The Allure of Heaven

My stance… Open up the gates of Haiku Stairs? Or lock people out?

The grand view atop Haʻikū Stairs, or “Stairway to Heaven” The two poles are were taken down shortly after a swing was put up between them and photos became viral on the Internet in 2016

Ah, Haʻikū Stairs. Also famously known as “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s been a controversial topic for many years now. Here is some background info on the stairs, courtesy of the Board of Water Supply website:

“ Haʻikū Stairs — also known as “Stairway to Heaven” and is comprised of 3,922 steps — was originally built by the U.S. Navy in the early 1940s to access its communications facilities along the ridge line of the Ko’olau Mountains above Haʻikū Valley. The U.S. Coast Guard converted the Navy’s communications facilities to its Omega navigation facility in 1975, and opened Haʻikū Stairs to the general public. But, in 1987, due to vandalism and liability concerns, the Coast Guard closed Haiku Stairs to the public.”

In 2005 the City & County of Honolulu spent nearly a million dollars renovating the stairs with the intent of opening it up to the general public. Unfortunately, such plans for public access never came to fruition due to the City Council at the time did not approve the transfer of land from the Board of Water Supply (BWS) to the Department of Parks and Recreation, thus the stairs remained closed and off-limits. The BWS hired a private security company to station a guard at the bottom of the stairs to ward off potential trespassers.

Yet, even after the stairs was declared off-limits, people continued to ascend the stairs. As a hiker, climbing up stairs is a boring task. However, the views gained by ascending the stairs is a rarely-seen treat. Access points to the Ko’olau Mountaintops from the Windward side are far and few between. And the stairs provide the easiest access point for those not accustomed to the hiking environment of Hawaii.

But years passed. Those who were sneaky enough to find a way past the guard and go up the stairs started to spread word about their accomplishments. The “mystique” of doing something that could get someone in trouble started to grow and grow. When the age of the Internet came in full swing, the floodgates opened. More and more people bragged or posted photos of being on the stairs. Bit by bit, the popularity of Stairway to Heaven started to spread all over the world. In the new age of digital media, it was easy for people to communicate with others about a stairway that was “forbidden.” All it took was a few well-known bloggers to spread the word about the stairs and then the masses came. Despite the writers saying it was illegal to do so, they posted the way and time they went. This allowed travelers from around the world to flood into the quiet neighborhood of Haiku Village.

Day by day, week by week, month by month, people wandered around the neighborhood finding thrill in doing something illegal and the possibility of getting caught. It gave them somewhat of an adrenaline rush. With the advent of Facebook and Instagram, it made things so easy for people to share photos and information. But think, how many people are out there? Many thrill seekers from across the globe have access to information as to how to get around the guard, what time to go, and where to go. For a place that’s illegal to access, this presents a problem for the neighborhood surrounding the stairs. Now you have hundreds and hundreds of people wandering around this quiet neighborhood at 2/3 in the morning. You have people making noise, waking up dogs, and even trespassing on the residents’ property. With the many people that do their absolute best to be all “secret agent man” and avoid alerting anyone, you have just as much people having a blatant disregard for the community and its peace.

The view people hope to get at the top when they scale up the stairs at 3 in the morning

I have personally seen an escalation in the disrespect that people have for the surrounding community. It was bad 5, 10 years ago. But there are certain communities on places like Facebook that have little to no regard on the impact that hikers have on the residents of Haʻikū Valley. The admins and moderators continue supporting such irresponsible behavior. Certain groups that don’t care about the community, as long as they get to do their illegal hike. And such, people blatantly share information that shouldn’t be made public to the masses. What is being done about that? Nothing. The residents grow weary. At times, they have taken matters in their own hands, confronting hikers and what happens? Physical altercations happen. Some hikers have this god-awful attitude of being like “I can do whatever I want!” Hikers go to the top, and leave their trash at the station that lies at the summit. Why? They carried a full water bottle up 3,922 steps only to toss it aside because they don’t wanna hike down with it? I’ve heard stories of residents being harassed by trespassing hikers. She recalled an account where a group pinned her daughter against the wall of their house so the rest of the group could continue trespassing along their property. Hikers using their water hoses to wash off the mud from their shoes. Where is the respect? Oh, well, as long as they get to do the stairs, and get their photo on social media, it’s of little concern, right? It’s getting worse and worse. Law enforcement has been minimal, at best. Of the thousands that do the stairs, maybe a couple hundred (at best) actually get a citation/fine. The residents are at their wits end.

On the other hand, the stairs and the station atop it was integral during the time of World War II. It definitely has a right to be preserved as a historical landmark and be taken care as such. It is an attraction that has the potential for great monetary gain under the right management. As I mentioned before, as a hiker that has seen many things on this island over the years, climbing up steel steps hardly constitutes as a hike. It’s just a really long leg workout that maybe lasts for an hour or less. But I do understand those that do it for the views. The journey up Stairway to Heaven can be a life-changing experience for some. There are those that do it for a personal reason. Perhaps as a symbol of conquering something that they are fighting against. For those people, I wholeheartedly understand. Someone put it best: the residents are so enamored with the bad hikers that they take for granted what really lies before them.

Over the years, both sides have been at odds as to what to do with the stairs. Recently, the BWS conducted an environmental impact study of the stairs and come up with a solution as to what should be done with the stairs. There are three possible options right now: 1) Tear it down, 2) Reopen it under managed access, and 3) Do absolutely nothing (the way it is now). Both sides can agree that option 3 is just not working. The angered residents would love to see it torn down. There are a few issues with this. How much will it cost to tear it down? Some people say only the section from the bottom to the first platform should be taken out. People have brought it up: You tell people that the stairs are going down, you’re gonna have even more people doing the stairs because they want to do it before it gets torn down. I’m already seeing it on Facebook. And then you’ll have those crazy people that would be willing to go up the ridge anyway. If only the bottom section is taken away and the rest of the stairs remain, there are other ways to reach the summit. The alternate ways are far more dangerous and way out of the league of most people. But then people on social media will tell everyone about these alternate ways and for those that aren’t experienced, it could mean serious injury or death.

The many landowners surrounding Haiku Stairs. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe, Public Laboratory

Reopening it under managed access is a possible solution. However, there are two big hurdles that would need to be addressed: A public access point and a guarantee that the residents will not be bothered anymore. With public access, there are many entities that own land surrounding the base of Haiku Stairs. The main issue here is trying to get these landowners to agree on such access. One or more of the entities would need to hand off a portion of their land and the entity that ultimately assumes control would assume liability. While actual rescues on the stairs are way below that of a place like Diamond Head (mainly due to being unprepared for the environment and overexerting themselves), liability is something that all of these entities would not want to have. At one time, the residents had no issue with people ascending up Stairway to Heaven. They really didn’t. But as the number of unruly and irresponsible hikers grew, they started to sway in the direction of wanting the stairs being torn down. If an access point can be achieved, they want a guarantee that they will never have to deal with hikers ever again. An independent group, called the Friends of Haʻikū Stairs (which I’ll call FoHS), know of two possible ways: Via Windward Community College or using the old Haiku Road. Going through Windward Community College avoids the neighborhood completely. Using the old Haʻikū Road is another possible solution. Proponents suggest if using this route, that there be a station outside of the community where people “check in” and then be shuttled to the base of the stairs. FoHS’ plan is to allow maybe 60 or so people on the stairs on a given day (or course, they could increase the number if it can be supported). That would alleviate the amount of people coming through the area. As for security, where the guard is now just doesn’t work. They need to prevent any unlawful hikers from accessing the stairs from the bottom. Any kind of managed access plan needs to have a guard permanently stationed where the stairs begin and/or possibly at the first platform. Once word gets out that where the guard is stationed and that people are actually getting cited (enforcement is key), it’ll deter people from even attempting to trespass through the neighborhood.

I personally think it is a good plan that can bring peace to the residents of Haiku Valley. But my opinion doesn’t matter. It’s the politicians, landowners, and residents that need to be persuaded. Right now, the residents have dealt with trespassing hikers for so long that it is “hard wired” in their minds to reject any kind of public access to the stairs. Whatever managed access plan that is proposed on would need to be drilled into their minds that they will never have to deal with hikers trespassing on their property. They would have to be guaranteed that they will not be woken up at 2–3 in the morning by barking dogs or loud talking. They would need to be assured that there will be peace in their community. For landowners, they would need to be assured that they would have no liability in the event something happens on the stairs. An independent group separate from the current entities could solve it, but what group would be willing to assume such a liability, especially with how many people go unprepared on a hike like Diamond Head? And then there’s the politicians. We all know our government is not perfect. The sad truth is that someone is in someone else’s pocket. Any plan to reopen the stairs would have to be very beneficial to any politicians involved or there’s gonna be a lot of red tape to deal with.

What is my opinion on the matter? As someone that has approached the top of Haiku Stairs from all directions, the easiest answer for me would to be indifferent on the matter. However, I am tired of all these bad apples ruining the name of good hikers. I do not wanna hear complaints of buses dropping off groups of 20–30 people in the dead of night (which I’ve already heard). I don’t wanna hear people falling off to their death or disappearing because they wanted to avoid the guard and attempted a route that was way beyond their skill level to reach the top of the stairs. I’m tired of seeing the trash accumulate at the top of the stairs. I have friends that have a dream of ascending Haʻikū Stairs from the bottom. I know people that respect the land. There are those that for them, it’s something more personal. Not for the selfie, not for the Instagram shot, but as a sense of accomplishment for something in their life. Its for those people that I would fight for reopening the stairs for. Make it public, destroy this stigma of being a “forbidden” hike. And I hope some people can then learn to keep their damn mouths shut.