Parking along Kuneki Street, Kaneohe, Hawaii 96744
Note: the surrounding neighbors really don’t like hikers parking in their neighborhood (or even hiking) so avoid blocking anyone’s driveway or mailbox!
Alright, I’m just going to admit right now that I’ve been intimidated by this post. I went on this incredible hike back in May (I cannot believe it’s already mid-July!) and have been putting off this post – and any other post – for a few reasons: 1. There are already so many great posts on the internet explaining the in-depth and semi-not-so-secret labyrinth to the base of the stairs, 2. I feel like my words and photos wouldn’t even justify the beauty and 3. Let’s be honest, I’m truly just really lazy. However, unlike every other hike I’ve done, this one actually involved a little research. As I mentioned before, I scavenged Google and Pinterest for the exact details for this perfect hike.
The anticipation was growing and growing as I saw the incredible pictures and the views of Kaneohe and a majority of Oahu’s Windward side. According to Wikipedia (yes I trust the validity of Wikipedia regardless of what my high school history teacher taught me), the stairway was originally wooden and was built by the United States Navy during World War II. It was built to allow the Navy to access a radio station antenna 2,000 feet up the summit and transmit radio signals to the ships that were operating throughout the Pacific. In the 1950s, the stairs were replaced with the steel steps that you climb up today which led to a Coast Guard Navigation Station – closed since the 1980s. Let me tell you, it would have been a lot more dangerous if the stairs were still wooden.
As I continued this extensive research, I found myself worrying about being caught. Since 1987 it’s been deemed “too dangerous” and is now off-limits to the public. Even though it was allegedly “fixed” in 2003, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply (owners of the land) shut it back down. At the time we went on the hike, we had heard that the fine was around $700 per person. Today, however, I’ve heard rumors that the fine is around $1000 and possibly even jail time/mandatory community service (even for tourists-jeez!). I’ll get into the details about our experience later, but thankfully we did not have to pay any fine or spend a night with the HPD. In my opinion, which you totally don’t have to listen to, is that the stairs are an easy way for the Hawaii police to meet their quotas toward the end and beginning of each month and that it’s also a pretty huge liability for the Board of Water Supply.
I found many stories about the hike being “scary” or “too dangerous,” but honestly, the scariest thing about the hike was whether you were going to be caught or not. However, this didn’t stop us from trying. I talked with a few friends who had done the hike before and with their tips + internet research, we were able to find the trail – not that it was that difficult I just really didn’t want to get caught. Since a majority of the research suggested arriving to the hike in the middle of the night (before the guard arrived) and with enough time to see the sunrise from “heaven,” we planned to leave the house at 0300, but of course didn’t actually leave until 0330-ish. We made the 45-minute drive on my favorite highway, H3, although not as beautiful as during the day, stopped at a nearby gas station for some Gatorade, and finally parked along Kuneki Street. We weren’t really sure where to park because we heard that the neighbors in the vicinity of the gate hate hikers, which couldn’t have been more accurate. We just made sure to not block anyone’s driveway, walkway, or mailbox.
At this point we ran into some other adventurous rebels and traversed the obstacle-ridden entrance to the road that led to the trail which led to the actual base of the stairs. The first obstacle is the main gate, which is open during the day to allow vehicle access (surprisingly). On the right side of the gate there is an opening under the fence which could easily fit a mid-sized person, if they’re willing to get their clothes dirty. The other option, is to climb up the hill on the right and make your way approximately 10 feet or so around the gate. Be careful though because it’s been rigged with barbed wire (Abby is thankful she had her tetanus shots), bells, metal sheets, and other objects that make a lot of noise if you hit them wrong. Just remember to be careful, quiet, and respectful to the neighbors who so obviously don’t want people enjoying the spectacular views and the experience that the Haiku Stairs provide.
Thankfully we went on this quest with a friend who had recently completed it and knew exactly where the trail started. It was on the left side of the road probably 200-300 yards from the gate and marked by a red “no trespassing” sign covered in stickers and graffiti. This isn’t the trail that starts the ascent to heaven though. Instead, you must walk through thick trees, tall grass, and a bamboo forest. Key Tip: make sure to wear a head lamp and watch your footing because it might be very muddy. We made our way through the bamboo forest to the hard paved road which we were told led to the guard at the base of the stairs. If you’re super nervous about getting caught – and maybe we should have been more anxious – there are pathways through the woods, but I see this being very difficult in the dark. Instead, we turned off our head lamps and walked directly past the guard. He was nice and informed us of what we already knew “You are trespassing.” We thanked him politely and made our way up the trail. The official “No Trespassing” fence is cut open just enough for a hunched body to walk through. The climb is finally underway.
This astonishing hike provides you with a little bit of everything: gorgeous views, just enough adrenaline, a little secrecy, and a major workout.
I’ll share the next part of the hike via our amateur photography skills and few words.
In the middle of the Ko’olau mountain range, the 3,922 steps lead up to the Pu’u Keahi a Kahoe summit. I was actually tempted to count each step to see if that number was accurate, but 1. I lost count after like 50 and 2. That’s a very exact number to be lying about so I’ll just take their word for it.
When we were at the top of the summit, we contemplated going down the backway-the ridgeline that is the legal portion of the hike. That was our original plan anyway, to avoid getting caught by the police, but it was way too windy, cloudy, and slippery to go that way so we decided to just descend back down the stairs. The descent was a lot more difficult than the initial climb because of the awkward steepness of some sections which forced you to turn around and grab onto the stairs to climb back down.
We (meaning I) got so nervous when we were nearing the bottom to reach the guard. He can obviously see you from the road plus I had my bright white rain jacket on still. We contemplated taking a route to the right because it was now light out, but decided to face the consequences after searching to see if there were any police cars. Supposedly, the guard is not able to give out tickets, but will call the police to write the tickets to trespassers on their way down. Outrageously, we walked right past the security guard, down the road, back through the bamboo forest, and back to our car. I wasn’t ready for the comments that we got from the neighbor about how terrible of people we were, but we just kept walking to the car and drove home.
-bring water (just one bottle will do)!
-wear a head lamp (but remember to be discrete when coming close to the guard).
-If you’re trying to take pictures – which like why else would you be doing the hike – try and wear a shirt that won’t show much sweat, because I looked pretty gross.
-bring a light rain jacket for the climb near the summit (it got very windy and started to rain on and off for us).
-bring a snack if you’re one who gets hungry quickly.
-bring a GoPro if you have one, buy one if you don’t.
-think about your shoe options. I wore hiking boots, but they definitely weren’t necessary. But for the love of God just don’t wear flip flops.
-If you’re not prepared to pay a fine, don’t do the hike and stick to doing it the legal way (which I hope to do in the near future and explain all those details too!).