Molokai Service, Culture, and Conservation

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14026A, Service/ Volunteer


  • Work and stay on Molokai's dramatic and isolated Kalaupapa peninsula
  • Learn the remarkable history of this 'lava leaf' National Historic Park
  • Explore rural topside Molokai and learn about its cultural preservation and land conservation efforts


  • Four nights lodging in the Kalaupapa settlement and four nights lodging on topside Molokai
  • Work with National Historic Park employees on outdoor projects
  • Hikes to culturally significant areas and interaction with local residents


DatesMay 11–19, 2014
StaffRuth Morton

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Trip Overview

The Trip

This was a trip of a lifetime on so many levels. Suffice it to say that it moved me mentally, spiritually and physically!”  - 2012 trip participant

Volunteers on this trip have a unique opportunity to experience what few others do: exploring “topside” Molokai, a rural island with a population just over 8,000, and helping with conservation efforts at the Kalaupapa National Historic Park.

The peninsula of Kalaupapa occupies a special place in the history of the Hawaiian Islands. For many years this was the place to which Hansen's disease (leprosy) victims were banished, to live in isolation from family and friends for the rest of their lives. Father Damien (now Saint Damien) and many others lived and worked in the colony to serve the patients, advocate for changes, and make patients' lives more bearable. In Hawaii's ohana(family)-based society, exclusion was an extremely difficult burden to bear, affecting both the victims and their families on other islands. The cure of this disease has affected many. Now, former patients live at Kalaupapa, coming and going as they choose.

Geographically, Kalaupapa is an isolated leaf-like flow of lava extending into the windward Pacific coastline on the north shore of Molokai. Its several miles of coast are a combination of tide pools, rocky shorelines, and pristine white or black sand beaches. The community of Kalaupapa occupies a small portion of this land area, leaving open tracts of grassland and trees. Now a National Historic Park, established in 1980, the park encompasses a total area of 10,726 acres, including approximately 8,726 acres of land and 2,000 acres of offshore/undersea area. Most of the land within the park boundaries is managed by NPS through formal cooperative agreements with various federal and state agencies, as well as private entities. The park was established to preserve the memories of the victims as well as maintain the settlements of Kalaupapa and Kalawao, a volcanic crater, rain forests and the iconic Molokai Lighthouse. Typically, all visitors entering the peninsula must have a permit, and only visitors of the remaining residents are permitted to stay overnight (those 16 and younger are excluded -- a holdover from the days when patients' infants and children were taken from them). Kalaupapa has seen none of the development typical elsewhere in the islands, making it an unusually quiet and lovely (and many say spiritual) place to experience.

The island of Molokai is described as "the most Hawaiian island" -- indeed it has been subject to less development than other islands, with a strong coterie of residents who prefer to keep their island rural. Land conservation and cultural preservation efforts by private landowners, local land trusts, national conservancy groups, and local residents interweave the fabric of island life.

“Molokai and Kalaupapa keep calling me back. I have taken this trip twice and plan to be on the 2014 trip again!” - 2013 trip participant

The Project

Our commitment is for each of us to work on a variety of projects during our stay at Kalaupapa National Historic Park, under the direction of the National Park Service staff. These projects may include planting, gardening, weeding, nursery work, clearing historic cemetery spaces, removing invasive species, painting, and cleaning beach areas. Our projects will be determined based on the current needs of the Park during our stay. 


Day 1: Our group will meet at Kaunakakai, Molokai after you have traveled there by plane or ferry. Transportation from the airport or ferry dock to our lodging will be provided. Upon settling in, the group will meet to get acquainted and have an orientation at a no-host dinner. 

Days 2-6: After transportation to the trailhead on the morning of day two, we will hike on the storied and dramatic Kalaupapa Trail down ~1,700 feet to the Kalaupapa Peninsula. Participants may opt -- at their own expense -- to fly from topside to Kalaupapa on a short 15-minute commercial flight in a small single engine plane.

We will work hard each day, but also get into the rhythm of "island time." Our shared meals provide nourishment as well as conversation and community. NPS staff, who include local islanders, will share stories and perspectives as they accompany us to daily work locations. These include breathtaking sights that few others ever see. During non-work hours, some will choose to snorkel or swim in the refreshing dock-side waters that are close to our accommodations. Others will find their way to the unique tavern to make the acquaintance of locals while taking refreshment, or wander the settlement, soaking up its history or observing a monk seal mother and pup. On day six we will bid a fond “aloha” to new friends at Kalaupapa and return to topside Molokai via the Kalaupapa Trail. Participants may opt -- at their own expense -- to fly from Kalaupapa to the topside airport. Once back on topside, we will settle into our lodging, recover from the hike, and start our exploration. All meals are included.

Days 7-8: After a group breakfast each day, we will explore topside Molokai. Pending weather and local conditions, the possibilities include: browsing the Kaunakakai Saturday market, whcih features local produce, flowers, and crafts; hiking the “wet” east end historic Halawa Valley; visiting a privately owned ranch operated with conservation/sustainability methods; hiking in a Nature Conservancy preserve with highland bogs and dramatic vistas; visiting with locals who are restoring/preserving historic fishponds; listening to the weekly performance of the local band “Na ohana hoaaloha” (the families are friends); walking on the gorgeous two-mile dry west end Popohaku Beach. All meals are included.

Day 9: After a group breakfast, our trip draws to a close. You will be transported to the ferry terminal or airport for your morning departure, with fond mahalo and aloha.

“I so hope that the Sierra Club continues to offer this service trip to Kalaupapa. It is such a meaningful trip in a place where 8,000 people died of Hansen's Disease, and their stories must not be forgotten. It is a place where very step you take is on sacred ground, where volunteers are much appreciated and sincerely thanked for their service. It is a hugely fulfilling experience, and we are grateful for it!”  - 2012 trip participant



Getting There

Molokai is accessible by inter-island carriers and connects with major air carriers. You may wish to travel to the islands at least the day prior to the start of the trip. If you are interested in coming early or staying late, the leader can provide hotel information and suggestions of sites to visit.

“The camaraderie of nine individuals tossed initially together . . . to do service at a site where history has witnessed a range of the human condition from suffering to Sainthood. What a pleasure to work alongside each other, leaders and participants, to help do a bit of good for this location, the residents who still remain -- and those who have gone on -- and the National Historical Park Service personnel who are now stewards of this peninsula called Kalaupapa.” - 2012 trip participant

Accommodations and Food

While topside we will stay in island-style hotel or accommodations. In Kalaupapa we will stay in Park Service dormitory-style facilities, with shared bathrooms and common kitchen. Our accommodations are basic, but with lovely ocean breezes and shade trees. All of our food for the work week on Kalaupapa must be transported down from topside; the grocery store in Kalaupapa is available only to residents. The leaders will shop in topside for groceries and package our food pre-trip to be flown down by cargo plane. It is extremely important that you discuss any dietary restrictions with the leader(s) before you sign up. In addition to all grocery shopping being done in advance, our cooking facilities are limited. Special dietary needs may not be able to be accommodated. Participants will help with the preparation and clean-up of our meals during our Kalaupapa stay and during part of our topside exploration.

Trip Difficulty

This trip requires the ability to work in the outdoors in the tropical sun, wind, and heat, while bending, kneeling, stretching, lifting, pulling, and sweating. The ability to perform physical tasks under these conditions is necessary for the enjoyment of this experience. Good fitness is important, as is a flexible attitude when circumstances change plans or tasks. There are no local medical facilities on the Kalaupapa Peninsula.

Trip participants must be able to hike up and down the approximately three-mile Kalaupapa Trail, which has a 1,700-foot elevation loss/gain, while carrying a portion of their personal gear. Participants can opt to travel to/from topside on a scheduled commercial flight at their own expense.

"We loved our Kalaupapa trip -- it was rewarding and enjoyable in so many ways. Thanks for making it all happen.” - 2013 trip participant

“There isn't enough space to list all the things that were so marvelous.” - 2012 trip participant

Equipment and Clothing

A detailed list will be provided to participants.


If you have time for a longer stay in Hawaii, the Bishop Museum in Honolulu tells the story of the Hawaiian Islands admirably. The museum has been updated in recent years; there are now daily activities and docent tours led by experienced and knowledgeable Hawaiians. You can learn about (and practice) traditional Hawaiian music, hula dancing, and tour the Hawaiian history section with a kahuna (knowledgeable teacher).



  • Daws, Gavin, Shoal in Time. Accurate history of Hawai’i.
  • Brennert, Alan, Molokai. Historical fiction of Kalaupapa. (Brennert's book, Honolulu, also describes this city's history well.)
  • Bushnell, O.A., Molokai. Fictional story of Kalaupapa exiles.
  • Tayman, John, The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai.


The Sierra Club Outings program is based on heightening awareness of conservation and the environment throughout the world. We plan outings so members can experience new places, people, and activities. Our concern is the global environment; we encourage participants to take action to protect our shrinking world and its inhabitants -- human and otherwise. On this trip, we will be made aware of the uniqueness of Molokai, Kalaupapa, and the National Historic Park's participation in future plans for the peninsula. 

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.



Ruth Morton is a long-time member of Sierra Club, has enjoyed Hawaii the past 20 years, and has volunteered on service projects on Maui's Honokawaii Valley as well as at Kalaupapa. The beauty of Hawai'i- especially Kalaupapa - and the spirit of aloha continue to inspire her. After a career leading adult learning and corporate programs, she now focuses her energy on Sierra Club trips. Her other interests include birding, hiking, gardening, painting, and Ikebana.


'Mel' Watral has led and cooked on trips with the Hawaii Sub-Committee for nearly 17 years. Maui holds a special place in her heart -- she met her husband on a trip 13 years ago. She is an avid quilter and is determined to learn how to make a Hawaiian quilt!


Hal Busch

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