hiking to beacons of light

Michelle Liu
August 08, 2023

The first lighthouse I saw in person is also one of the most iconic. The Bass Harbor Head Light Station in Acadia National Park in Maine sits on a cliff against miles of bright blue skies and the ice-cold Atlantic Ocean.

On that summer evening, I watched in awe as the lighthouse’s beam of light spun around, reflecting on the deep blue water below as waves crashed against the rocky coastline. It had been a long day of hiking inside the park, but this moment was the highlight of my day.

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse in Maine.

Plenty of other people feel the same. Lighthouses attract visitors because of their unique and beautiful towers, all with a picturesque sea cliff setting. These historic landmarks may not be as essential to maritime safety anymore, but there are still hundreds of them across the U.S. that are operational. Here in Hawaii, the U.S. Coast Guard maintains 15 lighthouses, and you can take some scenic hikes to view two on Oahu – Diamond Head and Makapuu.

Hiking Diamond Head
I discovered my love for hiking in 2016 when my husband and I visited Arches National Park in Utah. We’d never seen anything like it – thousands of towering rock formations in the desert. We spent days hiking to view all the natural stone arches, pinnacles, and balanced rocks. It was there that I discovered the reward was so worth the hike. 

Surrounded by pinnacles in Arches National Park.

That’s the sentiment I held onto when hiking Diamond Head for the first time. The state of Hawaii rates it as moderately difficult and I kept that in mind as I started up the paved walkway. The 0.8-mile trail gradually became steep and uneven with switchbacks along the crater wall.

The Diamond Head trail.

I’m the first to admit I’m not in great shape, so I took several breaks and enjoyed some beautiful ocean views while I downed water. No matter where you stop along the trail, try to stay out of people’s way and they’ll understand. At one point, a couple behind me and I were practically playing tag – they paused for a water break, so I passed them and then vice-versa.

My husband’s friend warned me about the 99 steps (and a spiral staircase) that separate you from the summit. Since it was my first time hiking Diamond Head, he called it a rite of passage to take the 99 steps instead of going around it, where there are more stairs but opportunities to take breaks.

99 steps separate you from the summit.

I took the challenge and powered up the 99 steps, where I was met with the spiral staircase that led to a fire control station. Once I finally emerged into the sunlight, my legs felt like jelly. Still, the stunning panoramic views from Koko Head to Waianae were worth the pain.

One of the many views from the Diamond Head summit.

Don’t forget to look down! You can see the Diamond Head Lighthouse at the base of the crater. The lighthouse was built in 1899 after two ships ran aground at Diamond Head. The 57-foot white concrete tower with a red roof had to be rebuilt in 1917 because of cracks in the concrete.

The lighthouse is automated now, but keepers and the beacon of light safely guided mariners for more than a century, warning vessels to steer away from the coral reefs of Waikiki. The red light can still be seen shining 17 nautical miles out into the Pacific Ocean.

Aerial view of the Diamond Head lighthouse.

While you can’t go inside, views of the lighthouse from the Diamond Head summit are still incredible. I took my time wandering around the summit and taking in the different coastal and mountain viewpoints before heading back down for a well-deserved shave ice.

Hiking Makapuu
The heat was the first thing I noticed about hiking the Makapuu Point Lighthouse Trail. The second thing I noticed was the incredible blue hues of the ocean. My friend Kristin and I paused for a break at one of the lookouts, taking in the view of Koko Head and the surrounding greenery and sea. The trail is also great for whale watching, though we went during the off-season.

Even if you’re not fighting for breath like I was, I highly recommend stopping at any of the lookouts to admire the sweeping landscape.

View of Koko Head from Makapuu Point Lighthouse Trail.

I also suggest wearing a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses. There’s virtually no shade on this trail. Drink plenty of water, too, so you don’t get dehydrated. Much like my hike up Diamond Head, I took many water breaks on this somewhat steep climb.

Once you reach the summit, prepare for even more incredible ocean views. On a clear day, you can also see the islands of Lanai and Molokai. Everywhere I turned, there was a new view of the coastline.

Kristin and I enjoying the views from the summit.

The trail summit overlooks the historic Makapuu Lighthouse, which sits on a 600-foot cliff. The lighthouse was built in 1909 with the world’s largest lighthouse lens. Its powerful light can be seen for 28 miles.

Makapuu Lighthouse.

This lighthouse is also off-limits to visitors, but the birds-eye view from the summit offers a unique perspective of the red roof and 12-foot lens, which takes up more than a quarter of the space inside the tower.

The tower may seem short at just 46 feet, but because Makapuu Point rises 647 feet above the ocean, the light needed to be lower so it wouldn’t be blocked in inclement weather. The light still shines 420 feet above the sea.

Close-up of the world's largest lighthouse lens.

Today, the 14th U.S. Coast Guard District maintains both the Diamond Head and Makapuu Lighthouses, along with 96 fixed navigational aids around the Islands, like buoys, beacons, and sound systems. Together, these guide mariners through the waters around Hawaii.

For all the non-hikers
If you’d rather skip the hike to view a lighthouse, head to Aloha Tower in downtown Honolulu.

Aloha Tower.

This iconic landmark isn’t just a clock tower; it was built in 1926 to guide ship captains and welcome passengers to Honolulu Harbor. While it’s a retired lighthouse now, you can head up to the 10th floor observation deck.

It’s a quick elevator ride up to get panoramic views of downtown Honolulu, the harbor coastline, and the Koolau Mountain Range.

View from Aloha Tower's 10th floor observation deck.

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