Molokai Leper Colony Tour: Adventure, History, and a Mule Ride

June 15, 2024   8 Comments »

Molokai Leper Colony Tour: Adventure, History, and a Mule Ride

June 18, 2015 8 Comments »

Even though the story is tragic, a Molokai leper colony tour is one of the best things to do on the island. Embark on this deeply moving journey through history is a little tricky. So, here are all my tips for exactly how to do it.

I listened in shock to our guide, Pat, as he told the story of Olivia.

“Olivia arrived in the 1930’s. She was 18, engaged to be married, and had been living in Oahu. She went to the doctor to get her tonsils out and was diagnosed with leprosy, but she wasn’t told and was allowed to go home instead. The doctor reported it to the authorities (as required by law), and they showed up at her door to tell her the news and pick her up to take her to Kalaupapa.

She said that her life ended at that moment. She went to the bathroom to kill herself with Lysol but didn’t succeed. In the end, she lived exiled in Kalaupapa until she was 90 years old.”

You can find it all over the world, tourism based on tragedy and human suffering. It’s the Killing Fields in Cambodia, Dachau in Germany, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the 9/11 Tribute Center that recently opened. Something draws us to these sites when we travel.

Why Do We Engage in Tragic Tourism?

“some have a personal connection to the tragedy as survivors, relatives of victims or witnesses. Others have an intellectual or cultural interest — to understand what happened, or connect the tragedy to other historical events. Others have no connection to the site or the event, but happen to be there as tourists and visit those places as part of their sightseeing.” – Independent Traveler

As I arrived at the Molokai Mule Ride office to take the Father Damien tour, I definitely was the latter. I had heard about the Molokai leper colony but knew nothing about its tragic history. I was intrigued to learn more, but first, we had to get there, and that’s not easy.

Where is Kalaupapa National Historical Park?

Kalaupapa National Historical Park, managed by the National Park Service, is situated in the isolated Kalaupapa Peninsula on the north shore of Molokai, at the bottom of the steepest sea cliffs in the world. It’s a hard-to-get-to place that happens to be the most beautiful area of the island. Probably the most beautiful area in all of Hawaii.

May 2023 UPDATE: According to the National Park Service, the Kalaupapa settlement and trail are closed to the general public and commercial tours until further notice. A suggested alternative is to view Kalaupapa Peninsula from an overlook at Pālāʻau State Park.

molokai leper colony
Kalaupapa sea cliffs – remote and beautiful.

Getting to the Molokai Leper Colony

In 1865, the only way to the Kalaupapa leper colony was by ship – and it wasn’t a pleasant ride.

After being diagnosed, patients were torn from their lives and taken by boat in a cattle pen to a small rowboat that admitted them onto Kalaupapa. This plot of remote land is where most of the patients came to live out their lives and most likely perish. At that time, there were no cures for leprosy (now the politically correct term is Hansen’s Disease), and by order of the King, the law was to exile all people diagnosed with leprosy to Kalaupapa.

It was so remote and off limits that supplies only came one time per year on a barge, the rest of the time the people fended for themselves.

Molokai Hawaii kalaupapa cemetery
Resting in paradise in Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Molokai, Hawaii

How to Get to Molokai Kalaupapa Colony Today

In 2020, Kalaupapa is still difficult to get to! As part of the Father Damien Tour, you’ve got options.

  1. Plane – you can arrive by (a very small) plane from Oahu, Maui, or topside Molokai.
  2. Hike a very challenging, muddy switchback trail down the steepest sea cliffs in the world. The trail traverses a 1,700-foot elevation change over 3.5 miles. And remember – if you choose to hike down the trail, that means you have to come back up the trail – and that is very strenuous.
  3. Take a mule ride down/up the sea cliffs. Unfortunately, this unique way of traveling the Kalaupapa Trail was suspended indefinitely after the company experienced some unexpected hardships. I will keep an eye on this situation and make updates here with any news.
kalaupapa by mule
Riding a mule down the steepest sea cliffs in the world to Kalaupapa Historic Park in Molokai, Hawaii

Permit Required to Visit

If you visit Kalaupapa, you must have a permit for visiting. You can do this by booking with the tour company. You can only visit with a guided tour run by Damien Tours LLC. They will take you around the area on an old school bus while teaching you about the tragic past of leprosy and the colony.

If you book a mule trip down the trail, it includes the Father Damien tour and permit.

kalaupapa leper colony
The port where the barge would land one time a year

Going to Kalaupapa by Mule

Even though the mule rides are currently unavailable, here is a description of my experience when they were still running.

The trail down the sea cliffs to the Molokai leper colony was created in 1988 and is maintained by the National Parks. When I went in 2015, I chose to take the mules because I heard about the exciting (sometimes harrowing) experience of riding the mules down 1700 feet and 26 narrow switchbacks. Evidently, these are the steepest sea cliffs in the world.

Read why Molokai is not for everyone

By doing the adventurous mule ride, the whole tragic tour seemed ‘lightened up’ a bit. Somehow, they combined adventure travel with a historic tour. This sort of made it more digestible.

Our guides, Audrey and Lulu, answered questions and doled out trivia-worthy facts all the way down the cliffs, which took two hours to get down. The hardest part was holding on and not panicking around the narrow turns. Audrey made a point to tell us that the mules had done this hundreds of times and knew their job and the trail well. She even said that they step in the same place every day.

My favorite thing about the mule ride was seeing how much our guides absolutely loved their jobs. They even got a little teary eyed when they talked about their founder and we all said our final goodbyes at the end.

molokai mule ride kalaupapa
Hold on tight, as it’s really steep!

My Mule, Koa

I was put on a mule named Koa, which means strong warrior. However, he was pretty chill and had no need to be the lead mule. So, we were pretty happy being second in the procession.

Check out these abandoned Molokai hotels

As it turns out, Koa was older and getting ready for retirement. I think that’s why we got along so well.

Much to my dismay, Koa enjoyed swinging really wide in the switchbacks but I trusted him completely. The way up the cliffs was a quicker ride, only 90 minutes. However, it was much harder on the mules. As we stopped and rested at the halfway point, I could feel Koa’s heartbeat as he rested at turn . These were impressive animals.

molokai mule ride kalaupapa
My view of the switchbacks from the back of Koa.
Molokai mule ride selfie
This selfie took a lot of balance while going down the cliffs on a mule!

Kalaupapa Father Damien Tour

“It isn’t all tragedy and disaster here,” our guide Pat said, “life did go on; they were a community.”

We met Pat at the bottom of the cliffs and all boarded an old rusty yellow school bus. Others who had arrived by plane or by foot joined us; we were given a sack lunch, and immediately swept into the tragic and touching world of Hansen’s disease all with a gorgeous Hawaiian backdrop.

molokai leper colony
Pat told us about the history of Kalaupapa.

Out of the 8,000 people sent to Kalaupapa throughout the years, 90% were Hawaiian. The Hawaiians were more prone to catching Western diseases, as they couldn’t fight off these new illnesses that had been introduced to their culture.

After years of public purgatory, a mixture of antibiotics created in the 1940s was found as the cure, and after that, there was no more real need to isolate. But it wasn’t until 1969 that the laws finally changed in Hawaii, and people were free to leave the Kalaupapa leper colony. The problem was that many had nowhere to go as the knowledge and stigma about the disease was slow to reach the public, and sadly, few had any place to go even when they could.

However, as Pat said, they had built a community in Kalaupapa, it was their home now. It had a hospital (however it burned down when they couldn’t start the fire truck), many churches, homes, recreation fields, a gas station that had 5 tanks holding up to 30,000 gallons. And there was even one bar in the community.

Residents Stayed Even After a Cure Was Found

After 1969 many patients stayed, living out their lives there. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to.

Presently, the only people allowed to stay in Kalaupapa are the old patients and the park rangers. Accordingly, sixteen people are still on the list to stay but all are quite old – the youngest is 73 and the oldest 90.

For that reason, in 1980, President Carter created the Historical Park to preserve Kalaupapa’s history and the highly sought-after land from being developed.

Pat spent 2+ hours educating us on Hansen’s disease, telling us stories about the people in the community, and helping us understand how the community is run. He took us to the many churches and cemeteries in the park and gave us time to reflect upon what we saw.

Kalaupapa Molokai Hawaii
Churches in Kalaupapa – there were many.

He told us the stories of Father Damien, the heroic Belgium Priest who loved and served this colony of outcasts. Eventually, he caught the disease and perished there at 49 years old.

Kalaupapa National Historic Park Father Damien
Father Damien’s grave at Kalaupapa National Historical Park Molokai, Hawaii

Final Thoughts

The bus returned me to Koa, and we began the ride up the cliffs. While bobbing and swaying up the switchbacks, I had plenty of time to think about what I saw and learned. Overall, the day was a strange mix of sobering, uplifting, and educational.

People engage in tragic tourism for different reasons, but for me, it reminds me of how far we’ve come. And it makes me wonder what things our society is doing now that we will look back in 50 years and think are ludicrous. Only time will tell. I also wonder about Koa; what will happen when he retires? Will he miss this trek that he does day after day after day? I think he will.

Visit Molokai
Riding a mule to Kalaupapa

Things to Know Before You Go to Kalaupapa

  • You must have a permit in advance to enter Kalaupapa
  • You must be 16 years or older to visit
  • There are no medical facilities
  • There is no food or shopping in the colony – bring your own lunch and water.
  • Pack out your own trash.
  • Photography of residents is strictly prohibited. Make sure you talk to your tour guide to know what you are able to take pictures of
  • You cannot stay overnight.
  • Finally, you must be in good physical condition to visit due to the strenuous nature of the trip.

Books about Molokai’s Leper Colony


View all Kalaupapa pictures

molokai leper colony cemetery
molokai leper colony cemetery


I was a guest of Visit Molokai during my time on the island, however all opinions here are my own.

This post contains some affiliate links. If you choose to purchase items through these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of running this site

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