Long, and unfortunate story short, yes, the infamous Stairway to Heaven climb in Oahu, Hawaii is technically a crime if you do it.
Before I start, I’d just like to shout a quick disclaimer out to any super-opiniated people who are going to go on an angry commenting frenzy before actually reading this article; at least try to read the whole thing first, because this is about information, not just my opinion, and that is the reason why I basically jumped through flaming hula-hoops to do the dangerous hike.
Anyway, like many people, I wasn’t fully clear about what the actual logistics and technicalities were about the whole illegal part of the Stairway to Heaven hike, which is also (originally) known as the Haiku Stairs. I was just another awestruck, wanderlust, adventurer who saw photos of the breathtaking, yet terrifying metal stairway that literally seemed to wind its way up to heaven, and decided I had to do it.
But when I posted about wanting to do the Stairway to Heaven hike on my Instagram, I started to get an idea of just how difficult it would be from people who had been, people who lived in Hawaii, and people who were also dying to do it.
The main takeaway that I gathered was that there was a guard you had to sneak past, you needed someone local to guide you to it in the middle of the night, and that it’s one of the most spectacular, sought after views in the World. Not joking. This place makes international news, yet no one is “allowed” to do it.
I didn’t quite understand it, since I couldn’t find much straight-to-the-point information about it. I just kept thinking, “Why would anyone forbid people to see something so beautiful, and achieve such a sense of awe?”
I thought maybe it was just something they said to keep the Stairway to Heaven somewhat preserved and secret, since if it were legal to climb it, I’m sure it would turn into something that could easily be referred to as the Great Wall of Oahu. For that reason, and the safety-risk reason, I could understand why it shouldn’t be allowed, but those aren’t exactly qualifications for being committed of a crime.
I’ll admit, that after seeing a face-palm-worthy video of a girl falling off a swing at the top of the mountain, I even thought that this Stairway to Heaven should be illegal to hike it, yet I still couldn’t help but wonder what made so many people do it anyway.
Well. Long, and yet another semi-unfortunate story short; I climbed the Stairway to Heaven, and I learned both why it was such a bucket list thing to do, and why it was illegal…the hard way. Yes, I got caught by the police, and was given a citation for trespassing (of $1,000). So I’m not going to say whether I think you should or shouldn’t do the hike, instead I’m going to share with you all of the information I gathered from my experience.
The official name of the stairway that winds through Oahu’s Ko’olau mountain range, is the Haiku Stairs. You may be wondering why the stairs are even there, right? My initial, over-imaginitive thoughts were that army soldiers built a secret staircase through the mountains, that led to a bunker or watch tower or something, which they’d go to back when there was a risk of invasion from the enemy.
I was close, but the stairs were actually built as a back up method to what used to be a cable car that ran up to the top of the mountains, where a very important radio tower was positioned by the Navy in 1942.
When the Navy base was decommissioned in the 1950’s, the wooden stairs were replaced with metal steps and ramps (which are what remain today), which total 3,922 altogether. It is said that the trail was open to hikers up until 1987 when the Stairway to Heaven was deemed too dangerous, and closed to the public.
Apparently years later (like A LOT of years), in 2003, the stairs were repaired, costing the city $875k (AKA meaning they obv were all for opening to the public), but in 2012, the land usage rights issues hadn’t been solved still, and they shut it back down.
So my initial big question was, “What mean person owns the land that this trail is on, and why won’t they let anyone on it?!” Well, in my mind I thought one random person owned the land, but what I found out after I got the citation, was that it’s actually owned by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, and the area leading up to it is the private property of several locals.
Why does a city’s water supply board care about people hiking a mountain? I found in a Business Insider article that quoted Huff Post, “The Honolulu Board of Water Supply has jurisdiction over the hike, and requires that anyone who goes up it sign waivers and present a $1 million liability insurance policy.” So my guess is because they could get very badly sued.
Anyone who looks at a photo of the Stairway to Heaven is guaranteed to say, “Woah”, whether it’s because you’re impressed, or terrified of heights. It really is as beautiful as it looks, and it’s almost hard to describe just how breathtaking it really was in person. The metal, rickety stairs are almost what I’d consider a piece of art, even though I’m sure the original architects weren’t expecting it to become so popular.
They’re strategically placed going vertically straight up the mountain side, and seem to lead straight up into the clouds as they go over a few different peaks, or what seems to look like, “heaven”.
Surrounding the stairs, is the jagged mountain top’s lush green plants and flowers, which grow abundantly due to the constant layer of clouds and mist that hang out that high up in the mountains. The birds-eye view of the surrounding mountains, valley, and city below is nothing short of spectacular, but in my personal opinion, what makes this hike stand out from others, is the iconic, slender metal stairway, that gives you a real feel of just how high up you are on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Aside from the incredible scenery, the feeling of triumph that you feel after you’ve climbed the “Stairway to Heaven” is something that was truly fulfilling. Those stairs are no joke; they’re steep, slippery, and there’s over 3,999 of them; a number that not many people are willing to climb, or even consider.
In my personal opinion, I also think that the whole “illegal” aspect makes the Stairway to Heaven hike more appealing. People tend to wonder and desire things that they can’t have, which makes me wonder if there could be a better alternative to legally and safely conducting the hike for a fee, rather than enticing people to do it dangerously at in the middle of the night to avoid getting caught.
As I mentioned before, I assumed that the Stairway to Heaven hike was illegal because it was dangerous. Then I realized that “dangerous” doesn’t exactly fall into a category of crime. But it does fall into the category of “liability” which heavily contributes to the actual reason why it’s illegal, which is trespassing on private property.
Since the stairway was built on the Honolulu Board of Water Supply’s land, that means they could technically be held liable for any injuries, deaths, or other misfortunes that happen on the property…and all of those things have happened, and will probably continue to happen in the future.
The stairs were also badly damaged during a storm last year, making them even more dangerous to climb, which is why there has been an increase in security since 2015.
The solution they have is to attempt keeping people off of the trail by having a security guard sit at the base where the trail starts, but that has only probably caused the hike to be even more dangerous, since the solution to avoiding him is to start the hike before he gets there...in the middle of the very dark and wet night.
Getting past the guard at night doesn’t mean you’re off the hook completely though. As soon as he sees people start the hike down he calls the police, who then can give any hiker on the property a citation for trespassing (like me), but also, according to the rather nice and apologetic officer that issued my citation, it’s technically something you can go to jail for as well.
Last year alone, there were 6 arrests, and 368 citations given out to trespassers (AKA hikers, INCLUDING locals). That means over $360,000 in charges. But the cops, court, and people of Oahu aren’t to blame, and aren’t doing it to take your money or be mean. In fact, in addition to the apologetic police officer, there was also the court security guard lady, both of my Uber drivers, and the county board members who I shall not name, who all basically looked at me with a smile and like they wanted to give me a high five.
I’ve already seen a couple of hasty comments on my photos about why I shouldn’t write about the Stairway to Heaven in general, why it’s “stupid” for people to attempt such a dangerous hike, why it’s “not fair to the locals because it costs the tax payers money if someone gets injured and has to get helicoptered out”, which is why I’ll say; Yes, it is a very dangerous hike, and the last thing I’d want is for anyone to get hurt, break the law, or cause any other human grief.
BUT, here’s a very important little fun fact:
The main problems with the Stairway to Heaven are; safety, liability, and costs.
After the storm last year, the City of Honolulu considered tearing down the stairs all together, which would cost roughly around $5 million. That means now a new problem, is keeping the Stairway to Heaven preserved in general.
I found an organization online called the Friends of the Haiku Stairs, who actually work hard to keep the stairs intact by picking up trash and maintaining the plants that would otherwise smack people in the face as they’re climbing.
They are trying to help find a solution, which according to an article on Yahoo, is now heavily focused on keeping them intact in general, helping to get the damages fixed, and implementing a new money-making strategy for the stairs which is said to be a $100 fee for visitors.
While I’m sure none of the locals want the stairway to be turned into a tourist attraction, I think the money that could be made by charging people to hike it would help go towards the costs that are needed to repair and maintain it.
I will update this article with more information as I find it.