In November 2015, I met a German backpacker in my hometown of Perth. We talked about life, love and travel - ultimately these three things were one and the same. During a conversation, we ended up sharing some bucket list ideas, one of which he mentioned was the Haiku Stairs. I had never heard of this place before, and to be honest, I wasn't that curious at first. After all, what could be so appealing about climbing 3,922 steps? As it turns out, everything.
He told me about the stairs, and how they were initially built as an access pathway to a naval radio station situated atop the Ko'olau mountain range, on the Hawaiian island of O'ahu. He also told me about how over the years, structural damage had been caused by the elements, resulting in the government closing the area off to the public. Those caught trespassing could be fined or prosecuted.
"Well," I said, "I guess it's not worth the risk then."
He laughed and proceeded to show me pictures. "You know, they also call it the Stairway to Heaven..."
I looked at the pictures and I understood why.
In November 2016, while on a trip around North America to visit friends and family, my journey brought me to Hawaii. It was the first time I'd physically set foot on the island, however I had been many times before in my dreams. I stayed in O'ahu for a total of a week, and with each passing day, I debated within myself whether or not I wanted to make the climb. I was travelling by myself, and didn't know anyone who could act as a guide.
Day one, day two, day three... I wasn't sure. I knew the entrance was constantly guarded. I knew fines could reach US$600.
Day four, day five... I searched the internet for other travellers hoping to find like-minded adventurers with corresponding dates. No luck.
Day six arrived... This was the last day I had to decide. I would either have to do it on day seven or not at all.
I made up my mind.
I was going to do it.
So I ended up climbing the Stairway to Heaven. I did it by myself, and due to it being a last minute decision, I ended up going on a terrible day. It was cloudy, windy, and the view was very limited. However, I have no regrets. If you decide to go, I'm sure you won't either.
There are lots of great guides which you should check out - I'll link them at the end of this post. I've written this article based on my own journey, however, which will hopefully provide you with an additional perspective to consider. I'll also include some comparative information - a bit about me and the things I brought/used - just so you can estimate how easy or difficult the climb will be for yourself. Enjoy!
Name: Haʻikū Stairs, also known as the Stairway to Heaven
Location: Kaneohe, HI 96744, USA (official entrance point is roughly below the John A. Burns Fwy)
Distance: ~1.75 miles / 2.8 kilometres
Elevation: ~2,700 feet / 820 metres
Duration: Typically a 4-6 hour roundtrip
In my opinion, the main challenge of this hike relates to actually getting to the stairs. Once reached, the ascension may be slightly strenuous for some, however the navigation is not difficult, as the stairway is easy to follow and there are railings for guidance and safety.
Best time to go: This one is up to you.
The general consensus appears to be that 2-3am is the best time to go; that way, you'll be at the top to watch the sunrise. Since I was going solo, I didn't have a headlamp, and the weather wasn't great, I didn't want to risk getting stranded in the dark, so I went at noon.
From Honolulu to Kaneohe
- Car: approximately 30 minutes
- Bus: approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes (I think a combination of the #55 and #56 will get you close)
The best mode of transport should be based on your budget, timing, and tolerance for inconveniences. I had a rental car because I wanted to store clean clothes, shoes and additional snacks for after the hike. I also used the car to live out my dreams of being a spy, and stake out the various potential entrances the evening before.
There's plenty of street parking in the neighbourhood, but just make sure you park inconspicuously. I parked a little further away (near the intersection of Kahuhipa and Lolli Streets), because I didn't want to risk having a police officer or disgruntled neighbour waiting for me when I returned.
To the Stairs
The base of the Haiku Stairs is located within a private area, and under constant guard. Based on research via other blogs, there are three main points of entry (Route #1, #2 and #3), which I will briefly summarise below. The best illustration of these points I have seen is probably from 1 Life on Earth.
I took Route #2, so this I have the most information on, whereas you should consider reading additional material to find out more about Routes #1 and #3. As mentioned, I drove around the day before to have a look at each one - if you have a car, I suggest doing the same to familiarise yourselves with any potential hazards, and help determine which is the best option for you.
- Route #1: Circumvent a fence and then walk down a road.
This appears to be the most common path.
Besides climbing around the fence, which I heard has barbed wire (hence why you should check it out the day before), the route is relatively simple to navigate. You just have to follow the road. The only caveat is that you will definitely come across the guard, regardless of what time you go.
From what I can gather, as long as you remain composed and state that you understand the risks, the guard usually won't give you any trouble on the way up because if they call the police, by the time they arrive you'll be off in the mountains somewhere and ain't nobody got time for that. However, there's a higher chance of them trying to catch you out on the way down (although many people have returned unscathed, so let me know your thoughts on this!).
- Route #2: Climb down a stormdrain and weave through a forest.
This is the route I took. From the map, you can see that by taking this path, you can avoid bumping into the guard. Unfortunately you won't have a nice road to walk on, so be prepare to get a little dirty. Especially if you go on a rainy day.
The stormdrain is fenced off from the road, however there is a large enough gap on the left side for one to slip quietly through. I went around noon with the rationale that most people would be at work, and therefore there wouldn't be anyone to yell at me. I don't know if that legitimately worked, but I managed to get by without any trouble. I should note, however, that because of the weather that day, the embankment was fairly slippery - no trouble getting down, but I had to do an American Ninja Warrior Warped Wall-style run up to climb back out. Perhaps tying a rope/cord to the fence before climbing down could be useful on rainy days.
Anyway, after reaching the bottom, follow the drain until you reach the end. You'll be walking between houses, so make sure to stay quiet. At the end of the drain, you'll notice a broken down wire fence. Climb over it and continue into the forest.
It's difficult to specify which 'path' to take once you're in the forest, since there aren't any clear trials marked. As a general rule of thumb, use the highway as your bearing and aim to head westwards (to your right if you're facing the highway). I did see a couple of orange ribbons tied around trees as route markers, however I think some have come undone over time, so don't solely rely on these.
At first, the ground will be relatively flat. There should be a waterway crevice (natural, not concrete like the stormdrain) which progressively gets deeper the further you walk into the forest. This should remain to your left as you progress, and you should aim to keep moving south-westwards of it. I made the mistake of walking along it and ended up having to rappel up a muddy wall using tiny cords left by the poor soul before me. It was not only filthy and tiring, but also unnecessary, as I realised after I managed to make the return journey without encountering it again.
After a couple of minutes walking you should reach a second wire fence. From where you stand, you should be looking up at it, and there should be an opening where you can climb under using various tree roots, and up onto higher ground. Once you're up, it's more walking! Keep heading south-west.
You'll notice the ground starting to incline.The point at which I intersected the Haiku Stairs from Route #2 was roughly at an equivalent elevation as the highway. Therefore if you're way below it, you need to keep climbing. After a while, you should reach a third torn down wire fence - if it's not torn down, you're not in the same place that I was, but that's okay, as long as you can get over it. Climb past it and keep heading south-west, until you reach a road.
I believe this road is used when the guards change over (if you were to continue down the road you would bump into the guard on duty), so just be wary when approaching it. I did see a car coming at one point, and had to use my cat-like reflexes to jump behind a bush. If the road is all clear, walk west along it until you start to see bamboo trees on your left. For reference, the road should be running parallel somewhat below the highway.
When you start to see the bamboo, you should divert from the road and head south-west again. The reason I suggest to move further south is to avoid being seen by the guard - bamboo plants don't offer too much cover, so you don't want to wander too close alongside the road. By going south-west, you'll still be climbing upwards.
I took a slightly different path going up than down, hence on my way down, I noticed a series of ropes tied between trees as stability aids for climbers. If you come across these, then that's great! I was there too! But if not, don't worry, as long as you're heading south-west you should be fine.
Once you notice you're roughly on par with the elevation of the highway, there's no further need to continue going south. Head directly west and eventually you should reach a point where you see some old wood ladders which have been wedged between various trees. Congratulations! You're almost at the stairs.
Climb up the ladders. Be really careful as the wood may be weathered, so ensure that you test to durability of each step before placing your full weight on it. As you ascend, you'll see a ladder that reaches intersects the stairs. HOORAY!
- Route #3: Circumvent a fence and then weave through a forest.
To be honest, this is the route I'm least familiar with. I've seen the fence and it seems more difficult to get around than that of Route #1. That said, once you've gotten around it, you pretty much follow a similar path to Route #2 - head south-west until you reach the private road, and then traverse the bamboo forest.
For comparison's sake, I'm a 27-year old female, approximately 155cm tall, and of an average fitness ability. I don't do consistent exercise apart from day to day mobility (i.e. walking to the bus stop, leaving the office to get lunch, etc.), however I do like challenges, and that's probably what motivates me to get this sort of stuff done. Just prior to the Haiku Stairs, I did the Koko Head hike, which wasn't too difficult in my opinion, and I've also hiked up Bluff Knoll back in Western Australia,