Catherine Toth Fox: The Koko Crater Trail Was Fixed. So Why Not Haiku Stairs? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Given the many parallels between the two Oahu trails, the city and community should work together to find a solution.

The city is dealing with two hikes that involve stairs in neighborhoods where residents aren’t thrilled about the recent onslaught of hikers — but in two very different ways.

In 2019, the city pledged $1 million to repair steps up Koko Crater, a popular hiking path that follows an old tramway built by the U.S. Army in 1942. Over the years — decades, really — the steps had fallen into dangerous disrepair due to erosion and a high volume of hikers.

When this railroad track was built over 80 years ago, the intent was not thousands of people hiking to the summit of Kohelepelepe, the Hawaiian name.

The city, which owns the land but hadn’t maintained it or encouraged its use, entered into a public-private partnership with the nonprofit Kokonut Koalition in 2021 to repair, maintain and refurbish the stairs. The Honolulu City Council allotted the group $100,000 to start immediate repairs, and the nonprofit raised more money via GoFundMe.

That year the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation announced it would replace the steel platform at the summit with a new one.

That was great news for the nonprofit, which wants the city to help improve — not close — the trail to hikers, as it has recently announced it would do with Haiku Stairs on Windward Oahu.

The new platform, which was installed this month, is half the size of the old one, and it cost $426,800, or about half the amount the city put aside in 2019 for repair work.

“It’s really, really small,” says Lena Haapala, a founding member of the Kokonut Koalition. “You definitely have to take turns to go up it now.”

The platform provides about 71 square feet of flat viewing area, surrounded by railing and accessible by stairs. (Yes, more stairs.)

The city says this new steel structure is safer than the old one and designed for this kind of recreational use. And you still get that panoramic view — the one that has lured more and more hikers to the summit.

It’s not perfect, Haapala admits, but it’s a solution, and one the city financially backed.

The city currently plans to dismantle Haiku Stairs, a trail that has been closed for years. But that wasn’t always the administration’s approach. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2013)

She wonders why the city, then, can’t enter into a similar partnership with the Friends of Haiku Stairs and work on managed access to that currently closed hike.

Right now, the administration wants to tear down the stairs, something the nonprofit has been fighting for years.

This wasn’t always the case.

Under Mayor Jeremy Harris, in 2002, the city spent $875,000 — almost as much as it committed to the Koko Crater stairs — to repair the dilapidated Haiku Stairs and railings with plans to reopen the trail to the public. It had been closed in 1987.

Administrations changed, and so did plans to reopen the trail.

While cost is one factor, another reason the city is considering removing Haiku Stairs altogether is the complaints from the neighborhood.

Residents — like those in the Hawaii Kai neighborhood where the Koko Crater trailhead is located — are tired of hikers trespassing on their properties, blocking driveways and waking residents as they hit the trail for sunrise. There are also liability concerns.

Still, somehow the city and the Kokonut Koalition have figured out a way to work together and come up with solutions that, for all intents and purposes, work.

The city seems to have a good track record with working in tandem with the community to meet their needs. It has run a very successful community garden program and recently repurposed underutilized tennis facilities at Keehi Lagoon Beach Park into a pickleball complex, addressing the growing popularity of the sport.

Nate Serota, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, said the city got input from pickleball groups regarding the new facilities — and even got feedback at the opening on Monday for some modifications it plans to do, like adding more windscreens and shade.

“We absolutely welcome the public getting involved and providing suggestions and assistance with these projects,” Serota says. “After all, they are public facilities. However, we must take into consideration other factors that may limit our options like safety, site conditions, environmental impact, permitting, funding and other regulations.”

So it’s possible.

The Friends of Haiku Stairs suggested a solution that involves managed access to the stairs — a proposal that former Mayor Kirk Caldwell had supported. During his tenure, in 2020, the land under the stairs was transferred to the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and the city with the aim of reopening it to the public.

“Iʻm very pleased that we will be able to save this treasured site from being torn down,” Caldwell said at the time. “We know with the right operator, Haiku Stairs can be opened safely, preserving this unique experience and cultural resource.”

It’s been three years, and nothing has happened yet.

Removing the 3,922 steps that snake up the Koolau Mountains is hugely expensive, in excess of $10 million, according to the nonprofit. And removal may harm the endangered species living in critical habitats around the stairs.

The nonprofit proposed offering guided hikes to the summit, which included driving hikers to the trailhead to ease the impact of cars on the neighborhood.

There are so many parallels between the two: both are war-era structures not built for hikers, both have trailheads in residential neighborhoods, both present liability concerns for the city, both have grown in popularity thanks to social media.

The city has gone back and forth on both trails, too. Though the city now supports the restoration of the Koko Crater trail, former Mayor Mufi Hannemann tried, unsuccessfully, to close the trail to the public.

Members of the Friends of Haiku Stairs have been understandably frustrated with the city, which can’t seem to decide what to do with the trail. And not doing anything — meaning leaving it closed without tearing it down — isn’t a great option, either. Posted signs and pricey security guards haven’t been able to stop the thousands of people who illegally climb the stairs every year.

“Ultimately, there is no single government decision which will garner 100% public approval. Some will like it, some will hate it,” Serota says. “That’s the nature of our democracy. We aim to do the greatest good possible and serve as much of the community as we can with any particular project or decision.”

Yes, the two hikes are different, but the goal is the same: safe access.

The best solution may be in working together, instead of in opposition.

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Although both are stairs, Haiku is vastly more dangerous and holds far greater liability for the city. While Koko Crater has become a fitness hike, Haiku is far more complicated and you will not run up in 15 minutes or less, as some do at Koko. IMO guided tours would still expose those attempting, which you have no idea who is capable, fit enough, or may have health issues to climb. This makes Haiku a higher risk and problem for first responders, who regularly get called to moderate hikes at Diamond Head to rescue people. On the other hand dismantling the stairs is not needed either, particularly for $10M. If the city wanted to make the stairs unusable, all they would need to do is remove small sections of stairs at critical steep accent points and the rest would be moot. Paying anyone more than $100K to do that would be highway robbery. On the other hand, if you could vet every hiker, have them sign a true waiver of liability (never works) and have them post a $10K bond that if they need rescue it would be at their expense, maybe you do have a "managed trail?"

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

Since 1963 to 2000 I have climbed the Haiku Stairs dozens of times. A few times were even as a member of the Windward Volunteer Rescue Squad. I can attest to how dangerous and unwieldly it is to pack an injured individual down the Stairs.The Stairs, more so than Koko Head, is demanding on even the most proficient hiker. Opening up the Stairs to the general public, even after a major renovation and upgrade, is an invatation for serious injury (or even death) and serious liability for the City.The other commenters have raised most all of the additional negative impacts the Stairs cause the community. However, as a contractor with years of experience removing existing abandoned structures and repairing/restoring existing structures off the grid, it seems the $10M to remove the stairs is a bit too much while the $1.3M is too low. Considering demolition plans, environmental approvals, permits, bid solicitation, contract and inspection costs the range for removal is likely between $3M and $5M.On the otherhand, with the same considerations the cost to completely restore the Stairs is a range of $4M to $7M.

Roxie · 2 months ago

Aloha kākou, If you want a hike and a view try the Makapuʻu Lighthouse road, in the Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline. The right time of year one can see whales, ʻiwa birds, & other seabirds skimming the ocean. Another short hike is from Hawaii Kai Dr. up Maunanani St to Kamehame Dr. to the top either through the gate if open or hike along to the road's end and then out to the cliff edge to see Waimanalo and the bay & islands. No need to do dangerous, illegal hikes.

Makana · 2 months ago

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