How Oahu’s most dangerous hike was saved (2023)

It’s maybe the last place you’d expect to find an abandoned railroad track: running straight up the rim of a 1,200-foot-tall volcanic cone on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

But it’s there, climbing endlessly into the clouds, a World War II relic that was once used to ferry military personnel up the side of Kohelepelepe (best known as Koko Crater) in a bucket-seated flatcar along a 70-degree grade at its steepest point.

Their final destination? A tiny outpost at the Puu Mai summit built in the ’40s that added a radar antennae in 1956 with 200 miles of range. That station was manned around the clock two years later by the 169th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron and “ready to take the surprise out of any sudden attack by enemy aircraft,” according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The radar antennae was one of two on Oahu, which together made up the entirety of the state of Hawaii’s standing 24-hour air defense at the time.

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How Oahu’s most dangerous hike was saved (2)
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Clockwise from left, hikers and trail runners take on Koko Head trail on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012; an aerial view of the Koko Crater; a present day look at the terminus of the railway at the Pu'u Mai summit. (Becky Bohrer/AP, Hunter Dale/Getty Images, Grant Marek/SFGATE) Clockwise from left, hikers and trail runners take on Koko Head trail on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012; an aerial view of the Koko Crater; a present day look at the terminus of the railway at the Pu'u Mai summit. (Becky Bohrer/AP, Hunter Dale/Getty Images, Grant Marek/SFGATE)

In 1966, the Koko Crater antennae moved to the tallest mountain on the island (Mount Kaala on the Waianae Range) to address a blind spot that prevented it from seeing Kauai, the National Guard abandoned the Puu Mai summit and 77.5 acres at the base of the track became Koko Head Regional Park. Oahu’s shortest railway went dormant from that point on, silently sitting behind a baseball diamond and a shooting range.

And then over the next half century, something unexpected happened: People started hiking up the 1,048 railroad ties.

And then more people. And even more after that.

During peak season, an estimated 1,000 a day ascend what is now affectionately referred to as the Koko Crater Stairs.

The summit quickly became a community gathering place — for military reenlistment ceremonies, for proposals, for a Christmas tree at the summit in December. It was where you would go to commune with nature, to see your neighbors, to have your breath taken away, both literally and figuratively.

“It seems like it’s just some railroad tracks and some rail ties all the way up to the top,” a hiker once described it to Atlas Obscura. “But it’s a pretty magical place.”

And, according to the Honolulu Fire Department, a surprisingly dangerous one.

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Oahu's most dangerous hike

Between Jan. 1, 2021, and May 31, 2022, the stairs amassed 30 rescue calls to HFD, according to records obtained by SFGATE, more than any other trail on the island.

It’s short enough (0.7 miles to the top) that even a lot of experienced hikers underestimate how much water they’ll need (myself and my family included). But also challenging enough (especially the extremely steep final 300 or so railroad ties) that even with enough water, it’s still a magnet for slips, falls and badly twisted ankles. And when there’s a rescue needed, a small cavalry is required to make it.

HFD Capt. Jaimie Kinard said just the initial dispatch for a distress incident on Koko Crater Stairs requires one engine or aerial apparatus, one rescue company, one helicopter asset and one battalion chief.

“[Koko Crater] is a challenging hike and should not be attempted if it is beyond one’s fitness and skill level,” Kinard said.

Hikers will only find one such warning at the start of the trail though: a sign at the foot of the stairs posted by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation notes the trail is steep and “not maintained” and you could be killed if you fall while hiking it. Liability is one reason why no government agency has taken responsibility for Koko Crater Stairs, which — despite being one of the most trafficked trails on the islands — aren’t even mentioned on the state’s official trail and access website.

Feb. 15, 2008, is the other reason.

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The fight to keep Koko Crater Stairs open

On Feb. 15, 2008, the city attempted to take some control of access to the stairs: Workers erected “Keep Out” signs at the base of the Koko Crater Stairs. But — thanks to a fervent and immediate public protest of hundreds of locals as soon as they were posted — the signs were removed by the afternoon.

And while initially, city officials pointed to sudden, unexplained concerns over the nearby shooting range as a reason for the unannounced closure, that may have been an excuse of convenience. “The city has mentioned the railway track’s condition as a safety issue,” a Feb. 27, 2008, edition of The Honolulu Advertiser read. “Many of the ties are deteriorating and some have rotted away almost completely.”

“If the real issue is with regard to maintenance, then there are other possibilities,” Hawaii Kai neighborhood board chairman Greg Knudsen told the Advertiser. “We should talk with community groups and look into the city providing some kind of support. [The trail] has become one of the most-used recreation trails on the island, and that’s worth supporting.”

A decade went by following that incident before locals actually heeded Knudsen’s advice.

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The Kokonut Koalition arrives

In 2018, the Kokonut Koalition was born — a local nonprofit group formed by avid hikers and people who lived in the adjoining neighborhoods, dedicated to protecting, preserving and rehabilitating the Koko Crater Stairs.

“You could see the erosion,” says Lena Haapala, who was born and raised on Oahu and lives 20 minutes from the crater. “A bunch of us regulars who do the stairs on a daily or weekly basis got together, noticed all the rotten ties and eroded areas, that it was getting harder to do and more dangerous, and we decided, let’s do something about this. So back in 2018, we started to put the nonprofit together.”

Over the next three years, the Koalition would attend more than a dozen meetings with the Honolulu City Council and Department of Parks and Recreation pushing for a public/private partnership to fund the rehabilitation of the steps themselves.

“It took a lot of time going back and forth with the city,” says Haapala, who started as the Koalition’s media director and has served as its president since early 2022. “We were like a headache — they hope you go away.”

Except they never did.

One year of pounding finally resulted in a city council resolution in January of 2019 that earmarked $1 million for rehabilitation of the Koko Crater Stairs, $100,000 of which was to be released for immediate repairs to the track. Delays, largely attributable to COVID-19, pushed the project's start date all the way to January 2021, when Haapala says the Koalation received $74,000 from the city.

In conjunction, the Koalition also started a GoFundMe that actually outraised the city’s funding. The ongoing fund has accumulated more than $130,000 to date from more than 1,000 donors. They received bulk donations from Home Depot ($25,000) and Central Pacific Bank ($30,000); an Instagram model from Los Angeles who said she had a “spiritual experience” at the top donated another $10,000; and NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller — who allegedly does the hike whenever he visits the island — chipped in an additional $3,000.

That funding helped fuel “the largest public works program in the history of the state,” according to the Koalition’s website, for a group that had exactly zero experience rehabilitating a railway.

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How, exactly, do you rehabilitate a WWII railway?

Drew Murphy, a hiking-obsessed contractor who served as the Koalition’s first president, fixed the Koalition’s knowledge gap almost immediately. Murphy reached out to Don Jacobs, the engineer behind Colorado’s Manitou Incline — a rehabilitated funicular railway three times the size of the Koko Crater Stairs whose tracks initially washed out during a rockslide in 1990.

Jacobs helped Murphy draw the engineering plans for the rehabilitated crater railway.

“Drew really spearheaded the labor portion and just getting the work done,” Haapala says. “He taught us what to do and how to do it.”

Murphy would leave the project — and the island — one-third of the way through to hike around the world, but not before helping hundreds of volunteers would help carry more than 600,000 pounds of materials, including 480,000 pounds of gravel and 115,000 pounds of lumber, up the crater.

“Every single weekend, sometimes even on the weekdays. So many volunteers stepped up,” says Haapala, who’s on her way to the North Shore to go diving with her friends as she recounts via phone the labor of love that was rehabilitating the stairs. “Every piece of wood, hardware, bag of gravel was hand-carried. It was crazy.

“All the people who helped, who would come every single week, they’re now my closest friends.”

Haapala says she installed nearly every single one of the new railroad ties, an ironically hands-on effort considering she’s an esthetician by day.

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“When we finally finished, I just couldn’t believe I stuck it out,” she says. “In some of the meetings [with the city], I just remember feeling so defeated, ‘oh s—t we’re not going to get anywhere with this.’ But I was a part of it, I initially refused to hold a seat or be a board member — I didn’t want the responsibility. And now I’m the president because I realized this is something. I’m glad to be part of it and see it through. It’s one of the best feelings to actually do this and be part of history.”

The last step was put in on Oct. 23, 2021, and a trail blessing from a kahu (Hawaiian priest) was held five days later. Murphy made it back for the ceremony, as did the mayor, the director of Parks and Rec, members of the Honolulu City Council, friends, family and so many volunteers.

“We just wanted to make sure our kids and grandkids could do the stairs,” Haapala says.

Two months after its completion, emergency calls to the stairs had been cut by 70% compared with the same period the previous five years.

“This is our way of checking and demonstrating that we delivered what we promised, which is safer stairs,” former Koalition President Dave Nixon told HawaiiNewsNow in December.

Haapala says the biggest difference is a decrease in the number of falls.

“People underestimate the stairs,” she says. “It’s just stairs. But then you go 100 steps, and it’s ‘holy s—t, I’m tired.’ They don’t realize the humidity, the time of day they’re going, that they need to bring water, wear their sunscreen. Sometimes military guys say, ‘Well, I’m in the military,’ and then they’re on the side up there catching their breath and dry heaving. Everyone has had their ‘I can’t make it’ moment.”

My moment came this spring.

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How Oahu’s most dangerous hike was saved (10)

(Left to right) Kennedy Marek (10) looks on from the bottom of the Koko Crater Stairs; Harper Marek (12) looks on from near the top of the Koko Crater Stairs. (Grant Marek/SFGATE) (Left to right) Kennedy Marek (10) looks on from the bottom of the Koko Crater Stairs; Harper Marek (12) looks on from near the top of the Koko Crater Stairs. (Grant Marek/SFGATE)

‘You’re almost there’

Intent on finding a family-friendly hike for my very athletic wife, medium athletic 12- and 10-year-old daughters, and “carry me!” 3-year-old, I internet-stumbled on the Koko Crater Stairs. A quick mile and a half round-trip hike up an old railway near Honolulu sounded absolutely perfect for a family that does a lot of hiking in California.

Our 3-year-old daughter Sloane impressively made it 700 rail ties up without needing to be carried, before ducking out of the blistering sun and under one of the few shaded outlets to eat (and spill) an entire bag of Goldfish and drink most of the rest of our two liters of water (which was about half as much as we needed).

My 12-year-old daughter Harper and I decided we’d try to make it to the top. First 20 massive, lunging steps at a time in between breaks. Then 15. Then 10. The trail gets so steep at the top, the stairs are actually beveled on the front edge, which make you feel slightly less like you're about to tear your hamstring with every step. One hundred feet away from the summit, she looked like she was going to vomit or pass out. I felt like I was going to vomit or pass out. We sat on the edge of two ties, head in hands, having reached our “I can’t make it” moment.

“You can do it,” a guy in a Dodgers cap confidently shared on his way back down.

“You’re almost there,” a yoga pants-wearing 20-something who’d passed us earlier shouted back at us.

“It’s totally worth it at the top,” two friends said, nodding in unison.

“Let’s do it, Harper.”

And do it we did.

I wanted to roll my eyes when I heard about the Instagram model who donated $10,000 because she had a “spiritual experience” at the top. Except it was impossible to do so after reaching it myself.

A cool breeze brings you back to life at the summit, where you can see island and ocean in every direction. We sat on top of a pillbox at the top with “STOP ASIAN HATE” painted along the side of it, trying to fully catch our breath, before heading back down the stairs.

“You can do it,” I say to the first person I see struggling to reach the summit.

“You’re almost there,” Harper calls back.

How Oahu’s most dangerous hike was saved (11)

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