Molokai Mule Ride down a cliff to Kalaupapa leper colony: Father Damien and peninsula history.
Mules prepare for another day on the cliff trail to Kalaupapa. Alison Gardner
Molokai Mule Ride into Hawaii’s Leper Colony History.
Molokai Mule Ride down a cliff to Kalaupapa leper colony: Father Damien and peninsula history.
by Alison Gardner

There was a time when the only way to get to Kalaupapa was to be sent there. If that sounds like a prison, the maximum security image is an accurate one. The ticket for entry was what the Hawaiian’s named “the separating sickness” : leprosy or Hansen’s Disease.
Each person's sentence was for life.

In the 21st century, there are three ways to visit Moloka’i’s Kalaupapa Peninsula – by mule, by foot (a vigorous hike to be accomplished both ways in one day) or by small plane. The Molokai Mule Ride is the most original way to arrive and the most famous, so famous, in fact, that it requires only the simplest web address, However you choose to arrive in the historic leprosy settlement, you will be fully escorted from that point on until you leave later in the day. It is an exquisitely beautiful peninsula with a harrowing history and a surprisingly gentle, uplifting ending. As Robert Louis Stevenson eloquently declared following his own visit in 1889, he witnessed “beauty springing from the breast of pain.”

Molokai Mule Ride into Hawaii’s Leper Colony History.

But first …. It’s time to climb up on my trusty mule for the trail ride down 1,700 feet of the spectacular cliff face, 2.9 miles and 26 very tight switchbacks to navigate. Hawaiians usually have a great sense of humor and our head guide, Bobby, proved to be no exception. He took one look at my blonde hair and almost translucent skin and smiled, “You can have Ilikea. You’ll remember the name because it means light skin or white in Hawaiian.” Yes, Ilikea was the only snow white mule there.

Mule ride with Kalaupapa below.
Maui Visitors Bureau (MVB)
Molokai Mule Ride into Hawaii’s Leper Colony History.

After a briefing so full of one-line jokes that we could hardly focus on the serious instructions, each person swung into our mule's saddle. The mules immediately went from loose-limbed, flat-earred dozing to fully alert, ears forward and ready to go. Since they navigate this trail most days year round, it's best to let the mules rule warned Bobby, adding that this is hardest for experienced riders to do because they keep wanting to steer, brake and toot the horn.

Molokai vacation with Alison Gardner Molokai Kalaupapa leper colony.
Mule ride trail through woods. Alison Gardner

Several years ago, the National Park Service made the trail easier for hikers and less subject to erosion by installing steps along most of the two hour ride. However, this initiative is definitely a disadvantage for mules and riders as each step means a jarring thump to the next level. Anyone with back problems should select another option for getting to Kalaupapa. For the rest of us, the challenge of taking photos on a moving animal navigating a staircase needs no further description. I soon put the camera away and focused on the scenery.

Molokai vacation with Alison Gardner Molokai Kalaupapa leper colony.
The Kalaupapa Peninsula from a 2,000 foot cliff, which has earned Moloka'i a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the tallest
sea cliffs in the world.
Alison Gardner

Two thousand foot sea cliffs creating the perfect escape-proof wall, narrow lush valleys, verdant rainforest, lava tubes and caves, fine sand beaches, off-shore islands and coral reefs are all visible within the national park boundary while switchbacking down the trail. Several physically isolated areas provide rare native habitat for threatened or endangered Hawaiian plants and animals like the Hawaiian monk seal which births on Kalaupapa’s beaches. Remnants of native ecosystems can be found along the windward shoreline and in the uplands. In these cases, inaccessibility has proved to be a blessing.

Molokai vacation with Alison Gardner Molokai Kalaupapa leper colony.
From 1866 until 1969, people afflicted with leprosy or Hansen's Disease were quarantined for life on Moloka’i’s isolated Kalaupapa peninsula. Most were native Hawaiians from every island in the chain. They proved to be particularly susceptible to Mai Pake, “the separating sickness” as Hawaiians called it, a terrifying disease which arrived with the haole (foreigners) in the 1830s.

Father Damien sainthood for Kalaupapa Leprosy work on Molokai, Father Damien gravesite.In 1873 Father Damien, (now St Damien) a 33-year-old Catholic priest from Belgium, was the first outsider to volunteer to live and work at Kalaupapa, the only one until 1886. In the mid-1880s he contracted leprosy himself but continued working there until he died in 1889 at age 49. He was canonized by the Catholic Church in October 2009.

American Lay Brother Joseph Dutton journeyed to Molokai in 1886 to assist Father Damien. He served the patients for 44 years until his death at age 88 without contracting leprosy.

German-American Mother Marianne Cope (now St Marianne Cope) arrived in 1888 with two sisters from her religious order to establish a home and school for Kalaupapa’s girls and to care for the leprosy community for the next 30 years. She died at 80 years old never having contracted the disease herself. In October 2012 she was canonized by the Catholic Church.

In 1946 sulfone antibiotics were used for the first time with great success to treat Kalaupapa leprosy patients and completely arrest the disease.

In 1969 Hawaii’s century-old isolation laws were abolished leaving all residents of the settlement free to go. However, recognizing the pain, deformity and mental suffering undergone by the remaining residents, the Hawaiian government offered them the opportunity to stay at Kalaupapa if they wished to for the rest of their lives with total care and privacy protection. Many accepted that invitation. More than 20 remain in the settlement as of 2009 living in their own plantation-style homes or at the small village hospital.

In 1980 Kalaupapa National Historic Park, encompassing the entire peninsula, was written into federal US law with highly restricted public access guaranteed until the last leprosy patient passes away. Today about 80 park personnel and health care personnel live in the community, but, with few exceptions, visitors there are restricted to day trips only.
Upper right photo: Kalaupapa gravesite of Father Damien next to the St Philomena Church begun in 1872. Ray Mains

Kalaupapa leprosy colony on Molokai, Hawaii.

Kalaupapa National Historic Park is open Monday through Saturday by invitation only. Being in a tour group ensures that invitation. The park rangers are serious about this, with fines of $500 if you decide to take to the trail on your own. Why? The priority at this time is the privacy of the remaining 25 residents who once had leprosy but do so no more having undergone successful treatment with sulfone drugs long ago.

Since residents presently range from their mid-60s to mid-90s in age, controlled access to the park could remain in place for some time.

Molokai sea cliffs are tallest in the world.
This view from the back of my mule, Ilikea, shows free-fall distance to the sea. No casualties yet! Alison Gardner
No matter how you arrive on the Peninsula, it is a Damien Tour, owned by settlement residents, that meets each group and escorts visitors around the peninsula. An orange and black striped school bus minus its shock absorbers rolled up to our mule corral as we dismounted and hobbled around finding our land legs after the two hour ride. Our picnic lunches were loaded on board the bus and we set off to explore.

In this community hidden from the world until recent decades, we learned how life was lived in the former leper colony, and how individuals sacrificed their personal lives with courage and love. We visited the many historic landmarks in both Kalaupapa town and largely deserted Kalawao on the north shore of the peninsula, landmarks maintained and being renovated under the park’s management. Kalaupapa today is a place of education and contemplation with a natural backdrop of bays and velvet green mountains that conjure up images of tropical paradise as it never did for those dropped ashore or even thrown off sailing ships to swim if they could, then live and die in misery.

Father Damien sainthood for Kalaupapa Leprosy work on Molokai.
St Philomena church at Kalawao is undergoing much needed renovation inside and out. Alison Gardner

Thinking about paradise during my 2009 visit, my mind turned to the news that certainly had the Kalaupapa community abuzz …. 120 years following his death at Kalaupapa, the Vatican canonized Father Damien as a saint of the Catholic Church in mid-October 2009. Saint Damien it is! Some residents, the majority of whom are Catholic, even journeyed to Rome for the ceremony. Having encountered a number of pilgrimage destinations in my travels, I can easily visualize how faithful people inspired by pilgrimage travel will desire to come and see this remarkable place in person. Clearly, they must come to paradise in very small numbers “by invitation only” and stay only part of a day, but the experience will touch each heart nevertheless, as it did mine.

Northshore Kalaupapa, the view from Kalawao.
Northshore Kalaupapa, the view from Kalawao.

The US National Park Service manages 10,700-acre Kalaupapa National Historic Park, With over 260 existing buildings, repairs and restoration are an on-going challenge.

Moloka’i Visitors Association website,

Molokai Mule Ride,, arranges both mule and hiking options. Molokai Fish & Dive,, also books mule rides, hikes, air flights and hike in/fly out combinations for Kalaupapa.

For Moloka’i accommodations, visit our Sleeping in Paradise web page. You will find our pick of Moloka’i tour operators on the Hawaii Tour Operator page. We invite you to get inspired by our web magazine’s complete ALTERNATIVE HAWAII collection of feature articles and resource pages to help you explore the REAL Hawaii way beyond Waikiki.

Molokai: The Story of Father Damien was released as a feature-length video movie in 2000. It has a strong cast and provides an authentic background to Kalaupapa’s past. Much of it was filmed on location.

Lonely Planet’s Discover Maui (including Moloka'i and Lana'i), September 2014, is a useful current resource for all three islands. New edition September 2017.
Image above: Mosaic of Father Damien. Maui Visitors Bureau

Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine,

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