Afterthoughts: Fence Hopping

The Haiku Stairs might be Hawaii’s busiest off-limits hike.

I climbed the Stairway to Heaven recently. Because it was there.

OK, that’s not quite true—I’ve just always wanted to say that. Actually, the adventure was initiated by my friend who’s leaving town soon and wanted to tackle it before he left, the stairs being high on his list of Hawaii must-dos.

It’s been on mine, as well. Haiku Stairs, as it’s more correctly called, is one of Hawaii’s most spectacular hikes—3,922 metal stairs bolted to the side of a lush, mountain ridge on the Windward Side, leading 2,800 feet into the clouds. In addition, the natural beauty is spiced with an illicit thrill: The stairs have been officially off-limits since 1987. Every day, a private security guard hired by the City and County of Honolulu arrives at the stairs’ entrance before dawn to turn away aspiring climbers.

Accordingly, we hit the trailhead at 1:30 a.m. After making it onto the stairs and hiking as far as the first of several landings, we settled in to wait for dawn so we could finish the hike in something better than complete darkness.

Even at night, the view is breathtaking. All of Kaneohe spread out before us, lit only with streetlights. The H-3 snaked through the valley below us, glowing orange. The entire mountainside was quiet, except for the sound of the steady, chill wind blowing across the weathered cliff faces around us. This—this was tranquility.

The calm lasted about 10 minutes. At 2 a.m., another hiker popped his head above the edge of the landing, immediately followed by 20 more. It was a raucous group of Chinese students, speaking Mandarin loudly, laughing, waving ultra-bright LED flashlights, cameras and smartphones. The stairs were suddenly Party Central. The students soon continued up the ridge, but were replaced by a group of five military-looking guys, then a mixed-gender group of locals, then an uberfit couple. Hikers kept passing us until around 4 a.m., which was apparently when the guard showed up.

Turns out, the Haiku Stairs might be the busiest illegal hike in Hawaii. It’s routine for H-3 drivers to look over and see hikers making their way down the hill face beside them. It’s been this way since the stairs were renovated, but not officially opened, back in 2002.

I can’t help but wonder: Is it really that hard to keep people off them? The city department of Parks and Recreation cites safety concerns as well as the obvious trespassing issue as reasons for blocking access, but judging from the daily traffic, it can’t be a top priority for them. Not to ruin things for my fellow stair aficionados, but I can think of a few ways to lock it all down. Round-the-clock guards, instead of most-of-the-clock? Tear out the first couple hundred feet of stairway? Easy peasy.

The city’s real goal might simply be to keep hikers to a reasonable trickle. It placates residents in the surrounding neighborhoods who have to endure yahoos trekking through their backyards, and keeps emergency rescue situations to a minimum, while forestalling any real fight over re-opening the stairs.

City spokesperson Louise Kim McCoy says they’ll continue to evaluate the possibilities, but for the foreseeable future, Haiku Stairs will remain in legal limbo.

I like it that way. Because the stairs are wide enough only for one person at a time, every time an ascending hiker meets a descending one, one of the hikers must be polite, and daring, enough to hop over the railing and cling to the outside of the stairs until the other person passes. Multiply that pulse-raising tango by the number of hikers who would be on the stairs if access was legal, and you’ve got less of a hike than a gymnastics exercise.

As my friends and I reached the bottom of the stairs again, we met the guard sitting in a lawn chair he had set up by his truck. “Congratulations on getting here before me,” he said, resignedly. And then we set off back to our car, just a few more in the string of hikers walking through the trees.