Avoiding Guards at the Stairway to Heaven

January 12, 2015

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As my cousin drove me from Honolulu International Airport to Kailua via the H3, the first thing I noticed was a long trail of steps leading up a particularly steep mountain face. Even with the jet lag and hunger from a six-hour flight, this caught my attention. Oahu is filled with amazing mountains and corresponding scenic views, from the top of Koko Head to the Pillbox Hiking Trail, but I think what I saw that day is one of the highest and most challenging.

The Haiku Stairs, also known as the Stairway to Heaven, has been featured in a number of travel publications, despite the fact it is currently illegal to hike.

Yes, you read that right: you cannot hike the Haiku Stairs without trespassing on private land. However…

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Many people still do it. I had read differing accounts of closed gates, being stopped by security before being allowed to climb, and simply not being allowed at all. The stairs themselves are public domain, but the entrance to them is restricted. Catch-22.

So what was I do? Naturally, ignore the possibility of being detained by guards or Hawaiian police and just go for it.

From Kailua or indeed, any major town, you’ll have to taxi or drive into the Haiku Village neighborhood. At the farthest corner, you’ll come across a “no trespassing” sign (see above), or a closed gate. That’s your cue. From this point onward, you have to be mindful of security guards or just regular workers driving past who might report you.

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From the neighborhood, it’s only about a 10-20 minute walk to the base of the stairs. It’s pretty easy to follow the signs (and you can see the mountain the whole time, obviously). Before you turn into the driveway of the only building on site, take a right onto a well-worn path through the brush. This is where I ran into a little trouble.

I’m not scared of private security. However, having heard the warnings and knowing full well the illegality of what I was doing, I thought it was best to avoid guards at all cost (who knows what the fine would have been?). I later learned that some guards just allow hikers through if they’re in the mood or ask you to sign a waiver acknowledging the risk and lack of responsibility on the part of the city.

At the time, unfortunately, I knew none of this, and went to absurd efforts to stay hidden. The path from the main road cut through the brush and led through a chain-link fence alongside another road. Before I emerged into the clearing, I saw a car parked directly in front of the hole in the fence. Assuming it was a guard, I ducked in the brush, climbed the fence further down, and crawled underneath the road.

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Looking at how scraped up my arms and legs are – and forgetting scolopendra subspinipes could have been on the ground – it seems like a stupid risk in retrospect. Nevertheless, I was looking for a little adventure and didn’t mind a little blood and sweat to save myself getting cited or worse, not being able to hike at all.

Bypassing the guard and planting my feet back on the path, I came to the start of the steps:

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There should be almost 4000 steps before reaching the radio dish at the top peak. Before 2003, this path was incredibly dangerous and run down. It was refurnished and improved, but shortly after that, this property dispute came into play and cut off seasoned hikers from an awesome trail.

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The first 1000-2000 or so are probably the steepest and most difficult. Platforms like the one above offer respite, but you can manage to sit on some of the flatter steps as long as you hang on to the handrail (I really wouldn’t recommend this for the majority of the hike).

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After an hour or so, you’ll come to the first peak, complete with WWII-era rusted machinery and graffitied walls. The views here are just as spectacular, spanning over the mountain range between Kaneohe and Kailua, and almost within sight of Honolulu.

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At the very top, you’ll find another dilapidated structure with a radio dish and a surprising amount of garbage (what kind of idiot doesn’t take their trash off of the mountain?). Take a few minutes to appreciate the breeze and sun.

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For me, it was about 90 minutes from bottom to top, 60-70 back down. Though I would say coming down was incredibly dangerous; there’s definitely nothing to break your fall if you slip on a steep section of stairs, and you definitely shouldn’t be in a hurry. Not to mention avoiding another guard on the way back through the gate…

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2 Responses to Avoiding Guards at the Stairway to Heaven

  1. AT on January 13, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    Hi!

    I discovered your travel blog on twitter looking for recent info on the Haiku Stairs hike. I’m glad to hear that you were successful on your quest to conquer the Stairwell to Heaven!

    Some friends and I are looking to do the hike in mid February but was getting a little nervous as rumours online indicated that the guard was there 24/7 now, and that he sometimes calls the police who then gives them $600 fines on their way down. So my question for you is – what day and what time of day did you go? Also, was it difficult to bypass the guard? Did you just have to climb a fence further along the main gate?

    Anyway, any tips you can give me will be greatly appreciated! Hope to read more about your travels soon!

    Thanks!

  2. Turner on January 15, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    Thanks for reading! I saw the guard both coming and going, but I’m not sure whether the hikers ahead of me were ticketed. Either way, I wasn’t willing to take the risk and bypassed him completely… it was tricky. I had to duck into the underbrush and get a little scraped up. There wasn’t a clear trail around.

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