The Stairway to Heaven hike in Hawaii (a.k.a. Haiku Stairs) is one of the most famous hikes in the United States. It’s also one of the most controversial.
Tourists travel from all over the world to try to complete this 3-mile hike up the steps. They rise almost 4,000 feet above sea level, and lead to arguably the best view in Honolulu. In addition to the breathtaking landscape, hikers also come for the unique experience of climbing up more than 3,800 steps on an old World War II-era ladder!
The problem is: this coveted hike is technically illegal.
This post will tell you all about the current status of the Stairway to Heaven, and the fascinating history of the Haiku Stairs. Most importantly, it includes a guide to hiking the Stairway to Heaven legally!
- It is currently illegal (and has been for some time) to hike the Haiku Stairs in Oahu, Hawaii.
- The city of Honolulu has plans to remove the iconic Stairway to Heaven. A dispute over the cost, and general lack of funding has delayed the project.
- There is a legal way to reach the top of the Stairway to Heaven, via the longer Moanalua Valley Trail.
Update: Current Status of the Haiku Stairs in 2023
The Haiku Stairs have been a popular hiking destination for years, despite government officials making a serious effort to restrict access to the stairs.
Honolulu’s City Council voted to remove the stairs. They cite liability issues, and the ongoing problem of trespassing through the neighborhood at the trailhead.
Since voting to remove the stairs in September of 2021, the actually work has been held up. City officials and community members have voiced concerns over safety issues and legal considerations. Many raised questions about how to remove the stairs without harming the natural beauty of Haiku Valley.
The biggest roadblock to removing the Haiku Stairs seems to be a lack of funding.
While the City of Honolulu passes a budget with more than $3 billion in spending, the council only approved $1.3 million in 2022 to remove the Haiku Stairs.
It’s widely expected to cost far more, especially in wake of rising inflation.
By the way, the council has long allocated around $250,000 annually for security guards and other measures around the Haiku Stairs.
When Will the Haiku Stairs be Removed?
There is no definitive timetable for when the Haiku Stairs will be removed.
The work was delayed until the end of 2022.
Currently, the Star Advertiser reports the project will go out for bids in March of 2023. It’s unclear how quickly the city will choose a construction company to begin work.
The City of Honolulu is currently in the process of constructing a safer viewing area for visitors to enjoy the views from afar. The viewing platform is set to open sometime in 2023.
The hope is: the new platform will offer the same breathtaking panoramic views without compromising safety.
How Will the Haiku Stairs Be Removed?
The Haiku Stairs in Oahu will be removed by helicopter, one section at a time. The goal is to protect the area from further damage, and avoid polluting any water sources around the mountain.
Hawaii’s Stairway to Heaven: Hike the Legal Way
While it is illegal to hike the official Stairway to Heaven in Oahu, Hawaii, there is a backdoor to the hike– a legal way to reach the summit of the mountain.
It’s called the Moanalua Valley Trail.
This trail is completely legal, and ends at the final section of the Haiku stairs.
Hiking the legal route is much longer, but it’s also much safer than the illegal route. Plus you can relax and enjoy the hike, without the risk of fines!
The Moanalua Valley Trail
The Moanalua/Kamanar Valley Trail is a 9.2-mile out-and-back trail that starts on the opposite side of Moanalua Valley. It is a steep and well-maintained trail following the ridge line through the Honolulu Forest Reserve.
This trail leads to the same iconic views of Oahu, and you can still take a picture on the upper section of the Haiku Stairs!
The legal Stairway to Heaven trail starts in the parking lot of Moanalua Valley Neighborhood Park (photo below). This route is relatively flat for a few miles before gaining nearly 3,000 feet to the peak, the top of the Haiku Stairs, and the view of the Pacific Ocean.
Note: Though well-maintained, getting lost on this hike is not uncommon, especially in the first quarter of the hike. The cell service is spotty, so make sure to open the trail map on AllTrails before you lose service. You can also access this map offline, if you download it with AllTrails+.
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What to Expect on the Stairway to Heaven Hike
The Moanalua Valley Trail will lead you through diverse terrain, from a creek bed up through a steep, muddy hillside, and through rainforest-like tree canopies. The hike is strenuous, but you’ll be rewarded with unforgettable views of Oahu’s rugged mountains and Kaneohe Bay from the summit.
While the trail is easy to follow at first, you’ll need to pay attention to a sign which says “Kulana’ Ahane.”
From the red sign below, you need to cross the creek bed to the trail that eventually leads you up to the ridge:
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Look for a tree branch over the trail has the words “Middle Ridge” carved into it. After this, the trail becomes much easier to follow.
The trail is known for being muddy, so it’s a good idea to wear shoes with spikes. Wearing spikes also helps with the final stretch of the Moanalua Trail, which requires scrambling up a narrow crevasse.
There is a secure rope to assist hikers up this part. It’s not dangerous, but the mud was next-level, and caught us by surprise! It hadn’t rained in two days, but the spikes were still a “must” to help us scale the muddy patches.
How Long Does it Take the Legal Way?
Depending on your fitness level, the legal hike to the top of the Stairway to Heaven in Hawaii can take anywhere from 5-10 hours to complete.
If you’re an experienced hiker, and don’t stop for many breaks, you can finish the hike in as few as five hours.
Still, it’s better to budget 7-10 hours to truly enjoy the journey, and spend time at the top admiring the view!
There is plenty of daylight to complete the hike in the summer, but the winter months are a little more time-sensitive.
If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii between November – March, daylight can be as short as 10 hours each day. Make sure to leave yourself enough time to get back down the mountain before dusk.
Is the Stairway to Heaven an Easy Hike?
Do not underestimate this hike.
While the illegal Haiku Stairs hike is known to be strenuous, the legal route to the top via the Moanalua Valley Trail is much longer, and even more challenging.
The Stairway of Heaven (via Moanalua Valley) starts easy, though a flat creek bed. Soon after, the trail begins climbing quickly in elevation.
You’ll gain more than 2000 feet in elevation, during the final 1.6 miles of the hike. Pair this with a frequently-muddy trail, steep drop-offs, and some rock scrambling, and you can bet: your heart will be pounding by the end!
The View From the Top of Stairway to Heaven
The breathtaking view of the Haiku Valley from the summit of the Stairway to Heaven is what makes this strenuous hike worth every single muddy step.
From the top of the Stairway to Heaven, you can see incredible 360º views of the surrounding valleys, mountains, and deep blue Pacific Ocean.
➡️ BOOK: Oahu Hiking Guide for a Private Tour
Advice for Hiking Hawaii’s Stairway to Heaven
A couple of tips are essential for hiking the (legal) Stairway to Heaven;
Check The Weather – The weather is usually pretty good in Oahu, but a storm or intense fog will prevent you from the best views at the top of the Stairway to Heaven. It also makes the already difficult hike slippery, and dramatically increases your risk of injury. Also, remember: the skies in Waikiki can be clear and blue, while storm clouds rain over the trail.
Wear Proper Footwear – It is important to wear sturdy shoes with good grip. If you decide to go through the Moanalua Valley Trail, there will be no ‘proper stairs.’ Again, I’d suggest putting spikes on your shoes for extra traction in the steep, muddy parts of the trail.
Bring More Water Than You Think You’ll Drink – This hike is challenging, and often takes people longer than expected. Make sure you have enough water for everyone in your group. I’d recommend four liters each!
Don’t Hike Alone – This is good advice anywhere, but particularly for hiking to the Stairway to Heaven, since cell service is spotty at best.
Start Early – The hike can take up to 10 hours. Especially during winter, starting as close to sunrise as possible ensures you can get back to your car before dark. Starting at dawn will also ensure you’ll get a parking spot at the trailhead. The parking spaces fill quickly, and then it’s a matter of driving around the neighborhood looking for a legal spot to park.
Protect the Environment – Do your best to stay on the trail to help preserve the surrounding environment.
Stairway to Heaven Deaths
Fortunately, according to Friends of Haiku Stairs, there have been no deaths due to falls reported on the trail.
However, slips and falls are common due to the trail’s strenuous terrain. Always stay on the path to avoid dangerous drop-offs.
The most well-known death on the Haiku Stairs involved singer Fritz Hasenpusch in 2012. His friends say he died of a heart attack while attempting the hike, not from an injury or fall on the trail.
Why is Hiking the Stairway to Heaven Illegal?
The State of Hawaii made it a criminal offense to climb the Haiku Stairs trail, citing safety and preservation. The area around the Haiku Stairs consists of steep hills, loose rocks, and slippery terrain, making it difficult to navigate.
The City of Honolulu is also concerned about lawsuits resulting from injury or death on public land. However, according to the Friends of Haiku Stairs, zero claims have been against the city from hikers in 80 years.
When Did the Hike Become Illegal?
The Stairway to Heaven closed to the public in 1987, when the Board of Land and Natural Resources began restricting access to the staircase.
The Friends of Haiku Stairs are pushing for an alternative to removal. The community-driven group is in favor of creating a safer way up the Haiku Stairs, and more protections from trespassers on the private land around the steps. Until then, you should hike the legal way via Moanalua Valley.
Who’s In Charge & Making Decisions About the Haiku Stairs?
The Stairway to Heaven used to be under the jurisdiction of the Board of Water Supply.
The responsibility was transferred to the City of Honolulu in 2020, specifically to the Hawaiian Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).
The DLNR manages and preserves Hawaii’s public lands, national parks, recreation areas, and historical sites. They are also responsible for issuing permits on protected land across the island chain.
This photo shows people at the top of the Haiku Stairs, who got there legally going up the longer trail:
Consequences of Hiking the Haiku Stairs
The State of Hawaii placed severe consequences for those caught attempting to hike the Haiku Stairs, though enforcement is inconsistent.
Here’s everything you need to know about the possible consequences:
Fines for Hiking Illegally
Hiking the Haiku Stairs is a criminal offense. Getting caught could result in fines of up to $1000, community service, or even arrest. If you are injured while hiking the stairs and need medical assistance, there is also a good chance that you will be deemed responsible for covering the medical expenses.
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Expect Run-ins With Security Guards
The State of Hawaii spends approximately $250,000 annually to hire and maintain security guards to patrol the Haiku Stairs. These security guards work around the clock and turn away thousands of hikers every year. The primary purpose of this measure is to protect both the government from liability and the trail itself from any damage.
While I’ve heard stories about some of the guards smiling and “turning a blind eye” to trespassers, it’s not worth wasting your time and taking the chance.
In addition, the State of Hawaii has placed “No Trespassing” signs and warning notices at various points on the Haiku Stairs to remind visitors that attempting to hike the trail is a criminal offense.
Persistent hikers, who ignore the signs and shouts of the patrol officers and disappear into the trail, are rarely followed.
Helicopter Patrols Above Haiku Stairs
There is no clear evidence that the government uses helicopters to patrol the Haiku Stairs to catch people trespassing.
We got nervous while we were taking photos at the top on the stairs when a helicopter appeared above. It turned out to be firefighters, either scouting or training.
Plus, there are a number of Helicopter Tours that fly over the area. It’s a good option if a 10-hour hike isn’t for you!
➡️ BOOK: Helicopter Tour of Oahu
A Proposal to Save the Haiku Stairs
The Friends of Haiku Stairs is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and stewardship of the trail. Its members are working to create a plan to save and restore the historic steps.
The group proposed a plan for re-opening the Stairway to Heaven in a safe and sustainable way.
They claim that “Managed Access” is the answer.
The group’s proposal includes measures like hiring trained hiking guides and implementing a permit system to regulate visitation. They also call for constructing safety railings and installing security cameras on the trail. These measures would help protect both visitors and the hiking trail itself.
The proposal also includes plans to restore the trail’s historic stonework and create educational programs to teach visitors about the cultural significance of the Haiku Stairs.
The Friends of Haiku Stairs hope the State of Hawaii will approve their proposal, find funding for it, and help ensure the preservation of the steps.
History of the Stairway to Heaven in Hawaii
The Stairway to Heaven in Hawaii is a coveted hike for adventure travelers on Oahu. The staircase also has a fascinating history. The steps have their roots in U.S. Naval efforts during World War II.
Why the Stairway to Heaven was Built During WW II
The Stairway to Heaven was initially built for the Navy, as an access point for a top-secret radio station. The plan was to use its signal to communicate with ships across the Pacific Ocean.
The stairway was constructed in 1942, after just a few months of construction! Crews compiled the series of ladders, rails, and steps, some of which were carved into the cliffs.
After the war, the stairs became a popular hiking destination for locals in Hawaii.
Today, the Stairway to Heaven is a reminder of the U.S. Navy’s critical role in World War II. History buffs and veterans are among those hoping to preserve them.
Why Was the Stairway to Heaven Closed?
In 1987, the Stairway to Heaven was closed by the State of Hawaii due to safety concerns and the liability risk for the government.
Despite closing the Haiku Stairs to the public, the government has maintained the steps over the years. Crews even rebuilt a large section after it was damaged in a 2002 landslide.
Weather is Key on This Trail
You should definitely check the weather forecast before attempting the hike to the Stairway of Heaven.
Travelers can count on pleasant temperatures all year (between 70-90º). Rainfall is the game-changer, which can make for an amazing hike or a treacherous muddy mess. It’s typical to see rain throughout the year, and the weather in Waikiki might be very different from the upper elevations along the trail.
A couple of rainy days in a row causes the trail to become really muddy and slippery. The best advice is to let it dry out for a couple days before attempting the hike. Granted, if you’re a tourist, your time is limited, and I’m sure I’d be tempted to hike it even in the rain!
The other thing you have to watch out for is fog. It can settle at the top of the Haiku Stairs and reduce visibility to less than 50 feet. Luckily, the trail at the top is clearly marked, so you won’t get lost at that point.
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Stairway Hiking Gear Recommendations
When preparing for your hike of the Stairway to Heaven, it is important to make sure that you pack the right gear.
You might question some of these suggestions, but I wouldn’t hit this trail again without all of this gear:
- Lightweight Hiking Pants (Men/ Women) – If you have room, I’d pack them along with your shorts.
- Waterproof Jacket (Men/ Women) Again, rainfall in Hawaii can be unpredictable. While a little rain is fine on a hike, you don’t want to be drenched for hours.
- Hiking Shoes (Men / Women) – Footwear with good treads are absolutely necessary.
- Crampons or Spikes – I scoffed at this suggestion, but was beyond relieved to have them with me!
- Cell phone charger– This is a safety item, in case your phone dies from searching for a signal, or using the flashlight if after dark.
- Hiking/Rock climbing gloves – Part of the final section of the hike requires some scrambling on all fours, with only a rope to help you make the final ascent. Again, I questioned whether gloves were really necessary, but they absolutely are!
- Backpack & Bladder – On long hikes, the bladder in a backpack will help you efficiently carry the extra water you’ll need for the 7-10 hour hike up the Stairway to Heaven.
- Waistpack & Bladder I actually wore a second pack around my waist, which carried another water bladder, and a first aid kit. (photo below).
- First Aid Kit – These can be small and cheap, but still handy for minor cuts/wounds. Our group suffered several!
- AllTrails – Download the app, and consider upgrading to AllTrails “Pro” to download maps. You can use them offline. Again, you’ll definitely lose service at times on the hike.
Koko Head vs Stairway to Heaven Hike
Koko Head and Stairway to Heaven are two of the steepest ascents near Honolulu. Each trail has stunning views of Oahu, and even the surrounding islands on a clear day.
The difference is: Koko Head is shorter, safer, and perfectly legal. The hike is just 1.6 miles and climbs just short of 1000 feet.
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It takes most hikers about an hour to complete the Koko Head hike. It’s considered “moderately difficult” because of the steep steps involved.
If Koko Head is a better fit for your travel itinerary, you can easily reach the trailhead by following H1 east toward Hawaii Kai. The trailhead is at the Koko Head District Park recreation center.
Alternative Oahu Hikes
Stairway to Heaven via Moanalua Valley is an intense, full-day trip. It’s not for everyone!
If you don’t have a rental car, you can book a guide or shuttle to several Oahu hikes:
➡️ BOOK: Oahu Hiking Guide for a Private Tour
➡️ BOOK: Hiking Shuttle: Makapu’U or Diamond Head
➡️ BOOK: Hike: Ko’olau Waterfalls
➡️ BOOK: Oahu Tour + Waimea Waterfalls
➡️ BOOK: Shuttle to BOTH Diamond Head & Makapu’U
Here are some alternative hiking trails on Oahu, which also offer unique experiences and amazing views of the island.
Maunawili Falls trail
I love this one!
Maunawili Falls is a popular waterfall tucked away deep in the rainforest of Oahu. Travelers love this hike because it’s relatively short (less than 3 miles), and it is possible to cliff jump from the rocks above and swim under the falls!
Trail Distance – 2.8 miles
Trail Elevation Gain – 1007 feet
Trail Difficulty – Moderate
Note: The hike to Maunawili Falls used to be one of the most popular trails on Oahu. It’s temporarily closed for realignment and restoration. The project is set to be completed by the summer of 2023. At this time, the trail will again be open to the public.
Lanikai Pillbox Trail
The Lanikai Pillbox is a moderate hike that treks across Ka’iwa Ridge. It’s a popular place to watch the sunrise in the Kailua area. The trail follows a ridge above Lanikai Beach, and delivers stunning views of the blue ocean water.
🌎 Jared’s Detours BLOG: Lanikai Pillbox Hike: A Guide to Kaiwa Ridge
Aside from its panoramic views, you’ll hike by a couple of old military pillbox bunkers at the top of the ridge.
I’ve sent my friends with children on this pillbox hike, and they’ve enjoyed it! The initial scramble up is pretty steep, but the hike gets easier.
Trail Distance – 1.7 miles
Trail Elevation Gain – 626 feet
Trail Difficulty – Moderate
Koko Head is often compared to the Stairway to Heaven because they both include a staircase. However, Koko Head is much easier, and a better choice for people who don’t have time to spend an entire day hiking.
The Koko Head Trail has very little shade. Plus, 90% of the route is essentially a stair-stepper up the old Koko Head Tramway. The best advice is to start early and bring plenty of water!
Trail Distance – 1.6 miles
Trail Elevation Gain – 885 feet
Trail Difficulty – Moderate
The most popular hike on Oahu is Diamond Head.
Also known as the Le’ahi Summit Trail, this hike is a relatively easy ascent up a paved trail to the top of a volcano crater.
Visitors can see the entire Honolulu Skyline and Waikiki Beach from the summit!
The hike is very busy and crowded with tourists. The best advice is to get there early to avoid the biggest crowds. There is an entry fee of $5 per person, plus a parking fee of $10 per vehicle.
You’ll get a great view of the water and Waikiki:
Trail Distance – 1.8 miles
Trail Elevation Gain – 452 feet
Trail Difficulty – Easy
Note: Diamond Head State Monument currently requires reservations to enter. You can apply for a reservation here.
➡️ BOOK: Hiking Shuttle to Diamond Head
The Makupu’U Lighthouse Trail is an easy hike located on the easternmost point of Oahu. Like Diamond Head, the entire trail is paved.
Makupu’U is very popular among tourists for birdwatching and whale-watching. November through May is the migrating season for humpback whales off the coast of Hawaii.
This trail is an excellent hike for families with small children. It’s also dog-friendly, as long as they are kept on a leash.
Trail Distance – 2.5 miles
Trail Elevation Gain – 505 feet
Trail Difficulty – Easy
➡️ BOOK: Hiking Shuttle to Makapu’U
Where to Stay in Oahu
Waikiki, while home to most of the hotels and resorts, is a crowded Vegas-like area. You’ll find heavy traffic driving in or out of the main hotel area near the beach.
Airbnb Rules on Oahu
When looking for a place to stay in Oahu, you might find it surprising that you can’t book an apartment or Airbnb on parts of the island.
In October of 2022, officials passed a new law, banning short-term rentals in residential areas around Oahu. A short-term rental is defined as fewer than 90 days.
Airbnb and VRBO rentals are still permitted in the touristy areas, like Waikiki.
Best Beachfront Hotels on Oahu:
These beachfront hotels are some of the best along Waikiki Beach.
Staying at a hotel in Waikiki puts you less than 20 minutes from the Moanalua Valley trailhead, which makes it easy to get an early start up the Stairway to Heaven!
Moana Surfrider (Historic Beachfront Resort in Waikiki)
Moana Surfrider was famously the first hotel in Waikiki. It’s still one of the most popular beachfront hotels in Oahu. The historic building is right on the ocean, and has its own private beach!
While not exploring the island, you can enjoy refreshing dips in the freshwater pool, and take advantage of the huge spa available on-site.
The Moana Surfrider also offers activities, including hula classes, yoga, and meditation. You can also learn how to play the ukulele or surf!
➡️ Click to Book: Moana Surfrider
Halekulani (Luxury Beachfront Resort)
Halekulani is a luxury resort with all the bells and whistles. Each room has a lanai, or covered patio!
You can enjoy dinner at the oceanfront restaurant, and music in the live jazz lounge. The resort has its own spa with Polynesian massages, facials, and other beauty treatments.
What makes this resort so special is that it feels peaceful in the midst of Hawaii’s capital city. If it’s your honeymoon or anniversary trip to Hawaii, this might be the perfect place to splurge!
➡️ Click to Book: Halekulania Luxury Resort
Best Boutique Hotels in Honolulu
Boutique hotels offer a balance of style, comfort, and character. They tend to be much more affordable than luxury hotels in Oahu, while still offering great amenities.
The Laylow (Waikiki)
The Laylow is a boutique hotel with an airy and modern design. Its location in Waikiki, several blocks off the beach, is surrounded by stores and restaurants. I’ve found the rooms to be fairly large, with lively decor.
Plus, the Laylow has a beautiful pool area, and free Hawaiian shave ice each night.