Stairway to Heaven Hawaii – Haiku Stairs
Back before Kelly and I became newly weds in Arcosanti, AZ we both expressed our strong passions of adventure by aspiring to travel to the Hawaiian Islands. Not just any island, but more specifically Oahu because of the deadly, yet spectacularly beautifying hike only seen in a tropical paradise, Haiku Stairs, more commonly known as the Stairway to Heaven Hawaii. Now I do not know the specifics as to why the state of Hawaii closed the hike back in the 80’s, but to make a long story short, people died, long costly lawsuits followed, and the hike became illegal. All maintenance ceased and a guard manned the front gates to the stairs giving out citations to those who trespassed on government property.
What makes this hike so sought out and miraculous though? Even after closing the Stairway to Heaven, why do so many people break the law to hike it literally everyday? The same reason we did. It is fucking awesome. In the past few years of my travels I hiked quite a bit of epic trails from the Rims of the Grand Canyon, and Havasu Falls to the snowy peaks of Mt. Quandary, Mt. Humphrey, and the White Mountains, to name a few. Each trail maintains its own beauty, but the Stairway to Heaven is a different category of hiking. With close to 4,000 steps to the top of the military satellite we marched up the old metal staircase traversing the ridgeline of the mountains along Highway 3.
Haiku Stairs – Stairway to Heaven Hawaii
But it was not that simple. It took us a while to even find the hike. Originally we planned to take a cheap bus getting off at a stop near Haiku Village. But, instead we hitched a ride with a tandem instructor from the drop zone, putting us at the entrance of the neighborhood drainage culvert. The heavy foot-traffic led straight to the road leading to the Haiku Stairs, with an easy access hole in the chain-linked fence, but we made the wrong turn, turning left instead of right. This put us on the wrong ridgeline from the very beginning. We followed footprints up an adjacent ridge, until we hit a dead-end. The mushy soil squished under our boots as we scaled a steep pitch of ridgeline, hanging onto tropical roots, tree-limbs, rocks, stumps and anything we gripped our hands on without crumbling through our fingers. I suspected this did not lead to the Stairway to Heaven, but the night sky twinkled before us and finding the stairs at night made for an even harder task than the hike itself…
With every inch of elevation the ridge became insanely steeper, to a point where hiking became impossible without clinging onto trees and free-climbing up the side of the mountain, which we did. But, fear hit me, I dabbled in dangerous climbs prior to this one, but my wife only ever hiked easy trails and I did not want to put her in a precarious situation or possibly life-threatening. My blood pumped giving me the queasy feeling of adrenaline knotted in the middle of my stomach. By this point I grabbed both packs, my 35 liter strapped to my back and her 50 liter flung over the front of me, while our backs braced against trees. The top of the ridge felt within reach, but did the stairs lay beyond this peak? With each foot the hike became steeper and more challenging. Erosion took control of the ridge, and every chunk of rock I grabbed, slipped through my fingers in heaps of crumbled earth. I looked down with a ghostly expression, sweat exhausting my brow, my fingers shaking with each fallen rock as I inched closer to the top. I crawled and wiggled on a narrow cliff-face until setting foot on top of the ridge. The wind hit my face with gnarly gusts making me lose my footing. I looked around at a panoramic view of the island from the small peak, but no stairs followed in the distance, none in any direction I could see. What the fuck? In that moment of accomplishment, everything looked unfavorably bad. With a half hour of daylight left, a down-climb from hell to follow and successfully finding the entrance in the dark, our likelihood of hiking the Stairway to Heaven looked dismal. We almost capitulated, but we needed to find shelter, anything off of a slope, to rest. Clouds encroached the dark sky slowly dimming our visibility making it hard to find footholds and handholds on our descent. So we did what we could. We slid on our asses, safely breaking our falls by grabbing onto anything and everything with a stable root structure.
Hiking the illegal Stairway to Heaven Hawaii
By the time we reached the bottom the sky yawned and complete darkness followed. We resorted to our shitty WalMart flashlight, which did not help much for directional use. It helped a little though. We moseyed along back down the road in the opposite direction until reaching the same hole in the fence. The same hole we crawled through hours prior to sunset. Where the hell were the stairs? It was my fault I did not prepare much prior to the hike, but it made it more adventurous. We needed to make a right past the hole in the fence, not a left. So those hours spent exerting energy, nearly dying, falling to our deaths did not get us any closer to the hike.
We sluggishly walked down the road towards the entrance, fiending for sleep. My wife did not want to walk straight past security at the gate so we needed to get creative and find an alternate path to the stairs. The only advantage of nighttime gave us a clear view of the guard from his bright headlights near the entrance.
I did not know another way in though, so I got creative and looked for a path through the jungle. Sure enough small cut-outs, on our left, in the bamboo looked like an alternate foot-trail to the Haiku Stairs. I took a chance and went on instinct, but still we came up short. The bits of trash, heavy foot-traffic, washed-out slopes covered in footprints and sloppy mud felt like false promises and shattered hopes. We felt so close, yet so far as cliche as that sounds…it was true. I literally smelled the stairs, thought I heard whispers and footsteps clanking against the old metal of other hikers scaling the ridge, but maybe I was hallucinating from lack of sleep.
We trekked onward, in the dark, using a small light to find our way up the slippery slope of mud, and then it happened upon us, our first real clue to the stairs, a set of green ropes tied off to the trees. So of course we followed them hoping to come upon the stairs. We used our last bits of energy and strength traversing the narrow slopes with our hands fiercely gripping the climbing rope. We tried our best to maintain our footing as to not tumble into the unknown.
Upon reaching the end we found debris from the landslide years prior, pieces of wooden ladders, metal, and wooden steps along with two guide ropes trailing to the top of the peak. Their rusted metal texture screamed tetanus, and I thought for sure following them would lead us to the stairs, so we climbed onward through the valley.
The valley left us in a pit of debris with nothing to progress forward to as I approached a dead-end of pitch black, unclimbable terrain. FUCK…FUCK…FUCK…I turned around, flopping my limbs carelessly with each depressing step. We were never gonna find these stairs. I gave up all hope. My wife looked tired and scared. I felt tired and angry with no comfortable place to sleep. So we crouched down with our heads against our packs hoping to get some rest. Security guarded the road, patrolling with a flashlight and he definitely saw us, but we sat perched too far up the slope for his lazy ass to climb up there. They did not pay him enough to care.
However, in the distance we saw another flashlight, its beams patrolled the area like that of a police officer. We looked at each other with paranoid eyes as still as stone. Kelly looked at me with a numbing stare of hopelessness. We got caught…or did we?
A light shined directly on both of us followed by the words, “Is that a dead body?”
Kelly proceeded with, “Are you the guards?”
Both parties felt obscurely mystified and confused, until we all realized we stumbled upon other adventurists hoping to climb the Stairway to Heaven too. So instead of sleep, instead of calling it quits, instead of heading home, Kelly and I followed the other group towards the alternate route to the stairs. Literally after five minutes we found it. Just five minutes. All that time wasted and we stood five minutes from the immaculately engineered stairs revered throughout the world as one of the best hikes ever.
As tired as our bodies felt, we pushed on, using the last bits of adrenaline and nicotine needed to make it to the first resting foundation along the stairs. My legs spasmed from soreness, lack of food, dehydration and the need for sleep. Just when I thought we reached the top, we didn’t. The stairs felt endless and it just kept going up and up and up. Stairs followed by short flat sections of stairs, followed by more stairs, all going up. I thought if I dug deep and kept pushing I would make it within a few hours, with time to sleep at the top, but Kelly, I did not know. I looked back and she looked aggravated and sleep deprived. Each step she took thudded loudly against the metal stairs like dead-weight. Her eyes fluttered in exhaustion as she broke out into a feeble, fake, smile. We needed a miracle to complete the stairs in this condition and somehow under the grand, luminous, supermoon, perpetuating its violent beauty upon us, we made it to the first foundation.
It did not take much convincing from Kelly to persuade me to rest. I succumbed to hours of relentless hiking, searching and climbing to find the stairs and finally we stood on them, with nothing but time on our side.
That cloudless night wrenched my eyes with brightness. The kind of brightness and beauty that put a smile on my face despite complete exhaustion and wanting to sleep. After time, we both fell into a peaceful slumber under the twinkling stars overlooking the island of Oahu.
Three hours felt like a lifetime, getting back at it in the early morning for more. We pushed up the stairs, clanking our boots against the steps, our hands rubbing against the iron handrails covered in calcified residue from the ocean. Mist clobbered us from every direction as the clouds drowned the mountains in a damp fog.
Each step brought us closer to the view and that’s what pushed us, despite the pain, the fear, the sore muscles and bones, we kept going. Never in my life did I feel so scared from traversing a ridgeline. The steep angle of the stairs, their rust, their aging and lack-of-maintenance made me fearful, fearful of falling to my death. I held onto the railing with my tightest grip, the moisture tickling my palms as my heart pounded. I thought about what food I would eat afterwards. I realized buffalo wings were not in my near future as a disheartened look crossed my face.
Shortly the 2nd, then the 3rd and 4th rung came with more steep climbing on the stairs and as I looked down I knew all too well why it got its name, Stairway to Heaven. I felt like I stood at the gates of Heaven, breathing in the clouds with nothing but endless beauty beneath my two feet.
The wind walloped, gusting ferociously at the peak as we waited for the clouds to wander out of view. Bright green ridges of tropical plants cascaded down to a populated city immersed in coastal beauty. Tide pools speckled the ocean with light blue hues as waves crashed in the distance. In the screeches of the wind we lost ourselves to perpetual beauty, flowing endlessly in every direction, while we stood on the peak of Haiku Stairs, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
If you’re interested in a few other epic hikes on the Hawaiian Islands, other than the Stairway to Heaven Hawaii, check out the Kalalau Trail on the Na Pali Coast in Kauai, along with the Haleakala Crater hike from the summit to the Kaupo Gap, putting you out on the southern side of Maui near the Road to Hana. Among others is the illegal hike on Oahu called Sacred Falls, which is also a great hike in Hawaii if the weather is permitting….note it’s also very illegal.
Our Hike on the illegal Stairway to Heaven Hawaii