Kalaupapa Mule Trail, Molokai, Hawaii

Over the last couple of months, I’ve shared some of the amazing things we did while in Hawaii before Christmas. On Kauai we explored the island by biplane and hiked the famous Napali Coast, from above and below. On Maui we snorkelled in a volcanic vent and watched the sunrise from the top of Haleakala. On Oahu we visited the Arizona Memorial and the other Pearl Harbor Historic Sights. While on the Big Island of Hawai’i, we swam with wild dolphins and manta rays, and even flew over oozing lava in a helicopter without any doors!

But right up there near the top of the list, is descending the vertigo-inducing Kalaupapa Trail. By mule.

IMG_7020We arrived bright and early at the Kalaupapa Rare Adventure stables, where we were paired up with our mounts for the day. Sue spent a lot of time around horses when she was younger and I was on the back of a wildebeest for much of The Great Migration. But Rich had never before ridden any type of quadruped.

IMG_7021Despite being called Koa, meaning Warrior, the mule I shared with Sue was a steady and reliable companion throughout the day. Although equally lovely, Rich’s mule, Smokey, proved to be slightly more headstrong. Fortunately, Rich had a little time to get his mule-legs under him, as we left the stables and plodded through a shady wood.

Rich, Smokey and a foretaste of things to come

Rich, Smokey and a foretaste of things to come

Then we reached to top of the cliff and the Kalaupapa Trail proper. And the real fun began.

Over the edge

Over the edge

Constructed in 1887, the Kalaupapa Trail plunges over the edge of what are reputedly the highest sea cliffs in the world (depending on what you read). Approximately 3 miles long, it connects the top of the cliff, and the rest of Molokai, to the otherwise isolated Kalaupapa Peninsula and leprosy colony, 1780 feet below.

The first part of the trail hugged the side of the cliff, just below the ridgeline. This initial section angled downwards quite gently, although the precipitous drop to the left of the one-mule-wide path, ensured the adrenaline was already flowing.

Kalaupapa Peninsula and the 'easy' bit of the trail

Kalaupapa Peninsula and the ‘easy’ bit of the trail

Before long, the trail steepened to such a degree that it essentially became a never-ending series of rough, deep, stone steps. Unfamiliar with the lurching way Smokey was forced to stagger down these steps, Rich later confided that more than once he imagined himself pitching straight over the top of her head and off the side of the cliff. Especially when Smokey decided she wanted to be further up the chain of mules and started overtaking!

And that was before we encountered the first of the 26 dizzying switchbacks that stood between us and our destination. If the hairpins themselves weren’t bad enough, the insistence of both Smokey and Koa to place their hooves on the very lip of the path as they negotiated the turns was stomach-churning.

IMG_7058IMG_7064

In case you missed it in the last two photos, this is what the switchbacks look like!

In case you missed it in the last two photos, this is what the switchbacks look like!

Yet as it turned out, all our fears were misplaced. Our mounts were as sure-footed as mountain goats. And after an hour or two of juddering down the cliff, we found ourselves safely ambling along the beach.

IMG_7077Temporarily swapping our mules for an old yellow school bus, we spent a pleasant couple of hours being shown around the Kalaupapa Peninsula by John from Father Damien Tours. I was amazed to learn that the last patient came to Kalaupapa as recently as 1969.

Kalaupapa settlement and the cliffs we just came down

Kalaupapa settlement and the cliffs we just came down

View from Kalaupapa dock

View from Kalaupapa dock

I tried to mark in our route, but could only spot 13 of the 26 switchbacks!

I tried to mark in our route, but could only spot 13 of the 26 switchbacks!

Kalaupapa remains a sanctuary for the handful leprosy patients (also known as Hansen’s disease) who still call it home. As a mark of respect, access to the peninsula and rules for visitors are closely regulated, and only guests of the residents are allowed to stay overnight.

Kalaupapa general store is for the residents only

Kalaupapa general store is for the residents only

From the current settlement of Kalaupapa, we crossed to the far side of the peninsula, to the site of the original leprosy colony, Kalawao. There we ate a picnic lunch overlooking where the cliffs of Molokai plunge straight into the sea.

Kalawao, on the east side of Kalaupapa Peninsula: Not a bad spot to spend eternity

Kalawao, on the east side of Kalaupapa Peninsula: Not a bad spot to spend eternity

'Okala Island and Moloka'i's northern cliffs (allegedly the highest sea-cliffs in the world, depending what you read)

‘Okala Island and Moloka’i’s northern cliffs

After lunch, we had time for a brief stop near Kalaupapa’s airstrip to view the lighthouse, before we were delivered back into the care of Koa and Smokey.

The Kalaupapa Peninsula and its walls

The Kalaupapa Peninsula and its walls

Kalaupapa Lighthouse

Kalaupapa Lighthouse

The tottering climb back up the cliff wasn’t quite as nerve-wracking as on the way down. Mainly because there were no worries of being thrown over your mule’s head. Although Smokey and Koa continued to place their feet on the very edge of the precipice, seemingly courting disaster. Or perhaps just messing with their riders’ heads.

Off we go again

Off we go again

On the up and up

A relatively wide part of the Kalaupapa Trail

That said, we reached the stables at the top of the cliff with a mixture of relief and regret, sad to have to say goodbye to Koa, Smokey and our guides. The Kalaupapa Mule Trail really was an exceptional Journey.

Coming or going?

Coming or going?

Almost there!

Almost there!

Sue's Ali'i Mule Skinners of Hawaii certificate

Sue’s Ali’i Mule Skinners of Hawaii certificate

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About Jaspa

Star of my own award-winning adventure novels, Jaspa's Journey. Geocaching addict & F1 fan. Adventure Journeyer & blogger extraordinaire. Check out my website: www.jaspasjourney.com And don’t forget to download the books and see what the buzz is all about!
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11 Responses to Kalaupapa Mule Trail, Molokai, Hawaii

  1. sueslaght says:

    Fabulous scenery but I’m definitely not keen on the riding.

  2. Amy says:

    The switchbacks, what an adventure! Love these beautiful scenery shots.

  3. cyardin says:

    What an awesome trip! I would have loved to have done this. And switchbacks galore too. At first I thought this was the location for the film “The Descendants” but then looked up that they filmed in Kaua’i.

    • Jaspa says:

      It really was an incredible trip. I think we did some of the things you did when you were in Maui. But the mule ride on Molokai certainly was one of many highlights!

  4. sally g says:

    I’ve done that ride and it was fabulous . Those mules are so impressive — they really work hard . the trail is very rough and they handle it every day . They do a great job and don’t need any help so you don’t even have to touch the reins . My horse wouldn’t like that trail and all those rocks if she had to do it . What a great ride . Sally

  5. Lil says:

    From: World’s Biggest Coward. After much contemplation and agony I decided that enough was enough and it was time to either fish or cut bait. I decided to fish. To relieve my worries about a bad knee injury, Buzzy allowed me to take a test drive on your buddy Koa. And voila! I was hooked. Go time was the next day, I wasn’t scared or disappointed, and I can’t wait to ride again. Love Koa. She’s a champ!

  6. Pingback: Horse Trekking in Cajón del Maipo, Chile | Jaspa's Journal

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