When I first started hiking the Lanikai Pillboxes trail more than 30 years ago, we considered it a wilderness adventure even though we were trekking on a hill above a residential subdivision. We rarely saw other hikers, and when we did — never more than a few people.
The Lanikai hike, known officially as the Ka Iwa Ridge Trail, offers stunningly beautiful views of the Mokulua Islands and the entire windward coast of Oahu, from Waimanalo to Chinaman’s Hat.
But now with instant advertising on travel websites and social media the trail is experiencing the same problems as many other Oahu hiking trails; it is being loved to death.
The Lanikai pillboxes are not really pillboxes. The two famed “pillboxes” on the trail are misnamed. In military terms, a pillbox means a defensive site such as a machine gun pillbox. The two concrete structures on Kaiwai Ridge were built to be observation stations, not sites for defensive armaments.
Military historian John D. Bennett says the observation stations were constructed in 1943 and equipped with high-powered telescopes to fix positions of possible enemy ships. The job of the soldiers working in the structures was to transmit target information to artillery batteries on the Mokapu Peninsula, and later to serve batteries at the Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station and Puu Papaa.
The Army called the observation structures on the Lanikai ridge Station Podmore, which was the name of a private surveying site that once operated on the ridge.
Bennett says, “The name Lanikai Pillboxes is imbedded in everyone’s heads and they will forever be called as such.”
Drawn to the Pillbox
Lanikai resident Jon Grindle estimates that on holiday weekends about a thousand people trek up the Pillboxes trail each day. On regular weekends, he says, it’s about 600 people. Grindle is president of the Bluestone townhomes owners association. Bluestone is a Lanikai gated community next to the Pillboxes trailhead.
Grindle says the state needs to take ownership of the trail. “It can’t just be the Wild West up there without any supervision.”
A sign welcoming visitors to the trail.
By Wild West he means hikers on the trail from 5 a.m. to watch the sunrise, then all day long and late into the night for drinking parties, especially on full-moon nights.
Lois Crozer, who lives on Koohoo Street below one of the pillboxes says, “The parties are loud; sometimes in the middle of the night you will hear people screaming, ‘Wake up Lanikai.’”
Crozer says, “It isn’t fun.”
Speaking of hikers who go up to the Pillboxes at night to party, Grindle says, “They are drunk. They are loaded. They are shouting at the moon. Someone is going to get hurt.”
Another homeowner living on a street below the trail told me hikers have tossed rocks down on his house three different times, once smashing one of his solar hot water panels.
Grindle says Lanikai residents have demanded that the state either shut down the Pillboxes trail or manage it properly like other popular state-owned areas such as the Diamond Head summit trail.
Currently, the state owns 4.07 acres of Lanikai Pillboxes trail, but it does not maintain the trail or put up signs on it.
It is deemed an “unimproved trail.” That means it is not designated for public use or maintenance. Never mind that hundreds of people are going up there everyday.
David Smith, the state’s Forestry and Wildlife manager for Oahu, met with the community at Lanikai Park last July to give them an outline of the state’s proposal to take over active management of the trail.
Relief for Lanikai residents will be coming, but not soon.
Smith says the state’s plan to begin actively managing the trail will take at least three or four years to implement.
The first step is almost finished. It is a survey to determine public easements through sections of private property that intersect with the Lanikai trail. Private property owners include Kamehameha Schools and Bluestone.
Next, the state will spend funds already set aside to hire a planning firm to create a master plan for the state’s management of the trail and to do an environmental assessment.
Then funding will be needed to construct improvements on the trail and pay for its continuing management by the state.
Homeowners I spoke to say no matter how frustrated they are with the crowds of hikers, they are keen to keep the Lanikai Pillboxes trail open.
Hoppy Smith, who has lived in Lanikai for 53 years, says the situation would be even worse if the state tried to close the trail.
“Because the trail has such a fantastic view, people would find a way to get to it. They might end up going through people’s yards or through vacant land in the neighborhood.”
Lanikai resident Crozer says the state needs put up signage to urge hikers to respect the neighbors and to delineate exactly where the trail begins and ends.
Hikers sitting on a pillbox, admiring the view.
I recently hiked the trail and found sections of it deeply eroded. Some parts of the trail confusingly branch off into as many as four different trails.
“People are making their own trails wherever they want,” said hiker Danielle Bishaw, a 30 year-old Kailua resident I spoke with as I tried to find the right trail to follow.
Lanikai residents say the multiple trails have eroded the mountain, which creates other problems. When it rains hard, mud washes off the eroded land into their yards below, through storm drains and into the ocean.
There is also a growing issue of hiker safety. In the rain, eroded sections become dangerously slippery. Residents say there is at least one rescue a month on the trail.
The trail at the top by the pillboxes is still in excellent shape.
When I came down from the hillside, I spoke with Wayde Fishman of Hikers Against Litter and Tagging. He was with a group of volunteers who were on their way up to wipe off graffiti on the two pillboxes.
The pillboxes are always graffiti-covered. “As soon as someone cleans off the graffiti, people come back and spray on new drawings,” said state Rep. Chris Lee, a lifelong Kailua resident who represents the Kailua and Lanikai in the State Legislature.
Besides graffiti, trash is also an issue. Before I began the hike, I stopped to talk with Bluestone resident Pat Edelen-Smith, who was picking out plastic bottles to recycle from the single garbage can someone has placed at the trailhead.
The garbage can was already overflowing even though the day was young.
Hiker Shannon Clancey says, “I think it is a shame people trash the trail.”
The trail, at a peaceful moment, when the many hikers are absent.
She joined a volunteer group from the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, which hiked up the trail recently to remove litter. Clancey says she was surprised to find empty Starbuck’s cups and plastic water bottles everywhere.
Smith, of the State Division of Forestry, calls the Lanikai trail “spectacular. A world-class trail.”
He says huge crowds of tourists on trails is a relatively new problem the state has never had to face before.
Even President Barack Obama took time out from his Christmas vacation golfing in 2011 to take his family and friends to hike the Lanikai Pillboxes trail.
“Kailua has been discovered and it is not going to get undiscovered. The genie is out of the bottle,” says Smith, adding that people have the right to go on the trails.
“It’s a tricky situation. If it were easy, we would have fixed it long ago.”
Editor’s note: Denby Fawcett, the author of “Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide,” will be among the panelists discussing Hawaii hiking issues on Thursday evening, June 26, at Civil Cafe.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.