The Best Hike in Hawaii: Is it worth hiking the Stairway to Heaven?
Short answer: yes (as long as you’re not afraid of heights).
Read on for the longer answer.
My friend Danielle had been talking about the Stairway to Heaven hike for a while, saying that it was one of her favourite hikes in the world. After looking up photos on instagram it quickly became clear why.
The one problem…the stairs and closed and hiking up them is illegal.
However, there is another solution in the form of the ‘back way’ up. A trail that is open and legal to hike, up the Moanalua Valley trail. Now, just because the hike is legal does not mean that it is easy. And it involved narrow ridges and steep sections that require ropes to haul you up the terrain.
A bit of background on the stairs:
Nestled into the Koolau mountain range are 3922 metal stairs leading you to the Haiku radio station at the Keahiakahoe summit. It was built in 1942 by the US Navy to serve as a top-secret military facility to transmit radio signals to the Navy in the South Pacific. It was decommissioned in the 1950s. And remained open to the public until 1987 when they officially closed the stairs.
I was too nervous about getting lost to attempt the hike solo. So after some online research came across a guide that takes people part way up the trail, and loans mini spikes and gloves (equipment that proved to be invaluable). Mike’s name popped up on a number of blogs. So I decided to get in touch and book to go with him and join another girl for the hike.
The trail starts on a flat road which is easy to navigate before splitting into three paths. WE took the middle path…straight up for about 40 minutes through the trees, before you emerge onto the ridge and the real fun begins. The views are INCREDIBLE. But the hike itself can involve some scrambling, grabbing onto the roots of trees or rocks to hoist myself up. This is where both the gloves and spikes paid off big time. Although the route was dry, I quickly became pretty dirty and I waded through the often overgrown path. I wish I’d worn leggings/trousers rather than shorts.
There were times that the path was just a foot or two wide. With steep drops either side, which had our legs wobbling slightly. I’m not afraid of heights but there were moments where I admit the nerves were a little jangly.
I would say I’m pretty fit and I was still huffing and puffing. And drenched in sweat during the hike!
You reach another intersection and take the path to the left. (On a clear day like ours you can see the old weather station in the distance to confirm you are headed the right way.)
Mike suggested bringing 2-3 litres of water, which I’m very grateful for. I ended up drinking almost 2.5L during our hike. I was hiking with a girl called Catarina, and she and I would make stops every so often to catch our breath, take photos and have a sip of water. We made very good progress though, reaching the top in around 3 hours.
The view from the top is breathtaking. In fact, the views along the entirety of the trail makes all the effort and wobbly legs totally worth it in my opinion. The photos do not do it justice.
And the stairs really are as awe-inspiring as they appear on instagram (my only frame of reference for them!).
We encountered four other hikers at the top who had followed the same route as us to the top, as well as others who had braved the guard (and potentially police) and come up the stairs themselves. But because it’s a closed hike, the trail was clear all the way to the top which was amazing.
Now, although the trail up the back is open and legal, stepping foot on the stairs is not. We took the risk (and the photos). The top part of the stairs feel very safe and are in good repair.
Now, the real tricky part is coming down.
We originally had every intention of hiking back the way we had come…until we climbed up. There were sections that I would have felt incredibly nervous about climbing down. And so we made the decision to take the stairs down and risk the consequences.
I’ll be honest, I also wanted to experience the stairs too.
There were sections where the stairs have partly collapsed or are in general disrepair and I can understand why the authorities don’t want you on them. However with the gloves firmly on, I had a good grip of the hand rail and we only had to shimmy past two other couples that we found coming in the opposite direction.
You can see the guard parked in the carpark from about 3/4 of the way down the stairs and I regretted my bright red tank, making me very obvious on the trail. We tentatively made our way down, with instructions from my friend Danielle on how to make it out! There’s a gate blocking off the stairs and another one a few metres behind that. You have to scramble through the trees, around the gate and through a bamboo forest, cross a road, more bamboo forest before you pop out on another road. From there you scoot around the corner and into the neighbourhood where we had an uber waiting.
Luckily for us there were pink/orange tags on the trees showing you the way to go but it was all very ‘Hunted’ with helicopters circling overhead (they were tourists flights but they added to the drama!).
We avoided any run ins with the guard or locals.
But I’ve had others message me to say that they just explained to the guard that they were too scared to hike the back route down so had taken their chances and got away without a fine. But I have also heard that they are handing out $1000 fines and mandated court appearances meaning that tourists have to come back to the island.
Let me make it perfectly clear, I am not advocating taking the illegal way down. Ideally you would hike up and down via the Moanalua Valley trail.
Ultimately I am so glad I hiked the Stairway to Heaven, it was one of the best hikes I’ve ever been luckily enough to complete and a magical final day on Oahu. This is not one for those who are scared of heights or not in good physical shape should undertake though, and it’s important that you do your homework in terms of route, provisions and equipment.
I paid $75 for Mike to take us part way in and to borrow the equipment, he also checked in on us regularly throughout the morning (you can get signal all the way up!). For me as a solo female hiker, having someone else to do this with, plus the reassurance of a guide and gloves/spikes, this money was well worth it.
Could you do this without a guide?
Absolutely. However if you do, then it’s important to be prepared. And be cautious about the weather, the route can get very muddy in the rain and can be dangerous in low visibility.
This hike has now become one of my top things to recommend to active travellers coming to Oahu, and I totally get why Danielle told me over and over again that I had to do it.
So there you have it, turns out the long answer is also yes!
Thank goodness your Mother didn’t know about all this earlier! xx
LOL. My mother in her 30s (even 40s) would have thought it was a great idea. She’s getting boring in her old age!!
Excellent blog and brilliant pics Charlie
So worth it, amazing!