How to: Visit Kalaupapa, America's Remote, Invite-Only National Park

by  Darren Murph | Sep 18, 2015
Darren Murph
Darren Murph

Many of America's great treasures lie within the National Park System. The Grand Canyon, Yosemite's Half Dome, Denali, and the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere are all protected by the federal government, set aside for future generations to enjoy. These spectacular places are mostly public lands -- but there's one in particular that doesn't quite fit the mold.

We recently visited Kalaupapa National Historical Park, located on a remote section of Molokai, and can attest that it's both unique and beautiful. For one, it's tucked away on one of Hawaii's quietest, most infrequently visited islands. Secondly, there are only three ways to visit, all of which require an invite. So, how can you visit the most exclusive entity within the National Park system? Let's take a look.

1. Apply for a job.
Kalaupapa and the neighboring town of Kalawao are entirely disconnected from the rest of Molokai's roadway system. Those who live in the park refer to the rest of the island as "topside," and traveling "down below" requires steady footing or a small aircraft. For many outsiders intrigued by the thought of living in what was once a leprosy settlement, applying for a job there is a way to secure long(er)-term access. Given that the National Park Service administers most of its land, you can gain permission to live there by volunteering , transferring to an open NPS position, or by securing work as a priest, teacher, or construction worker within the state of Hawaii.

2. Be invited by a patient.
As present, around a half-dozen patients with Hansen's Disease (the modern name for leprosy) still live in Kalaupapa, though strides in medicine have made it possible for them to be fully integrated into society without fear of transferring the illness to others. While it's feasible for those patients to leave and live elsewhere, many choose to remain in Kalaupapa -- a quiet slice of paradise that simply feels like home. If you know a patient, they can request an official invite on your behalf. Once you're inside the settlement, you'll find the least expensive oceanfront housing in all of Hawaii. Guest quarters provide a truly stunning look of the Pacific, with views of the enormous sea cliffs. The best part? Rates are around $10 per night, and, yes, your cellphone works there as well.

3. Pony up for a tour.
The most common way to visit requires a tour pass. For $50, individuals can hike the 2.9-mile trail down to the settlement. A few tour operators will allow you to pay in advance online (Father Damien Tours is highly recommended), though we did see a few travelers hike down and pay $50 to the guide for an on-demand pass. You'll crisscross more than 25 switchbacks as you descend nearly 2,000 feet to the shoreline, which feels even more daunting on the return hike up. Six days a week -- not on Sundays -- you can meet up with a guide from Father Damien Tours at 10 a.m. who will lead you through the settlement and give you the opportunity to meet a few patients, visit local churches, and spend a spectacular hour gawking at the world's largest sea cliffs in Kalawao (pictured above). By 2 p.m., you'll be on your way topside, earning your dinner with every grueling step. For those seeking a bit less adventure, you can pay more to have a mule carry you in both directions, or you can shell out for a return flight to either Oahu or Maui from the park's small airport.

For National Park junkies, a visit to Kalaupapa should be high on your list. Due to the legwork -- both figurative and literal -- required to access it, only around 10 to 15 people per day make their way down.

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