Hawaii starts removal of infamous ‘Stairway to Heaven’ newsbhunt

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Honolulu’s famous Ha‘ikū Stairs have been closed to the public for decades — but that hasn’t stopped some hikers from trespassing through private properties or skirting security guards to make the illegal trek up the metal stairway.

Now, the treacherous path, known as the “Stairway to Heaven,” is being removed more than 80 years after the U.S. Navy built it during World War II.

The 3,922 stairs that weave up a steep mountainside have drawn tourists who attempt early-morning hikes, hoping to catch a sunrise from the ridge of the Ko‘olau range, more than 2,800 feet above sea level. Last week, construction workers began the removal process, which is expected to take at least six months. Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi called the project “long overdue.”

“I can promise you that this was not a capricious decision,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

Past attempts to complete the forbidden hike have ended in precarious rescue missions.

In September, a woman and her dog had to be airlifted from the perilous trail by a helicopter crew after a 50-foot-fall, Hawaii News Now reported. In 2016, a pair of hikers were stranded for hours in the dark until emergency responders could access the trail in the daylight, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Between January 2022 and February 2024, the Honolulu Fire Department said it responded to five rescue situations on the Ha‘ikū Stairs. The Honolulu-based KHON2 reported in October 2022 that the Fire Department had rescued 118 people on the stairs over the last 12 years.

Access to the stairway, built to allow military personnel to reach communication facilities on the ridgeline, has been restricted since 1987. The U.S. Coast Guard previously allowed hikers who signed a waiver to use the stairs, but officials later closed them to the public “due to vandalism and liability concerns,” according to the Honolulu City Council.

In 1999, the U.S. Coast Guard transferred property rights for the Ha‘ikū Stairs to the utility company Board of Water Supply in Honolulu, which then moved the rights to the city because it did not need the land for water. Honolulu repaired some of the stairway, but it remained closed. Security guards were later added to keep hikers away.

But the trekkers kept coming.

Social media only made the problem worse. In an April 2021 resolution calling for the stairs to be removed, the city council said social networking sites “enabled the posting of illegal directions to the stairs and the sharing of panoramic pictures that have encouraged people from around the world to take the hike.” Police officers stationed around the stairway and surrounding neighborhoods stopped 11,427 people from accessing it between August 2017 and March 2020, according to Honolulu officials.

“Most of these people are thrill seekers because they want to say that they hiked here,” said Esther Kia‘āina, the vice chair of the Honolulu City Council who represents the district where the Ha‘ikū Stairs are located.

The stairway is not only dangerous for those attempting to hike it, but also for rescuers who are called in, she said, adding that each rescue typically costs between $10,000 and $20,000.

“It’s very windy up there, it’s treacherous in fact,” she said. “I just don’t think people take that into account.”

When Kia‘āina and the rest of the city council voted unanimously for the resolution to remove the stairs, they called it the “only viable solution” to stop trespassing and remove the city’s liability — especially as tourism was expected to increase after the pandemic.

The final decision to remove the stairs came after months of discussion with the city council and Honolulu community members, Blangiardi, the mayor, said in his statement. The project officially began Wednesday, and removal of 664 stairway modules, which are seven-foot sections of stairs, will start later this month. Each module will then be flown down by a helicopter for disassembly.

Though the stairs will no longer be in place, the view will be, Kia‘āina said.

“The beauty of the mountain there is still going to be there,” she said.

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