How to Legally Hike to the Haiku Stairs
Ever since I saw pictures of the Haiku Stairs, aka the Stairway to Heaven, I’ve been obsessed with visiting them. I don’t know exactly what caused me to become obsessed with them, but suffice it to say that the mystery of the stairs and the history behind them intrigued me. Setting foot in Oahu and realizing that this was the island they were on, I started researching more, but was disappointed to discover that they were illegal! Ugh, of course just my luck. And, Jon can never be convinced to do anything even remotely questionable in the eyes of the law…
Incredibly disappointed but also incredibly obsessed, I could not put the stairs out of my mind. Every night I would research more and more about the stairs – stories, their history, recent news, etc. – making me more committed to the idea of seeing them. Then one day, we were driving along the H3 when Jon said, “Hey, aren’t those your stairs?” Yes, yes they were! The quick glimpse of them was all I needed to become even more determined in my quest to see the stairs.
One way or another, I was going to get to those stairs. Since Jon couldn’t be convinced to sneak up them in the dead of night (To be fair, I can’t blame him. Who wants to get up at 2am and risk a citation?!). Then it hit me: there has to be another way!
A quick Google search (“legal way to the Haiku Stairs”) yielded a few results, the most popular and promising of which was the Moanalua Middle Ridge hike. I began reading review after review and convinced Jon that we had to at least try the hike. If I didn’t try, I would never forgive myself. I was going to make it to those stairs even if it killed me. And so, the planning began.
All of the reviews had one thing in common: the Moanalua Middle Ridge Trail is extremely difficult and extremely dangerous, especially if there is any rain or wind. Lucky for me, Jon is an experienced hiker, or else I would not have attempted this hike. We came incredibly prepared: microspikes (an absolute must), 6L of water, first aid kit, bug spray, sunscreen, extra cell phones batteries, rain jackets, sandwiches, M&Ms, granola, fruit, gummy bears, Gatorade, toilet paper, and my camera. Back in the car we had additional water and complete changes of clothes.
So let’s talk about the hike, shall we?
It was hands down the scariest and probably the hardest hike I’ve ever done.
We picked a beautifully sunny day but with the rain the few days prior, the trail was incredibly muddy; we quickly became covered from head to toe. The ridge trail was intense and dangerous, even more so with the winds and fog we encountered. Scrambling up choss, made even more unstable by the conditions with nothing but a straight drop on either side of you, trusting in the ropes others had placed before you? Absolutely terrifying. In 2 miles on the trail you increase 2,585 ft in elevation, with nothing but some bushes and grass surrounding you, and occasionally, if you’re lucky, a tree or two.
This hike was the most mentally, physically, and emotionally trying hike I’ve ever been on. The wind gusts were so high that we had to take cover by trees and bushes and wait it out. To be safe during the rope sections only one of us would go up at a time. In certain places when I would reach the top and call out to Jon that he could come up, we couldn’t hear each other and didn’t know if either was safe until we met at the top again. One misstep or slip up and you would go toppling down the ridge. Considering that there was a search and rescue mission at a neighboring ridge in our view, we knew how serious this hike was. The thought of coming back down these slippery, muddy ridges made me even more nervous…
After multiple false peaks, when we finally scaled the last peak and saw the tell-tale radio antennas, I cried with joy knowing I was almost there, that I had made it, and that I was still alive. At the top, we stopped for lunch, met some others, and then had a decision to make: should we take the ridge trail back or go down the (illegal) stairs. We weighed our options, knowing that with the Ridge Trail and the current conditions we were likely looking at either serious injury or needing to call search and rescue to come get us. With winds continuing to pick up, and bad weather rolling in on the ridge side, we opted for the stairs, knowing that we risked a hefty fine. (Again, illegal, so I don’t recommend this route but it was our safest option).
Just as Jon predicted, the sun would come out while trekking down all 3,922 steps and we saw the magical and breathtaking views of the land before us.
The stairs are just as terrifying in their own right: some were missing or broke, handrails are gone in places, and a section was completely wiped out and sideways from a previous storm. Some places it’s like a ladder and you’re clinging to years old, unmaintained metal, bored into the ridge by men decades before you.
The history of these stairs is what’s amazing to me, and it’s a shame that graffiti and litter abound in this breathtaking area. Respect the history and the land!
And for anyone who’s wondering, yes we did encounter the guard. As soon as I hit the bottom of the stairs I took off running as fast as I could. The guard was standing there, and I think he might have thought I was running to him, but honestly I was just so glad to be back on the ground, I wanted to get as far away from ridges and stairs as possible. I don’t know if I spoke first or if he did, but I began to profusely apologize while running (and possibly crying tears of joy). He grabbed his cell phone and told me to run because I had exactly 7 minutes before the police arrived. I ran like my life depended on it; I wasn’t taking any chances. I think Jon was trotting shortly behind me.
This is where we got lost – since we hadn’t planned on taking the stairs we hadn’t looked up routes, so we had no idea where we were or how to get out. After a lot of Google searching we found a way out and we thought we were home free until we encountered barbed wire that we needed to climb around and through. Once we made it through that, we popped out into a residential area. We walked and walked, bumping into a homeowner who looked at us and said “how were the stairs today?” with a big grin on his face. After a quick chat with him, we had to figure out how we would get back to our car which was now on the other side of the island! Eventually we found an Uber – the best $19 I ever spent – and got back to our car. We were incredibly grateful for the water spigots, where we tried rather unsuccessfully to clean ourselves off.
This adventure is definitely one for the record books… We will never forget it!
Accessing the Trail:
The trail starts at Moanalua Valley Park, about 20 minutes away from Waikiki. (Google Maps calls it Moanalua Valley Trail Start.) There is parking outside the gate, which we recommend using in case you don’t get back before they close the gates in the evening. Start hiking along the road/trail just past the bathrooms. Hike for about 2.5 miles, crossing over 17 creek crossings, before coming to a sign that says “Kulana’ahane Trail”. This isn’t the trail you want – keep going another 15 feet to an unlabelled trail that crosses over the creek with a big boulder in the middle. This is the trail and it will quickly start climbing up the ridge. Have fun and be safe!
What To Pack:
- 3L of water per person
- First Aid Kit
- Rain Jacket
- Toilet Paper
- Camera – wish I’d bought a GoPro!
- Bug Spray
- Extra Cell Phone Batteries/Travel Chargers
P.S. We searched Oahu high and low for microspikes, so I recommend packing your own, but if you’re in a pinch, you should be able to find them at McCully Bicycle & Sporting Goods.
Disclaimer: If you’re not either an experienced hiker, or hiking with an experienced hiker, I would not recommend this hike. It is incredibly strenuous and dangerous, made even more dangerous by wind and/or rain.