Photo: Teri Wertman/Getty Images

The Popular But Illegal Haiku Stairs on Oahu Could Be Permanently Removed

The city agency that owns most of the land along the hike wants to take down the structure but is open to other solutions.

The fate of Haiku Stairs, a 3,922-step trail to the 2,800-foot summit of Puu Keahiakahoe on the Windward Side of Oahu, has been long debated.

The stairs have been closed for decades and are illegal to access, but, every year, thousands of hikers still brave the metal staircase—parts of it in poor condition—that snakes up the side of the Koolau Mountains in Kaneohe.

Two years ago the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which owns and manages most of the land under and surrounding the stairs, asked for public comment to help draft an environmental impact statement that was finally released this week. In it, the city agency proposes removing the stairs entirely and says it would cost about $900,000 to demolish the staircase.

Right now, the board spends about $250,000 a year to pay for 24-hour security to keep hikers from accessing the stairs. The agency is also concerned about potential liability and safety concerns, due to the condition of the stairs. (In some parts, the report noted, sections are dilapidated or in disrepair.)

The agency, however, is open to the idea of transfering ownership of the property to another entity—public or private—to manage the land (and access to the stairs).

Construction on the stairway, originally called the Haiku Ladder, started in 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, according to the report. Its purpose was to deliver people and materials to build and service a U.S. naval radio station at the top of the ridge. The construction of these stairs—then made of wood—was top secret, according to the report, that even the Army and other government entities were unaware of it. Eventually, the ladder was replaced with a steel module system that was anchored to the ground with spikes.

In 1987 the U.S. Coast Guard, which managed the stairs at the time, closed the trail to the public. And in 2002 the city spent $875,000 to repair the stairs and railings with plans to open it; those plans fell through due to complaints from the neighborhood and liability concerns. Security guards and signs have been posted at the trailhead ever since, but hikers continue to find ways to access the stairs, lured by the spectacular panoramic views and social media posts.

Vernon Ansdell, president of the nonprofit Friends of Haiku Stairs, says one solution is to allow the group, which had done maintenance on the stairs for years, to manage public access and limit the number of daily hikers who climb the stairs. The group has offered a very detailed managed access proposal that he says addresses the concerns raised in the report regarding access, trespassing and safety. And it would be cost-effective, with fees covers maintenance, security, insurance, staffing and comprehensive educational program.

“Removing the stairs would be a tragedy of enormous proportions,” Ansdell says. “Managed access under a public private partnership would be a very viable alternative.”

The public can provide comments on the draft environmental impact statement by Aug. 7. Click here.