Molokai, the Mule Ride from the cliff tops down 1,600 feet to the leper colony at Kalaupapa, Hawaii
Molokai, the Mule Ride from the cliff tops down 1,600 feet to the leper colony at Kalaupapa, Hawaii

Hawaii Island of Molokai – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

For the traveler seeking a Hawaii that is quiet, rural, beautiful, and undeveloped, Molokai is a superb choice.

Although Molokai has some modern lodging and dining, the island has little of the hustle and bustle of Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, or even Kauai. There isn’t even a traffic stoplight on Molokai.

Only about 7,200 live on this fifth largest of the Hawaiian islands, which is roughly 38 by 10 miles in size. Molokai is said to have been the site where the hula was invented. In ancient times a special spiritual power was attributed to the Island, especially the Halawa Valley, which has been inhabited since Polynesians arrived in roughly the 7th century.

So what would you do on Molokai? Here are the three main activities:

Ride a Mule Down to the Leper Colony

Molokai’s most famous activity is a mule ride from a road high on the seacliffs down to the inaccessible leper colony, made famous by the services of the Belgian priest, Father Damien de Veuster, who both ministered to the sick, starting in 1873, and eventually succumbed to the disease himself in 1889.

Alhough leprosy has been totally controlled since the 1940s by promin and dapsone drugs, there was a time when this dreaded and disfiguring ailment was dealt with in Hawaii by removing the stricken individuals from their families and banishing them, with one change of clothing and a week’s supply of food, to an isolated peninsula on the northern side of Molokai, where they had to fend for themselves. The remnants of fruit tree orchards and taro pond plantings from earlier Hawaiian cultures, plus the bounty of the sea, allowed the lepers to survive.


This banishment started officially in 1865 and ended in 1969. Today there remain some elderly patients, who choose to remain here because this is the only home they have known for most of their lives. The few cases of leprosy that now surface each year in Hawaii are treated on an out-patient basis. No physical disfigurement of a person now occurs. Only about five percent of the population has the genetic susceptibility to catch leprosy.

There are three ways to get to the leper colony, which still has no road going in to it today. You can fly in via a small plane, hike in, or ride down on the backs of mules, letting these strong pack animals handle the 1,600 foot descent and ascent. The views of the green-clad sea cliffs, some as high as 3,000 feet, are stunning as you descend the switchbacks on the way to the bottom.

All visits to the leper colony are by pre-arranged tour only. The tour is quite thorough, with a guide narrating the story of two sites on either side of the small peninsula of land. Kalawao on the eastern side was where Father Damien first set up his operation, building St. Philomena Church. This was the original site where ships dropped off people starting in the 1860s. The sea cliff fins at Kalawao, looking at the Waikola River Valley, offer one of the more breathtaking views in all of Hawaii. The more modern site, Kalaupapa, is three miles away and was where the leper colony was eventually moved to. The leper colony now has official protection as a National Historic Park.

Hike into the Halawa Valley

A rainforest hike into the fertile Halawa Valley and Waterfalls on the wet eastern end of the island is one of the most satisfying nature experiences available on Molokai.

First inhabited in the 7th century by newcomers from the South Pacific, the Halawa Valley was totally fertile by the 12th century, when a documented 1,032 taro fields had been planted. Taro was a staple of the Hawaiian diet, providing both a starchy tuber and a spinach-like green leaf.

Today hikes into the valley can be guided by cultural guardians who grew up in the Halawa Valley and now devote attention to the restoration of the taro fields. The cultural guardians have a vast knowledge of Hawaiian history and natural history, making them useful guides for a jaunt through this terrain, which is green and lush. Expect impromptu talks on Hawaii culture when stopping, for example, at one of the 12 major religious platforms or heiau used by the ancient Hawaiians. The hike is fairly rigorous, with plenty of rock scrambling over the riverbed, so come prepared by wearing sturdy hiking shoes. A swim in the pool at the base of the waterfalls can cool off a hiker at the end of the trek into the area. Mosquito repellent is advisable.

Molokai, the Mule Ride from the cliff tops down 1,600 feet to the leper colony at Kalaupapa, Hawaii
Molokai, the Mule Ride from the cliff tops down 1,600 feet to the leper colony at Kalaupapa, Hawaii

A devastating tsunami in 1946 caused considerable physical damage to the taro fields and degraded the planting areas with salt water incursion. In the 1950s the lure of working in the pineapple fields caused almost all the remaining locals in this remote and isolated valley to leave. Now a few people devote themselves to restoring the taro fields. Cultivating taro anew is seen as a critical element as Hawaiians rediscover their cultural identity.

The road out to the valley takes you past huge fish ponds that were another aspect of the Hawaiian economy in earlier times. In the era of the first European contact, it has been documented that Molokai had 58 fishponds that were five acres or larger.

One major tree in the forests of Molokai is the kukui, which the Polynesians brought to Hawaii because of the oil in its nut. Using wicks, they strung kukui nuts together to use as a lighting source. Today the kukui is favored for making nut leis, which are most often worn by men.

Enjoy the Cultural Entertainment of the Locals

Each Friday night at the Hotel Molokai you can witness a remarkable cultural event, a gathering of local singers, ukulele strummers, and hula dancers. These are the common people, not some separate class of performers. They began these get-togethers in 1998. The event is called “Kupuna Night,” or Elders night, and the musicianship is extraordinary. You can purchase a cd of their creations.

One new enterprise on Molokai is the growing of coffee. An informative tour takes place from the Coffees of Hawaii shop, starting with a mule-driven carriage ride out to the coffee fields. After the field tour, a thorough tasting acquaints you with the different roasting options that can affect coffee flavor.

For a traveler wishing to escape the frenzy of the other islands, Molokai beckons.


Molokai: If You Go

The main source of local travel information is the Hawaii Convention and Visitor Bureau at

The former leper colony is now a National Historic Park. See the Park Service info at



  1. Great article. Those are 3 great things to do, but we do have even more. The fishing and snorkeling/diving is amazing. We have a rain forest (You need a 4wd to get to the top) with a beautiful picnic area and a hiking trail). My favorite is the beaches. Nowhere else in Hawaii can you go to a beautiful pristine beach and probably be the only one there, yet his is common on Molokai. If you want to see the Hawaii of yesterday, Molokai is for you.



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