Should The City and County of Honolulu Reopen Haiku Stairs (Stairway to Heaven)?

There has been a lot of chatter, lately, about the City and County of Honolulu reopening the popular hiking trail known as Haiku Stairs, or Stairway to Heaven. This comes after the recent citation of two visitors from Florida, who needed to be rescued from the trail. According to the Honolulu StarAdvertiser, a 32-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman spent the night on the Moanalua side of the mountains while en route to the summit of Haiku Stairs. Just a day later, recently elected Honolulu Mayor, Kirk Caldwell, stated that he would eventually like to see Haiku Stairs eventually re-opened (see video) and made accessible to the public again.

The famous Haiku Stairs (Stairway to Heaven). Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The famous Haiku Stairs (Stairway to Heaven). Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Standing at one of the platforms. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Standing at one of the platforms. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The thought of reopening the popular trail, which was originally closed in the 1987 and then rebuilt between 2002-2003 at a cost of $875,000, has produced mixed reactions not just from the hiking community, but throughout the state. Community residents living in Haiku Valley are especially sensitive to this topic. Many have reported rowdy behavior during the late night or early morning, vandalism, and even people walking through private residential property in order to access the stairs.

So is it worth opening Haiku Stairs? Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons:

Pros of Reopening Haiku Stairs

  1. Legal access to the Haiku Stairs trailhead. Reopening the stairs means that the City would need to provide a legal point of access.
  2. No trespassing would be necessary. Those who are interested in viewing the summit for personal, educational, or fitness reasons, would be able to do so legally. There would be no need to walk through residential yards.
  3. Centralized parking would reduce neighborhood distractions. If a centralized parking area near the trailhead is assigned then that would eliminate the need to park in unsanctioned areas within Haiku Valley. This could potentially decrease the noise of hikers walking from their cars to the trailhead.
  4. There are potential parking area. According to Nate Yuen of Hawaiian Forest, the owners of Hui Ku Maoli Ola, have mentioned that they are willing to open up their parking to Haiku Stairs hikers. This is just one of the potential parking options.
  5. The Haiku Stairs provide a special opportunity to experience geology, plant life, scenery, and history. As stated in Major Jeremy Harris’s 1998 State of the City Address, “Hiking the stairs offers spectacular views and an opportunity to see the unique geology and plant life of the Windward Oahu’s cliffs.”
  6. Non-hikers would be able to experience the summit. Since stairs lead to the summit, this would open up the trail to non-conventional hikers who would not be interested in or would be unable to complete the hike from Moanalua Valley, which takes many hours to finish.
  7. High tourism draw would provide an economical boost. The Haiku Stairs would be an attractive draw for eco-tourism and provide a boost to the economy.

Cons of Reopening Haiku Stairs

  1. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. There are portions of the trail that consist of steep ladder-like climbs, making these sections high risk areas for falling and injury.
  2. Liability is an issue. Who would be responsible if an accident were to happen on Haiku Stairs?
  3. Influx of visitors. Opening Haiku Stairs might cause an influx of visitors to Haiku Valley. This might cause increased street traffic, increased noise pollution, increased trash, and the potential for increased theft and robbery (considering thieves love to target locations popular with toursits).
  4. Haiku Stairs will no longer be special. Some hikers note that opening Haiku Stairs will, in effect, make hiking it not as “special” of an experience.
  5. Cost of annual maintenance and repair fees. Who would be responsible for paying for the upkeep of the stairs and any personnel necessary (i.e. parking attendent, security, guides, etc.)?
  6. The stairs would only be able to accomodate a certain number of people. There would have to be some limitation to the number of people using the stairs at any given time. For instance, you couldn’t possibly have 500 people on the stairs at one time.
  7. High tourism draw would cause the stairs to be overrun by tour groups.

It looks like we have a draw, of sorts. So lets take a closer look at the cons.

  1. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. Yes, there are portions of the trail that consist of steep ladder-like climbs. A possible “solution” to this could possible be age, weight, and height limitations. Signage should make it absolutely clear that you are risking your life by hiking this trail. Signage should also note that the risk of falling is very high. Other than that, there’s nothing that you can do prevent an accident from happening on this trail, or any other hiking trail.
  2. Liability is an issue. Have hikers fill out liability forms prior to hiking. Make sure that they are completely aware that if an accident were to happen, that they would be responsible for any injuries and the city/state would not be held responsible or liable.
  3. Influx of visitors. Sure, it might become a popular draw for tourist and cause an increase in traffic within the Haiku community. However, Manoa Falls is one of the states most popular tourist draws and the Manoa community has embraced it. The key here is to have a dedicated spot for visitors to park, thereby bypassing the need to park in residential areas. A parking attendant would help to reduce the chance of break-ins, but a security guard whose purpose was to patrol the parking lot would probably go farther in reducing noise pollution, vandalism, trash.
  4. Haiku Stairs will no longer be special. Some people might definitely feel this way. The main issue here is that crowds of people might detract from the natural beauty of the surrounding area. But really, crowding is an issue now, with the stairs currently closed. You have large numbers of people climbing the stairs during the wee of hours of morning, in order to by pass the security guard, and so you’re often left watching the sunrise with some 25, 50, or even 100 people or more on any given morning. By reopening the stairs, you can legally control the amount of people that go up the stairs.
  5. Cost of annual maintenance and repair fees. Who would be responsible for these fees? The people who visit and hike Haiku Stairs. Maybe charge a fee of $5 to $10 to visit and hike the stairs, as is done at Hanauma Bay. Kamaaina, of course, would be able to hike for free.
  6. The stairs would only be able to accomodate a certain number of people. This is a good thing and would go toward helping to reduce injury and noise pollution.
  7. High tourism draw would cause the stairs to be overrun by tour groups. Haiku Stairs would definitely be a huge draw for eco-toursim groups. Tour guides could charge anywhere from $50 to $200 or more to provide guided tours. We see this happening at other tourist locations that are free when done without guides. I would suggest that the city limit Haiku Stairs to individuals and not open it up to tour groups. This would be useful in reducing community traffic (no large tour busses or vans going in and out of Haiku Valley) and help to maintain the “special” feeling of the trail.

So there you have it, the pros and cons of opening Haiku Stairs. Do you agree? Would you like to see Haiku Stairs reopened to the general public? How would you go about handling this sensitive situation?

What can you do? Make sure that your position on Haiku Stairs is heard. Correspondance should be sent to Mayor Caldwell:

Email: Mayor Kirk Caldwell at [email protected]
Mail: 530 S. King Street, Rm. 300, Honolulu, HI 96813
Phone: (808) 768-4141
Fax (808) 768-5552

Socked in at the top surrounded by clouds. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Socked in at the top surrounded by clouds. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Looking toward the H3. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Looking toward the H3. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

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About Coty

Founder of Exploration: Hawaii. Adventure, Minimalism, Vinyl, Typography, and Coffee + Matcha. A single space after a period, please.

9 comments

  1. Weight limitations? No.
    Liability: That’s what proposed SB1285 and similar laws are attempting to do; immunize the State/Counties from liability for recreational activities (just like you don’t need to sign a liability waiver to go the beach here).
    Tour Groups: I would like to see a ban on tour groups, but…gonna be hard to limit paid tour groups. Maybe a permit system. Make tour groups bid for a limited amount of permits (use proceeds for maintenance/repair). Limit tour groups to 3-4 a day, 12 person per group limit (or something like that). Permits good for a certain period (6 months? one year?)
    Limiting amount of people: This one is hard. You could do a permit system (online permitting, certain amount available for kama`aina, certain amount available for tourists). Or you could just do a head count system and only allow a certain amount of people on the stairs at a single time. When people come off the trail, then more people can go up. Limit to 50 at a time? More? Less?
    Cost of repair: Charge everyone going up a fee (like Diamond Head). No kama`aina discount. $5 a head?

    • Hey Scotty, pretty much agree with you on all points, except for the weight issue (but I’ll get to that in a bit).

      SB1285 sounds like a great idea. That’s definitely a step in the right direction. I’d prefer no tour groups as well. I can see 1 or 2 official park guides, though, roaming the grounds, keeping an eye on things and answering any questions.

      Permits sound like a good idea that would limit the number of visitors and also reduce the number of parking stalls required. Permits should be on a per visit basis, rather than for an X amount of time. This would go toward controlling the number of visitors on a daily basis.

      Definitely have a charge for people going up. I say that Kamaaina get to do it for free, but they would still need to go through the permit process.

      Weight is a sensitive subject. However, the stairs, is a very taxing experience. This would be similar to the weight limit set on individuals participating in sky diving, or riding rollercoasters. This is to prevent injury and to prevent the individual from potentially injuring another person. For instance, a 300 pound man goes up the stairs and experiences a heart attack. Man falls, resulting in potential injury to the people below him. Of course, heart attacks can happen to anyone. The point is, the staff should be able to make a judgement call based on a set of guidelines. On this same note, I wouldn’t allow someone who is well into their pregnancy to do this hike or someone who is known to be an asthmatic or have heart problems. It’s about safety.

  2. Good points on all! Coty, in addition to your reply: no backpacks carrying infants/toddlers/pets. And along that line, should there be a minimum age limit? Lots to think about. Good post and I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog!

  3. Just off of the top of my head – the issues here are very similar to issues that frequently occur in the canyoneering world. Canyoneers wish to explore (i.e. repel through) pristine (and extremely dangerous) canyons that need to be protected. To allow access while still keeping a level of control, national/state parks sometimes follow a “permit” system. A permit is valid for a specific period of time and provides a controlled, fair way to access an outdoor resource. I think something similar could work for the stairs and address most (if not all) of the “cons” mentioned here.

    • Good point, Rich. A permit system that allows a specified X amount of people per day to utilize the resource. Possibly, a paid permit system which would help towards the cost of maintenance and security.

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