I bet the first thing that comes to mind when planning a vacation to Hawaii is how you are going to sip strawberry mojitos at a luxurious resort by the beach. That’s all fine and dandy, but what if I told you that you’d be missing out on one of the most rewarding and sought-after hikes that this planet has to offer?
The hike is called Haiku Stairs aka Stairway to Heaven and it offers breathtaking views of Kaneohe Valley and the Pacific Ocean.
The stairs were originally built in 1942 by the U.S. Navy. They lead to a top-secret center for sending radio signals to battleships that were sailing through the Pacific during World War II.
For some time after the war, they were kept open to the public. That is, until 1987 when they were shut down and deemed unsafe due to water erosion and heavy use by hikers.
From base to crest, the hike takes you up around 4000 stairs that lay at nearly a vertical incline up the mountain. One misstep could cost you your life, causing you to fall hundreds of feet down a rocky mountainside to the valley below.
Due to the recent popularity of the hike on social media, people are flocking to the island to do the hike. The local police force has started issuing fines up to $1000 if you’re caught.
On rare occasions, there are police waiting at the bottom of the hike to book hikers but rarely do they go up the stairs. So basically, as long as you hike around the government road at the bottom you should be fine.
There is another hike leading to the stairs called Moanalua Valley trail and it is legal. However, this trail takes over 7 hours to complete. The trail takes you up crests and in some parts, there’s only one rope up a rocky peak.
IT ALL STARTED WITH A BET…
I was talking with a friend over coffee somewhere in downtown Los Angeles last May.
“What’s the craziest place you would go to right now if you had the money?” my friend asked me.
“I would hike Haiku Stairs in Oahu, Hawaii” I said.
An incredulous look came over his face and he decided to up the stakes. “If you go I’ll go.. but only if we fly out tomorrow.”
“Most definitely,” I said nonchalantly, knowing full well that I had work on Monday and it was already Saturday evening.
I watched him as he pulled out his phone and look up flight times. Must be nice to have a trust fund, I thought to myself.
We bought our tickets and parted ways. I ran back home and tried to get some sleep. The flight was at 11 am and it was already midnight.
The next day, I somehow managed to wake up early, pack for two days, and make it to the airport in just in time.
There was one small detail about that whole morning that really bugged me: My friend hadn’t answered even one of my phone calls. About 30 minutes before the flight he texted me saying that he had passed out last night after coming home and forgot to put on his alarm.
I weighed my options. I had never gone on trip solo before, let alone attempt a dangerous hike on some remote island that I’ve never been to. In the end, I decided to go for it.
So there I was, on my way to Hawaii for the first time, to do an illegal hike, completely by myself. I had no idea how to do the hike and was unsure if I was going to survive to tell the story. If there’s one thing to know about me, I’m a big fan of half-baked plans.
I arrived in Hawaii a couple of hours later. I booked a room through Airbnb just outside the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Five minutes later, I ordered an uber to my destination. I know I sound like some kind of entitled millennial right now talking about Airbnb and Ubers, but I don’t care. Thank god for technology.
I spent a couple of minutes posting about my plans on social media, some person sent me this article on how to make it past the guard without getting caught.
You can access the hike through 3 different access points.
- Option one: Through the main hike entrance. Hop a fence and walk down a private government road that will lead you directly to the base of the hike without having to go through the forest. You will definitely pass by the guard. He will say something like “you are aware of the fines right?” in which case you should politely respond yes, and carry on. This is the point where you can potentially run into police who will issue you a fine.
- Option Two: You hop over two fences, walk down storm drainage into a bamboo forest, down the government road, and back into the forest to the bottom of the stairs.
- Option Three: a path that leads to a water-tower, down the private road, and into the jungle.
I felt less and less like a hiker and more like some kind of FBI operative gathering top-secret intel on the next day’s mission.
This is the moment I felt nervous. I realized I didn’t want to do this thing alone. I asked my driver about it and said he’s never been. I arrived to my Airbnb and the guy there didn’t go either and wasn’t interested.
I then remembered an app called Couchsurfing. I downloaded it and looked for meetups. Luckily, there was a meetup happening a 20-minute drive from my place.
I decided to go. There were seven people huddled around a table in an open park by the beach. They were really friendly and offered me a beer. One of the travelers was a polish girl named Anna. She had a witty sense of humor and a half-crazed look in her eyes that suggested an openness to half-baked ideas and the possibility of an adventure. I told her about the hike and she said she would be down to go with me. Mission accomplished. I headed back to my Airbnb to get some shuteye.
The next morning I woke up at 5am. I read in a couple of articles to start the hike early if you want to make it past the guard without him noticing. Also, pictures are best when the sun is not directly overhead.
As I left my Airbnb, the sun was cresting over the east side of the mountains, I told my driver to hurry.
We got to the neighborhood about 45 min later. We quietly drove up Makena street and came to the first entry point. A guy emerged from the trees. He legit looked like “the Rock.” He was tall, buff, and had this menacing look in his eyes that reminded me of Jack Nickelson coming through the door in the movie, The Shining.
We decided to test out entry point number two. There was no one there, so we jumped out of our uber and hoped over two waist-high fences into a huge storm drain between houses.
We noticed some dog feces had been flung into the drain most likely by the neighbors, hoping some hiker would step on it. I understood why. I’ve read reports that hikers come through at all times of the night disturbing the neighborhood.
At the end of the storm drain, we were met by this fence that we easily climbed under and into a beautiful bamboo forest. Up until that point I had never been in a bamboo forest in my life. A feeling of calmness came over me for the first time on an otherwise super chaotic day. After walking uphill through the forest and climbed under a couple more fences we met the main road.
I had read earlier that police will sometimes drive down this road. I felt too exposed so we started to jog until we saw a clearing into the forest north of the road.
We disappeared into more bamboo trees and again completely surrounded by nature. The only thing that reminded us of human presence was the bustling highway above us. Two long cement lines suspended in the clouds disappeared into the forest ahead of us.
We walked for another ten minutes following numerous deer trails that vanished under tree roots and reappeared again in the distance. We were getting closer.
I saw a fence. Beyond the fence I spotted the first part of the staircase.
A mixture of relief and excitement came through me but then I realized that we had actually come to the sketchiest part of the hike: getting past the guard.
We spotted him a couple of hundred feet to our right along the road. We moved stealthily towards the stairs and further away from the guard. We had no choice but to run across the clearing, rock climb through a gorge and onto the base of the stairs. He definitely 100% saw us but didn’t say anything.
We hurried up the stairs, disappearing into the lush, gorgeous rain forest Hawaii is known for.
About 30 min into the hike you run into the reason why it’s banned. The staircase becomes mangled, all of a sudden we were forced to walk up the hand railings. There’s literally 10ft of damage. Proceed with caution because the fall is about 500 ft down the gorge and into the valley below.
The staircase eventually evens out, and you come out of the dense forest and finally on to the crest.
It was at this point that I realized why the hike is called Stairway to Heaven and I concluded why this trip was, in fact, worth it. Hawaii an incredible place.
We reached the summit in about 3 hours after we started. We saw a bunch of other hikers on the trail and they were super nice.
At the top, I took the following picture. It’s my favorite shot from the whole trip.
WHAT TO BRING:
- Snacks – My travel buddy Anna surprised me with a sandwich on the way down. Food literally saved my life.
- Water Water Water! My go-to water bottle is Swell’s 17oz Stone Bottle because it keeps beverages cold for up to 24 hours and hot for up to 12, and maintains a condensation-free exterior.
- Windbreaker – or a thin sweater. It gets REALLY windy on top.
- Hat & sunglasses
- WATERPROOF HIKING SHOES
Hawaii’s conditions range from beautiful and sunny to overcast and rainy at the flip of a switch. I highly recommend bringing along a pair of waterproof hiking shoes for any hike you plan on doing. I completely forgot to bring my hiking shoes with me and had to wear my Asics which are normally my favorite hiking shoes but not recommended when hiking through mud, as they get really wet and smelly afterward.
Below you’ll find my favorite hiking shoes from Keen and Jambu which are my go-to brands. They LAST FOREVER!
I’m in no way recommending this hike. But if you do decide to go, do it sooner then later. The condition of the staircase will only get worse as time goes on. If this hike is something you feel like doing, make sure to do it within the next year.
It took us about an hour to climb down the stairs, and we finished the hike sometime around noon.
I spent the rest of the day with Anna. My Airbnb host was kind enough to let me borrow his car for the day. We drove around the island and took some pictures before heading back to my host and dropping off the car. I picked up my suitcase and was at the airport by 8 pm. I missed my flight. Luckily they changed it for free after talking to a supervisor. I’m an incredibly lucky person. I get away with a lot of shit. They put me on a connecting flight which I would arrive at 8 am Tuesday morning.
I spent two beautiful days in Hawaii and got to check something off my bucket list. I narrowly avoided getting fired.
Was it worth it? Yes.
Would I go again? Definitely yes.
There is one thing that happened on this trip that has changed my life forever: I got over my silly fears of solo travel. I learned that I’m a pretty resourceful and that I don’t need anyone to accompany me to explore a new place.
If you really want something in life and throw yourself full force into that direction, something in the universe will have no choice but make it happen.
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