The Hawaiian island of Oahu is full of popular Instagram spots. One of the most famous is the iconic “Stairway to Heaven.” Known officially as the Haʻikū Stairs, nearly 4,000 steps span the Ko’olau Mountain Range leading to a former Navy communications facility. Although the hike and summit provide incredible views of the island and Kaneohe Bay below, they are closed and off limits to visitors. Despite this, thousands of hikers risk the hefty fine that comes with getting caught on the stairs every year. In 2021, the Honolulu City Council voted to remove the stairs.
In 1942, Navy contractors began construction of the top secret Haʻikū Radio Station. The communications facility was designed to transmit powerful radio signals to ships operating throughout the Pacific. In order to achieve the desired range, the Navy stretched the antennae across the Haʻikū Valley which served as a natural amphitheater. The radio station was commissioned in 1943 and was used during and after WWII.
In the 1950s, the Navy decommissioned the radio station and handed control over to the Coast Guard who used it as an Omega Navigation System station. In the mid-1950s, the original stairs were replaced by sections of metal steps and ramps. Some sections of the wooden stairs can still be seen behind the metal steps. The steps were later opened to visitors.
In the 1970s, the stairs gained popularity among tourists who flocked to what was publicized as “Hawaii’s best view.” Although the Coast Guard required visitors to sign a waiver before climbing the steps, it didn’t deter the thousands who came and overcrowded the peak. Visitation only increased after the stairway was featured on an episode of Magnum P.I.
In 1987, the Coast Guard closed the stairs permanently. Overcrowding, along with emerging problems with vandalism and littering, reports of arson, theft, and trespassing on nearby private property, resulted in the closure. Ownership of the stairs and surrounding 200 acres passed to the Board of Water Supply who later transferred it to the city. Today, it is managed by the Parks and Recreation Department.
Thanks to social media, interest in the stairs only grew in the 21st century. Although the hike is illegal and can result in a $700+ fine, hikers are willing to risk it every year for their selfie on the famous steps. Over a span of five years, the Parks and Recreation Department reported the issuance of 368 citations, 14 arrests, and over 14,000 warnings at the Haʻikū Stairs. In a 10-year period, the Honolulu Fire Department reported having to rescue 117 stranded hikers who were unable to descend the stairs.
In September 2021, the Honolulu City Council unanimously adopted a resolution urging the city administration to remove the stairs. The $1 million included in the city’s budget for the demolition was later released by Mayor Rick Blangiardi. Despite the decision, organizations like Friends of Haʻikū Stairs remain steadfast in preserving the steps for their historical and cultural significance.