Kalaupapa Molokai

Hiking in Hawaii: St. Damien’s Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai

A number of years ago we hiked to one of Hawaii’s most iconic spots. We trekked the 100+ year old Pali trail on Molokai to Kalaupapa. It is simply something neither of us will ever forget. We decided to skip the mule ride and experience the history of this trail on foot.

Kalaupapa is a spiritual place of great beauty and a reminder of tremendous suffering. It’s where Saint Damien lived with and cared for Hansen’s Disease patients.

We’ll tell you about the hike, but first, we need to say that for now, the trail is closed. That as a result of a landslide that occurred in 2018. The federal government is working to restore trail access. Until then, the park is accessible only by aircraft at this time.

When the Pali trail reopens, here’s what to expect

The trail is challenging, slippery and muddy with a 1,700 foot elevation drop.

At one point we wanted to turn back but were determined to keep going. In addition to our supplies, we were bringing fresh produce to Kalaupapa for a resident who was excited and anticipating our arrival.

Each step down was carefully placed to avoid slipping.

The hike to the bottom took 2 hours and 15 minutes; much longer than we had expected. When we heard the sound of the surf and looked up the steep cliff from where we started, it was a feeling of exhilaration knowing we had arrived.

Going back topside after the tour was much easier psychologically without as much chance of slipping, but still strenuous.

We felt some soreness for a few days after. In spite of the discomfort, it was worth the experience and we recommend this journey (when it again becomes accessible) to all in good condition.

Hawaii hiking notes for those considering this adventure when the trail reopens.

Training Routine: It’s important to be in good aerobic condition for this hike. Three weeks before going we began to ramp up our walks looking for streets with steep inclines and used the stair master at the gym.

Packing Supplies for 2: Water (2 liter bottles) which can be refilled before the trip back topside, 4 sandwiches (we saved one each for the hike up and it helped restore energy), protein bars and nut snacks. We also packed an extra T-shirt to change into at the bottom for the return hike. Be sure to check the conditions of your shoes.  Jeff’s sneaker sole was completely sucked off by the mud, making the hike up more challenging. While most of the trail was in shade, you will want to bring hats and sunscreen.

If we go again we’d bring: Swimsuit for the beach at the end of the trail (although bathing is prohibited) and perhaps hiking poles.

Start your hike early: We began at 7:00 a.m. which put us ahead of the mules and gave us the time needed to hike without feeling rushed.  You must arrive by 10:00 a.m. for the tour.  We left Kalaupapa at 2pm and arrived topside at 4:30 p.m.

Trail Markers: There are 26 switchbacks and each one is marked. The further down you go the shorter the distance is between numbers. Once you’re at the bottom of the trail you’ll walk 20 minutes along the shore to where the tour begins.

What to Expect: 1,700 foot elevation change each way, a steep and muddy trail, lots of steps, and 6 miles round trip. Most of the trail is shaded.

Location of Trailhead:  From Kaunakakai, take 460 west, then turn right at Highway 470. The trail entrance is 15 minutes at the top of the highway, past the mule stables, on the right at a metal gate with a sign warning not to enter without a permit.

Visitor Qualifications: You must be at least 16 years of age and meet one of the following: (a) invited by a resident,  (b) have a prearranged tour at bottom with one of the following companies, or (c) be on a mule ride trip.

Kekaula Tours LLC. can arrange and sponsor permits for their clients on a fly-in, mule ride or a hike-in package. Please check their website: www.muleride.com or by phone: 808-567-6088.

Saint Damien & Mother Marianne Cope Molokai Tours LLC can also arrange and sponsor permits for their clients on a fly-in or hike-in package. Please contact by phone: (808) 895-1673.

Alternatives to hiking: Previously there was the famous Mule Ride for $199 or fly-in on Makana Kai Air for $74 each way . Another option is to drive past the trail head to the end of the road where there’s an overlook of the Kalaupapa settlement.

(In 1980, our State Legislature again decreed “Hansen’s Disease” rather than “leprosy” to be the official terminology used in Hawaii).

What happened to the iconic mule rided?

One of Hawaii’s most famous tourism activities was the mule ride on the same trail that we hiked. That ride is closed permanently, which is unrelated to the closure of the hiking trail.

The mule ride operators were evicted from the land that was used to keep the mules and manage the rides. The landowner said they were trying to achieve a new agreement with the ride operator, but that ultimately that did not work out.  The ride operators indicated that proposed costs were too great for their operation to remain viable. The landowner said that the ride failed to pay rent or provide proof of insurance.  “This is not about greed or stopping a business from operating mule rides or tours to Kalaupapa to share the history of Molokai.” — land owner Paul Meyer…. They left us no choice but to evict them from our property.”

The mule ride company had been run by Buzzy Sproat, who operated the rides for more than forty years.


3 thoughts on “Hiking in Hawaii: St. Damien’s Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai”

  1. My partner and I did this hike 10 or 12 years ago now; it was one of the most rewarding things we’ve ever done! We were extremely fortunate to have the late Richard Marks personally lead our tour with Damian Tours. History lives and breathes in this place, and the spirituality is palpable. Absolutely loved it, and will never forget it.

  2. We took the mule ride down and really enjoyed passing the hikers! Was really fun being astride a mule navigating through hairpin turns! However you choose, this is definitely a “bucket list” adventure!

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