I have hiked the Stairway to Heaven Trail on Oahu, Hawaii and I have several friends who hike it regularly. This blog post will be updated regularly with information that many people share with me about the topic so that you can be best prepared for your hike up the infamous stairway.
UPDATED 1/1/2020: Fines have been reported as approximately $1000, with people receiving them recently. Security has been upgraded and there is now not only security but also a frequent (but not constant) police presence. Police helicopters have been reported but are very infrequent. Police waiting at the top of the hike to book hikers is very uncommon.
Discussions about tearing the stairs down or repairing them continue as it has for years with no major breakthroughs on either side. I have detailed the debate about what to do with the Stairway to Heaven hike at the bottom of this blog post if you are interested in what all the controversy is about.
I have included a section in this article about the back way up the Stairway to Heaven. This route is much longer. However, it is legal and you still get to reach the viewpoint of the Haiku Stairs. You don’t actually use the stairs to reach the viewpoint but you can still walk partway down the stairs for some photos before returning to the summit and heading back down the legal route.
Taking the back way would be my advice to those wanting the experience of the Haiku Stairs but also want to avoid any chance of a big fine or running into the police. I’ve also included the contact of a local guide who takes people up the back way. This way you get the thrill of the hike but also respect the local neighborhood who is incredibly frustrated with the constant trespassing by now.
*This post was originally written in 2016 and the situation has changed since then regarding security, fines, the condition of the stairs.
THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN HIKE ON OAHU, HAWAII
The Stairway to Heaven on Oahu, Hawaii, also known as the Haiku Stairs, is possibly the greatest attraction on the entire island. 3,922 stairs lead up the imposing mountain ridge, often at a vertical incline, with only a hand-rail to catch you from falling into the valley below.
Originally the stairs were built in 1942 by the U.S. Navy as a top-secret facility for transmitting radio signals to ships that were sailing in the Pacific Ocean. The stairs were then opened to the public until 1987 when they were deemed unsafe because of disrepair.
The city of Honolulu spent almost a million dollars repairing the stairs and was considering re-opening the stairs in 2002 but resident complaints and safety concerns halted the re-opening and the stairs have been closed ever since. That hasn’t stopped hikers and tourists sneaking past a guard who is posted at the bottom of the stairs to experience the thrilling 4000ft long hike along an 18-inch wide staircase reaching heights of above 2000ft.
WHY I DID THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN ON OAHU
I had been on Oahu for over a year and despite contemplating the hike many times, the rumor of a $600 possible fine had scared me off. I was a college student trying to pay rent and that kind of fine could incur real financial trouble for me. I listened to time after time as my friends would recount their experience of an amazing sunrise experience or about how they managed to sneak past the guard through the bamboo forest. I was also enticed by the many photos I had seen highlighting this extraordinary climb and views. I didn’t want to miss the unique opportunity of taking my own photos of this unbelievably scenic hike before I left Hawaii despite knowing it would be breaking the law.
As time passed, the instances of the $600 fines being handed out seemed to have become more commonplace and many people began meeting the police at the bottom of the hike after they had descended back down the stairs. My nervousness about being caught kept my desire to attempt the hike at bay.
I had two friends visit and had promised them if the opportunity arose we would try and do the craziest hike they could imagine so they were already pumped for the Stairway to Heaven. One fateful night, the weather seemed perfect and we made a last minute decision to go for it.
GETTING PAST THE GUARD AT STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN ON OAHU, HAWAII
We were dropped off in the neighborhood at 2 am in the morning on a very clear night, only a few light clouds hovered over the mountains looming above. As soon as we stepped out of the car a neighbor came rushing out of his front yard yelling at us with his phone pressed angrily to his ear. Startled by the old man walking towards us we quickly shuffled away to the “main entrance” only to find someone jumping out beaming a flashlight at us.
Well, that was an interesting start! We crept off in the opposite direction toward an alternate entry point, well aware that the old man had been on the phone to the guard and quite possibly the police, warning them of our arrival. This heightened our sense of adventure considerably.
Walking through the neighborhood with our crew of six, as quietly as possible, our presence soon became blatantly obvious as a chain reaction of dogs blew our cover. With no other choice, we hurried down the street to a small lane that led up a hill. We had to clamber over a barbed wire fence one by one that was very close to a neighboring home. I can definitely understand why people jumping this fence every night would be very annoying. I did feel some remorse for the neighbor trying to get a good night’s sleep but unfortunately, our mission was going ahead despite the barbed wire fence.
From here we had to sneak our way through knee-high undergrowth as quietly as six tired and anxious people in the dark can. A silhouetted figure appeared in the foliage twenty yards behind us and began yelling but we quickly scuttled towards the path and out of the shrubbery. We were now approaching the guard and we could make out a car in the distance. Already on private property and having passed multiple no trespassing signs we were understandably quite nervous.
TIME TO CLIMB THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN ON OAHU, HAWAII
No one was at the car so we walked straight past it and towards the stairs. I felt a huge relief as we began our ascent up the stairs as it is commonly known that the guards and police don’t usually climb the stairs to confront people. It felt like we were safe and could now enjoy our 3 am hike to heaven.
In 2015 a huge storm damaged several sections of the stairs to the point where they were severely mangled. It isn’t incredibly dangerous but it definitely makes things interesting. A number of the stairs are loose and each step had to be taken with that in mind.
We hiked without headlamps and the full moon guided us up the narrow, damp staircase. I stopped frequently to peer down at the Highway that continually got smaller and smaller as we climbed towards platform one.
The full moon illuminated the stairs ahead of us and the smell of damp metal covered our hands as we made sure to always have a good grasp on the slippery railing. We continued to make our way carefully up towards platform two, where we found an abandoned cabin with old machinery lying inside. It felt as if we were on a post-apocalyptic movie, the last survivors searching for any other signs of life.
After almost two hours we were moments from reaching the summit. The final section of the hike has boards rather than stairs, which create a catwalk 2000 ft in the air on top of a sharp ridge.
THE TOP OF THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN HIKE!
At the summit, we found another old cabin with huge antennae on top. We wandered around for a little investigating our playground in the clouds before we returned to the warmth of the bunker to wait for the sun to rise. Packing a spare change of clothes was a game changer. Being able to put on a dry shirt and jacket made a huge difference in combating the wind at the summit.
After a short wait the sky began to glow a pale blue, then a purple and all of a sudden the sun attempted to break through the haze. It wasn’t the sunrise of the year but it shone yellows and oranges throughout Haiku Valley and lit up the stairway we had just climbed.
More than thirty people witnessed the sunrise with us and we watched them begin the descent down the group by group. We began to contemplate when we should head down and which way we should go. The Moanalua Trail, is a 6-mile route down that would help you avoid the guards but you would also miss the views of the stairway on the way down and it would take 3-4 times as long.
THE JOURNEY BACK DOWN THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
We decided to follow the crowd and headed down the stairs, only one old man remained at the summit when we left. The hike down was a photographer’s dream with hundreds of prime photo opportunities. We weren’t in a rush so I decided to hike most of the descent by myself so I could enjoy composing and setting up different shots.
It is amazing to walk up in the dark and then see where you hiked as you descend down in the daylight. It took us less than two hours to make it to the beginning of the stairs. We could see the guard’s red truck parked at the foot of the stairs where it was in the morning but we decided to take the risk.
MEETING THE GUARD ON THE WAY DOWN
In the end, we didn’t clamber through the bamboo forest as many others do, we took a deep breath and walked straight up to the guard. He smiled, exhaled his cigarette smoke as he smirked, “I’ve called the cops, they must not have come,” as he began laughing to himself.
It was his response that made us feel better about the whole situation. Even the guard knows it is a bunch of politics stopping adventures from hiking this trail. He had probably hiked it a bunch back in the day and kind of just sent us on our way with a ‘hurry up and get out of here’ kind of look.
Winding our way in and out of bamboo shoots we emerged from the forest inside an elementary school to the dismay of a worker. We apologized and put our heads down and followed his orders to take the gate out. We were almost free.
Making our way towards the final gate, we spilled into the neighborhood and saw no signs of any police or angry neighbors. I couldn’t believe we had just hiked the Stairway to Heaven.
This is truly one of the wonders of the world and makes you feel incredibly small, almost like an ant climbing a hill. The atmosphere of the hike is dreamy, eerie and post-apocalyptic. It is definitely something you should attempt when visiting Honolulu.
We recommend that if you do this hike, try as hard as possible to attempt it with someone who has been before. Show respect for the neighbors as much as possible and know that you are likely trespassing and breaking the law.
The Alternate Route to the Stairway To Heaven
As I mentioned in the blog post there is an alternate route down and therefore, also an alternate route up. You can completely avoid the guards and security at the start of the trailhead if you follow the Moanalua Trail. The hike begins at the Moanalua Valley road trail and is a 9.3-mile round trip. You will get muddy.
Although it is legal, it is still a tough hike. There are multiple sections with rope climbs and very steep, muddy ascents. Once you reach the top you can walk down the stairs and get some cool photos. In fact, you can go quite a far way down the stairs because the guards and police usually only wait at the bottom. I think they are too lazy to chase people up the stairs every morning. So, for the Instagram chiefs out there, you can get all of the angles and shots you have dreamed about… legally. This route also does a good job of not waking up the neighbors as you jump fences and sneak around at 3 am.
I highly advise you guys to hike Stairway to heaven this way. You will avoid a possible fine of up to $1000 and not risk getting involved with the police. You won’t piss off the poor neighbors who have to deal with everyone running around their neighborhood each morning. You will still get the same shots of the stairs as you would going the other way just with a bit more effort. You also get to hike Moanalua Trail, which is an awesome hike too!
If you are interested in climbing the back (legal) way up to the summit you can contact @mike.karas on Instagram and chat with him about when his next tour is running.
Should the stairs be pulled down?
There have been several possible solutions thrown around about the future of Stairway to Heaven on Oahu, Hawaii. How could it be possible to make the hike open to the public and also respect the neighbors right to privacy and safety in their own yard? Here are the options that have been discussed so far in the media, forums and by the state.
1. Charge tourists/out of state visitors $50-100 to hike the stairs while the hike remains free for residents of Hawaii. The money can be spent on creating a small parking lot, maintaining the trail and creating a safe entrance and exit points.
2. Require all people to purchase a permit for $10 from the Parks and Recreation Department before hiking the Stairway to Heaven. This paper would need to be shown at the entrance to the stairs or checked at any time during the hike. This would take the liability away from the state and is similar to the rules and regulations for camping grounds.
3. Paid tours with guides could remove the liability from the state and put the responsibility on tour companies who would need to act responsibly and safely with their clients. This isn’t a great option for residents who don’t necessarily want a guide.
4. Close the hike, pull down the stairs and the liability is then gone. Unfortunately, this won’t ever work because people will still hike up to the summit and without the stairs, there may be a higher risk of injuries or fatalities for hikers.
5. Use a lottery system similar to other national parks, which allow only a small number of lucky lottery winners into the park each month.
What do you think the best solution could be? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Stairway to Heaven Hike Packing List
Don’t carry too much as it is very steep . and you want to be agile for the climb. Pack the basics. The main two things to pack that are a make or break for your experience are the headlamp and the dry clothes for the summit. The headlamp means you have two hands-free to climb, which is super important and the dry t-shirt will be your saviour at the summit as your body cools down, the wind picks up and you have an hour to wait for sunrise.
Hiking shoes – I did it in sneakers but the more grip the better as it can be slippery
Rain Jacket – The weather can turn quickly in the mountains
Spare t-shirt (to change into at the top to be dry and warm as you will sweat through your original shirt)
Headlamp – So you can keep your hands free instead of holding a torch.
2-3 Liters of water – You will sweat a lot on this hike because of the tropical conditions and incline
Snacks – Make sure you pack some granola bars as you will need to replenish your energy at the summit
Camera – This is a once-in-a-lifetime view so whether it is your phone, GoPro or camera make sure you can grab a snap as a memory
Where is the Stairway to Heaven?
This map below shows the pin location of the satellite at the top of the stairway to heaven on Oahu. From here you will have to decide on whether you trespass and jump fences or attempt the Stairway to Heaven trail from the back entrance. I highly encourage the latter.
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What to pack for a trip to Hawaii
What to pack for Hawaii?: After multiple trips to Hawaii, there are some items you NEED to pack. I wrote a blog post with all of my suggestions about things you might not think about packing: THE HAWAII PACKING LIST: WHAT TO PACK AND WHY
Where to stay on Oahu
Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort (Overall Favorite): In the heart of Waikiki, this high-end resort is right on the beach. Luxury rooms overlooking the beach, a private lagoon and a free fireworks and dance performance show. Hilton is easily the most recognizable hotel on the Island.
Why I recommend this hotel: It has its own private lagoon. While lots of people love the beach it is perfect for families. Kids can kayak, swim and snorkel with no worries. There are no currents, waves or sea creatures to worry about. The hotel is right on Waikiki Beach so don’t worry the beach is right there also.
Sheraton Waikiki (Luxury): A luxury resort with the most amazing infinity pool on the island, which overlooks the beach. The bar and nightclub at the Sheraton is a great place to relax after a long day of island adventures.
Why I recommend this hotel: The Sheraton is always exceptional no matter the location but imagine you are leaning over the edge of an infinity pool, the ocean is below you and you turn to your left and watch Diamond Head crater in the distance. That’s where you will be at the end of each day, having a Mai Tai cocktail in your infinity pool. Later on, in the evening Rumfire is a great bar venue, which is actually part of the Sheraton. It is open to the public and is one of the best high-end venues on Oahu. It has a small dance floor but is mostly standing and seating areas for drinks, chats and good times.
Ewa Hotel Waikiki: (Value): Hotels in Waikiki can be expensive. Deciding where to stay on Oahu can be difficult if you don’t have much cash. Luckily, there is an accommodation option on the edge of Waikiki that is excellent value.
Why do I recommend this hostel/hotel: This is the perfect hotel if you want location but are willing to sacrifice a pool and some luxury items to save up to $200 per night. All of the hotels in this area are minimum $300 per night and often much more. Ewa Hotel is just one block back from the beach and is just over $150 USD. If you are like me, I never swim in the hotel pool anyway. Didn’t you come halfway across the world to swim in the beach!
Waikiki Beachside Hostel (Budget Choice): A budget alternative, which is still in an amazing location. Walking distance to Waikiki beach and a central location to base yourself for a week of adventures.
Why I recommend this hostel: Unfortunately Waikiki and Honolulu, in general, are not cheap. You can grab a dorm room for under $35 a night within walking distance to Waikiki surf beach. This location really is great. You are near a lot of attractions and can take public transport to a lot of great east coast beaches and hikes. It is the number one hostel in Waikiki and I’m sure you will meet other adventurers to go on hikes with!
Disney Aulani Resort (Family Choice): This is a resort your kids will never forget. It honestly feels like a theme park at times with just how many pools and activities are available. If you can afford it, this is the #1 place to stay for families on Oahu.
Why I recommend this hotel: Disney Aulani Resort combines luxury accommodation with family fun. A huge lazy river/tire tube lagoon is probably the highlight of the resort although the water slides and private beach aren’t too far behind. The kids club and massage center are just among a few of the many activities included in your stay. Attend ukelele lessons, free fire-pit story-telling at night and more and more! Your kids will never be bored and the quality of entertainment and facilities is just beyond amazing.
MORE OAHU BLOG POSTS
I lived on Oahu for two years and loved adventuring from the beaches to the mountains to the waterfalls! These are my most popular blog post and guides from the beautiful island of Oahu to help you plan your trip!
What to pack for Hawaii: THE HAWAII PACKING LIST: WHAT TO PACK AND WHY
A helpful guide to choosing accommodation: WHERE TO STAY ON OAHU: WHICH REGION IS BEST FOR YOU?
Most epic hike on Oahu: THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN OAHU, HAWAII: UPDATED 2018
The best Waterfalls: 11 AMAZING WATERFALLS ON OAHU, HAWAII
Ultimate Cliff Jumping Guide: 11 BEST CLIFF JUMPING SPOTS ON OAHU, HAWAII
Guide to Swimming with Sea Turtles: WHERE TO SEE TURTLES ON OAHU, HAWAII
The Best Hikes on Oahu: 10 BEST HIKES ON OAHU, HAWAII
My favorite experience on Oahu: AMAZING DOORS OFF HELICOPTER TOUR OF OAHU, HAWAII
The Ultimate Guide to Oahu: 80 THINGS TO DO ON OAHU – THE BUCKET LIST