The Smallest County in the United States

Blog Post created by bejacob on Mar 19, 2017

As part of my recent trip to Hawaii, I made special arrangements to visit Kalawao County on the island of Molokai. Kalawao County is unique in that it the only county in the country that requires special permission to enter. This stems from the county’s interesting history.


From 1866 to 1969, Kalawao County served as a settlement for folks quarantined due to leprosy, or as it is known today, Hansen’s disease. The Kalaupapa peninsula (which comprises the land portion of Kalawao County) is physically isolated from the rest of Molokai with only a few ways to get there. Visitors can hike or ride mules down a 3½ mile trail descending almost 2,000 feet with 26 switchbacks along the way. Alternately, one can fly into Kalaupapa airport (LUP) on Makani Air, which offers regularly scheduled flights from HNL and MKK (Molokai airport often referred to as "Topside" to distinguish it from LUP). Boats are prohibited from getting closer than ¼ mile from the Kalaupapa shoreline, with the exception of the yearly barge that delivers supplies to the community each July. For all practical purposes, the only way most people will ever get to Kalawao County is on a prearranged tour. That’s how I visited. If you ever get the opportunity, it's well worth going.


My day trip began with a drive to the offices of Makani Air Charters near the Honolulu airport. For the curious, they’re located just south of the east end of runway 26R. Shortly after our scheduled departure time, we (all 9 of us) boarded our aircraft, a Piper Chieftain and taxied out to runway 4L. No TSA, no screening, no ID check. Just get in and go. About 30 minutes later we landed at Kalaupapa. To call it an airport is probably a bit generous. It’s a landing strip with a building off to the side. Still it has a proper FAA designation, so airport it is. iahflyr might appreciate this picture taken on approach to runway 5. Notice the waves crashing on the shore at the far end. Imagine timing your takeoff to avoid getting wet.


For more pictures of the airport and the planes I flew on during this visit, check out this post Re: Aviation Geeks Unite!



During the next four hours, our tour explored the smallest county in the United States (just 12 square miles of land). We picked up those who had chosen to hike or ride mules down, bringing our number to 21. The settlement of Kalaupapa consists of the 8 remaining Hansen’s disease patients (the youngest is 77) who chose to stay after the quarantine order was lifted in 1969, plus employees of the Hawaii Department of Health and the United States Park Service. The entire county is now a National Historic Park.


During my time there, the tour explored the current settlement at Kalaupapa and the abandoned one at Kalawao on the wetter, east side of the peninsula. I highly recommend reading up on Kalaupapa and the history of Saint Damien and Saint Marianne of Molokai, as well as Brother Joseph Dutton. All three were amazing people who endured isolation and suffering to provide aid to the sick and dying, exiled for the rest of their lives on this small peninsula surrounded on three sides by the ocean and cut off from the rest of Molokai by 2,000 foot tall cliffs.


Today, Kalawao County is administered by the Hawaii Department of Health, though it is a judicial district of Maui County (the rest of Molokai is part of Maui County). Under state law, the Director of the Hawaii Department of Health is the Mayor of Kalaupapa. The only other government official in the county is the sheriff, who is appointed by the Mayor. As there is no formal county government, there is no county courthouse, and despite Kalaupapa being the only community in the entire county, there is no county seat. As my county collecting hobby is to visit every county seat, I did not need to visit to complete my goal. I chose to come more out of a sense of completeness than anything else. Even without a county seat, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit this unique county. It’s well worth the visit, both for the history and the incredible beauty of soaring sea cliffs on the Molokai coastline.


The trip back to HNL included a stop at MKK. At just over 6 minutes, the flight between LUP to MKK is one of the shortest scheduled flights in the world.


With visits to Kauai County and Kalawao County, the state of Hawaii becomes the 14th state for which I have collected a postcard from every county and county seat. Before and after maps show my progress. Note Kalawao County on the north shore of Molokai.



I would be remiss if I failed to mention one other aspect of this trip to Hawaii. During my time on Oahu, I was able to meet up with our Island expert kharada46. Unfortunately, his lovely wife was unable to join us for dinner. Still, it was nice to catch up again, even if it was only a year and half ago that we first met in person. Overall, my time on Kauai - from Land, Sea, and Air and the entire Big 5-0 in Hawaii trip were fantastic.


I'm off again in mid-April when I’ll visit my uncle in Iowa over Easter weekend. I plan to visit the half dozen counties just south of Des Moines that I missed last spring and continue south into Missouri as far as Columbia. If all goes according to schedule, I should add almost three dozen more postcards to my collection. With luck, I'll find some interesting sights along the way.


Until then...


Happy Travels