State and local officials trying to manage hiking trails and other outdoor recreational resources face a lot of long-standing questions: How many people use a given trail or beach? How many are tourists versus locals? And where on the island do they come from?

Now David Nixon, an avid trail advocate and public policy professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, has led a private study of one of Oahu’s most popular hikes, the Koko Crater stairs. The study found that users are about evenly split between tourists and locals, and that residents come from all over Oahu to hike the steep trail of World War II-era wooden railroad ties leading to the summit.

For Nixon, who is a board member of a grassroots organization called the Kokonut Koalition, the study is more than academic.

The trail is eroding an alarming pace, Nixon said, and he hopes the study will show officials that the trail is an island-wide treasure. In June, the Honolulu City Council and Mayor Kirk Caldwell approved spending $1 million to fix up the trail, but Nixon said he has not seen any improvements yet.

“I’m hoping the city is going to step up,” he said.

Kokohead Gun range east Honolulu aerial.
Koko Crater is a destination for hikers from Mililani to Mongolia. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Although the scope of the study is narrow, it provides an unusually detailed snapshot of Oahu’s trail users.

Knowing how many people use certain trails and where exactly they come from is increasingly seen as key to managing growing throngs of tourists. With most trails generally open to the public, and nobody on hand counting hikers as they come and go, there’s usually not even data on the numbers of hikers on most trails. To be sure, some recreation areas like the Diamond Head State Monument, which charges admission, can track numbers of visitors.

Who Hikes Koko Crater?

But such sites are an exception, and with a paucity of hard numbers, officials are left to infer where the most popular hiking trails are from rescue data. The Hawaii Tourism Authority has stepped in with plans for a geo-fencing project that will use cell phone metadata to help track the demographics of visitors to certain geographic hotspots.

And University of Hawaii researchers are conducting an extensive study of visitors to Oahu’s Windward side, but the results of that work have yet to be released.

In the meantime, Nixon’s study is the first to offer any details of trail users.

Researchers have found that Koko Crater also attracts hikers from all of Oahu’s City Council districts. Colored areas represent the nine Honolulu City Council districts. The gray circles represent neighborhoods from which a random sample of some 500 surveyed hikers came, with larger circles signifying larger numbers of hikers.

Nixon and his team conducted the study by interviewing approximately 500 hikers on Sept. 21, 2019. Nixon estimates that he and his team approached about 730 people and thus got responses from more than 65 percent of those approached. About 1,700 trips were made up and down the mountain that day, he said.


David Nixon, right, who led a research project to quantify users of the Koko Crater trail, points to the eroded ground under the old tramway while Bethanny Lee, a frequent hiker, looks on. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

The organization estimates more than 500,000 trips a year are taken up and down the trail. The survey found that about half are tourists and the other half live on Oahu. Vacationers came from a broad cross-section of U.S. states, from California to New Hampshire, as well as from multiple countries ranging from traditional markets such as Canada and Japan to places like Ukraine and Mongolia.

Among Hawaii residents, climbers are coming from every part of Oahu. Only 13% of the Oahu residents live in East Oahu neighborhoods, defined in the study as Kahala to Waimanalo. The rest come from other parts of Oahu.

Nixon said the results weren’t affected by the organization’s bias.

The Kokonut Koalition merely wanted to know who was using the trail. That it turns out to be people from around the island and the world helps make the case that the trail serves a big audience. But that’s not why the city should fix it up, he said.

“I don’t know what results we could have come up with to say we shouldn’t fix it,” he said.

On a recent Saturday morning, Nixon showed the results of the heavy traffic on the trail. Much of the dirt had eroded leaving bare metal rails hovering a foot or so above the ground perched on wooden railroad ties, some of which were rotting away.

Nixon said the city, which owns the trail, hasn’t done work on it in 60 years. Regardless of the benefits the attraction provides tourists, Nixon said the city should make fixing the trail a priority for locals.

“Our number one priority is making sure we preserve it for local residents,” he said. “This is so my kids and their kids can climb it. And right now, that doesn’t look like a likely bet.”

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