Hawaii’s Haiku Stairs, unofficially the world’s one true “Stairway to Heaven”, has been called the most dangerous and illegal hike in America.
It is the ultimate “bucket list” adventure, and I’ll tell you how I — a girl with limited hiking experience — got past the guards, made it to the top, and lived to tell about it. (You can too.)
From the top you can see the entire east side of Oahu. The experience is one of the few occasions where it’s actually appropriate to use the word “surreal”.
To the one or two people left on earth who haven’t put the Haiku Stairs on their bucket list yet, go ahead and do it now.
Why I’m Writing about Hawaii’s Stairway to Heaven
My goal in writing this guide is to provide the most complete and most up-to-date advice on how to hike Hawaii’s Stairway to Heaven.
My adventure on the Haiku Stairs took place in November 2016. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I want to share what I learned with as many people as possible.
Before traveling to Hawaii I obsessively read every blog article, Tripadvisor post, and travel guide about the Haiku Stairs that I could find.
After all, the stairs was the number one reason why I was traveling to Hawaii in the first place. I wanted to be prepared.
Some of those guides were immensely helpful.
However, what I found during my own hike is that much of the information online is out of date or even false. Even the most recent blog guide published in March of 2016 contained directions that will send you down a road that has since been blocked off.
And I met other hikers on my adventure who shared similar experiences.
All of them complained that the guides available online were out of date and that the stairs took several hours to find. Everybody was worried about The Guard (although there’s little reason to be).
My goal is to create the most complete guide available anywhere and continually update it with information from future hikers. If you have information you’d like to add to this guide, please click here.
Is Hiking the Haiku Stairs Illegal?
First off we’re going to address the elephant in the room. Is hiking the Haiku stairs illegal?
But just for context… In Kansas it’s illegal to sing in the bathtub, in Tennessee it’s illegal to wear a fake moustache that would cause laughter in church and in all 50 states it’s illegal to sit, stand or take a picture on railroad tracks (let’s not kid ourselves, every one of us did that at least once in 2006).
The big question is not whether it’s illegal but whether it’s strongly enforced and whether you’d be willing to pay the consequences of a hefty fine if it were.
Before you hike the Haiku Stairs, ask yourself are you willing to pay the fine if you get caught? I’ve heard it’s around $600, although that has not been verified. If your answer is anything other than HECK YEAH! then maybe this isn’t the hike for you.
(Try the Pillbox Hike 20 minutes away in Kailua. Beautiful views, but without the risk of meeting Hawaii’s finest.)
However, the risk of being caught or slapped with a fine is pretty low, and I’ll tell you why below (keep reading).
Are the Haiku Stairs Only for Experts?
When I researched the Haiku Stairs, I read every blog article on the internet and I was left feeling unnerved. I was sure that I’d get lost in the jungle and never find the stairs, or I’d get caught by police and thrown under the jail. Or worse, fall to my death off the side of the mountain.
You get the idea.
Everything you read out there is designed to scare you or otherwise deter you from attempting the stairs. The consistent message is that this is just for experts and professional adventurers who are sponsored by Red Bull or GoPro.
I’m here to tell you, that’s NOT true! I’m not an expert hiker, I don’t climb mountains, and I’ve never based jumped. But the Haiku Stairs are accessible to just about anybody who’s determined enough to try.
How to Find the Stairs with As Little Hassle As Possible
I followed another blogger’s guide to help me find the stairs. His advice was mostly good. However, unfortunately one of the roads he suggests taking is now completely blocked so finding the start of stairs proved a million times more difficult than I had planned.
Here is the quickest and simplest way to find the Haiku Stairs:
Directions to the Haiku Stairs
Search “Kuneki Place” on the google maps app. That is a street in the back of the Haiku Village neighborhood that sits at the bottom of the stairs.
Park somewhere inconspicuous in the neighborhood. Be courteous and try not to be a nuisance. I parked my jeep right behind a utility vehicle so as to avoid notice. I was there for around four hours and no one bothered our car.
You could also skip step 1 and take an Uber directly to the point described in Step 2. Your choice.
Walk to the very back of the neighborhood. See point A on the map below.
You’ll know you’re there because there’s a huge gate with a large “No Trespassing” sign.
Pass through the gate. Walk down the government road. Here’s a snapshot of the map from where I suggest parking to the start of the stairs.
Google Maps says it’s a 17-minute walk, but I’m guessing that is adjusted for being “off road”. In reality it’s a very short walk. Maybe 5-10 minutes.
Don’t take the fork in the road. Eventually the government road will split. To the left you’ll see some kind of government installation. To the right is a road that leads uphill and ultimately to a dead end.
Don’t take either road.
The correct path is between them. If you look closely there is a muddy, although barely visible path leading uphill between the two roads.
Hike approximately 20-30 yds up that path to the chain link fence. If it’s rained recently, it will be muddy and slippery.
The security guard will be waiting for you on the other side of this fence. From there you can see the start of the stairs.
Remember the stairs start right under the H-3 freeway so that’s the direction you want to go.
If you follow the directions above it will be pretty hard to lose your way. However, it’s still the jungle and you want to have a fallback plan should you take a wrong turn somewhere.
The lucky thing is that the pin you get when you search “Haiku Stairs” in Google Maps is very accurate. If you ever don’t know where you are, simply open the app and walk toward the pin. You’ll find it.
Anyway, thanks to broken but still attached bamboo we made it up the messy, thorny hill.
Then we squeezed under the split gate and finally met the dreaded security guard. He was standing on the other side of the opening waiting for us.
How to Get Past the Infamous Security Guard
He of course warned me that I was trespassing and that climbing the stairs is dangerous.
I politely told him I knew of the risks involved. I knew before I got there that I wanted to talk to him and ask for any tips. So I did!
I asked if he had ever climbed the stairs. He laughed and said that he had scaled the stairs many many many times.
I bet he has some amazing stories. For example, on his most recent ascent he and a friend had stopped at the second platform and hang glided down! Wow!
He advised me to hold onto both railings and recommended that we hike down the back side of the mountain. (No thanks, I’m pretty sure it’s for expert level only!)
And before I moved on, he reminded me that it’s his job to call the cops when he sees me returning down the steps at the first platform.
I have no idea whether that is true or not. My hunch is that it’s just the standard line but they never actually do it.
I thanked him for the tips, but before I was on my way, he gave me this parting advice: Enjoy yourself because the view is indescribable. You have to experience it for yourself.
This is where I tell you that there is no reason to avoid being “caught” by security.
The guard is from a private security company and has no legal authority to do anything other than to alert the cops. The cops get multiple calls about the stairs every day and although there’s no guarantee, it appears that they no longer respond to these calls anymore.
Even if they did, you would be halfway up the stairs by the time they got there, and they aren’t going to follow you.
I’ve read stories of people crawling on hands and knees through the jungle floor to avoid detection. My personal opinion is that it’s a waste of time and effort.
This should in no way be construed as legal advice. This is simply the logical approach I took to the situation, and it seemed to work for me.
Bring Your Guard a Biscuit (Seriously)
Remember, the guard you encounter at the start of the stairs is just a regular person. Like guards anywhere else, some will be rude and others will be nice. I got lucky with a nice one. But maybe I got “lucky” because I brought him a biscuit from McDonald’s and was nothing but respectful and friendly.
These guards have a pretty thankless, boring job. Always try to be as courteous and friendly as possible. I fully recommend bringing the guard a biscuit or a cup of Starbucks. This will make the confrontation a lot easier on both of you.
Are the Haiku Stairs Safe?
Yes, they’re safe but with a caveat.
Personally I love history but I won’t bore you with the entire history of the Haiku Stairs.
But if you want to know whether they’re safe, we have to talk about where they came from.
In 1942 the Navy secretly commissioned the building of a “wooden ladder” in the Haiku Valley to install an antennae to communicate with the Pacific fleet. The military later replaced the ladders with wooden steps and catwalks, and eventually replaced those with a tram system and cable cars.
Ten years later in 1952 they replaced the steps with new stairs made of galvanized steel.
So think of it this way. The current structure is three full degrees safer than the original wooden ladders.
Since then the stairs have withstood just about everything. In 2015 a storm twisted and mangled a 10-ft section of the stairs, but you can navigate around it.
I never felt uneasy about the structural integrity of the stairs, although several times on the way up I slipped on a loose stair. Hold on with both hands. If you don’t the loose steps could be dangerous.
For that reason, I do not want anyone to interpret my guide as explicit encouragement for you to do the stairs. I don’t know you, or anything about your experience or level of fitness.
Any hike up a mountain carries inherent risks. This one is no different. Exercise caution or you could end up on an episode of a search and rescue show.
How to Dress and What to Pack
In the valley at the base of the stairs, you’ll have standard Hawaii weather. 80°F partially cloudy morning.
I wore my favorite out-of-production Lululemon “Inspire” pants and a ribbed tank top from Target. I packed my backpack with two water bottles, a Kind Bar, Clif Shot Blocks, and dried mangos.
You might want a rain jacket if it’s wet you get cold easily, but it’s not a necessity.
It will take you anywhere from 1-3 hours to get to the top, depending on your fitness. The round-trip will take you long enough that you should absolutely bring water with you, and possibly some extra calories too.
It would be easy to “bonk” (i.e. deplete blood sugar) during a three hour hike. If that happens, trust me you won’t enjoy the experience.
However, I wish I had packed a change of clothes because I was completely covered in mud by the end.
The climate can change drastically on the ascent — sometimes within minutes. When we reached the first platform it was warm and the clouds had faded. The view was perfect.
When we got to the second platform the wind had picked up and we had run into a light mist every few minutes. (I didn’t mind because I’m a “Sweaty Betty” and it cooled me off.)
By the time we finally reached the summit the weather had gone completely wild. It was quite chilly — probably in the mid-50s with pelting rain. The wind was intense. Visibility was zilch.
I couldn’t hear my climbing partners’ voices at all. The mud completely covered my shoes and the wind was using my ponytail as a weapon against me.
We didn’t get to hang out at the top because a storm was moving in. But this is what it looks like.
Navigating the Haiku Stairs
What to Expect and Difficulty Level
As I mentioned before, everonye should take this hike seriously. If you’re not paying attention or goofing off there are definitely opportunities for you to suffer serious injury or even death. However, I don’t consider this hike to be very risky as long as you’re aware of the risk.
After leaving the guard you’ll take your first 50+ steps up on the stairs before running into a very tall gate. You can go over it (not recommended) or hold on tight and scale around it. I chose going around.
From there it’s straight up to the top.
The steps are near vertical from the beginning, and 3,922 seems like a big number but once you start enjoying it it goes by very quickly.
Remember, near the beginning of the hike there’s a 10-ft section of stairs with significant storm damage.
Going up, the damaged steps were a breeze. On the way down it was raining cats and dogs and the steps proved to be more difficult, and that forced us to take our time.
I had a $1000 bet with one of my friends that at no point would the stairs be 90°. I still haven’t decided where I’ll spend the money 😉
A good portion of the steps are like a ladder. Directly up. When you look back over your shoulder and you’re two thousand feet above the ground with nothing between you and the valley below, that’s when you’ll realize why you decided to do this.
You’ll encounter three total platforms — the third being the top.
At each platform I stopped and made promised Facetime calls to my sister who couldn’t make it, nieces and nephews, and other travel buddies that wished they were there.
When we finally reached the top I couldn’t have been happier!
The Climb Down
The climb down was very different than going up. My quads were screaming and shaking, so thankfully I was using my hands and shoulder strength.
About halfway down an intense storm literally almost knocked my hiking buddy right off the stairs. At that point the rain and wind were pretty extreme. If you experience any extreme wind or rain you want to stay low between the railings and keep moving.
When we made it back to the guard he told us he just called the cops so we needed to get back to our car.
We did just that. Booked it .
Covered in mud and soaking wet, WE DID IT!
How to Prepare for Stairway to Heaven
A month before the trip I decided to start training on the stair stepper at my gym. This is not not necessary, but the fitter you are the more enjoyable the hike will be for you.
I never actually trained up to my goal of four thousand steps in the gym — I made it to 2800 a few times before remembering that I’m not an indoor cardio kind of girl.
I work out five days a week, am very active, and enjoy anything and everything that is fun, but I never train cardio more than a few times per month.
So if I can do it, you can too.
Part of me wanted to test my fitness and time myself going up and down, but ultimately I decided to take it easy and just enjoy myself. And that’s exactly what I did.
I still feel proud of myself for completing it. Once or twice I felt afraid of the height, but if you find yourself in the same position, please force yourself to look down. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
Helpful Links about Hawaii’s Stairway to Heaven
If you’re wondering if the Haiku Stairs are as awesome as they look on Youtube or Instagram, they’re actually 10x more awesome. Although I cannot personally encourage anyone to do this hike, I can tell you that the views are amazing — more amazing than I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.
If you do decide to do this hike, don’t do it alone and don’t wait forever because they are under constant threat of being torn down.
One more important tip. Hawaii is a beautiful place. Please take care of it. If you’re just selfishly looking for a great Instagram picture, forget everything I said. You should not do this hike.
Only consider this hike if you’re willing to treat it with respect and care.
I would say that 80% of hikers understand this. The other 20% are the reason why people want to tear these stairs down. Don’t be a part of the 20%.
Finally here is a list of the resources I found most helpful while I was planning my hike. Remember, some of the information in the blog articles is out of date and no longer useful. But they are fun to read anyway!
Always compare your information against information provided by a more recent hike, as the conditions do change.
- How to Climb the Stairway to Heaven by Kevin
- How to Hike the Haiku Stairs by Marteen
- Friends of Haiku Stairs (History and Preservation)
- Photos and Stories from Recent Hikers on Instagram
If you’d like to suggest a link for me to add, leave it in the comments.
Thanks for reading. If you found it helpful, please give it a share on your favorite social media. And of course, good luck!
DISCLAIMER: Officially speaking, this trail is closed. As I mentioned in the beginning of this guide, it is currently illegal (trespassing) and you could potentially incur a citation and/or a fine. If you attempt this hike you are assuming that risk.
Because the stairway is not maintained by the state, conditions can change on a daily basis. Please exercise caution and consider sharing your experiences with others to help keep this hike safe and minimize the hazards for yourself and others.
Know your abilities and your limits and always hike with a buddy or several.