If you’ve ever used any of the trail maps while hiking Mount Tantalus on Oahu, you should thank Tony Barnhill.

In addition to being solely responsible for digitally mapping the 17 trails that make up the Tantalus Trailway — voluntarily — Barnhill recently completed collecting data for 35 trails in Hawaii for the Na Ala Hele Universal Trail Access Project as an independent contractor.

Na Ala Hele, the trail and access program of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, selected 21 trails on Oahu, 11 on Kauai and three on Maui to be a part of UTAP, an initiative to provide access information to users through the installation of signs at the designated trails.

The UTAP project was also in part driven by Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, according to Bill Stormont, the statewide program manager for Na Ala Hele. Stormont added that the trail selection was based primarily on use, visitation, and what trail specialists on each island felt was appropriate.

The signs will be at each of the 35 trailheads. Details will include: type of trail, length, elevation gain and other information to ensure hikers can make an informed decision before they set foot on the trail.

Barnhill said being able to help people was motivation enough to take on this project.

“If this saved one person’s life, wasn’t it worth it?” he asked.

A Kentucky native, Barnhill majored in music education before he transitioned into the tech world and worked as an IT consultant in Hawaii for almost two decades. He was close to 40 years old when he became an avid hiker.

Before this lifestyle change, at his heaviest, Barnhill weighed 265 pounds. After some initial weight loss through rigorous dieting, he ventured outdoors and onto trails in 2015 and has now lost 105 pounds.

Tony Barnhill
Tony Barnhill visited Oahu and did his first hike, Diamond Head Summit Trail, in 2002. He wouldn’t hike again until 13 years later. Courtesy: Tony Barnhill

“Fat and out of breath … I couldn’t have imagined that I would become this healthy person who would run, survey and map trails,” Barnhill said.

Seven years later, he has hiked around 4,000 miles — almost 200 of which were from November 2021 to January 2022, exclusively for UTAP.

Though the 35 trails Barnhill did add up to a roundtrip distance of around 120 miles, he had to do several of the trails multiple times before his data collection method was approved.

Barnhill spent two weeks in his garage concocting a plan to carry the equipment to collect data. The end result: a stripped-down two-wheeled aluminum golf carrier cart from the 1960s.

“It was indestructible,” he said.

To record footage of the trail, Barnhill mounted a GoPro HERO 10 to the golf carrier cart 18 inches off the ground, and created an overlay graphic which enabled him to see exactly how wide the trail was.

Barnhill also brought along a multiband GPS unit, salt pills, a pocket knife, two liters of water and two PayDay bars — around an extra 20 pounds each hike.

“I had to do hikes like Wiliwilinui and Wa’ahila, where it’s all ropes for the last quarter mile,” Barnhill said. “So I would carry the cart with a strap in my mouth and climb up with it.”

Barnhill hopes the UTAP signs will prevent hiking-related incidents and rescues which are common in the islands.

On Oahu alone, Blake Takahashi, a battalion chief and a technical rescue program manager at Honolulu Fire Department, said there have been 725 high-angle rescues and 170 searches for missing people on land since July 2019.

High-angle rescues are any rescue conducted at a slope of 60 degrees or more and usually involve dispatching a helicopter to a mountain. There were 113 of these rescues in the last six months.

After 23 years of service, Takahashi has been a part of more rescues than he can count.

“We respond to some calls that are just true accidents where people trip and fall and get hurt or get lost,” Takahashi said. “But there are a lot of calls that we go to that are folks that are just unprepared and maybe they overestimate their ability. A lot of times they just don’t do their homework on the trail that they’re going to go on.”

In April, Barnhill appeared on local news to discuss the UTAP program when a 30-year-old hiker fell to his death at Olomana Trail, which although a part of the Na Ala Hele inventory, is not a maintained program trail, DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison said in a statement.

Stormont, the statewide program manager for Na Ala Hele, hopes the signs will prevent such events from recurring. He said these 35 trail signs will be the first set in Hawaii with consistent information.

UTAP Na Ala Hele
Na Ala Hele’s signs on Waikamoi Ridge Trail on Maui. Courtesy: Tony Barnhill

Currently, there are 130 trails and road features in the Na Ala Hele statewide inventory, which cover over 850 miles.

Assessments for trails had previously been completed on Big Island and Maui before Barnhill’s involvement with the project, Stormont said, and added that the long-term goal is for all trails and road features in Hawaii to have a UTAP sign.

Stormont said this project will take a long time to complete, but Barnhill has given them a good foundation.

UTAP was funded after Gov. David Ige signed Act 1 into law in July 2021, and the Hawaii Tourism Authority was awarded $60 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds by the Legislature, 2% of which was budgeted toward natural resources, and $530,000 was designated to Na Ala Hele for UTAP.

Although their in-house staff received the proper training to do the assessments and they previously conducted the data collecting for trails on Big Island, Stormont said Na Ala Hele put the project out to bid due to chronic staff limitations and the availability of an outside source of funding.

The project was awarded to Hawaii Engineering Group in September for around $154,000. But after realizing the difficulty in completing this task, Hawaii Engineering Group contracted Barnhill for a little over $20,000 when they learned of his passion project — mapping the Tantalus Trailway.

Barnhill said after he purchased all the equipment, insurance, fuel and paid taxes that it was “almost a wash,” but he didn’t take on the project for the money.

Roy Irei, a division vice president of Hawaii Engineering Group, said that UTAP was the first type of non-residential or commercial property project they undertook, and typically, they work on projects that involve consulting for both structural and civil engineering.

Irei said before they contacted Barnhill, they sent a team of four on a trail to attempt to collect data, but found that the bulky equipment was difficult to carry, and the overhanging foliage prevented their conventional survey tools from obtaining accurate GPS coordinates.

“We took on the opportunity not knowing some of the challenges that we would be facing,” Irei said.

One of these challenges was that the rainy season began when the project was awarded — which made the trails wet and harder to navigate. Irei said there was also a storm at one point which caused some trees to fall and created more obstacles for Barnhill.

After Barnhill completed all the trails and spent over a week uploading almost 300 gigabytes of data into a Dropbox, Irei said they inserted the data into a spreadsheet and plotted the numbers onto a map.

The final step was creating all the signs for each trail, which Irei said were delivered to DLNR on June 30.

Tony Barnhill UTAP
Tony Barnhill and his self-made UTAP device on the Mokule’ia Trail in Oahu. Courtesy: Melissa Pampulov

Although 17 of the 35 trails Barnhill completed for UTAP were a part of his original Tantalus Trailway project, he redid them all to record footage and to collect cross-slope data, which is the side-to-side slope of each trail head. Any margins of error were then superimposed and overlaid with another map to decipher the accuracy.

Even so, the UTAP signs are not as detailed as the ones Barnhill painstakingly created for the Tantalus Trailway.

The idea for the Tantalus Trailway project first took shape in 2015. After Barnhill received some hiking gear and one of Stuart Ball’s hiking guides for Christmas, it encouraged him to do some exploring.

“The first few times on that mountain in the mornings changed my perspective on life,” Barnhill said. “To think that it was all across the street from me for almost a decade, is just heartbreaking that I couldn’t discover it and find myself sooner.”

The book got Barnhill onto the trails, but he realized there was no map that truly connected them all.

“There’s so many intersections and figure eights up there,” Barnhill said. “I would see families there at some of these intersections scratching their heads and on their phones trying to figure out, ‘If I take this turn, is that going to be disastrous for me with this baby on my back? Is this going to be a 10-mile trek?'”

Manoa Cliff Trail, for example, has four points of intersections with other trails and changes names, but every prior map has simply said: “Manoa Cliff Trail, 2.3 miles.”

“I thought if I could make a map that was better than all of the maps before — I could help people find themselves by not getting lost,” Barnhill said.

There was no way of looking at an old map of Tantalus to decipher where or if you could take different paths to get back to your starting point, or how long each path would take you.

Barnhill, who grew up reading atlases for fun, began to research and collect old maps and photos of Tantalus.

Then, during a trip to Japan in 2016, when Barnhill discovered how easy it was to use a subway map despite not knowing any Japanese — he was inspired to create a map of his own.

At the end of June 2017, Barnhill completed a subway-style trail map, though it was initially rejected by DLNR when Barnhill brought it in.

“I don’t really blame them,” he said. “I mean, who am I? Just showing up with a crazy subway map.”

Tony Barnhill UTAP
The first time Tony Barnhill saw his maps made into a sign, in May 2021. Courtsey: Aaron Lowe/2021

Barnhill went back in May 2018 with a new version, but he wouldn’t see the map he created put onto a sign until three years later.

DLNR resources were diverted in September 2018, when a 100-foot rock slide occurred at Manoa Falls Trail, and Barnhill said Covid also delayed work being done.

But Barnhill continued to volunteer his time and efforts.

Barnhill and his son, Grayson, helped Na Ala Hele build two bridges on Kanealole Trail, in Makiki Valley. And Barnhill has also assisted in the installation of signs for his map, cleaned spray-paint off trail signs on three occasions, and purchased equipment to clear debris off trails and mow grass.

In April, when DLNR told Barnhill there wasn’t enough funding for the second phase of manufacturing his signs to put throughout the trails, he organized a GoFundMe campaign. Though the money has been raised, Barnhill is waiting until he can retain a permit for the signs.

“Every time I see someone using my signs, it makes me feel good that they’re useful,” Barnhill said.

Currently, Barnhill’s maps can be found at the Nature Center, Maikiki Valley, Pauoa Flats and Manoa Falls, or online.

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