Stairway to Heaven: not your average hike. All photos by Alysha Mendez.

Hawaii’s Stairway to Heaven hike, also known as Haiku Stairs–3,922 steps crawling up Oahu’s Koolau Mountain Range–was built in 1942 by the U.S. Navy. The scenic voyage became an instant attraction, but the trail was closed to the public in 1987 because of disrepair. The city of Honolulu spent $875,000 repairing the stairs, predicting a safe trail ready to open in 2002. However, when repairs were complete, the city was hesitant; residents of the neighboring property complained about the visitors and fought the reopening. During this time, hikers ignored the warning signs and the city eventually employed security guards to stand at the base of the stairs and prohibit entrance.

Five years ago, the city of Honolulu was still deciding the fate of the landmark. Should they reopen the famed hike to the public? Or keep it off-limits? Director of City Services at the time, Jeff Coelho, said, “The complexity of issues include everything from liability and risk to access and maintenance.” Nothing has changed since that time; the city continues to pay for security and countless locals and tourists continue to show up in the middle of the night to avoid the guard and conquer the Stairway to Heaven. The hike shows up on almost every what to do in Hawaii list and virtual tourist discussion I’ve seen, including popular travel sites, all of course stating (just as I will eventually do as well) that they are not condoning trespassing.

One of the amazing views from Stairway to Heaven.One of the amazing views from Stairway to Heaven.

After I moved to Oahu, I heard rumors about people dying and being injured while climbing the Stairway, and that’s why it was officially deemed forbidden. However, after vicious googling, I couldn’t find any information on a death or injury. It’s clear that the illicit nature of the trek has created many tales-some true, some false. It is certainly dangerous though, and I was not going to take any chances! After all, one misstep or clumsy moment can literally mean falling down an entire mountain. But my adventurous side won the battle. I had to know what the Stairway was all about.

So at 2 AM, my friend and I started our journey by making our way to the Windward Coast Kailua area, on empty Interstate H3. We parked in the nearby neighborhood, and tiptoed to the fence that warns trespassers. This part was sketchier than the actual stairs: you follow a winding path, taking a couple turns at forks and eventually trekking through the eerie forest. Finally, we reached the bottom of the stairs-time to begin the steep (and seemingly treacherous) climb. The cool night air and ocean breeze did nothing for us here; we were sweating within seconds, our flashlights steady on the steps in front of us.

Looking down was quite terrifying, with the interstate winding beneath us. However, it was far too dark to see the mountain itself or the work we were actually doing. I stopped often, until after what seemed like hours, we were finally at the first landing. I secretly wanted to curl up and nap. The air was getting cooler as we ascended and soon I realized that the steps themselves are not difficult: quite small, evenly spaced, with a helpful railing the entire way up. I felt quite safe, actually. The tough part was the distance. We climbed for hours, each step tricking us into thinking we were closer to the top, but the darkness and the shape of the mountain made it impossible to tell: we could only guess. And finally, a group of people, huddled together with blankets and food, congratulated us. “Only this last stretch,”  they said, pointing. We weren’t there yet. They were on the lower landing to pass time until sunrise, because the top is the coldest and wettest, deep in the clouds.

Ah, Oahu.

Haggardly we headed up the last flight of stairs. We’d made it, we’d conquered the Stairway to Heaven-except we still had to go all the way”¦ back”¦ down. Unfortunately, we missed the sunrise since it was a particularly cloudy morning, so we started descending as lightness began revealing what we’d accomplished. The misty clouds near the top dampened our hair and skin and I realized that the hike definitely had a fitting title.

Trekking down the stairs was less straining physically but more difficult because it felt less stable. The railing was slippery and now we could see where exactly we’d risk falling, which was a little startling. Our seven hour process was finally over as we saw the guard standing by his truck at the bottom, casually talking and joking with other hikers. We escaped without even a warning. Some people haven’t been so lucky, however, and received a citation from the guard. Also, some people have not been respectful of the neighboring residents, causing a lot of tension. These residents have complained of noise, trash, and limitation of neighborhood parking.

We made sure to respect the land and its residents and were of course very cautious with the hike itself. If the public follows these simple rules that we did, I do not see why the legendary trail should be banned. Stairway to Heaven is hands down the best way to take in the magnificent ocean, mountains, beaches, clouds, and other surroundings, and to fully appreciate and experience (both physically and mentally) the beauty and power of the island. As of today, the city has no plans to reopen the beloved hike, but perhaps with the right encouragement, it will.