Climbing Haiku Stairs on Oahu
Type in #stairwaytoheavehawaii on Instagram, and you will see epic pictures of adventurers smiling atop 3,922 stairs on the ridge of the Ko‘olau mountain range on Oahu. The town of Kaneohe and the H-3 Highway can be seen in the background as clouds meet the mountain peaks and hikers seems to be standing in heaven.
Many would say that this hike on Oahu, known as Stairway to Heaven or Haiku Stairs, is one of the most famous – and also most controversial – on the island.
Stairway to Heaven 2021
Today, you can see remnants of wooden stairs alongside a steel staircase that reaches an altitude of almost 2,800 feet. Each section of steel stairs was constructed to be 6 feet long and 18 inches wide. Each steel section typically contains 8 steps and handrails on each side. The steel steps are anchored to the mountain with metal pins, and the average slope of each section is 30 degrees with some steep staircase sections as well.
Stairway to Heaven has been officially closed since 1987, but it has a storied history as well as a controversial present.
History of Stairway to Heaven
Haiku does not refer to the short Japanese poems with specific numbers of symbols but rather to the name of the area “Haʻikū,” which refers to a bright red or creamy-white flower from a Kahili tree. Haiku Village is also a nearby neighborhood where the Haiku Stairs access points are located.
Who built Stairway to Heaven? The history of Haiku Stairs dates back to World War II between the years 1942 and 1943. The U.S. Navy had built a top-secret high-powered radio facility atop Haiku Valley and the Koolau Mountain Range. This radio station was intended to be used to transmit signals to Navy ships operating throughout the Pacific, thus the height enabled the ability to blast transmissions to further ranges – while also protecting the station from enemy attacks.
Some sources state that there were two climbers named Bill Adams and Louis Otto, who had worked on building the Hoover Dam, who took 21 days to find a route to reach the summit where the station would be located. They left spikes in rocks to mark the trail, which would later be used to hang ladders. Sometime in the 1940s, wooden stairs were added to the steep trail to make the trek to the station even easier.
At first, the Navy used vacuum tube technology to transmit their radio signals; however, they later decided to install a huge antenna, making a need for convenient access to the top. Cable cars were installed to replace the wooden stairs, making transportation to the radio station easy. In 1955, the wooden stairs were replaced with sections of metal steps and ramps, which are seen today.
In 1958, the Navy inactivated the radio station site. The U.S. Coast Guard then used the site as an Omega Navigation System station, which was the first global-range radio navigation system with stations throughout the world. Under the U.S. Coast Guard, local hikers were allowed to climb the stairs after signing a waiver at the Omega station.
When Haiku Stairs were featured on an episode of “Magnum P.I.” as well as in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper in 1981, their popularity began to grow with tens of thousands of hikers transgressing the stairs each year.
With increased vandalism as well as some sections of the stairs falling down the mountainside, Haiku Stairs was officially closed in 1987.
Can I legally climb Haiku Stairs today?
Since the 1987 closure of Stairway to Heaven, it has been illegal to climb the stairs, meaning anyone who now steps on the stairs could be fined $1,000 or face criminal trespassing charges.
Despite the illegality of climbing Haiku Stairs, many hikers continue to risk getting fines of $1,000 by police officers or security to reach the stairs’ summit – waking up in the early hours of the morning to try to bypass security.
However, efforts by groups like Friends of Haiku Stairs and even certain Honolulu City and County council members have tried to repair and legalize the stairs over the years.
Proponents, such as the Friends of Haiku Stairs, advocate saving Stairway to Heaven for these reasons:
- It is a historical site.
- There have been no documented injuries or deaths on the stairs, even when it was legally open to the public in the 1980s.
- It was named one of the world’s 10 best hikes on the National Geographic Endangered Trails List and could be an internationally recognized educational, recreational, and cultural site in Hawaii.
- Despite many complaints of trespassing and vandalism from Kaneohe residents over the years, the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board resolved on May 17, 2017, to support reopening Haiku Stairs under a detailed access plan that respects neighboring residents’ privacy.
- Removing the stairs would be very costly.
Only time will tell whether a City and County or Hawaii State agency can figure out a way to save the infamous stairs.
Where is Stairway to Heaven located?
$1,000 trespassing fines, security guards, and broken handrails are some of the perils hikers might face if they try to hike Haiku Stairs on Oahu. There are many ways to get to the top – one which is legal and many which are not.
Haiku Stairs or Stairway to Heaven is located in the town of Kaneohe on the island of Oahu. Illegal hikers typically park in the nearby neighborhood of Haiku Village.
Illegal Access Point #1 (in blue on map): At the end of Kuneki Street, there is a fence at this starting point, but during the day it is usually open for cars going in and out. Walk on the road for a short distance, and then take a left when you see a path in the trees. Keep heading in this direction until you emerge onto the secret road below John A. Burns H-3 Freeway. Follow this road until you see the security guard’s vehicle, then sneak left through the bamboo forest.
Illegal Access Point #2 (in red on map): Off of Kuneki Place, there is a drainage ditch. Hop into it and follow it until you reach the trees. Continue through the trees until you find the secret highway, then follow it until you reach the security guard’s vehicle, the bamboo forest, and the entrance to the Haiku Stairs.
Illegal Access Point #3 (in purple on map): Off of Puoni Place, there is a fence you may have to jump, then look for a path or secret road leading into the trees to your right. The purple path is furthest from people’s homes, and you will have to follow the pig trails through the bamboo forest until you reach the Stairway to Heaven.
LEGAL Access Point: The only legal way to hike to (not on) Haiku Stairs starts at the Moanalua Valley Road trail and shoots off the left of this trail for about 2.5 miles. You transgress the Koolau mountain range, parking on the other side of the island and then coming to the top of the stairs. This 10.7-mile roundtrip hike is muddy with some vertical rope climbs and narrow ridgeline paths.
Whether climbing Stairway to Heaven illegally or legally via Moanalua Valley Trail, know that this hike is not for the faint of heart. Its towering heights along a steep ridge could cause a sudden slip to be fatal.
Haiku Stairs Map
How might someone prepare to hike Stairway to Heaven?
Whether venturing on Haiku Stairs or any Oahu hike, the following items are recommended:
- Water (at least 32 ounces)
- Food such as chocolate or granola bars
- Boots with grip
- Small backpack
- Phone with camera
- Pants or shorts with long socks
- Light jacket
In addition to these items, someone who hikes Haiku Stairs must have the ability to hike for around 3 to 4 hours round trip. Some people say they descend the stairs in about an hour. It takes strong leg muscles and a healthy heart to make it to the top of Stairway to Heaven. If you are not in top shape, it is advised to exercise closer to sea level before transgressing the stairs.
Note that REAL does not intend to give any specific advice on these routes or even to encourage anyone to hike Haiku Stairs. Rather REAL attempts to provide more information about this famous hike. REAL is not responsible for any accidents, injuries, rescues, fines, arrests, inconvenience, or loss of life. It is the responsibility of the reader to make their own safe choices and acknowledge potential hazards.
What are the latest Haiku Stairs news updates?
The City and County of Honolulu Board of Water Supply have been managing Haiku Stairs for the past decades, including supplying security guards to ward off trespassing hikers.
As of July 2020, a monumental decision was made to transfer ownership of Stairway to Heaven to the City and County of Honolulu. However, the ownership transfer comes with an 18-month deadline to decide on the stairs’ final fate, with the City and County stating that they are looking to put a private-public partnership in place to manage the stairs.
With delays from the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of Stairway to Heaven remains unknown.
“Haiku Stairs is world-famous as one of the most breathtaking hikes in the world,” said Former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “I’m very pleased that we will be able to save this treasured site from being torn down. We know with the right operator, Haiku Stairs can be opened safely, preserving this unique experience and cultural resource.”