Hiking down to Kalaupapa provides a rugged — and sometimes wet — view of once-quarantined colony.
MOLOKAI, Hawaii — A visit to the island of Molokai offers a window on a unique and sobering chapter of Hawaiian history. For about a century beginning in 1866, some 8,000 individuals afflicted with leprosy were quarantined to live out their lives on the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai’s northern shores. Their stories are told at Kalaupapa National Historical Park.
About 100 people still live in the community, mostly government workers along with a few patients who chose to stay after the quarantine policy officially ended in 1969. Unless you’re invited by a resident, you can visit the park only on a guided tour with a permit.
There are several options for getting there. My wife, Yukako, and I booked a package with Makani Kai Charter Tours that included a flight from Honolulu to the main airport at Molokai, a bus tour of the park plus lunch, and a return flight from a tiny airport inside the park.
We also planned a hike down Kalaupapa’s steep sea cliffs before our park tour. We headed to the trailhead from Molokai’s mountaintop airport, sharing a 15-minute taxi ride with two people who had been on our flight. Our fellow passengers were heading to the cliffs for mule rides. We were told to start ahead of the mules as the trail narrows in some spots and the mules make it tougher to navigate. (We planned our flight home from the park airport so we wouldn’t have to hike back up.)
Views and vog
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At 1,664 feet up, the mountaintop offered an incredible view of the Kalaupapa Peninsula — though it would have been even more spectacular if there hadn’t been storm clouds and vog (what locals call volcanic smog).
As we began the roughly 3-mile hike, we were immersed in a loud chorus of tropical birds. We also caught a few glimpses of the ocean rumbling below at spots where the thick foliage thinned out. As we made our way down, I spotted huge spider webs above in the trees and Yukako found tiny flowers and moss-covered rocks. Colorful plants abounded along with guava, noni and Brazilian pepper trees heavy with red bundles of peppercorns. Farther along, a wild goat ignored us while quietly munching on the noni fruit, also known as Indian mulberry.
The uneven concrete and boulder steps began to jolt our knees so we took a break every few switchbacks. Needless to say, there’s no cell service here, and hikers must bring their own snacks and water. As mules use the trail daily, mule droppings are found at every turn. That aside, the hike was peaceful with hardly anyone else on the trail.
Storm clouds broke an hour into our hike. The rain was brief but heavy, turning the trail into a slippery mud bath. Footholds filled with water and water spilled in streams off the concrete steps. We’d packed raincoats but got soaked to the bone anyway. Yukako took a small stumble and I had a few close calls, ending up with muddy hands from catching myself on the rocks. We tried to dry ourselves off but with no sun and a strong breeze, we were chilled for the rest of the hike.
About three-fourths of the way down, the mules caught up with us, passing us on a wide switchback.
Near the bottom, the trail opened up to a view of the stormy Pacific. Rough seas slammed onto shores lined with boulders, palm trees and ironwood trees. The hike took about two hours total, but would have gone faster if the rain hadn’t slowed us down.
Yellow school bus
We met our tour near the beachside mule corral, joining a few other hikers, a group of retirees and the mule riders who’d passed us, including our fellow taxi passengers, who looked just as wet and worn as we did. An old yellow school bus transported us to the national park.
We visited structures built in the late 1800s by St. Damien, the Belgian priest who devoted himself to the colony and was eventually canonized, and also saw the gravesite of St. Marianne, the nun who cared for female patients of the colony and who also was made a saint. Our guide pointed out an ancient Hawaiian altar called a heiau, and we visited two turn-of-the-20th century churches still in use. Some of St. Damien’s remains are interred at St. Philomena Church. Along the way there were deer, wild pigs and dozens of feral but friendly cats who were accustomed to being fed by the bus driver.
We picnicked on a blustery field overlooking the peninsula’s cold, rough waters before being taken to the airport for our flight out. It was sobering to consider that ships once anchored here to unload passengers who would never leave.
If you go
Visits to Kalaupapa National Historical Park by the general public are available only through a guided tour with permits. nps.gov/kala.
Makani Kai Air offers tour packages for Kaluapapa, with options including flights, hikes and mule rides. The hike-down, fly-out option is $249 from Honolulu: makanikaiair.com/damien.php