How to Visit the Molokai Leper Colony in Kalaupapa Hawaii

Kalaupapa, one of the most remote places in Hawaii, is a place of a sad chapter in Hawaiian history that only a few people are aware of. The Kalaupapa peninsula was once home to the Molokai leper colony, where patients were quarantined by law and left stranded with no hope for a cure.  

Today, it’s possible to visit the site of this historical significance, which many say has one of the best sunsets in all of Hawaii.

With miles of secluded white sand beaches, sheer Kalaupapa cliffs, and a lush coastline along the Pacific Ocean, Molokai offers a bit of everything, including a peek at what the Hawaiian islands were like 50 years ago. 

Molokai residents retain much of their authentic Hawaiian culture and Aloha spirit. 

A popular expression is ‘Slow down, you’re on Molokai.

You can explore Molokai, the 5th largest island of the Hawaiian chain, comfortably by car in a few days. Depending on where you stay, spend one day on the west end and the other day exploring the east side. 

The main attraction for visitors is exploring the great outdoors and the history of Kalaupapa Peninsula, where missionaries Damien and Marianne Cope volunteered to help people with leprosy in the nineteenth century.

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 Top things to do in Molokai

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A Remarkable Experience in Molokai Hawaii

In 2005 my husband and I flew to Molokai, one of the islands that shape the Hawaiian archipelago. It was my first time on the island, and Andrew was so excited to show me this beautiful island that his family had been coming to since the ’80s. One of the adventures we had back then was to hike down to the leper colony on Molokai and join the tour of the Kalaupapa peninsula.

Back then, you were able to either hike down or take a mule ride down the 2.9-mile Kalaupapa trail with 26 switchbacks, a descent of 1700 feet on the edge of the tallest sea cliffs in the world! It was a thrilling adventure, and I’m sad to say that the trail is currently restricted to Kalawao County residents and visitors with approved permits issued by the Hawaii State Department of Health, so the only way to visit Kalaupapa and Molokai leper colony is to fly in and out.

Even though the mule tours are currently suspended, experiencing Kalaupapa is a must if you are visiting Molokai leper island, Hawaii.

History Of The Molokai Leper Colony in Kalaupapa Hawaii

In order to understand the significance of a visit to Kalaupapa today, it’s important to first learn about its history. 

Kalaupapa peninsula on the north shore of Molokai island in Hawaii was home to patients with leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease). The Hawaiian Monarchy had a policy of forced isolation that began in 1866 when King Kamehameha V banished patients with Hansen’s Disease to the island of Molokai.

You may be wondering how leprosy occurred in Hawaii.

By 1840 a thousand Hawaiians had sailed to sea to ports in the Azores, Malaysia, the West Indies, and the southern coasts of India or Africa, all areas where leprosy was endemic. Any one of them might have returned home infected.

The quarantine made it illegal for people with leprosy to live freely within Hawaii, and thus over time, many were sent into exile whether they wanted to go or not. 

With the establishment of the Hawaiian leprosy colony, officials initiated what would prove to be the longest and deadliest instance of medical segregation in United States history and perhaps the most misguided.

It’s estimated that since 1866 more than 8000 people, mostly native Hawaiians, have died at Kalaupapa. It wasn’t until 1969 that a cure for Hansen’s Disease was discovered. 

According to CDC, Leprosy is not a fatal disease, nor is it highly infectious. It is a chronic illness caused by a slow-growing Mycobacterium leprae and is infectious only to persons with genetic susceptibility (less than 5 percent of the population). 

Transmission takes place much as it does with tuberculosis, through droplets expelled by someone with leprosy in an active state. 

Among untreated patients, only a minority have the disease in its active state; the majority aren’t contagious. For active cases, multidrug therapy is administered, after which they pose no risk of infection and are, in essence, cured. 

In other words, with early diagnosis and treatment, leprosy is curable. 

Sadly, the disease still carries some level of stigma to this day. 

According to a study by hilo.hawaii.edu, “nearly everyone convicted (diagnosed) of the ‘crime of leprosy’ was a native Hawaiian — 97% of the exiles during the first 20 years (Woods 1887, 7).” 

The Settlement or more commonly “Kalaupapa”, which means “flat-leaf” or “flat plain” refers to how flat the land is.

Flying over or looking down from Kalaupapa Lookout in Molokai, it becomes clear why this Hawaiian name describes this land. The peninsula is an area of approximately five square miles with the highest point of the Kauhakō Crater, which rises to about 500 feet above sea level. 

The Kalaupapa Peninsula was created by a volcanic eruption millions of years ago, which caused a natural barrier cliff to form, restricting access to the rest of Molokai. 

Side note: For the breathtaking views of the Kalaupapa peninsula and one of the highest sheer cliffs in the world (three thousand feet above sea level), you can hike to the Kalaupapa lookout. 

Because Kalaupapa was so distant and isolated, it was chosen as a location for leprosy settlement in the 19th century. The landscape of natural isolation turned into a “prison” where escapes were almost impossible and very uncommon.

Anyone with leprosy was considered an outcast of society. The patients were taken away from their loved ones and weren’t allowed to see their families due to the possibility of spreading this disease. They left behind everything they knew, lived in small huts around the peninsula and had to work for food.

For the exiles, the wild ocean and towering sea cliffs must have been a constant reminder of not only their geographic remoteness but also the social isolation imposed on them by a fearful and ignorant world.

Based on data from the Hawaii Board of Public Health, as reported in Inglis 2004, 233, “By our calculations, the mortality rate was between 11% and 23% per year, averaging 15% between 1865 and 1897.” 

By 1937 more than eight thousand people had been exiled to Molokai, and the majority had never left. The bones of thousands of exiles remained in unmarked places now overgrown or forgotten. 

After the facility closed, most of the settlement was deserted, but a small handful of cured residents still remain to this day. 

About Father Damien

white church molokai leper colony

Damien Joseph de Veuster was a Belgian Catholic priest and a missionary whose arrival in 1873 at the age of 33 was prompted by cries for help from the local leper community. Father Damien cared for both the physical as well as spiritual needs of the patients.

He is recognized for having instilled in the village’s inhabitants a sense of compassion for one another, and he collaborated with them to create permanent homes, plant fruit trees, and construct a reservoir for freshwater drinking and bathing. He gave particular attention to the care of the settlement’s orphans.

In 1885, Father Damien himself was diagnosed with leprosy. Although he contracted the disease, he continued to serve at the Molokai leper colony in Hawaii, and he died in Kalaupapa on April 15, 1889, at the age of 49 years old. Not far from the cemetery is the location where Father Damien was buried after his death in 1889.

He died at St Philomena’s Church, and his remains were moved to Belgium in 1936. In December 2009, it was announced that Father Damien’s remains would be moved from his grave in Belgium back to Molokai for a pilgrimage led by Pope Benedict XVI along with an entourage of Vatican delegates.

Visitors who can’t visit Kalaupapa can find information on Saint Damien at the Damien Center in Kaunakakai.

Mother Marianne Cope

Mother Marianne Cope, also known as Saint Marianne of Molokaʻi, was a nun who came to the state of Hawaii in 1862. She volunteered to treat the lepers and is credited with bringing modern nursing practices to Kalaupapa.  The practices such as bathing leprosy patients, providing bedding for them, and allowing men to help deliver babies.  

Thanks to her enduring spirit, she was able to improve the settlement’s unclean and poor living conditions. 

When there were not enough nuns or doctors available, she would be called upon to treat the patients. 

In 1883, she returned home to upstate New York. She spent the next 20 years working with the elderly before returning to Hawaii in 1888, where she eventually died at age 87 after many years of her selfless service.

Father Damien Tour of Kalaupapa – Leper Colony Hawaii

The burning question you’re probably having is:

‘Can you visit the leper colony on Molokai at this time?’

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as straightforward. Visiting the leprosy colony is one of the top things to do in Molokai, but it is not easy to get to. Mokulele Airlines airline currently provides commuter flights to Kalaupapa. 

In addition to the flight, you will need to arrange a special permit from the Hawaii Department of Health to enter Kalaupapa and organize a Molokai leper colony tour of the settlement. There are no accommodations in the leper colony, and overnight stays are only allowed by visitors of the remaining residents. 

At the time of this writing, all tours were suspended. For the latest updates about the availability of the tours and hiking trail access, check the NPS website

If you manage to get the permit and tour organized, there is a Visitors’ Center at the beginning of the trail that leads to St Philomena’s Cemetery. It’s small, with quite a bit of historical information about Father Damien and Mother Marianne and historical pictures and exhibits on how Father Damien lived and worked among the patients. 

The Settlement, where people lived and worked, was preserved. The buildings are simple wood structures with corrugated tin roofs painted white. 

There are historical pictures around the walls showing how they used to look and the patients who lived in the leprosy colony. Hawaii residents and tourists can visit this place and learn about the history of the Kalaupapa leper colony and the stories of patients who used to live here.

The cemetery is on top of the hill overlooking the Settlement. Those buried here were locals who died at St Philomena’s or The Settlement, so none of their family members could afford to ship their remains back home.

Cost of Father Damien Tour 

Getting to the leper colony in Molokai is no simple task! It necessitates a significant amount of foresight and a lot of preparation.

Here are some essential facts to bear in mind.:

  • You must be 16 years or older to visit.
  • There are no medical facilities, nor are there any food or shopping conveniences.
  • Photography of residents or property is strictly prohibited. 
  • There is no overnight accommodation.
  • You must be in good physical condition to visit due to the strenuous nature of the trip.
  • The number of visitors is very limited. 

You must acquire a permit to enter Kalaupapa.

The permit may be obtained by booking with the tour operator. Unfortunately, you can only visit with a guided tour when you come to the colony. You will be taken around the area in an antique school bus while learning about the site’s tragic history. 

The guided Kalaupapa tours include transportation to and from your hotel, all park service fees, and a buffet lunch at Kalawao. 

Once you arrive at the Visitors’ Center in Kalaupapa, there is no public transportation, so be sure to book your trip with one of the many tour operators: Damien Tours of Kalaupapa, or Kalaupapa Mule Tour, to name two.

At the time of writing, tours were suspended. I highly recommend that you contact the tour companies mentioned for the current cost and schedule.

  1. Kekaula Tours LLC / associated with the Mule Ride can arrange and sponsor permits for their clients on a fly-in, mule ride, or Kalaupapa hike package. Please check their website: www.muleride.com or by phone: 808-567-6088.
  2. Saint Damien & Mother Marianne Cope Molokai Tours, LLC. can also arrange and sponsor permits for their clients on a fly-in or hike-in package. Please contact Molokai Day Tours by phone: (808) 895-1673.

Nowadays, Kalaupapa is only accessible by small planes, hiking trail (requires a permit), or rough boat ride (requires a permit). There is no way to drive into Kalaupapa.

There is only one airline currently providing commuter flights to/from Kalaupapa airport:

Mokulele Airlines, please call (866) 260-7070 

Kalaupapa National Historical Park

In Kalaupapa National Historical Park, you can still see remains from some of the original structures built during its early days as a settlement where only patients with leprosy were allowed to live. The patients only had basic facilities available, such as a catholic-church, social hall, and small store.

The Hawaii Department of Health currently manages essential community facilities such as the gas station. When there is no longer a patient population, the Hawaii department plans to transfer those duties to the NPS (National Park Service).

The Kalaupapa National Park Service is committed to preserving the stories and experiences of those who were forcibly relocated here to learn vital lessons about the tragic past and never forget. 

The park first opened its doors in 1980. 

The park’s purpose is to establish a well-kept neighborhood in which the current Kalaupapa Settlement residents can live out their days in peace and comfort. 

In addition, the park promotes awareness of Hansen’s illness (leprosy), a condition that has been buried in dread and ignorance for ages.

Saint Philomena Church

Between 1872 to 1889, the Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement on Molokai built St. Philomena Church. The first chapel was built in 1872 by Hawaiian people living with Hansen’s disease who lived in Kalaupapa. 

Father Damien arrived in Kalawao in 1873 and was instrumental in the church’s expansion on two occasions.

First, three years after arriving at the settlement, Damien enlarged St. Philomena’s church by adding a west wing and a steeple. 

The church’s second enlargement was completed a year after his death. The National Park Service manages St. Philomena Church, which is currently part of the Kalaupapa National Park.

Final Thoughts on the Molokai Leper Colony

Today, Kalaupapa plays a significant role in the history of Hawaii. Leper colony patients were brought to the peninsula in 1866, and today, about five people who formerly had leprosy continue to live there.

The site is now included in Kalaupapa National Historical Park, and a number of leper colony buildings have been preserved.

Most people don’t know about what happened, but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

If you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime Hawaiian experience, consider taking Leper Colony Molokai tour and learning more about Kalaupapa history, where for decades, patients were quarantined by law with no hope for a cure. 

In addition to the abundance of culture and history, Kalaupapa National Historical Park is also home to an abundance of natural resources, including lush rainforest and nearly 30 endangered species. 

This post can also be viewed on Google web stories as How to Visit the Molokai Leper Colony.

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Casandra is the founder of Karpiak Caravan Adventure Family Travel and a mother to two adventurous, young boys. She is a family-focused, adventure travel advocate who grew up in Toronto with Danish roots. Casandra has visited over 20 countries on three continents often with her two boys in tow!