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I’ve been to Honolulu numerous times: as a kid with my parents (my Korean-born dad loved vacationing on Waikiki Beach, I think mostly for the readily available Asian food), for high school and college volleyball tournaments, and as an adult. But I’ve never hiked to the top of the iconic mountain that sits at the end of Waikiki, the one in all the postcards.
Of all the hikes on the island of Oahu—many through bamboo forests and to waterfalls—the .8-mile, mostly paved trail up Diamond Head has always seemed like an outing best left to sandal-wearing tourists.
But on a recent trip to Honolulu, I felt compelled to hike the mountain locals think is the true “mana” or, mother, of the island with my 10-year-old son, Sam. I also felt compelled to show him the pearls of Waikiki—like how you can get great sushi and fresh pineapple and shop for a shark tooth necklace in one convenience store.
I knew the short hike would be no problem, physically, for my soccer-playing, 10K-running son. But, he’s a kid, so I never really know whether I’m going to get enthusiasm or moodiness when I take him out.
Thanks to jet lag and the three-hour time difference from our home in Boulder, Colorado, we were up before dawn. And since it was a Saturday morning and I knew the popular hike would be crowded, we arrived at the trailhead when the park opened at 6 a.m.
“That’s a vulture,” Sam said, pointing out the large bird overhead as we started walking. I’m not sure that it was, but I didn’t care. It was nice to be chatting about wildlife, breathing the humid morning air, and stretching our legs.
A light rain fell, and that felt great. We passed other hikers—a guy in a North Carolina T-shirt, a Japanese family, a large group of Korean tourists. Sam and I talked about how, since Hawaii sits in the middle of the Pacific between the mainland U.S. and Asia, at least half the tourists—and the majority of the locals—are of Asian descent. They look like my son’s grandpa, my dad. They look like me, a hapa haole (half-Asian, from the mainland). And they look like him, also hapa (of mixed Asian descent). I’ve always felt more connected to my own Asian heritage while in Hawaii, and hoped Sam would, too.
The gradually climbing trail became a steep staircase, then led us through a dark, damp tunnel. The manmade features on the mountain were built in 1908 as part of the Army’s coastal defense system, and the hike leads right through concrete bunkers, batteries, and searchlight and fire control stations.
Sam and I talked history as we climbed a steep spiral staircase before squeezing our bodies through a tight opening to follow the trail. “The opening is small to keep the people inside safe during a war,” I explained.
I followed him up the last few steps to the summit, and audibly exhaled at the sight of the sun rising over green fields and the blue Pacific to the east, painting the low clouds gold and pink. To the west bustled Honolulu, the slow-rolling waves of Waikiki Beach paralleling the high-rises.
The concrete observation tower at the top of the trail was already full of people. “Come on, Sam, let’s go up there and get a picture,” I said, and was surprised at the response.
“No, Mom, let’s go.”
Really? I thought. I asked him again, and he gave me some pre-teen attitude I’d not seen a whole lot of before. I’d definitely not seen it on the hike so far. I’d been walking with a pleasant 10-year-old boy, up until this point.
I pleaded with him to climb onto the platform and pose for a picture with me before attitude-laden Sam (who was this kid?) gave me a forceful, “Let’s GO!”
“Okay,” I acquiesced, and followed him down a different, more gradual route than we’d come up (the trail loops).
“You know,” I said, looking at his skinny back as we walked, “You can’t be punky to me like that. Can you tell me what’s going on? Was it the people?”
We sat down at an overlook and I pulled out leftover pineapple spears.
I had to coax it out of him, but he’s afraid of heights. I didn’t know this about him, but that’s why that he didn’t like climbing on top of the platform, on the top of the mountain.
I was struck by how it took this short, touristy hike (albeit, across the ocean) to find this out about my son, and was simultaneously grateful but ashamed that I hadn’t known before. I wondered what else I’d pushed him to do in the past that made him uncomfortable, and resigned myself to plan future outdoor family adventures accordingly. I’ve never been a fan of exposure myself, and I smiled to think that we were more alike than I had realized.
For the rest of the short hike, we marveled at how many people hike with selfie sticks and music playing out of their phones, and talked abou how we’d go to the farmer’s market to buy smoothies and picnic food for the beach. We talked about how his grandpa had done this hike many times and would be happy that Sam and I did it together. And, as I watched his little head bob up and down with every step, I realized that you don’t need a challenging backcountry adventure to transform your relationship with your kid—any hike will do.
Get more tips, trips, and stories about family outdoor adventures on BACKPACKER’s Families Gone Wild.