HONOLULU -- It's appeared in countless television shows and movies. Its profile is on thousands of postcards and posters of Hawaii. And chances are, if you've ever visited Waikiki, you have several pictures yourself with Diamond Head in the background.
And now I was about to hike inside Hawaii's most famous landmark.
The trek to the summit of the extinct volcano attracts more than 600,000 visitors each year, offering not only breathtaking views of Oahu and the Pacific, but a cheap, memorable, family activity that usually takes less than two hours.
The hike to the top of Diamond Head is little less than a mile, but factor in the heat, the rocky terrain and the climb up nearly 300 stairs and it becomes a solid workout that will leave you sweating and occasionally out of breath.
"Because of its location, right next to Waikiki, right next to an urban setting, people think it's like walking in Kapiolani Park," said park coordinator Yara Lamadrid-Rose. "Hiking Diamond Head is not a walk in the park - it's a hike."
The hike starts on the floor of the crater, elevation 200 feet. The Hawaiians called the volcano "Leahi," but it was later called Diamond Head by early Western explorers who mistook the calcite crystals they found in the crater for diamonds.
After a 10-minute stroll on a fairly flat, wide, nicely paved path, the trail turns rocky and uneven. It also becomes gradually steeper as it zigzags up the barren, rocky slopes.
On the way up, you'll see acres of drab trees with sparse foliage such as the kiawe and koa haole. Unlike many of Hawaii's lush, green mountains, Diamond Head is usually brown and dry. It gets less than 25 inches of rain annually.
You may see also several small, colorful, exotic birds in the crater, such as the Kentucky cardinal, Japanese white-eye, Java sparrow, Brazilian cardinal and the Pacific golden plover. You'll also encounter people from around the world.
After about 25 minutes of hiking, you'll reach the first lookout, with its views of the east side of Oahu and $10 million beachfront homes. On a clear day, you can see the island of Molokai.
Look down at the parking lot and you see how far you've walked. This is a good place to catch your breath or to take a gulp of water, because the dreaded stairway challenge is about to start.
The first stairway has 74 steps and leads to a 225-foot long tunnel cut into the mountainside. Many first-time visitors believe the tunnel is the home stretch, but it leads to a second, super-steep, narrow flight of 99 concrete steps.
More stairs follow, but the panoramic view from the top is your reward. There are the chiseled emerald green Koolau mountains, miles of roads and homes, the high-rise jungle of Waikiki and Koko Head crater. Plus, the view of the Pacific is a lot better and cheaper here than the one from your $250-a-night Waikiki hotel room. It is a unique glimpse of paradise.
"The view is spectacular," said hiker Kevin Haley, of Yarmouth, Maine. "The coast of Maine is beautiful in its own way, but it's nothing like this."
Take lots of pictures before you head back down. The magnificent vistas up here will make all your photos seem like works by Ansel Adams. It's difficult to take a bad photo here.
After taking in the view, the descent should take about 30 minutes, depending on foot traffic.
And it's a heck of a lot easier than the way up.
If You Go ...
DIAMOND HEAD STATE MONUMENT: From Waikiki, take a bus or drive along Kalakaua Avenue and turn left on Monsarrat Avenue, which is between Honolulu Zoo and Kapiolani Park. Stay on Monsarrat and it will turn into Diamond Head Road.
HOURS: Open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., year-round.
ADMISSION: $1 for walk-ins, $5 per carload.
TIPS: The best time to go is before 8 a.m. and after 1 p.m. when the tour groups aren't there. Wear comfortable shoes, and take water, sunscreen, hat, camera and a good attitude.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call (808) 587-0300 or visit www.state.hi.us/dlnr/dsp/dsp.html.