It’s not the height of this remarkable climb that’s frightening, although it ascends 2100 feet into the clouds. It’s not the grueling nature of the journey, either — even though the 3900 stairsteps will cause even the strongest calf muscles to ache and burn. What’s really intimidating about climbing the Stairway to Heaven is that it’s completely illegal, and it’s been forbidden since 1987.
Some people will tell you that’s also part of what makes climbing the Stairway to Heaven such a rush.
Forming a jagged spine across the backbone of the Koolau Mountains, the Stairway to Heaven — also called the Hai’Ku Stairs — was originally a wooden ladder giving the Navy and Coast Guard access to the radio antenna on the mountaintop. It was built in 1942 and remained in place until the 1950s, when it was revamped into a series of metal stairs and platforms.
The stairway was closed in 1987 when the communications system was discontinued, and it was soon overgrown with plants and dangerously decayed. But the stairway was already well-known as a great scenic hike, and the “No Trespassing” signs posted around the area just made it more exciting to thrill-seekers.
In 2002 the entire stairway was repaired by the City of Honolulu, with plans to turn it into a public trail. Sadly, the plans fell through and the Stairway to Heaven has remained officially closed — with a guard posted at its base each morning to keep trespassers away.
This proved to be only a small obstacle for daring hikers willing to brave the stairway in the early hours before dawn. Hundreds of people are said to climb the Stairway to Heaven every week to relish the stunning panoramic views from the top.
It’s not an easy climb, taking several hours to reach the top. In many sections, the stairs are extremely narrow — more like a ladder, really — and there are only a few platforms scattered along the way for rests. The sheer drop-off can be a bit terrifying, and visibility is often hindered by morning mist at lower elevations and by clouds closer to the top.
But oh, those views! There’s no better way to experience the power and beauty of Oahu than from this vantage point on top of the world. Especially if you can get away with it.