For many visitors to the island of Molokai, a trip “out west” means spending the day on the string of white sand beaches.

It’s leaving a mile-long set of footprints on white sand Papohaku Beach, or watching the sun turn the sky ablaze during sunset at Kapukahehu (also known as Dixie Maru). It’s feeling the rush of riding a wave at Kepuhi Beach, or “Sheratons,” and being the only person for miles when relaxing at Kawakiu.

For those who look a bit closer, you’ll find more to West Molokai than a pristine parade of beaches. You’ll also discover a lengthy, fascinating history with multiple different chapters. Over the course of 150 years, this swath of grasslands has seen everything from pineapples to sugar, cattle, and cotton. Even ostrich and zebra once roamed this landscape as part of a short-lived wildlife park. Paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboys, would rope, wrangle, ranch, and ride while herding cattle, and tourists would golf just steps from the sand at Kaluakoi Resort.

Through all the chapters and changes that West Molokai has endured, little Maunaloa town has been the beating heart that keeps western Molokai alive. Set at nearly 900 feet and 25 minutes from the main town of Kaunakakai, Maunaloa today is home to 375 residents. It was built as a company plantation town in the days of sugar and pineapple, though up until the 1940s the road to town was still dirt. It experienced a boom in the 1990s when tourism dollars from Kaluakoi resort flowed freely throughout the town, and a state-of-the-art new rodeo arena brought wranglers from around the islands. A movie theater stood downtown—there was even a KFC—and the 22-room, Molokai Ranch Lodge gave visitors the chance to experience life in the small plantation town.

Maunaloa town

With the closure of Molokai Ranch, however, many people in Maunaloa were suddenly out of work. The lodge and the Kaupoa beach tentalows said goodbye to their last sets of visitors, and the Molokai Cinema screened its last show in April, 2008.

Though times aren’t quite as booming now, Maunaloa still houses a few retail operations, like the endlessly popular Big Wind Kite Factory, established in 1980. To pick up some food or drinks for the beach, Maunaloa General Store still services the basic grocery needs for the island’s entire west end, and rodeos occasionally still come to town like back in the ranching days of old.

The town is also the gateway to beaches surrounding Hale O Lono, which bursts with activity in September and October when canoe races come to town. For the casual Molokai visitor, Maunaloa is a place to not only shop and stock up for the beach, but also to catch a glimpse of Molokai’s history and plantation past.