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.

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“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.