Stairway to Heaven: Oahu's Famously Illegal Hike

3:04 PM

Preface: This trail is not open to the public, trespassing can/will result in being fined and/or arrested. Besides being illegal, this hike is extremely dangerous. Read my safety disclaimer.
The Ha'ikū Stairs trail is the most famous hike on Oahu. The 3,922 rickety steps to the top of the mountain earned it the name “Stairway to Heaven”.
This trail’s reputation for beautiful views is overshadowed by it’s notorious illegality. The hefty fines and threat of jail time do not stop hikers from attempting this dangerous climb. 

We all know the rumors surrounding this hike. I know people who had to be airlifted out after falling down the mountain, which is not uncommon. We hear the news stories about the people who never come back down, yet we see hikers on the steps every time we drive on the H-3 freeway. I have been wanting to do this hike for years but always put it off because of how dangerous it is and because I did not want to get arrested. After hearing that there were plans to tear them down, I decided it was time to check this off my bucket list.

Other than my normal hiking gear, I brought the following:
-workout gloves for the slippery, rusty handrails
-change of clothes because it rains constantly on this side
-headlamp/flashlight

The Trailhead


We decided the best time to be up there was during sunrise, so we met in the neighborhood at 4:30AM. On the way to the trailhead we passed 2 girls who had turned around at the sight of the security guard, these girls relayed to us that a man in one of the houses was taking photos of them and telling them to leave. We trudged on. Not long after, an old man came out of his house and I was sure he was going to threaten us, instead he told us to have fun and be safe.

We made it to the “No Trespassing” sign, climbed around it, and began to walk down the road when we saw a vehicle at the trailhead. The guard got out of his car and told us that by continuing we would be fined $600 or spend up to 6 months in jail. That did not stop our group, even though I strongly considered turning around, and as we continued the guard wished us luck and a safe journey.

Still dark, but with the full moon over us, the stairs were pretty easy to see and within a few minutes I was already taking off my hoodie to keep from overheating.








1st Platform

The part to the first platform took us about 30 minutes and the steps to it were relatively steep. In some areas I climbed the stairs like a ladder as it stretched straight up. This is where the headlamps came in handy, the stairs were harder to see when you had to look directly up. We also had to climb over the area that was damaged in last year’s storm, it was a little sketchy in the dark, but not bad on the way back. We stopped to rest and take in the sights on the platform. At this point we were only a third of the way up. The lights from the sleeping city below us shined from the high vantage point.







2nd Platform


This platform took us about 20 minutes to reach and was not as steep as the first section. There would be a stretch of steep steps and the a stretch of flat steps. We were lucky to come across another group of hikers here who offered us gummy bears as they danced to loud music. We sat for a little while to drink water and cool down. 

Heaven

Overall, it took us 1.5 hours to get to the top. The last stretch of the stairs was easier than the previous ones, it was more flat and less steep. The rails at this point were more narrow. We could see the flashlights from groups in front of us who had already made it to the top. The sun was beginning to rise so we went much faster up this part. After moving at a consistent pace and working up a serious sweat from the climb, I had to put my layers back on and wear a beanie to keep warm above the cloud line. There were a few dozen people already hanging out in and on the old, WWII radio station. Cameras were set up on tripods and some hikers had cracked open some beers.

Watching the sun rise through the mist over the island was stunning, the colors were so brilliant and getting to see this unfold from what seemed like the top of the world was unreal. I could see the Mokes off Lanikai, Chinaman’s Hat, Mount Olomana’s 3 peaks, and Kaneohe’s incredible sandbar and reef. Unfortunately, the clouds concealed most of the Ko’olau mountains so I could not see what was behind us, but I have heard it is just as incredible. I could not take enough photos.

The Descent 


Going down was much easier than the going up had been. It was foggy so the rails were a little more wet but it was not nearly as physically difficult and we did not need to stop for photos this time. Most areas we were able to go down like it was a normal staircase, but other areas we had to go down backwards, like climbing a ladder. 

Myself and another girl in our group were anxious to get back down, but since the others were taking more photos, we decided to just go ahead. We tagged along behind another group of hikers and they told us that their friend had already made it down and had been told by the guard that police were coming. We decided to stick with this group to stay updated on the situation at the bottom of the stairs. As we continued, more hikers joined us and it was not long before we could see the bottom. 

Stealth Mode

We could eventually see the guard’s car parked in the clearing and parked next to him was a cop. We all looked at each other, wondering what to do. We continued down, talking about how we could get out of the ticket/jail time, what excuses would work, if we should just ditch the stairs and climb down the mountain. We saw the cop car drive after a group of hikers who had gotten down just before us. Two brave souls decided to venture out and check if the cop had truly gone. Once we saw that we were in the clear the 15 of us who had accumulated on the stairs made a mad dash past the guard and into the bamboo forest behind him, disregarding the trail. We were told by the others that the guard said the fine was now $10,000 or 6 years in prison.

After walking through the bamboo forest, we had made it to an open area and found a fence with a hole in it leading into more forest. We crawled through the hole, one by one, to get back under the cover of trees. All the while, one guy holding the fence up and telling the others to hurry before the cops came back. I felt like I was in a war zone. We walked for several minutes before the line of people stopped suddenly and the guy in front told us to keep quiet. We all stood silently in the bamboo, not daring to speak. At last, we began to move forward, cautiously. We came out of the forest behind a rundown building with rusty machinery covered in vines. Nobody knew where we were. Some guys in the group were in the military and had experience with land navigation, these dudes ended up getting us back to the original trail after our little detour in the bamboo.

We had made it to an open road where we all naturally walked under the tree line. Someone shouted, “Vehicle!” and we all darted for the cover of the trees. Turned out to be nothing, but we were all pretty scared of getting caught. Once we could see the end of the trail and civilization the whole group broke into a run for the fence. We climbed around the barbed wire and wooden blocks and were finally safe. My heart had been pounding like crazy, but we made it.

The Experience 

I am glad I finally did this hike. It was scary, it was strenuous, but it was an adventure. From the fear of falling to the fear of getting arrested this hike was a wild ride. The views from the stairs were so surreal and the climbing made my legs feel like jello. It was cold but the constant moving made you hot and sweaty. This hike is NOT for beginners or anyone with a fear of heights. The stairs were pretty sturdy and very few steps were loose or broken. This hike was wet, cold, slippery, and exhilarating. Chances are that I will not do this hike again because I probably would not reflect so positively on it if we had been caught.

Thoughts on Illegal Hiking

I have pretty strong feelings about all the illegal hikes on Oahu, especially after being stopped on numerous trails. Countless hikes have been closed for numerous reasons and hikers are arrested or made to pay fines when caught. I feel that this hike, among others, needs to be reopened to the public, regardless of the dangers or reasons behind their closures. When hiking, we inherently take on multiple risks and we do so willingly. I knew that there was a slim chance I would not make it down the mountain, I know this every time I put on my hiking shoes. If people are willing to, literally, go off the beaten path to avoid being arrested for hiking a trail, then we would be better off opening the hike for public use. Many people have perished trying to complete this hike without being caught. This is such a popular hike that the City and County of Honolulu could make money by charging hikers a fee, having them sign a waiver, and repairing the steps. Instead, they choose to fine the hundreds a week that attempt this climb. Closing trails does not deter those with a spirit of adventure, it simply makes it more dangerous to hike.

Mahalos,
Alecia <3


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