Stairway To Heaven Hawaii Hike: Epic Haiku Stairs Oahu Trail
The ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Hawaii hike is epic, dangerous, and illegal. Still interested? This trail in Oahu, also known as the Haiku Stairs, takes you to the top of the Ko’olau mountains via 3,922 metal stairs of pure adrenaline and doom.
At some points, the stairs of death are almost vertical, clinging to the side of the steep mountain. Still, thousands of people make the climb every year, and for good reason — it’s one of the most spectacular hikes on Earth!
I first discovered the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Oahu hike on the internet in 2015 and knew I had to try it. Not only are the views out of this world, but the whole experience is just beyond awesome and unique.
I’ve done the Hawaii ‘Haiku Stairs’ hike several times now, and even after traveling in many countries, it’s still probably my favorite trek in the world. It may never be topped!
This blog post will explain some of the details and history of the Hawaii ‘Stairway To Heaven’ hike, and then I’ll discuss some of the politics behind the stairs and plans for their future.
Stairway To Heaven Hawaii Hike
- Distance: 2 miles (3 km) return
- Elevation Gain: 2,625 feet (800 m)
- Difficulty: Hard
- Duration: 3 hours up, 1-2 hours down
What Is It? History Of The Haiku Stairs
The Oahu ‘Stairway To Heaven’ was built by the US Navy in 1942, along with a radio station and giant antenna at the top of the mountain that were used to communicate with ships in the Pacific during World War II.
The ‘Haiku Stairs’ Hawaii trail was officially closed in the 1980s, and it’s been damaged a little (and repaired) on and off in the years since then.
The stairs are hiked by thousands of people every year, but the status of the trail is still in limbo because the state of Hawaii is afraid of liability and can’t decide what to do with the stairs.
A non-profit group called Friends of Haiku Stairs has drawn up some good plans for keeping the staircase and re-opening it with managed access, hiker fees, assumed liability, and minimal disturbance to the local neighborhood.
If it’s handled right, this solution could take care of many of the issues associated with the Stairway To Heaven. Check out their website and consider donating if you’re a fan.
Is The Stairway Illegal To Climb?
Yes, technically it is illegal to climb the Oahu Haiku Stairs since they’re closed. Liability is the main reason.
The government in Oahu has a habit of closing any hike they consider slightly risky, because it might attract lawsuits. Crouching Lion and Sacred Falls are other examples.
It all goes back to a history of lawsuits from people getting injured while hiking in Oahu and then suing the state. You can read about it in this SFGate article. Many of the best hikes in Oahu have been closed preemptively to avoid more of these unjustified lawsuits.
Personally I think hikers should decide for themselves what kind of risks they’re comfortable with, but bear the responsibility themselves if they have an accident. Don’t sue the state. Make the risks known to people, but don’t close all the hikes. That’s how it works everywhere else, and it’s why so many wonderful hiking trails like Angels Landing are still open in the mainland United States after all these years. Even the Kalalau Trail is open in Kauai despite being much more risky than the Stairway To Heaven.
In any case, just be aware that fines of up to $1,000 have occasionally been given out to people caught climbing the staircase. The trailhead area below the stairs is patrolled by a security guard around the clock, and sometimes the Honolulu police are called.
There’s the potential for a criminal charge of second degree trespassing (a misdemeanor record), which could be a big problem for some people who have security clearances, sensitive employment, professional licenses, immigration applications, etc.
Lastly, you could also be billed for emergency services if you’re somehow injured and need to be rescued while doing this hike. It wouldn’t be cheap.
Both times I did the hike, the security guard yelled at us from a distance but didn’t seem to chase after us or call the police. We hit the stairs and then disappeared into the jungle before we could find out.
Where Is The Stairway?
The Stairway To Heaven trail is located on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
The stairs start in the Haiku Valley, under the H3 highway (John A. Burns Freeway) and they wind up the side of a mountain near Kaneohe, called Puʻukeahiakahoe.
However, the whole Haiku valley is surrounded by a residential area with fences, yappy dogs, and a security guard, with only a few possible entrances.
How To Get There: Stairway Entrance / Directions
One of the main challenges of climbing the Hawaii Stairway To Heaven trail is just finding where it starts.
Speaking of which, please be respectful of the local neighborhood and don’t make noise or throw trash, and definitely don’t jump any fences or go into anyone’s yard.
I won’t share the location and exact directions to the stairway here publicly, but I understand there are at least three different main ways to reach the stairs from the neighborhood below, and I’ve used two of them in the past.
There’s also a legal way to reach the top of the mountain by climbing it from the backside via Moanalua Valley trail, which I’ll explain in more detail later in this guide.
What Else To Expect
The ‘Haiku Stairs’ Hawaii hike is steep and strenuous, but the toughest part is the first 1/3rd of the stairway leading up to platform one. After you reach the first platform, the hike flattens out quite a bit and things get much easier.
At this point, it becomes a ridge walk as you keep gradually ascending to the radio tower, and even on a cloudy day the views are spectacular. You can see the windward side of Oahu island with Kaneohe Bay’s sandbars, and an amphitheater of mountains surrounding you on all sides.
The sounds of the cars on the H3 highway below you gradually disappear, and everything starts to get quiet. Suddenly you’re alone on the mountain. Alone with some of the best views in the world.
When I did the ‘Haiku Stairs’ Oahu trek for the first time on my birthday in 2016, the weather started out clear but then some clouds came in. It gave the mountains and everything a surreal touch that made us feel like we were walking up into the heavens.
There’s something really special about this hike, and I still consider it one of the highlights of my life. I hope to do it again someday. For me personally, it was well worth any of the risks involved!
Are The Stairs Safe / Dangerous?
The Stairway To Heaven trail is scary, but not very dangerous in my opinion unless you goof off or do something dumb.
I wouldn’t recommend this trek if you have a big fear of heights, but most people who do the hike will agree it’s not nearly as bad as they expected. There is one short section of stairs that was mangled in a storm, but the damage is pretty minimal and you can pass it without any trouble.
To stay safe, just wear shoes with good grip and remember to keep three points of contact at all times.
Deaths On The Stairway To Heaven In Hawaii
As of 2022, there have never been any falling deaths on the Stairway To Heaven Hawaii hike. The only death I’m aware of was caused by a heart attack in a middle aged hiker (that steep ascent to platform one can be strenuous).
There was also a hiker who disappeared on the Moanalua Valley trail (the backside route that intersects with the Stairway To Heaven) and was never seen again. We don’t know for sure what happened, but it’s more likely his death happened on the steep and muddy Moanalua trail, not the stairway.
Overall, I think the risk of death on the Stairway To Heaven in Hawaii is greatly overstated, and as long as you’re careful you should be fine. Thousands of people hike this trail every year and no one has ever died by falling.
What To Bring
- Shoes: Wear hiking shoes with good grip. Some of the older stairs can be slippery, especially if there’s dew or rain.
- Water: Bring at least 2-3 liters per person. It’s a huge workout and the Hawaii humidity can be intense.
- Snacks: You will be burning calories like an oven. Bring energy snacks to eat at the first platform.
- Jacket: Probably a good idea to bring just in case. Even if you plan to hike during the day, it can be pretty windy at the top.
- Headlight: Required if you hike it for sunrise or if you start in the afternoon.
- Camera: You’ll want to take pictures. The ‘Haiku Stairs’ Oahu hike has fantastic scenery from start to finish.
The Legal Way – Moanalua Valley Trail
If you want to see this place legally with virtually no chance of fines, you can hike up the Moanalua Valley Trail on the back side of the same mountain. This is known as the back way for the Stairway To Heaven.
The Moanalua Valley Trail takes you up a steep, strenuous dirt path with ropes and no stairs. It’s not quite the same experience as climbing the stairs from the bottom up, but you can still reach the Hawaii ‘Stairway To Heaven’ trail at the top and go back down in either direction when you’re done.
Keep in mind, to stay 100% legal on this hike you will have to go back the same way you came. If you hike up the Moanalua trail and then down the stairs, you’re still risking a fine, because the stairway is not legal.
However, it’s possible to take some great pictures on the stairs and then leave via Moanalua without hiking the entire stairway from top to bottom, that way you get to experience some of both hikes.
The Moanalua trail can be muddy after rain, so check the conditions before you go. You definitely want good weather for this hike. Wind and rain can make it much harder and more risky.
Ironically, the general consensus is that the stairs are actually a safer and easier route to the top of the mountain. The main reason to take the back way is to stay legal and rule out any possible fines.
Future Of The Haiku Stairs – Open / Closed?
Nowadays, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply owns the Hawaii Haiku Stairs, and they’ve repeatedly talked about the idea of tearing them down for political (liability) reasons. I really hope they don’t do that.
This trail is a national and state treasure, with amazing scenery and a cool bit of history behind it. I think it should be repaired and preserved for people to enjoy forever.
Legal climbing of the stairs would mean providing a non-intrusive access route through the neighborhood below, but that could easily be accomplished with the millions of taxpayer dollars that have been spent on security over the years.
UPDATE 06/2022: For a moment, it looked like the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Hawaii trail could be saved after all. Ownership of the stairs was given to the city of Honolulu, and supposedly they were planning to turn the Haiku Stairs hike into a paid attraction.
Unfortunately, in September 2021, the city and mayor randomly reversed this decision an decided they would rather spend $1 million to remove the stairs, which could happen as soon as 2022 or 2023.
The stairs are priceless to many of us, and we all hope the city doesn’t proceed with this plan. I’ll keep this blog post updated.
Koko Head vs Stairway To Heaven
You may also be wondering how Stairway To Heaven compares to the infamous Koko Crater Trail in Oahu, also known as the Koko Head ‘Stairs of Doom.’
I’ve done both hikes many times over the years, and I have to say there is really no comparison in terms of difficulty. The ‘Stairway To Heaven’ hike is much longer, steeper, harder, and scarier than the Koko Stairs. It has about 3 times as much elevation gain and takes at least 3 times as long to climb.
The Stairway To Heaven also has much more epic views than Koko Head in my opinion, but Koko Head is a great hike in its own way, and it’s completely legal, so it’s a good choice if you want another challenging hike with some fantastic island views.
Read More: Koko Head Hike
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