You’re standing on top of the highest sea cliffs in the world. It’s a nearly 2,000-foot drop below you. A long beach, a small village, and a solitary lighthouse line the coast. The dense, green rainforest is on one side; the vast Pacific is on the other. You feel like you’re at the end of the world. For some, it really was.
You’re at the Kalaupapa Lookout overlooking the Kalaupapa Peninsula on the northern coast of Molokaʻi. The cliffs are gorgeous, dramatic, and isolated. A small fishing village once sat below you. But in 1866, the Native Hawaiians were removed. King Kamehameha V established a leper colony, and thousands diagnosed with the disease were exiled to the remote coast. The people with the bacterial-based infection, also known as Hansen’s disease, were declared legally dead. They couldn’t leave, and no one could visit. This living tomb became one of the loneliest places on Earth.
The leper colony officially closed in 1969, long after a cure was found in the 1940s. Two people who cared for the sick, Father Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, were later canonized. A national park was established in 1980, to preserve the culture and the setting of the colony.
There are no roads into Kalaupapa National Historical Park. To visit, you arrive by air, by sea, or by mule. Yes, mule. The Kalaupapa Trail was once the supply route into the leper colony. Well-trained mules, who transport up to 100 people each day, now zigzag down the side of the cliffs. The 2.9-mile trail descends down 26 switchbacks in 90 minutes. You pass rare Hawaiian plants along the way. It’s steep and bumpy, but full of jaw-dropping views.
Then tour the colony, where some buildings remain, but there are only remnants of others. Paschoal Hall was a social place where movies were shown and dances were held. Bay View Home, a group house, helped new residents adjust to life without their family or friends. More than 15 cemeteries are home to both marked and unmarked graves. Papaloa is still an active cemetery, where flowers and mementos are draped across the graves. St. Philomena Church is a wooden chapel where Father Damien preached to and prayed with the sick. His gravestone sits beside the church; it’s usually covered with shell leis. A hospital, a fire station, a post office, and small stores once filled the town. Now myna birds fly overhead, wild pigs run through the ruins, and herds of axis deer watch from the distance.
The one thing you don’t see: the residents who still live here. Though free to come and go as they please, some people refuse to leave the area that they learned to call home. The few who remain are now elderly and used to living among themselves at the end of the world.