Due to the increasing numbers of rescues on the Koko Crater Stairs — the so called “Stairmaster from Hell” — some hikers worry that the city might be gearing up to prohibit access to the trail.
They point to the uncertain future of the popular “Stairway to Heaven” hike in Kaneohe and the recent closure of the Mariners’ Ridge trail in Hawaii Kai.
But Jesse Broder Van Dyke, spokesman for Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, says his boss wants “continued public access at Koko Crater,” although he says the mayor wishes there were a way to reduce the high number of rescues on the popular trail.
In an email, Van Dyke wrote, “The Koko Crater stairs trail is considered unimproved public property. The city owns the land but does not maintain it nor encourage its use.”
Van Dyke says, “The unimproved trail has been featured in some tourist publications without the city’s approval, so there are more and more inexperienced hikers going there and needing rescue.”
Honolulu Fire Department records show that in the last six years the number of rescues on the Koko Crater stairs has increased 150 percent.
Some years are worse than others. In 2012, there were 33 rescues. If you did the math with this number and went back five years to 2006, then you could say rescues at Koko Crater have increased 300 percent.
A list of rescues at the Koko Crater stairs during the last six years appears at the end of this column.
During the administration of former Mayor Mufi Hannemann, the city made an aborted attempt to prohibit the public from using that hiking trail.
Koko Crater Tracks, circa World War II
In newspaper reports, then-Honolulu Parks and Recreation Director Lester Chang said, “I cannot control people in what they do, but I think it is our responsibility to warn people if it’s dangerous.”
On February 15, 2008, city workers posted “keep out” signs at the beginning of the Koko Crater trail but they were taken down later the same day after a public outcry.
The crater stairs hike is difficult because it’s a straight slog up a 1,208-foot-high volcanic tuff cone, which is light and porous rock created by volcanic explosions when magma (sub-surface lava) interacts with water.
Occasionally, I have hiked alongside U.S. Army units using the trail for a training exercise. Also high school football teams and firefighters push their way to the top to keep in shape.
Some of the 1,048 steps are actually old wooden tramway ties that hikers use to scale the mountain, although some are uneven and slippery.
There is also an intimidating part of the trail where the wooden ties bridge a ravine. Hiker Rachel Han from Orange County, Calif., who was trying to reach the summit in the rain, gasped before slowly stepping from tie to tie to make her way over the open gap. “Scary,” she said.
East Oahu dwellers at one time were the main hikers on the Koko Crater trail but now local residents and tourists are coming from everywhere. Websites and guidebooks rave about the hike. Tour company vans drop off hikers.
“My god, it has gotten so crowded,” says Hawaii Kai resident Petra Bergmann, “It’s so sad.” Bergmann is a regular hiker on the trail with her yellow poi dog Ginger. She is concerned about the disintegration of the trail and the unpreparedness of some hikers.
Koko Crater Air Force Station
Hawaii Kai resident Karen Kato says some of the visitors arriving in tour vans are improperly clad in dresses and swimsuits, and wearing rubber slippers instead of jogging shoes or hiking boots.
Kato’s been hiking Koko Crater at least three times a week for the last nine years. She says although tourist websites rate Koko Crater as a moderate hike she considers it “an extreme workout.” She says it is pitiful to see people dragging very young children and thirsty dogs up the stairs in the heat of the day.
Honolulu Fire Department spokesman Terry Seelig says rescues at Koko Crater require the same initial response as all mountain rescues, which means dispatching an engine or ladder company from the closest fire station, and also a rescue unit, a helicopter and the battalion chief for the district in which the incident occurred. When the units arrive at the scene, they determine if the response should be reduced or increased.
Mayor Caldwell’s spokesman Van Dyke says, “There are warning signs up notifying people that if they access it [the trail], they are doing so at their own risk. It exists ‘as is,’ in other words, the old ‘tracks’ are there in various states of decay and the city does not maintain them.”
At various times, hikers have done their own repairs on the trail by replacing some ties and shoring up other sections with sandbags and concrete blocks.
Some hikers also haul trash down from the summit when the single receptacle at the top the stairs is overflowing with garbage. On a recent hike, I saw a woman coming down from the trail with four or five small white plastic bags filled with trash.
Koko Crater Tramway, NARA College Park, 1954
The tracks are part of the former Koko Crater radar station built by the U.S. Army in 1942-43.
John D. Bennett, a coastal artillery historian, says the Army Signal Corps originally operated the early warning radar facility. The radar unit was in a bombproof tunnel at the summit of Koko Crater.
The tracks over which hikers pass today were installed as part of a tramway to transport army personnel and supplies to the top. A gasoline-powered winch near the crest of the crater hoisted the tramcar.
A base camp at the bottom of the crater had barracks and a mess hall as well as buildings for equipment maintenance.
After the war, the facility was taken over by 169th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron of the Hawaii Air National Guard.
The Federal Aviation Administration also used a portion of the Koko Crater summit for a microwave-link facility.
The Air Force inactivated the facility in 1966, returning the tramway and the facilities at the summit to the City and County of Honolulu.
The property below Koko Crater is now known as Koko Head Regional Park.
Bishop Estate-Kamehameha Schools originally gave the 951-acre area to the city in 1928 with the request that it be used for recreational purposes,
In 1965, the Air Force relinquished 22.7 acres at the foot of the crater to the city. The former military buildings were turned into the federally funded Hawaii Job Corps center to teach vocational skills to disadvantaged youth. In 1995, the Hawaii Job Corps relocated to Waimanalo.
Koko Crater has been the center of human activity for a long time.
Most hikers now are keeping their fingers crossed in the hopes that it will continue to be theirs to enjoy for a long time in the future for their recreation, health and exercise enjoyment, even though they will have to maintain it themselves.