Moanalau Ridge to The Haiku Stairs (The Legal and Not So Legal Ways to do Stairway to Heaven)
Fuel Required: Unleaded – Premium – Diesel – Rocket Fuel
Length: 10 miles
Duration: 6-7 hours round trip
The Haiku Stairs, also known as the Stairway to Heaven, are a steep and rickety (and now illegal) pathway along Oahu’s Ko’olau mountain ridge that leads to a once top secret Naval radio tower. Now a storage place for hikers empty post-hike brews, the tower provides sweeping views of the mountain range and eastern beaches below. The Haiku Stairs lead down from the tower on the eastern side of the mountain, where the beginning is guarded 24/7 and $1000 fines have been handed out to those caught trespassing (which you must do to gain entry).
But all hope is not lost! It is still very much possible to get to the radio tower and Haiku Stairs LEGALLY via the western side of the mountain and while it is still technically illegal to be on the stairs at all, there is no one up there to enforce that rule at the top of the mountain. With that being said, the ridge paths up to the stairs (Moanalau and the Saddle trails) are both long and dangerous.
We chose to take the 5 mile Moanalau Ridge trail (10 miles round trip) which was said to be somewhat less dangerous than the Saddle trail and begins in the Moanalau Valley Park just outside of Waikiki where we were staying. We took the bus from our hostel which dropped us approximately 1.5 miles out from the trailhead, but there is also plenty of parking at the trailhead if you have a car.
The first few miles of the trail are somewhat slow, but there is rich history along the beginning of this trail if you have time to stop and read the plaques along the way! Approximately 3 miles in the trail begins to pick up in difficulty and it is basically all up hill from there. The views of the valley only get better and better as you climb, be prepared to scramble up walls of mud and pull yourself up cliffs using rope (I wouldn’t suggest trying to carry anything in your hands during this hike).
The views get more and more rewarding the further you climb into the Jurassic Park-sequence atmosphere.
(I’m thrilled about the views as you can see in the photo above)
It took us around 3.5 hours to reach the radio tower at a fast pace hike with a few moments pause here and there for “taking in the view” (aka photo ops). Lying just beyond the tower was the beginning (or end) of the infamous Haiku Stairs. We set up our extravagant picnic of white chocolate raspberry peanut butter, bananas, pistachios and an assortment of protein bars just in time for a rainstorm to set in. We took cover under the radio tower in a graffiti saturated room that seemed to have become a bottle beer bottle graveyard for hikers past.
Unfortunately the fog that the storm brought along limited our views, but we still enjoyed the mystical and eerie atmosphere as we climbed part of the way down the Haiku Stairs to the next overlook and small structure.
Once we had our fill, we climbed back up to the radio tower to begin our descent, but the mud-covered hikers we met at the top warned us of just how dangerous the route had become from the rain. They themselves planned to head east down the stairs to get off the mountain, claiming the risk of a steep fine was better than the risk of sliding off the mountain side (fair assessment). They were locals and had done this route before with no trouble from the guard below. The sunlight was waning and we had to decide, take the now dangerous but legal way 3+ hours back down the mountain, or risk it for the biscuit and head down the stairway?
Thinking we could climb back up the stairs and spend the night in the radio tower at the first sign of any law enforcement below, we hesitantly followed in the local’s footsteps and were soon glad we did. The views were like nothing we’d ever seen. Dramatic mountain scape to the left, blue ocean as far as you could see to the right, and the highway streaming in the distance below.
The Stairs were slippery themselves and whether it was the hiking or the adrenaline, by the time we neared the end of the path our legs were shaking uncontrollably.
In plain view of the guard’s car we descended the final few stairs quickly, seeing no sign that the guard had called the police (who hand out the fines) we walked right past his car without him saying a word to us. Phew. We then scrambled through a bamboo forrest to get back to a main road.
This route was trespassing we and don’t recommend it to other climbers unless like us, you get stuck in a sticky situation and you feel the risk of the ticket is better than the risk of injury/ death on the return climb. Many people hike in early in the morning to catch sunrise from the top of the radio tower, which sounds like it’d be incredible but investing in headlamps is advised.
Getting To The Ridge Trail:
You begin this trek at the Moanalau Valley Park, where you walk past the small playground to get on the Kamananui Valley Road (which is more of a trail than a road. You follow this trail along the stream for almost 3 miles of relatively flat ground, crossing 17 concrete passovers.
Once you reach the sign for the Kulana’ahane Trail head (not the trail you want) you will continue another 10 yards or so and then look to the left to cross the stream where there is a giant boulder.
A small trail begins to take form on the other side of the stream and you will pass under a large tree branch that says “middle ridge”.
From here the trail begins to pick up in difficulty. Stop for fresh miniature yellow guavas if you need an excuse for a breather.
Enjoy and be safe,