Visiting and Running on Molokai

Where’s Molokai?

Molokai is one of the smaller Hawaiian islands, squeezed in between Maui, Lanai and Oahu. It’s 38 miles long by 10 miles wide and has one main town, Kuanakakai, that sits pretty much in the middle, on the coast, and has the island’s only harbor. Island hopper planes make the trip daily from Maui and Honolulu (20 min plane ride on an 8 seater) or the more adventrous can take the ferry from Lahaina. Cruise ships do not stop at Molokai and are, in fact, turned away by angry islanders on boats and surfboards.

What’s it like?

My family has been coming to the island for twenty years, I’ve been four or five times at a week or two at a time, and nothing has changed except for less facilities and fewer amenities. In fact, nothing has changed in what must be fifty years, and that’s exactly how the islanders want it. Molokai boasts the highest percentage of native Hawaiians, and has about five thousand full time residents total.

Essentially, many of the (vocal) people on the island resist change and progress with a ferocious intensity. No hotels, no cruise ships and no new developments. In fact, island law states that no structure can be above the height of a coconut tree (approx 85′).

Spontaneous ukelele sessions break out in town, fresh fish is sold out of backs of trucks, and cairns are a more common site than street signs. Tourism has dropped 50% in the past 20 years and this is just fine with many of its residents.

IMG_1255There is one small hotel, a town with no stoplights, five restaurants on the island (that’s an outdoor diner, a pizza place, a burger stand, a bar, and a Filipino place), two tiny grocery stores, a few gift shops, a macadamia nut plantation, a gun/beauty shop, a coffee plantation, and a leper colony. There’s one main “highway” that runs its length, and one that connects for the width. There’s one functioning small golf course in the high country and one golf course that closed years ago and has “gone back to nature” on the West End. More on that later.

Two other tiny towns exist. Mauna Loa sits on the West End and has a kite shop, a tiny market, a post office, and a closed movie theatre.  Kualapu’u is inland and has the coffee plantation, macadamia nut plantation, a mini-mart, and Moloka’i HIgh School.

Prices are high, with basic gas at almost $5.25/gal and regular milk topping $8/gal. Beware. For more info on the island, the Traveling Canucks blog has a pretty good overview of visiting Molokai.


Molokai is split into three sections. The East End of the island is densely tropical with waterfalls, rain forests, traditional fish ponds, and a large portion of native residents while the West End is dry red dirt with paniolos (cowboys), cattle, beautiful secluded beaches, a defunct resort, and some vacation homes. The third section of the island is the “high country” where agriculture meets rain forests. This section backs up to the sea cliffs, which are the tallest in the world, rising about 4,000 feet up from the ocean. Kaluapapa, the leper colony, sits at the base of these cliffs on a peninsula.

Wildlife on the island consists of large herds of Axis Deer, wild turkeys, and wild boar that the islanders hunt with knives and dogs. The island boasts the largest continuous fringing coral reef in the country, as well as one of the largest white sand beaches in the state of Hawaii. Snorkeling is great on the West End and SCUBA diving is world class on the East End, as well as the reef along the South End. Though many people travel from afar to see them, the large hammerhead population keeps me out of the water around that area.

How’s the running?

Cart path on old golf course
Cart path on old golf course

You’ve got a few options for running on the island. The aforementioned defunct resort has a golf course that’s been closed for about 8 years. Rather than lush fairways and tight greens, it now has some awesome trails that wind their way through kiawe groves, coconut trees, along majestic beaches, and on old cart paths. Truly a unique experience and one that’ll test your legs a bit. The terrain is up and down, the weather is generally hot and dry with an ocean breeze, and the 18 holes will run you for a very challenging 5 miles. To get there, go to the West End, head to the closed Kaluakoi resort, and run your heart out. A dip in any of the secluded white sand beaches is a great way to cool down.


Fairway/Trail system
Fairway/Trail system

The main focus run of the running portion of my trip was to return to the Kaluapapa trail and test my meddle. Generally, people take the popular mule ride down the cliffs to the leper colony, some folks prefer to take a tiny plane down, and some hike, but what fun is that if you can run it, right?

Quick note on the Leper Colony: People with Hansen’s Disease (aka Leprosy) were forced to this desolate peninsula of Molokai from 1866 to about 1969. Father Damien, a Dutch priest, lived in the colony and cared for the patients, eventually contracting the disease himself and dying there. He was canonized in 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI for his work there.IMG_0885

Almost 8k people (mostly Hawaiians) died at the colony, and though the disease was cured with the advent of antibiotics in the 1950s, there are still a handful of full time residents who live on Kaluapapa Penninsula. It remains the only remaining “Leper Colony” in the Western Hemisphere.

The trailhead is about 10 minutes from town, or 30

minutes from my parent’s place in the West End and has a sign that makes it pretty clear that

Kaluapapa Trailhead
Kaluapapa Trailhead

trespassing is not permitted and fees are required to enter. Blah. Blah, but more on that later, too. I parked my car and right then, two Hawaiian guys emerged from the dense forest with rifles startling me. They were deer hunting and didn’t expect to see anyone just before 6am and I was shaken because I wasn’t ready to see shirtless Hawaiians with guns. We said our alohas and I geared up for the run.

The run down to Kaluapapa is only 3 miles, but I prepared for it like I was running a 50 miler, psyching myself up for it for days. I wore my Salomons and grabbed a UD bottle to carry along with me and stuffed my iPhone into my Ultimate Direction belt. This is Hawaii in the summer (probably 80 deg with high humidity), so no shirt was needed.


A week before, I’d wiped out on a trail at home and had my hands and elbow full of stitches, so I was extremely careful not wanting to fall on or get dirt in the wound. I bandaged my hand and elbow up well and wrapped both in ACE bandages to protect them in case of fall, and I’m glad I did.

So I took off through the gate and was immediately in a dense covering of trees on some super-soft trail that was delightful. I trotted past a small orchard/farm, and got to the edge of a cliff with a sign that indicated I was entering a National Park and that, once again, permits and/or permission were required.

I’d run this a few years ago and remembered it fondly, but those nice thoughts quickly turned around as I realized that 80% of the run is on uneven, slippery, and dangerous stairs cut into the single track. The other 10% is basketball size rocks, and the final 10% is fantastic single track along the beach.

The trail starts at about 2,000 feet and, according to Strava, loses 669 feet in the first mile, 774 IMG_3317in the second, and 138 in the third. This is steep trail running on uneven stairs and you can not take your eyes off the trail for one split second. It’s extremely challenging on the legs and my mind was completely shot by about half way down the cliff.

Each switchback is marked with a small placard–29 in all–so there is a way of tracking your progress without looking at a watch. The Kaluapapa trail is cut out of a sheer cliff and a slip in the wrong area could be fatal. Stay focused, Eric. The last thing you need is to fall in to a leper colony and die.

On or around the fifth switchback, I zipped around a left hairpin turn and wiped out, landing on my left (injured) hand, tearing the ACE bandage away IMG_3433and opening up the stitches, which were now full of dirt. All I had was a sports drink for liquid and I didn’t want to use that, so I wrapped it up and carried on, also realizing that I’d cut open my right knee pretty bad and I was now covered in dirt and blood.

24 switchbacks to go!

My goal was to go to the bottom and back up twice, and I really wanted to break 120 minutes total. That timing would allow me to finish before the mules started, so my mind was on moving downhill as rapidly and efficiently as possible, but when some of the “steps” are 24″ high and others are 6″, safety becomes the paramount concern in my mind.

Around the 25th switch back or so I could see blue ocean, palm trees, and white sand through the trees and eventually I hit some rolling single track through dense rainforest with tropical plants on one side and a beautiful beach on the other. A breeze has picked up and this was now a joy to run.

Unfortunately, that portion of the trail is maybe 1/2 mile long and I managed to fall again while looking around. I got to the sign at the end of the trail, smacked it, and turned around, knowing that I was going to have to ascend all those steps and rocks, and now with a hand that was bleeding and throbbing significantly more than before. Yeah, I considered stopping by the small hospital at the Colony, but opted against it because a) I had no permit to even be there and b) I figured my insurance would drop me if I received treatment at a Leper Colony in Molokai.

So I fired up the legs and charged back the nice single track and quickly hit the stairs and stones. Ugh. I tried my hardest to run most of them but found reasons to take pictures and hike instead of running fairly frequently. I was still intent on finishing well, so my mind blanked out for a bit while I concentrated on moving quickly, but I eventually came upon a Hawaiian guy with a dog who’d apparently seen me coming down. I guess I was concentrating so hard on the “trail” that I’d completely missed a fully tattood 200lb man with a Shepard on the same single track. Wow!

Hams and quads were burning up bad and around each hairpin turn I was intent on running “just this section” then I’d take a break on the next one, but that got more challenging as the pitch got steeper. The air was still quite wet and the weather was not cooling down.

I finally made it to the top looking like bloody hell, and frankly searching for a reason to not run that damn trail again. How convenient that a Park Ranger gave me just the excuse! She asked if I had a permit, I told her no. We talked for awhile, I explained that I got off the trail before the mules, and I somehow distracted her enough with my bloody hand, knee, and now face, that she let me go, but not before making it perfectly clear that I was not welcome on the trail while she was there.

My Strava stopped somewhere along the way, giving me one of the kinkiest looking routes imaginable. I believe that my time was in the mid to high 60s, and though I consider myself an excellent hill climber, that thing was just too tough for me. If you get a chance to run the Kaluapapa Trail, I’d love to know how you do. Just fair warning: Prepare for battle.

So all in all, though Molokai doesn’t have a trail system like the Na Pali Coast on Kauai, the running certainly has some highlights. Where else can you run a tempo run on a decrepit golf course, then on red dirt en route to a blissfully secluded white sand beach, and a wickedly evil cliffside trail down to a leper colony all in the same day while encountering literally no one (well, except for the guy with the dog) on any of the runs?!?

Though the accommodations are few and the hospitality can be a bit inconsistent, Molokai is a fantastic island to visit for the person who loves the outdoors without all the crowds. If you’re looking for a “traditional luau®” or a bunch of high-end boutiques or dining and nightlife options, this ain’t the island for you. But if you’re looking for empty roads and beaches, authentic culture, and plenty of trails, Molokai can be a pretty awesome escape.



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