Kalaupapa National Historical Park, sadly, often goes overlooked by visitors to the islands. Nevertheless, the history in the area is incredibly deep, rich, and important to Hawaii. While the Kalaupapa peninsula on Molokai was turned into a prison by King Kamehameha V after Hansen’s disease (leprosy) was introduced to Hawaii in the 1800s, the significance of the land has since become multi-layered. Visitors can learn about the history of the area and the island through the park’s community, museum collections, architecture, and artifacts. Due to its initial isolation, the natural resources within the park are some of the most unique in the world, including almost 30 different threatened and endangered species and some of the highest sea cliffs on earth.
Perhaps most importantly, Kalaupapa represents the perseverance of an island nation faced with an unmitigated crisis. After the Hawaiian people were introduced to a disease that they’d never encountered and had no cure or immunities for, those afflicted were banished to the remote Kalaupapa peninsula. While the banishment was seemingly the only solution for the critical time, it came at an enormous price to the Hawaiian people.
Since 1866, more than 8,000 people have died at Kalaupapa. There are fewer than a dozen now-cured patients who have chosen to continue living at Kalaupapa. The secluded peninsula now serves as a culturally and historically significant place, where the people of Hawaii can come to contemplate and rediscover the ancestors who were lost to their families so many years ago.
Today, visitors are welcomed to Kalaupapa in the spirit of education and awareness.
After the misunderstood disease was introduced to the island and the decision was made to banish those afflicted to Molokai, some family members and friends chose to accompany their loved ones to Kalaweo Country (which encompasses Kalaupapa), providing emotional and physical support. Known fondly as “na kokua” (or “helpers”), these people were instrumental in the daily upkeep of Kalaupapa and are memorialized as such at the park. Father Damien, the most famous of the caregivers at the peninsula, was a Catholic priest who chose to live among the patients. He eventually contracted the contagious disease himself and passed away in 1889.
Read first-hand accounts by real people who were forced from their home and banished to Kalaupapa.
There is no conventional road connecting Kalaupapa with the rest of Molokai, but instead, only a steep, narrow trail that winds through the area’s mountainous landscape.
Two major companies, Kekaula Tours and Father Damien Tours, both owned and operated by patient-residents of the island, offer tours to Kalaupapa.
Kekaula Tours has been around since 1993 and offers two different options for tours of Kalaupapa, a 3.2-mile guided mule tour down the Kalaupapa Trail and a fly-in tour from Honolulu, Hoolehua, or Kahului. Both tours include entry permits into the park, lunch, and bottled water.
Father Damien Tours offers fly in and fly out tours from Big Island, Oahu, and Maui as well as Molokai. Tours range from full island tours to tours of Kalaupapa and Ho’olehua. Father Damien also provides hiking tours that take guests along the pali cliff trail to the settlement—but note that the 3.5-mile hike is very physically demanding, involving 26 switchbacks and a 1,700-foot elevation change.
Permits and Restrictions
Access to Kalaupapa National Historical Park is strictly regulated by Hawaii law, and visitors can only obtain permits to enter through tour companies. The only exception would be if you were invited to come personally by one of the residents, and even that would require a permit application to the Board of Health Office. Any person attempting to access the park without a permit will be denied entry.
No person under the age of 16 is allowed to visit Kalaupapa, even though the tour companies. There are no medical facilities at the settlement, so any major emergencies would require a helicopter ride to Oahu or Maui. There are no overnight tours or overnight accommodations available, except to guests of residents. Only 100 visitors are allowed per day due to federal law.
While most of the tours include lunch, there are no dining or shopping facilities at Kalaupapa. That means all food must be brought in and trash subsequently taken out. Out of respect for the residents, photos of patients are absolutely prohibited without their written permission. Volunteers are also permitted to the settlement with certain restrictions.
When to Visit
Since Kalaupapa is an active, living community comprising patient-residents, members of the clergy, and state and federal employees, there are no opening or closing hours. Commercial tours (required in order for most visitors to enter Kalaupapa) run Mondays through Saturdays excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Years Day.
If you don’t have time for a tour, the Kalaupapa Overlook from Pala'au State Park offers a great alternative with an unobstructed (but distant) view of the settlement below.