The Haiku Stairs: Hiking the Illegal Icon the Long Way
The Stairway to Heaven is one of the most famous hikes in Hawaii. It’s comprised of 3,922 steep stairs leading up to an old Naval radio tower from WWII. Hiking up the stairs is illegal because the land leading up to them is private property. There is 24 hour security patrolling the area, and trespassing can result in up to a $1,000 fine. Many people sneak through the yards of local residents early in the morning to gain access to the stairs, but the police have recently been very diligent in trying to stop hikers from taking these routes. After doing much research about the Haiku Stairs hike, I decided to take the legal alternative route from Moanalua Valley.
The back way up to the Haiku Stairs is a long, arduous climb not for the faint of heart. I came across many challenges including calf deep water crossings, slippery mud climbs, and powerful wind gusts, so be prepared for a difficult hike. It’s about ten miles out and back depending on how far you choose to go down the stairs after reaching the top. Although the summit was socked in, it was still a great day and a fun hike, and I’m definitely a more experienced hiker because of it!
The day started off at the Moanalua Valley trail head parking lot. Here there is a playground, bathroom facilities, and a powerful spigot to wash off after your hike. Trust me, you’ll need it. The gate to the parking lot is open from 7:00am to 7:00pm, so if you park here be sure to get back to your car before they lock up at night! There are only about twenty spots in the lot, so try to get there early to ensure that you’ll be able to park. I arrived at 7:15 and there were only a few other cars there.
After making sure I had all of my hiking essentials, I started on my way up the old carriage road that is now the Moanalua Valley trail. I was almost immediately met by a large green gate with lots of warning signs. I climbed quickly through the gate and was on my way. The old service road continued on lined with towering trees and lush greenery all around. The trail followed the Moanalua Stream, crossing it every few hundred yards. About 15 minutes into the hike it started raining, and although it was a bit annoying it was a minor inconvenience at that point. The rain was warm, and it ended up drizzling on and off throughout the morning.
The first few crossings were bridged, but after about a mile I came across the first unbridged crossing. Water rushed across the concrete road swiftly, but luckily it was clear enough to see the depth. There had been many flash flood warning signs towards the beginning of the hike, but I didn’t realize how serious they were until I got to this crossing. The water was only about fourteen inches deep, but with it flowing so quickly I was cautious as I waded through. There were ten unbridged crossings in all, and by the third I got so sick of taking off and putting on my socks and trail runners that I decided to just wade through with them. Turns out the only downside of waterproof trail runners is that they don’t dry quickly!
Throughout the two and a half mile valley walk I encountered lots of different types of trees and flowers. The only consistent factor through that part of the hike was the mud. There were huge unavoidable wet mud puddles, squishy thick foot-sucking mud, and sneaky slick clay mud throughout the carriage road. I met three guys just before the jungle ascent, so it was nice to have some company and I ended up hiking with them the rest of the day.
The end of the flat section was marked by a tree with a distinct carving that we had to duck under after the last crossing. The tenth crossing was the only one that felt like a traditional river crossing with rocks and roots to hop over. When we reached it there were warning signs and it seemed nearly impossible to cross with the fast flowing water. Luckily, there was a path to the right that led about ten yards upstream to a point that was much easier to cross. Here there was a huge rock in the middle of the creek, which made it easier to find on the way back. From there it we crossed underneath a tree with the carving, “middle ridge” at eye level. I had seen this in a few blogs so it felt good to know we were going the right way.
This is where the trail started ascending steeply following the ridge. We were in the jungle for about a mile before breaking the treeline on exposed ridge. The wind was blowing at 20-25 mph with 35 mph gusts making the climb challenging. I often had to crouch to prevent myself from falling off the ridge, which in some sections was only a few feet wide with huge drops on both sides.
On top of that, it had been raining on and off all morning, so the muddy trail was slick. Most of the steep sections had fixed ropes that helped us as we climbed, but even with their assistance it was still extremely difficult in some sections. As we continued to ascend, we were engulfed by clouds making visibility only about 100 feet. This meant we couldn’t see the summit, so every time we got to the top of one of the peaks on the ridge, we were disappointed to find that we were not yet at our destination. By the time we reached the summit we were tired, wet, and covered in mud from head to toe.
At the top we were met with an old radio tower building from WWII and a completely socked in summit. We walked down a few of the stairs, but unfortunately we were completely enveloped in clouds. The stairs were a bit unstable, so I can kind of see why they were closed. We ducked into the radio building for shelter while we had a snack, but after waiting for the clouds to clear to no avail, we decided to descend the way we came.
The three guys I befriended had bought microspikes, which confused me at first, but it immediately became clear that they were necessary for the descent. We slipped and slided down the steep ridge, using the ropes to rappel when we could, but it was a really tricky and tiring descent. The guys with spikes had a pretty easy time going down, but me and one other girl that we had met at the summit had a really hard time. The clay mud was slick and inconsistent, forcing us to take great care with every step.
As we descended, the wind continued to blow until we got below the clouds where we were met with gorgeous views stretching all the way back to Honolulu. Once we descended below treeline, it was much easier because we had trees to hang onto for stability. The descent took longer than the climb, but we took our time taking care with every timid step. When we reached the tenth crossing to see that the water level had only increased a few inches, it was a relief and a quick flat walk out the way we had come.
This hike was nothing like what I expected and brought many new challenges that I had never faced before in my hiking adventures. The mud was as slippery as ice and the windy conditions reminded me of the Whites. The crossings were difficult, and the threat of flash flooding was not something that I’ve ever had to think about. The mud was relentless and slippery, which posed more of a challenge than I could have ever imagined, but luckily the trail was well demarcated and easy to follow. It was a long hike, but half of it was flat, making it feel shorter than expected. Although it didn't go exactly how I expected, the history behind this trail and the stairs made the hike all the more interesting. Every trail has history and I often think about all of the people who have paved the way before me, but this one was really special. Part of the reason that I chose not to hike directly up the stairs is because I wanted to respect all of the soldiers that once climbed them and put their lives on the line for our country. I’m also glad that I went the long way up to the Haiku Stairs because it made the hike more of a challenge and more rewarding when we got to the to top!
The Haiku Stairs via. Moanalua Valley Tr [10.16 mi, 3350 ft, 7:15].
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