Can Managed Access Work for Haʻikū Stairs?

Jun 15, 2017


The 3,922-step staircase was built in 1942 by the U.S. Navy as part of the war effort following Pearl Harbor. The military built a radio communications system that sent low-frequency radio waves to submarines and ships.
Credit Kuuwehi Hiraishi

The Kāneʻohe Neighborhood Board is considering a resolution about the future of the popular yet illegal Haʻikū Stairs. The U.S. Coast Guard closed the trail also known as Stairway to Heaven in 1987, but the hikers keep coming. 


The impact of illegal hiking activity on the trailhead community in Haʻikū is coming to a head, and one group believes reopening the trail is the answer. HPR News' Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi reports.

ANSDELL: The stairs are officially closed, and there is security in place that the Board of Water Supply are providing.  That’s in place 24 hours a day, but it’s not really been particularly effective. There’s people up there almost every day.

Most hikers try to get to the trailhead before sunrise to avoid the security guard contracted by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.
Credit Kuuwehi Hiraishi

I met Vernon Ansdell, President of the Friends of Haʻikū Stairs, for this interview near the trailhead. Over the course of an hour, I counted 24 hikers exiting the trail. Some came down with their shirts tied around their face like a mask. Others ran from the trailhead to their cars.

ANSDELL: So these people aren’t doing anything. They’re just walking out of there, or walking out to catch the bus. They’re not trashing anything. They’re not making a noise. And you see if it was open under managed access, you’d have total control over stuff like that. That wouldn’t happen. 

Can managed access work for Haʻikū Stairs? It is one of three scenarios being considered in an Environmental Impact Statement being prepared by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply. The Board of Water Supply owns the land beneath the stairs. Here’s Ansdell.

ANSDELL: We are proposing to open up the stairs under managed access. We would have a very solid plan in place for insurance, maintenance and security. Plus everyone would sort of be monitored, and supervised and briefed before they go up. All the hikers would be accompanied at some level. These would be people explaining the cultural and the educational benefits of the hikes. Not just a recreational experience.

Legal access to Haiku Stairs was last managed by the U.S. Coast Guard in the 1980s. An estimated 20,000 people a year traversed the staircase during that time.
Credit Kuuwehi Hiraishi

The other two options being considered in the EIS are tearing out the stairs and keeping the status quo. Kathleen Pahinui is spokeswoman for the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

PAHINUI: It wasn’t too bad when it was just a couple of people a week. Unfortunately with the spread of social media and people wanting more and more different and unusual and unique experiences, the traffic in these areas has escalated. Even managed trails are having problems just with the sheer volume of people.

Haʻikū Stairs isn’t the only trail on Board of Water Supply land. The agency’s watershed properties include three well-known waterfall hikes in Kahaluʻu, Kalihi and Nuʻuanu. Trespassers could be fined up to $1,000. Do not trespass signs are posted. Security cameras installed. But the hikers keep coming.

View of the H-3 from Haiku Stairs.
Credit Kuuwehi Hiraishi

PAHINUI: If you’ve got hundreds people tramping up on a watershed, you’re not really protecting the watershed. You’re killing the grass. You’re bringing invasive species up on your clothes, your shoes, your backpack.  The best way to protect the watersheds is to have no access, and keep it closed, and let nature do its thing.

Ultimately, the future of the stairs rests with the Board of Water Supply, whose draft EIS should be out in another 3 to 5 months.

PAHINUI: We respectfully request that people just stay away while we’re sorting this out and you know come to a conclusion.