This past weekend, another hiker became injured on the illegal Haiku stairs, also known as Stairway to Heaven Trail, in Kaneohe, Oahu. The Honolulu Fire Department initially deployed 16 personnel in five units to provide emergency help, followed by another team and a subsequent helicopter air rescue of all three hikers.
The 3,922-step trail to the 2,800-foot summit of Puu Keahiakahoe on the Windward Side of Oahu has been off-limits for decades. This follows the Honolulu City Council and the mayor’s decision to tear down the stairs. The stairs have been officially closed for decades and are illegal to access, but every year, thousands of hikers still brave the metal staircase—parts of it in poor condition—that snakes up the side of the Koolau Mountains in Kaneohe. We can personally attest to the views from the stairs being among the best in Hawaii.
The most recent unidentified male trespasser is in his 20s.
The fire department said that he “suffered an injury while hiking and was unable to descend the trail with the help of his two companions. As a result, the fire department, following “medical assessment of the injured hiker, packaged him for extraction and airlifted him to the nearby landing zone where medical care was transferred at 2:54 p.m. The remaining hikers were also airlifted to the landing zone due to inclement weather.”
As many as 4,000 people still trespass every year.
While it is illegal to access the Haiku stairs, and it is criminal trespassing, that seems to have done nothing to hamper the desire of hikers to climb them and may have made the hike yet more exciting. If you doubt its popularity, check Instagram, where #haikustairs has amassed 61,462 posts. Also, when you go to AllTrails, first, there is a notice that the stairs are closed. Reviews immediately follow, one as recently as a few days ago.
Two years ago, the Honolulu Council voted to remove the stairs. Honolulu’s Mayor Blangiardi, at the time, said, “We recognize the interest the stairs have to certain community groups. However, issues such as trespassing, personal injuries, invasive species, and the public’s overall safety cannot be ignored. Fundamentally, it is inappropriate to have a high-use tourist attraction entering through this residential neighborhood, which cannot provide appropriate facilities or parking.”
Fire department rescues included 120+ hikers.
Hikers continue to climb fences at night and during the day to hike the stairs. To avoid detection, some also climb via Moanalua. In any event, those hiking the stairs can receive a citation and be arrested. The fine for hiking is up to $1,000 and includes up to 30 days in jail. More warnings, rather than citations and arrests, have taken place. And 121 hikers have been rescued there in the past 12 years.
The cost of providing security and rescue is unclear.
The Honolulu Parks and Recreation Department (HFD) spends $250,000 for some security funding, but obviously, that is a drop in the bucket compared with the actual expense.
In this one instance alone, what does it cost to deploy sixteen trained FD personnel, five vehicles, another group to prepare for air rescue, and the team and equipment? We can only imagine. In the meantime, Hawaii visitor trespassing rescues continue as the state seeks new rules.
The mayor vowed that “Haiku stairs are going to come down.”
That followed other injuries and rescues that recently included a woman in her 20s who became injured and could not descend the stairs, requiring an additional 16 fire department personnel in five units for her to be rescued.
A TikTok video of illegal Haiku Stairs trespassing went viral with millions of views.
Hawaiian TikToker Camille Leihulu posted her reaction to seeing a travel vlogger trespass on the Haiku Stairs:
“I’ve never been up these stairs to see this view, and I never will because I have respect for Hawaii and my homelands,” she wrote. “Why do outsiders get to blatantly ignore laws and rules and do as they please without facing any repercussions or acknowledging the consequences that Hawaiians have to deal with as a result of their actions?”
The road toward demolition or another solution began years ago.
Two years before this final decision, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which owns and manages most of the land under and surrounding the stairs, asked for public comment to help draft an environmental impact statement. The city agency proposed removing the stairs entirely and said demolishing the staircase would cost about $900,000.
The agency is also concerned about potential liability and safety concerns due to the condition of the stairs, including sections in disrepair.
The agency had also been open to transferring property ownership to another public or private entity to manage the land and access to the stairs.
Watch the TikTok video below (beware of profanity) and add your reaction in the comment section.
@camilleslagle#duet with @sofmcmillan yes, she acknowledged it’s an old video, but think of the thousands more who’ve done this. DON’T DO IT. #hawaii
Haiku Stairs’ history dates back to World War II.
Construction on the stairway, called the Haiku Ladder initially, started in 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, according to the report. Its purpose was to deliver people and materials to build and service a U.S. naval radio station at the top of the ridge. The construction of these stairs—then made of wood—was top secret, according to the report, that even the Army and other government entities were unaware of it. Eventually, the ladder was replaced with a steel module system anchored to the ground with spikes.
In 1987 the U.S. Coast Guard closed the trail to the public.
And in 2002, the city spent $875,000 to repair the stairs and railings with plans to open them; those plans fell through due to complaints from the neighborhood and liability concerns. Security guards and signs have been posted at the trailhead ever since. Still, hikers continue to find ways to access the stairs, lured by the spectacular panoramic views and social media posts.
Vernon Ansdell, president of the nonprofit Friends of Haiku Stairs, had proposed an alternate solution to allow the group, which had done maintenance on the stairs for years, to manage public access and limit the number of daily hikers who climb the stairs. The group offered a detailed controlled access proposal that he says addressed the concerns raised in the report regarding access, trespassing, and safety. And it would be cost-effective, with fees covering maintenance, security, insurance, staffing, and a comprehensive educational program.
“Removing the stairs would be a tragedy of enormous proportions,” Ansdell says. “Managed access under a public-private partnership would be a very viable alternative.”
Controversial to the end.
Residents complained about hundreds of trespassers monthly who climbed fences and otherwise trespassed to gain access.
However, the Friends of Haiku Stairs were saddened by the decision to destroy the stairs. “It’s a great example of a vocal minority who are capable of making stuff up.” — Vernon Ansdell, Friends of Haiku Stairs.
And now, since the demolition is inevitable, residents are concerned that there will be a further onslaught of hikers who want to access the stairs before their destruction.
How and when the city plans to demolish Haiku stairs is not clear. The city hopes to arrive at a plan in the next few months. The cost to demolish the stairs is estimated at $1 million.