Kalaupapa National Historic Park is a really amazing park. First, it’s ridiculously beautiful on the Kalaupapa peninsula! Then there is the crazy fact that it is not an easy place to get to. You will either hike down a 1700 foot drop by hitting 26 switchbacks for 3.4 miles or you’re flying in. Last, its history has tragedy & seclusion, but also hope and a demonstration of some people’s compassion & selflessness.
The peninsula had flat, fertile land and fresh water. When King Kamehameha V decided in 1865 that they needed an isolated place to send people who had contracted Hansen’s Disease (leprosy), this was thought to be the perfect place. They moved the current residents and bought up the land and forced patients with leprosy to move there; sometimes forcibly dumped off of boats. It seems Hawaiians had a predisposition to contracting the disease when contact from Europeans essentially created an epidemic. Later when a cure was found, the patients had the right to leave Kalaupapa if they wanted, but many stayed and the US government supports them until death. There are currently 17 patients left along with some family, 40 National Park workers and 40 Health Service workers. Other than that, daily tours are allowed in to learn about the site itself and Saint Damien & Saint Marianne who cared for the people who lived here. It can be very moving.
When you make it down the side of the cliff, whether by hiking or by taking the mule ride down, you wait in a clearing for the old school bus to come and pick you up. If anyone flew down, they’ll be on the bus. No one is allowed in without having a permit. What I had found was you are supposed to get your permit from a tour company, but when my tour company jacked up my tour, we walked down and paid for our tour at the bottom of the cliff as did another guy without a reservation, so it seems like they don’t enforce getting the permit in advance. It may be a good idea to call Damien tours just to pre-arrange that you’ll be on the tour and will pay when you get there, but if you’re willing to take the chance, its $50 per person to go on the tour – note that this is NOT a National Park fee, this is a tour fee, but it’s required. It is illegal to enter the site without being on a tour, hence waiting in the clearing. It is free to hike down and then back up, if you pay for your tour at the bottom. Children under 16 are NOT permitted. If you go through a tour company, it will likely cost more than the $50. The hiking tour through the mule ride company is $69 and includes lunch. If you go on your own, bring your own lunch – especially if you are hiking. You can also hike in and fly out. That’s what we did and I highly recommend it for people who aren’t in that great of shape. I’m in my mid 40s and not in the greatest shape, but like to do active things like hiking. The hike DOWN kicked my butt and took us just under two hours. It was awesome and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way and I completely recommend that you hike in, but hiking in and flying out was PERFECT for us… plus you get the killer views from the plane!
The tour was a little disappointing for me. I do a lot of National Parks and truth is you win some and you lose some. This was in the middle for me. The tour guide was fine. He was knowledgeable, but we basically went on a bus to a stop, got off, he talked, we stood around and then repeated several times. What I found strange was I saw a LOT of National Park information signs around that we drove right past. Why have them if we don’t even get to see them? It was beautiful, well, except for the town, which was run down and just a small town. So, the tour was okay, but not what I had hoped for. The highlights for me on the tour were the churches and the area where we had lunch which was the original colony site. There is a small bookstore that has a National Park’s Passport stamp available for all you National Park geeks like me. What I would love would be more of the park presence as a part of the tour. I’d love to have an audio-visual presentation at an NPS center there and a museum. That would make this five star for me!
For those booking through the mule ride company, the lunches were basically a sandwich, a bag of chips and a bottle of water.
There are tour companies you can use to get to this place. The most common are KALAUPAPA GUIDED MULE TOUR (also do flights and hiking), FATHER DAMIEN TOURS, and MOLOKAI OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES. I personally attempted to use Molokai Outdoor Activities and had a lot of problems. I have heard that the Mule Tour company is good, but I am going to recommend you skip the tour companies and set it up on your own. Flights are easy to get if you go that route, just book far enough in advance and if you're hiking, it's crazy to pay tour fees. The mules, you're pretty much stuck... no way to do that on your own, but OUCH.
Overall, I’m glad I did this. If you can’t do the hike and have no desire to ride down on a mule… I DIDN’T! Take the flight! This is worth learning about and seeing. With only 17 patients left on the peninsula, who knows what will happen when they die? There is talk of developers trying to buy the land for resorts. I think that would be a really bad idea. There is also talk of creating a memorial like the Vietnam memorial with the names of all of the patients who died there… and there were many thousands. I hope they keep it a National Park and don’t let big business spoil this piece of history.
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