We’ve been having a lot of storms blazing trails over Hawaii the past few weeks — a new one each weekend, it seems — bringing with them some chilly temps (keep in mind: this is Hawaii. Chilly is a relative term. It’s 73 degrees right now, and I’m freezing in leggings, three shirts, and two hoodies,) hurricane-style winds, downed trees, rainbows everywhere you look, flash floods, and a surge of mental crises (again, this is Hawaii. We forget what to do when the weather’s not perfect.)
Storms happen — particularly when you live on tropical islands. But these recent ones stand out because of the damage they’ve caused to one of the most infamous (and illegal) hike in Oahu, if not all of Hawaii: the Haiku Stairs, aka the Stairway to Heaven.
There are many illegal hikes on Oahu, but the Stairway to Heaven is by far the most popular (and, again, infamous.) It consists of 2,120 feet of 3,922 ladder-style stairs up the side of the Koolau Mountain Range on the lush (think wet & slippery) east side of the island. The views from the top are indescribable, which is one of the reasons why it is so popular. (I’d guess that another reason it’s so popular is the whole forbidden thing — that always adds a certain mystique and appeal.)
The Haiku Stairs were originally built in the 1940s for the US Coast Guard to be able to access a radio antenna on top of the mountain, but when the Omega Station operations stopped, the stairs were no longer maintained and they became worn and incredibly dangerous. (They basically go straight up the side of the mountain, so if they break, you plummet down the side of a mountain.) The stairway officially closed to the public in 1987. It was repaired in 2003, but accessing it and hiking was still illegal and a guard was posted at the base for 12 hours daily to prevent hikers from going up. Rather than discouraging hikers, this simply encouraged them to work around the obstacles…for example, heading to the mountain at 2am to access the trail before the guard was on duty and crawling through/under the fences. Most of my friends hiked the trail in the middle of the night and came down at sunrise, but when I went several months ago the guard was starting his watch extra early because of the flood of late night/early morning hikers, and then leaving around 1pm. We started up the trail around 2pm, and I liked doing it in the daylight rather than at night because of the incredible views the whole way — and having the light to be able to enjoy them.
The recent damage to the Haiku Stairs has stirred up talk about what will be done with the stairs, how to keep people off of them, and whether the city should tear them down. While no one wants to officially be responsible for maintaining them, they also expect that tearing them down would be a 3 million dollar project.
It is a tragedy for two reasons: 1) because of the injuries sustained and the life lost on the trail since the storms and 2) because hiking the Stairway to Heaven is a a mind-blowing experience of epic and unforgettable proportions, and while I understand the concerns, I’d hate to see access to the trail completely lost. Rescue teams just suspended search for a hiker who disappeared on the trail five days ago, which is simultaneously heartbreaking and, as an avid hiker, sobering. I sincerely hope that no one else attempts the trail in its damaged state. However, I would love to see them repaired and the hike opened so that residents and visitors could safely and legally enjoy this stunning hike that offers such a unique glimpse of Hawaii.
**Because this hike is illegal and now even more hazardous/life-threatening, I’m not posting any directions or tips. Please don’t go!! It may, quite literally, become your stairway to heaven.
***These photos were all taken on my old, crappy iPhone, which is the reason for the low quality… I wasn’t about to carry my camera all the way up/down a rickety 3,922-rung ladder 🙂