Time: 7-8 HOURS with Tour
Distance: 5.8 MILES
Elevation Gain: 1600 FEET
Foot/Mule Traffic: MODERATE
Challenges: Requires permit, Path has some uneven footing
Sights: Kalaupapa Peninsula, Moloka'i Sea Cliffs
What to Bring: Water, Snack (Lunch provided by tour)
Both historic and beautiful, this hike takes you down 1600 feet in elevation via 26 switchbacks on a trail along Moloka'i's northern coast. The trail has stunning views of the coastline as you can hear the waves crashing up against the shore. Once you have descended, you will walk parallel to a secluded beach that is lined with Molokai's massive sea cliffs. You will then reach Kalawao County, where you will be meeting up with your tour group as you take a tour of the preserved lepur colony. After that, it is back up all those switchbacks to get back to the start so you can continue on your Moloka'i adventure.
After booking my flight to Moloka'i, I started doing some research for activities to do. After a quick search on the interwebs, I discovered the Kalaupapa Hike to Kalaupapa National Historic Park was a must do. A 6 mile coastal hike to a preserved lepur colony seemed like a hard experience to pass up.
The only catch is that it costs money to do this hike. You need a permit to be on the Kalaupapa Trail. The only way to get a permit is to book a tour. I booked through Father Damien Tours, the only company you can book through. It costs $80 for a permit to hike, a bagged lunch, and a tour of the colony. Not cheap, but given the history behind this place, it is worth it! Also it's a lot cheaper than the $200 price tag to ride a mule down. Just saying...
You will begin your adventure at the Kalaupapa Mule Barn. This barn on the left side of the Kalae Highway which leads to the scenic Kalaupapa Lookout. It's about a 15 minute drive from the Molokai airport. As long as you have a flight that lands by 730, you should make it here easily. With a population of seven thousand people, there's not a lot of traffic on Moloka'i.
I got to the barn around 7:45 with several other people doing the tour. The woman working there asked who was hiking and about 7 of us raised our hands. She had us fill out some waivers and gave us our hiking permit. After a short brief on the directions to the trail head, we were off!
The trail head starts a couple hundred yards up the road, just before this sign.
You just have to go through this little gate here. I'm guessing they open the big gate once the mules come.
There's a short walk through the trees before you get to the actual Kalaupapa Trail.
The real start of the Kalaupapa Trail. There's not much to these signs, just a little history and a warning that you will be cited $500 if you hike without a permit. For once, we are actually following the rules!
I had to double back to snag a quick photo of the peninsula. Just beyond that beach is Kalawao County where the former colony is located. The park itself spans the entire peninsula. During the tour we would get to see it in its entirety. For now, the goal was simply to make it down there.
Going down really wasn't too bad. I was excited to be out hiking, so I didn't notice the steepness of the descent. It is probably a little tough on the knees, but with 26 switchbacks, it makes the elevation change more tolerable.
The footing is not perfect, however. It's uneven and the steps can be steep. Nevertheless, I'd rather be doing this on my own two feet than relying on a mule to do it, but that's a personal preference.
There are markers indicating which switchback you are on. I didn't pay much attention to these on the way down, but the way up was quite the different story.
One of the many openings that allow you to see the ocean. Absolutely incredible!
There's even a little bridge along the trail. I wonder when this was built... probably best not to think about that.
I just can't get enough of these views! It was very reminiscent of my hike on the Kalalau Trail a few months back. The bright blue water, giant sea cliffs, and the sound of the waves crashing below create a surreal experience. Moments like these are the reason I hike.
We're done with the switchbacks. From here it's a straight shot to the meetup point for the tour.
But not before we have a stroll along this beautiful beach.
We were instructed before we started hiking not to venture onto the beach. I did listen to these instructions... but that doesn't mean you can't stop for a few pictures. So beautiful, so secluded.
You are now free to enter Kalawao County (spoken in the old Southwest commercial voice).
Shortly after the Kalawao County sign, you will end up in this field. Off to the right are some bleachers where you will meet up with your tour guide and the mule riders. Well, more likely the mule riders will meet up with you. It was about 40 minutes before they showed. Even hiking down at a slow pace and taking pictures, you will probably get here first. Going back up on the other hand... well let's just say I'd expect to be avoiding some fresh land mines if you know what I mean.
Of course as you wait, there's no reason you can't take some more photos.
About damn time!
I still prefer hiking, but these guys were rather cute.
From here, you will board a bus and begin your tour of Kalaupapa. I decided not to include any photos of Kalaupapa, it is something you simply have to experience yourself. People say this place has a mystical aura about it. I definitely felt it when I was there.
I will include this shot, the most scenic part of this adventure. This picture is taken on the northern end of the peninsula, a place you will visit during your tour. These are some of the largest sea cliffs on the world. Pretty incredible for a little, relatively unknown place like Moloka'i.
What an adventure it had been. I'd hiked 3 miles, seen some views of the world's largest sea cliffs, and experienced the magic and history of Kalaupapa. Now for the hike back up that mountain...
Check out my video of this beautiful hike!
Have you ventured to the historic Kalaupapa? Share your story below!
Also Check Out:
- The Wikipedia Page about Kalaupapa
- The National Park Service's post about how to see this historic site