Civil Beat: Hawaii Struggles To Maintain Its Worn-Out Hiking Trails

“Honestly, we’re just trying to keep up with demand,” the state’s trails manager said.By Stewart Yerton / July 17, 2019 Reading time: 9 minutes.   

Editor’s Note: “Tourism’s Tipping Point,” is an ongoing series that looks at the future of the vacation industry in Hawaii. 

By almost any standard, Hawaii’s hiking trails are a world-class recreational resource. The state’s trail system alone encompasses 855 miles of trails and access roads, from epic, remote routes like the Kalalau trail on Kauai’s Napali coast to easily accessible day hikes like the 2.5- mile Makiki loop trail.

And that doesn’t count trails run by the counties or the National Park Service.

But hordes of tourists have made the system increasingly difficult to manage. The number of visitors to Hawaii is expected to top 10 million this year. Those numbers, combined with the increasing popularity of hiking and the popularization of even the most remote trails, are creating lots of stress for trail managers.

The results are well-known to residents: cars clogging residential streets around trailheads, eroding trails, hikers getting lost or injured or simply ignoring no trespassing or warning signs.

Signs posted by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, like these at Manoa Falls, often do little to discourage hikers from visiting spots deemed dangerous by the state.

Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

It’s a struggle to keep up, said Mike Millay, who runs the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Na Ala Hele trails management program, which manages some 850 miles of trails statewide.

In a first sign of taking more aggressive steps to reduce the impact of hikers, the state has started prohibiting parking at the trailhead for the Kalalau trail on the North Shore of Kauai. But so far officials haven’t taken major steps to restrict access to trails.


“Honestly, we’re just trying to keep up with demand,” Millay said.

One major new initiative could help state officials at least quantify the demand, which for now remains largely unknown. Although there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that many trails are growing increasingly popular, gathering data is difficult. With only a few exceptions, trails don’t typically have monitors or attendants counting people at the trailheads.

Millay said the state might consider limiting the use of some trails, but first it needs to know how many people are using them.

”Those are indicators that we need to know,” Millay said.

An initiative the Hawaii Tourism Authority has launched might provide some answers. In June, HTA finalized a contract with UberMedia of Pasadena, Calif., under which UberMedia will use cell phone data to track specific locations that tourists visit.

Debbie Newton, a recent visitor from Amarillo, Texas, says her group got lost near Oahu’s Valley of the Temples. Now, the hike is memorialized on her Facebook page.

Charlta King

Gladys Kong, UberMedia’s chief executive, said the company will report data in aggregate, but still provide enough detail that HTA can see patterns. For example, she said, the data will show how many people from a region like New England visited a certain area during a certain time period versus people from another market.

Curt Cottrell, who runs Hawaii’s state parks system, said UberMedia’s system could be used to count hikers on certain trails and figure out where they are from, without the need for staff or automated traffic counters.

“The data will just confirm what we already viscerally know as managers.  It’ll just just give us numbers to leverage across the street,” he said, referring to the Hawaii State Capitol.

For now, trail managers, at least for Oahu trails, rely on a far less scientific metric to figure out what trails are the most popular: rescue information from the Honolulu Fire Department.  Paradoxically, some of the easiest hikes have the most rescues. That’s because they are easy and accessible, which attracts a lot of people, some of whom come unprepared.

The map above shows “hot spots” where the Honolulu Fire Department conducts the most frequent rescues. Take Diamond Head, for instance, which is marked with a target-shaped spot on the southeastern edge of Oahu.

The Honolulu Fire Department rescues on average one person a week from Diamond Head, the iconic volcano, said Socrates Baratakos, an assistant fire chief.

But the data on fire department rescue hotspots is limited, Millay said, because it doesn’t document actual trails, just the general area.

“You don’t know exactly what the precise location is,” he said.

Social media also can create headaches for people trying to manage trails.

The Haiku Stairs trail is a case in point. Managed by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, the trail is supposed to be off limits to the public. But that doesn’t stop people from not only wandering into the area but also chronicling their adventures on sites like Instagram.

One recent post by someone named adventuresofthetravelingyogi, for example, shows a woman climbing the long vertiginous stairs, which her post calls “possibly the greatest attraction on the entire island.”

Kathleen Pahinui, a public information officer for the Board of Water Supply, said the issues involve not only public safety but also concerns for the watershed where the staircase trail is located.

“When people go up there in droves, it really can affect the watershed,” she said.

The Haiku Stairs trail remains a popular hike even though it is supposed to be closed to the public.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Pahinui said the board has asked people to take down advertisements and even, in one case, a newspaper article promoting the trail. That’s “made a dent” in the people trespassing on the trail, she said.

But it’s still a problem.

“It’s locals, too,” Pahinui stressed. “Let’s not just pick on the poor tourists.”

So far, Hawaii lawmakers have been unwilling to provide more funding to help manage the trails. The funding system for Na Ale Hele is complicated even by government budget standards. It gets bits of money from a variety of sources: a portion of the state gasoline tax, federal grants, private contributions, user fees and a portion of the state hotel tax.

But the money doesn’t go directly to Na Ala Hele. Instead, it goes into a special fund used for all kinds of things, including buying land, paying off debts and protecting the state’s water resources.

This isn’t to say Na Ala Hele doesn’t have money to spend.

According to a report submitted to the Legislature for the 2017-18 fiscal year, DLNR had $6.9 million budgeted to cover a wide range of forest and recreation activities, but only one of those was trail maintenance. Still, the department met the goal spelled out in Gov. David Ige’s budget request of doing trail maintenance to 75% of the state’s trails.

But some believe the trails need more funding — and a more clear source of funding.

In a bill introduced in 2019, Sen. Laura Thielen, a former DLNR chair known for her stances to protect the environment, laid out the issues. Heavy use and limited resources have curbed the level of maintenance needed, the bill said.

The Honolulu Fire Department is having to conduct three times as many trail rescues as it did a decade ago, the bill said. People living in the residential neighborhood near trailheads are suffering from “blatant littering, tracking of mud on neighborhood residents’ lawns, and illegal parking.”

The measure requested that $1.8 million be earmarked for the trails program. But after passing out of the Senate Water and Land Committee, the measure died in the Ways and Means Committee, without a hearing.

One trail singled out in the bill was the Manoa Falls hike. Located in the back of Manoa Valley, the trail is close enough to Waikiki that the tops of the tourist district’s high rises can be seen in the distance from near the trailhead.

Alonzo, left, Vicki, center, and Skye Ocaranza of Turlock, California pose for a requisite selfie after hiking to Manoa Falls.

Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

The trail, which leads to a 150-foot waterfall, is just over 1.5 miles long with relatively little elevation gain. It’s an easy hike, close to thousands of hotel rooms with a decent payoff at the end.

That explains why the trails attract about 850 hikers a day, according to Millay, and why DLNR is closing the trail intermittently over the summer to perform maintenance funded by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

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On a recent Sunday afternoon, the trail was characteristically crowded with hikers.

Despite the changes set to close the trail the next day for maintenance, the hikers seemed to be having no problems. Some were hiking in bare feet or rubber slippers; one young mom carried a toddler on her hip. Among those on the trail were Debbie Newton and Charlta King, English teachers from Amarillio, Texas.

The trail seemed to be in good shape to them.

Bt they couldn’t say the same for the Puu Maelieli trail on Oahu’s Windward side, which they had joined a Meetup group to hike a couple of days before.

The hike up to the pillboxes overlooking Kaneohe Bay was fine, Newton said. The trip back: not so good. The trail was overgrown in places with little signage, King said. And the group leader got everyone lost, Newton said. Really lost.

“We thought we were going to have to eat each other,” she said with a laugh.

In the end, that wasn’t neccessary  But what was supposed to be a two-hour hike took four hours.

“It could have been so much worse,” she said.

“Tourism’s Tipping Point” is part of Civil Beat’s year-long series, “Hawaii’s Changing Economy.” That work is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

Hiking through our half-century history at Wiliwilinui Ridge

One way that the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i is commemorating our 50th Anniversary is by hosting a series of “victory hikes” throughout the state, at least one per quarter by each group. This second quarter, the O‘ahu Group held its victory hike to Wiliwilinui Ridge Trail. The hike was led by Jean Fujikawa, an Outings leader of ten years who also works for the O‘ahu Invasive Species Committee, and guest speaker Reese Liggett, a former Outings Committee Chair and hike leader.

During our hike, Reese revealed how in 1995-1998 the Sierra Club championed efforts at the ‘Āina Haina Neighborhood Board, State Board of Land and Natural Resources, and Honolulu City Council to establish public access rules for the Wiliwilinui Ridge trail. Reese was the Outings Chair who helped coordinate this three-year effort, which resulted in the March 4,1998 Bureau of Conveyances Document No. 98-028929 issued by the City and signed by Mayor Jeremy Harris. This document prohibits the Waialae Iki V Community Association from requesting identification of hikers who want to enter the gated community to access Wiliwilinui Ridge Trail in the State’s Conservation District. Hikers driving through the security gate can now mention the state’s public access easement for the Ridge Trail and will be allowed to drive to the trailhead without having their ID’s scanned into the Waialae Iki V system.

Since 1998, O‘ahu Group Outings continues to lead hikes and service projects that improve the safety and accessibility of this trail. Outings leader Randy Ching pointed out the sections of trail that he and Ed Mersino maintained by installing new steps and water diversions. Some of the older steps were still painted with the “Sierra Club Hawai‘i Chapter” name, demonstrating how our work has stood the testament of time and thousands of hikers on this popular East O‘ahu trail.

Also joining the hike were members of the O‘ahu Group’s Executive Committee and several participants who were joining the Sierra Club for their very first hike. Our group of ten enjoyed a sunny day learning about this victory hike, discovering native and edible plants, and hiking into the clouds at the top of the ridge.

We encourage you to attend one or more of our victory hikes to join in our 50th anniversary celebration and learn about the club’s efforts and successes in building, protecting, preserving and improving special areas throughout the State. Our 3rd quarter victory hikes are published in our Mālama Newsletters and the online calendar – we hope to see you on the trails!

Steps installed by the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter

Group shot on the way up. Mahalo Jean and Reese for leading this victory hike!


Some of the steps that Randy and Ed installed to make the steep slope of the trail more manageable.


Beautiful views overlooking East O‘ahu as we transcended into the clouds.

Support Trail Funding SB 2331 SD1

Like to Hike? Support SB 2331 SD1, a bill that would fund the Department of Land and Natural Resources “Na Ala Hele” Program. Na Ala Hele is the State of Hawai‘i Trail and Access Program- managing over 128 trail and road features that span 855 miles throughout the state!

How you can help:

SB 2331 SD1 Relating to Trails has a hearing next week! Please submit written testimony in SUPPORT for this bill by Tuesday, February 27, at 11am. You can submit your support via email to

You can use the following testimony as a guide:

“Aloha Chair Dela Cruz, Vice Chair Keith-Agaran, and members of the Ways and Means Committee. My name is ________ and I live in __________. I’m writing in strong support for SB 2331 SD 1, which appropriates funding for “Na Ala Hele”, the State’s Trail and Access Program. Keeping up with the increasing impacts on our beloved hiking trails is a constant challenge for the State. This bill would provide critical funds for improving access to and maintaining state controlled recreational trails statewide and promoting hiker safety and hiker etiquette education and outreach. I love to hike because ______________ and believe funding our trails is so important because ______________. Please support SB 2331 SD1 and pass this bill.”

Thank you for your support in protecting our trails and promoting hiker education and safety!





Loud Hiker Blues

Written by Colleen Soares, O‘ahu Group Outings Committee Chair


You wake up early, excited and looking forward to the day. You eat and dress quickly, grab your water and pack, and head for the hills. You’re going hiking, to the top of the Pali! And you’re pumped! You park in a residential area, houses all around. You see a friend, climb out, slam the door, and holler good morning. You’re excited and talking loudly as you walk two blocks to the trailhead, past other houses. It is Saturday, 8 am.

Meanwhile…on the other side of the door… You are deeply asleep when you are awakened sharply by loud music and car doors slamming outside your bedroom window. The clock says 8 am. You are exhausted, and all week, you’ve been looking forward to the one morning you can sleep in. But the music and loud talk and slamming continues. Now, you are fully awake. And angry! You look outside and shake your head. It’s those damn hikers again!

There has been much discussion and complaint about these problems. We are talking about common sense and courtesy from trail users. But we’re human, and we forget, especially in the exuberance of an early morning excursion with friends. Trail users want access to trails, safety and parking. We need parking areas at Kuliouou, and at Maunawili, Manana and other state Na Ala Hele trails that don’t have anything but street parking. More and more people are taking to the trails, and parking has become the major problem. Additionally, busloads of tourists are ferried to trailheads, and we hope they are reminded often that people live nearby.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources receives the brunt of complaints. Hikers talk loudly, slam car doors, obstruct driveways, use water hoses in residents’ yards, and track mud across lawns and cement. DLNR will soon install a few signs to remind us to be more considerate, but they will be at the trailhead, after the noise damage is done. DLNR cannot do the whole job. They have mountains of work to do to keep our parks and trails safe.

DLNR has huge responsibilities and needs a bigger share of state funds in order to protect and conserve our natural resources. “DLNR is responsible for 1.3 million acres of state land, 3 million acres of state ocean waters, 2 million acres of conservation district lands, our drinking water supply, our fisheries, coral reefs, indigenous and endangered flora and fauna, and all of Hawaii‟s historic and cultural sites. And yet, the total operating DLNR budget adds up to less than 1% of the entire state operating budget and 1.6% of permanent civil service workforce.” Auwe!

Haiku Stairs Comments

Aloha, below are the public comments the O‘ahu Group submitted in response to the Environmental Impact Statement Prep Notice (EISPN) in regards to the future of Haiku Stairs, or the “Stairway to Heaven”:

To: OEQC and G70

The Sierra Club O‘ahu Group is concerned about the Haiku Stairs being torn down. Here are our comments and questions.


1) The Haiku Stairs should be preserved. It is well-known and attracts both locals and visitors. It is unique — no other hiking trail on Oahu is remotely similar. There are fantastic views all along the way and the stairs have a long history. To quote a recent editorial by Vernon Ansdell and Jay Silberman, the stairs “have been determined to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, because of their integral role in the defense of the Pacific during WWII. Experts in botany and natural history have described the Stairs hike as unique in the Hawaiian islands, for several reasons. It would be an incalculable loss of an irreplaceable recreational, educational, historic and cultural resource.”

2) Managing the stairs has been done before with little or no difficulty. Again quoting Silberman — “Think about what was involved when the U.S. Coast Guard Omega Station did it in the 1980s: hikers parked in the parking lot next to the main building, filled out a sign-in sheet, and walked over to the Stairs. That’s it. The station and parking lot were open during the day, so no one had a reason to park on neighbors’ lawns and sneak up at night. During the six years that the Stairs were open, an estimated 20,000 people a year climbed it, with no supervision, and no impact on the neighbors.”

3) No one has been killed or seriously injured while hiking the stairs. This is an amazing record for a trail that has been drawing hikers for over three decades. People have been very careful because of the obvious danger if they fell off the stairs.

4) The City spent almost $800,000 fixing the stairs (and replacing the railings) over a decade ago. It has spent about $170,000 a year for the past several years to post guards at the gate near the end of Haiku Road. All of this money should go to making the stairs available to the public! And if the stairs are torn down, it will cost the city almost 3 million dollars. This money could be used to create a hiking trail that would draw tens of thousands of people a year without annoying the residents who live near the trailhead.

5) If the City won’t maintain the stairs, perhaps another government agency will. DLNR comes to mind. They have a lot of experience in managing trails (think Na Ala Hele). The stairs lead up to the Koolau Summit Trail (KST) and could be part of an all-day hiking experience unlike any other in the state. Up the stairs, along the KST, down Middle Ridge and out along the Kamananui Valley road would be an unparalleled recreational experience.

Another possibility: again quoting Ansdell and Silberman, “If BWS can’t be troubled to manage the Stairs, hire a contractor to do it, and collect entrance fees to cover all operating, maintenance, security and management costs, as well as all potential liability. The state collects hundreds of thousands of dollars per year from entrance fees to Diamond Head State Monument.”

6) The concerns the City has expressed about liability are overblown (again, no deaths or serious injuries in over 3 decades of hiking by everyone from first time hikers to experienced mountaineers). Liability should not be the primary consideration in deciding whether to preserve the stairs or not. The State’s experience with Diamond Head State Park and Manoa Falls Trail (the two most hiked trails on Oahu) should put to rest any concerns that the City has.

7) Oahu’s trails are being inundated by an unprecedented number of hikers. We had almost 9,000,000 visitors to the state in 2016. The situations at Maunawili Falls Trail and Kuliouou Ridge Trail and Mariner’s Ridge indicate that we need more, not fewer, popular trails. Haiku Stairs could be an attraction that helps alleviate the foot traffic on our most popular trails, thus taking some of the pressure off a resource that was not made to handle so many people.


1) Have other governmental agencies (besides the Board of Water Supply) been asked about their interest in “taking over” the stairs?

2) Have non-profits been asked about their interest in managing the stairs (for example, the Friends of Haiku Stairs)?

3) Has anyone from the City hiked similar trails in other states or foreign countries? Have they seen how those states and countries managed that recreational resource?

4) Has the City made an offer to Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to swap land that can be used for housing for the land that DHHL owns in Haiku Valley (courtesy of the US government when Coast Guard Omega Station closed down) and which is unsuitable for housing?

5) Has the City considered selling the stairs to a third party (such as Trust for Public Land) which would transfer the stairs to another government entity or non-profit or public-private partnership (PPP)?

6) Has the City considered reviving the Coast Guard method from the 80’s — i.e. renovating the parking lot and main building of the former Coast Guard facility to allow hikers to park there so that neighbors would not be inconvenienced?

7) Has the City considered using the Diamond Head State Park model — charging for parking ($5 per vehicle) or walking in ($1)? These monies could be used exclusively to maintain the stairs and provide a great visitor experience.

8) There is a serious shortage of funding to protect and maintain our natural resources. With almost 9,000,000 visitors last year, DLNR needs more resources just to maintain, much less improve, the visitor experience. This doesn’t even count the number of locals who also use the resource base. Has the City considered turning the stairs over to the State to use as a revenue source (similar to Diamond Head)?

9) Has the City considered convening a meeting of interested parties in resolving this situation? Representatives from the Board of Water Supply, DHHL, DLNR, the Friends of Haiku Stairs, Sierra Club, Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club, Trust for Public Land, City attorneys, State attorneys should sit down and talk to each other about possible solutions. This would cost very little and some innovative ideas might come out of this get-together. It is worth a try. The Haiku Stairs is a unique resource and definitely worth saving.

The Sierra Club looks forward to your response. And mahalo for this opportunity to share our mana’o with you.

Randy Ching
Sierra Club O‘ahu Group