were packed like sardines,” said Alan Carpenter, the division’s assistant administrator
Arriving at 8 a.m., there was no traffic congestion at the Kahala Tunnel, reconfigured during the closure into a single lane with stoplights regulating vehicle flow in one direction at a time, allowing more space and safety for the pedestrian walkway.
Fewer than a quarter of the parking lot’s 270-odd stalls were filled, and walking up the summit trail one saw only a few dozen people, all except for very young children wearing masks (if not all covered their noses), going up and down. The trail had been cleaned and repaired during the closure, Cottrell said, although he pointed out a few newly encroaching weeds.
For intervals the narrow, 200-foot-long tunnel was empty of people — though not necessarily of invisible, aerosolized virus particles that, exhaled, can linger for hours in the air, according to studies.
“The tunnel was one of our biggest fears,” Carpenter said, “but (Cottrell) and I went through twice (so far), and we were the only ones.”
The stairway leading uphill from the tunnel had been painted bright yellow.
At the top, where Cottrell and Carpenter were observing the situation, about 25 people stood on the main viewing platform overlooking the ocean, Kapiolani Park and Waikiki, most of them not paying attention to the boot prints stenciled at 6-foot intervals on the concrete floor to promote physical distancing.
“We’re seeing it get a little crowded up here now,” Carpenter said at 8:45 a.m.
“There’s more clustering,” said parks division staff member Kelly Cheesebourough. “I counted 108 people at the summit between 6 and 7 a.m. and asked them to spread out.”
In another rule change, there is to be no more “lingering at the top of the crater, where in pre-coronavirus times, visitors would spend hours snapping selfies, scenic photos and enjoying the views,” DLNR stated in a news release Thursday. How this can be enforced, however, given staff limitations, remains to be seen.
With only one staff member assigned to manage visitors at the monument and two for maintenance inside the crater, DLNR’s release said, the parks division was “relying greatly” on its parking contractor to help limit crowding on the summit trail.
“Drivers will be informed at the park’s entrance when the parking lot is full and walk-in visitors may be asked to wait before starting their hikes if our staff determines the trail is at specific capacity and social distancing becomes an issue,” DLNR said.
“People behave much better when we have staff here,” Cheesebourough said.
Cassandra Springer, a park interpretive center coordinator and the only full-time staffer assigned to Diamond Head, said she’d had to remind only a couple of people to wear their masks.
She added, “We’re just asking visitors to move through the tunnel as quickly as possible, to not stop and to avoid congregating at either end or, for that matter, anywhere else in the park.”
For Thursday and the next few days of the reopening, Cottrell said he had brought on extra staff to count hourly visitors and monitor behavior.
After gathering data, the plan was to implement an online reservation system such as the State Parks Division has put in place for Kauai’s Kalalau Trail, he said. “I was thinking of (admitting) people in two-hour blocs, with ‘x’ amount of people allowed between 6 and 8 a.m. and 8 and 10 a.m.”
So far, however, a reduction in the overall number of daily visitors, such as at the Haena gateway to Kalalau, was not planned for Diamond Head, Carpenter said. The city’s Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, which also formerly received an average 3,000 daily visitors, reduced access to 720 visitors when it reopened Dec. 2.
The state lost $1 million in Diamond Head entry fees during the closure, and plans to make up the deficit with new, higher fees for nonresidents and commercial vehicles. Hawaii residents can park and enter for free.
Looking ahead, Cottrell added, he was excited at the prospect of making the long-closed Kapahulu Tunnel into a new, pedestrian- only artery; $750,000 has been allocated for planning and design.
“If we could diversify activities within the crater, people would have something else to do while waiting to go on the summit trail,” Cottrell said before climbing onto another viewing platform to tell a woman holding a Pekingese that dogs were not allowed in the crater.
For more information, visit dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp.
DIAMOND HEAD STATE MONUMENT
>> Hours: Open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, except Christmas and New Year’s Day. Hiking the summit trail is not allowed after 4 p.m.
>> Entrance fee: Nonresidents pay $10 per noncommercial vehicle, $5 for walk-ins. Cash only. Hawaii residents with a state ID are free.
>> COVID-19 rules: Masks must be worn at all times. Boot marks on the trail and in the summit tunnel indicate 6-foot distances. At the small lookouts on top, visitors are asked to not linger.