The Haiku Stairs, commonly known as the “Stairway to Heaven”, offer a jaw-dropping, iconic view over the landscape of Oahu. Many eager hikers travel to this Hawaiian island with hopes of getting to experience this unbelievable trail for themselves. Unfortunately, the stairs have actually been closed to the public and deemed illegal since 1987. So how is it that you keep seeing recent photos of hikers summiting this incredible peak? We`re going to get into all of that and more in this blog post!
The History of The Haiku Stairs
Originally installed during World War II; the first set of wooden stairs allowed military access to the radio station antennae at the top of the mountain. The location was chosen to allow for long-range transmissions and simultaneously provided protection to the satellite tower by the surrounding cliff walls. It took the first hikers 21 days to climb and pioneer the route for the Haiku Stairs.
In the 1950s, the stairs were replaced with steel steps that led to a newly established Coast Guard navigation station. These stairs were opened to the public until 1987 when they were closed due to safety and maintenance concerns.
The city of Honolulu actually spent almost a million dollars repairing the Haiku Stairs in 2002 with a plan to re-open them to the public. Sadly due to safety concerns and resident complaints, the Stairway to Heaven remained closed.
Unfortunately, in 2015, a massive storm damaged a number of sections along the first portion of the trail. In this area, there are numerous stairs that are loose, broken and even a section where the handrails and steps have been shifted sideways. It is still possible to pass through this section; however, it’s important to know that it has an associated risk.
Are People Hiking it Anyways?
The short answer is yes. Each year, hundreds of hikers sneak through the community and past the guard. In doing so, they risk a $1,000 USD fine. Why? Have you seen the photos?! In all seriousness, though, the Stairway to Heaven is an iconic hike in Hawaii and there are many adventurers that would gladly risk breaking the law for a chance to experience it.
After all, that is exactly what led us to our decision of trying this hike. Did we feel nervous and unsure and guilty? Of course we did! We’re Canadian and I love our reputation around the world of being polite and peaceful. The thought of being disrespectful or breaking the law in another country literally mortifies me. But at the end of the day, we made a decision based on what, in our minds, was a once in a lifetime opportunity. So, obviously, we assumed all of the risks that came along with it.
Our Experience of The Haiku Stairs
We didn’t try to sneak through the neighbourhood at 3 AM. We didn’t even cut through anyone’s yard as we had heard from others online. Because we actually debated on doing this hike right up until the morning of, we didn’t roll into the community until around 9 AM. We had decided before getting out of the vehicle that if we had any nasty interactions with the locals(as we had read about) or got stopped by the police; that would be a pretty good sign to just call it a day and not attempt the stairs.
To our surprise, we had zero issues getting through the community.
When passing people on the street, they would smile and pleasantly say good morning even though it was very clear what we were up to. Completely winging it, we began walking up the road that leads to the guard station. A few hundred meters in we saw an abandoned building full of graffiti on the left-hand side of the road. Around the back, there was a small trail leading into the bamboo forest. We remembered reading about a shortcut through the bamboo forest, so we gave it a shot. (Side note: if you plan on cutting through this way, BRING BUG SPRAY!)
After taking a right at the fork we were lead through a hole in a chain link fence. From there, we quickly crossed the road and found a small trail on the other side to follow. After a few minor detours – one of which, David legitimately had me rock climbing up the side of the mountain, but that’s a story for another time – we ran into the stairs about 200 meters above the trailhead. We could see the guard looking up at us; but decided to continue on as we were already on the stairs.
From that point on, the hike was nothing but thrilling!
The staircase was more like a ladder in many parts and not much wider than you or I. Climbing almost 2,500 feet along one of the most beautiful ridgelines in Oahu was absolutely jaw-dropping and exhausting! We stopped every few minutes to catch our breath and soak up the views. Before we knew it, we were approaching the summit.
Now, I’m not typically afraid of heights, but during the last stretch of stairs, my stomach hit my knees. The views were insane, but I’m not sure I could even appreciate them at the time because I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other.
Immediately filled with joy and accomplishment at the top, we were finally able to comprehend what we had just done. A once in a lifetime, bucket list hike on a coincidentally perfect day. WOW! In this moment we forgot all about breaking the law and the guard that we may have to face on the way down.
“We actually just climbed the Haiku Stairs. The freaking Stairway to Heaven. WE DID IT!”
Is There a Legal Way Up?
Yes… There is an alternate option via the 15 kilometer, out and back, Moanalua Valley Trail. Please be warned, however, that this is an incredibly challenging and dangerous hike! We did look into this option, but in our opinions, it didn’t make a ton of sense. It’s longer, more dangerous, and apparently fairly tough to follow. Sure, you can bypass the guard and the community, but at the end of the day being on the stairs is illegal. So whether you do it the entire time or just at the top for some photos, you are still technically breaking the law.
At the top, we actually spoke with a few groups of hikers that had come up the back way and did NOT feel comfortable at all. Ironically, they decided to descend down the stairs because they didn’t feel safe going back down the way they came. It’s completely up to you if you choose to do this hike via the stairs, Moanalua Valley Trail, or even at all. We can’t stress enough the importance of doing your research and taking full responsibility for whatever decision you end up making. Neither of these trails are suitable for beginners or the faint of heart.