There are three ways of accessing Kalaupapa—by plane, by mule, and by foot. While taking a mule ride to Kalaupapa is one of Molokai’s best activities, hiking the switchbacking, muddy trail is an experience all to itself. Over the course of 3.2 miles, this narrow trail traverses 26 switchbacks and drops 1,700 vertical feet, eventually ending at the sandy and scenic shores of Kalaupapa Beach.
Over the course of the 1.5 hours it takes to walk down the trail, it’s hard to not reflect on the reason the trail was carved in the first place—which was to provide a means for Kalaupapa workers to access the “Topside” of Molokai. Despite the fact that this isolated peninsula was an infamous colony for lepers, where the unfortunate souls afflicted with the disease were essentially sent to die, the workers who had yet to contract the disease were still allowed to go Topside, including heroic and famous Saint Damien who frequently hiked on the trail.
Pensive historical reflections aside, the trail is arguably one of Hawaii’s most scenic and memorable hikes, where panoramic ocean vistas are matched by views of the towering sea cliffs, which stoically rise above Kalaupapa like waterfall-laden walls.
Not everyone, however, can partake in this hike; for one thing all hikers need to be 16 years old, and you either need to have obtained permission by booking with Damien Tours, or through a third party booking site like Molokai Outdoors or Molokai Rare Adventures. The tour group will meet you at the bottom of the trail at approximately 10am, and provide a guided tour of Kalaupapa and the church at Kalawao. Anyone planning on hiking to Kalaupapa should depart by 8:30am—ideally closer to 8am to allow extra time for photos. To find the trail, walk a couple of hundred yards past the mule barn—and set out before the mules—and if you see the grass of Pala’au State Park you’ve gone a little bit too far.
For the hike back up, expect the climb to take 20 minutes longer than in took to originally walk down, and since afternoons are often punctuated by rainfall blowing on the breeze, it’s important to pack a rainjacket as well as sturdy, waterproof shoes. Also, while there’s a single store and snack shop down on the Kalaupapa Peninsula, all hikers will want to bring water and a generous amount of snacks, and depending on which level of tour you’ve booked, you might receive lunch in Kalaupapa as part of your Damien Tour.
The trail is open from Monday-Saturday, as Damien Tours doesn’t operate on Sundays so residents can have a little rest.