Haiku Stairs, a closed World War II-era mountain path that has been breached by trespassing hikers and annoyed neighbors for decades, will be dismantled under a $1 million plan approved on Tuesday by Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi.
The decision came after the Honolulu City Council unanimously adopted a resolution last week urging the city administration to get rid of the controversial stairs, adding pressure on Blangiardi to release funds for the project that were included in the budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1.
The steep hike, which includes 3,922 steps that ascend more than 2,800 feet from Haiku Valley to a ridge of the Koolau Mountains with breathtaking views, has long been a popular destination for tourists and social media influencers despite the fact that it is closed to the public and trespassers face fines of up to $1,000.
Blangiardi, who had 60 days to act on the City council resolution, cited neighbor concerns and worries about public safety, city liability and environmental issues as he supported it.
“We have listened to the varying compelling arguments and appreciate all the feedback and information received from all sides of the Ha‘ikū Stairs issue,” Blangiardi said Tuesday in an email. “We recognize the interest the stairs have to certain community groups, however issues such as trespassing, personal injuries, invasive species and overall safety of the public cannot be ignored.”
“Fundamentally, it is inappropriate to have a high-use tourist attraction entering through this residential neighborhood, which lacks the capacity to provide appropriate facilities or parking,” he continued. “In addition, there is no unrestricted access to the stairs and the primary landowner at the base made it clear it is not interested in providing access. Consequently, my administration is aligned with the City Council’s resolution to remove the stairs and we intend to move forward with the necessary plans.”
The next step is for Blangiardi’s administration to develop a detailed plan and timeline for destroying the stairs. The report is to be submitted to the City Council.
City Council member Esther Kiaaina, who authored Resolution 21-154, said discussions already were underway with the mayor’s office, the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Design and Construction.
“I am pleased to hear that the mayor supports the City Council’s efforts to take down Haiku Stairs,” Kiaaina said in a statement. “Those would be the departments that would be taking the lead on any effort. So 60 days from now I’m hoping a report will be sent back on their plans for taking down those stairs. It is a big thing to have to determine that.”
The debates have gone on for years, and when the resolution was introduced, some were relieved while others like the Friends of Haiku Stairs, a nonprofit group advocating to save the stairs, rallied at Honolulu Hale.
Vernon Ansdell, president of Friends of Haiku Stairs, said he was disappointed with the mayor’s decision, but he wasn’t giving up on trying to preserve the stairs.
The stairs were built by the Navy during World War II, with laborers using planks of wood and steel pins for easier access to a top-secret military radio station.
After the war, responsibility for the Omega navigational station, located toward the bottom of the stairs for military entry, was passed from the Air Force and the Coast Guard.
In the 1970s, the hike gained popularity among tourists who were able to climb the stairs with permission from the Coast Guard by signing a waiver. The stairs became even more publicized with national media reports claiming they led to “Hawaii’s best view,” leading to overcrowding at the peak.
Vernon Ansdell said he was one of the people who got to experience the hike during that time.
“It’s not just views, it’s almost spiritual,” Ansdell recalled. “Every time I’ve been up, sometimes it’s cloudy, sometimes it’s rainy and sometimes the wind is howling. But when you get up there, the clouds start to clear.”
However, the Coast Guard permanently closed the stairs in 1987 because of emerging problems with vandalism and littering, along with reports of arson, theft and trespassers on surrounding private properties.
Eventually, the Board of Water Supply took ownership of the stairs before transferring it and the surrounding 200 acres to the city last year. It’s currently managed by the Parks and Recreation Department.
The Stairway to Heaven has gained so much publicity on social media that wayward hikers will do just about anything to take a selfie on the stairs. Videos also abound, including one showing people jumping on a trampoline at the top.
Honolulu has tried to crack down on trespassers, imposing high fines and hiring private security for the area, but enforcement has still proven difficult. Hikers may use a nearby trail from the Moanalua side, but stepping foot on the stairs is illegal.
Over the span of five years, 368 citations were issued to trespassers on Haiku Stairs, according to data provided by city Parks and Recreation, while more than 14,000 people were given warnings. And only 14 were arrested.
Amid a broader debate about over-tourism in Hawaii, some local groups and individuals have taken matters into their own hands, trying to use social media tricks and education to divert tourists away from the stairs.
Data from the Honolulu Fire Department reported more rescues on the Moanalua side than the Kaneohe side. Within 10 years, HFD rescued a total of 77 people on the Moanalua side and 40 on the Kaneohe side, which includes the stairs.
The Friends of Haiku Stairs and the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board have long advocated for some sort of managed access plan similar to what the Coast Guard did, but no plans came into fruition.
In 2002, the city spent nearly $1 million to repair the stairs to possibly reopen them. However, that plan was scrapped after a fatal landslide at Sacred Falls killed nine people and injured 50 others, according to Ansdell.
Then in 2017, neighbors began making more serious complaints about trespassers waking them up as early as 2 a.m. which prompted the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board to create and pass a resolution for a managed access plan. However, the city council at the time didn’t take it up.
At last week’s City Council meeting, hundreds of people submitted written testimony that was split between support and opposition for removing the stairs.
“Nobody can possibly understand the angst and stress that we go through every day,” Brent Teraoka, who lives near the site, wrote. “We’ve caught people climbing our fences, harassing our pets, creeping outside of our children’s bedroom windows. I personally have caught multiple instances of these egregious acts on video.”
But another side of history demonstrates why others want to take down the stairs.
Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, a cultural practitioner, said the top of Haiku Stairs is considered wao akua (a place of the gods) and is therefore sacred. Hewett also is critical of the military's role in displacing Native Hawaiians who once lived in the area.
He recalled watching frigate birds, known in Hawaiian as Iwa birds, flying over the Koolau mountain range when he was a child from his grandparent's home on Haiku Road in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
He has descendants who helped build the stairs during WWII, but said they thought the stairs would be used for one purpose during the war, then dismantled.
“There were families living there, and they all had to leave,” he said. "So for them, it may be something of great enjoyment and as they say, education. But for us, very hurtful memories. Too many bad memories, too many sad memories, and it’s a reminder of everything that was done."
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.