Kaumana Caves: The Aftermath of the 1881 Volcanic Eruption

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at www.caves.org or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

The Kaumana Caves in Hawaii provide a scenic detour through a lava tube, something you don’t find in most of the US.

Metal stairs lead down into a skylight in a lava tube. This lengthy tunnel, unfortunately, passes directly beneath private property; thus, exploration is out of the question. The park has bathrooms and picnic tables at no cost to visitors.

We all know about volcanoes, but it’s fascinating to see how molten lava can turn into something like this.

In this article we’ll look into some of the history and also current state of the Kaumana Caves. The volcano that created them erupted again recently, in November 2022.

An image shows the recent eruption of Mount Loa in Hilo, Hawaii.

The Origins of Kaumana Caves

An image shows some of the inside of the Kaumana Caves and the lava rock formations.

The Kaumana caverns formed when lava flowing from Moana Loa suddenly ceased high above the then-tiny town of Hilo in 1881.

The lava tube was produced as the molten rock cooled quickly in one spot, forming a crust over the top that would later insulate the tube while the flow of newer, hotter lava continued to push it downward.

The molten lava builds up until it erupts at the end, leaving behind an empty tube or cave. From the park area lava tube entrance, the Kaumana caves stretch out for approximately 20 km on primarily private property.

However, it is unclear which sections of the tube are open to the public and which are privately owned; therefore, cave explorers do so at their own risk.

The cave’s opening is a skylight formed when the tunnel above it collapsed. The entrance is a set of stairs made of concrete. About two miles can be traveled along the available path to the public.

Following that point, the tunnel winds its way higher into the mountain, beneath private land, to which the public has no access. Various lava formations, some of which have kept their original fire-red hue despite quick cooling at the lava flow’s end, await curious visitors.

As a result of their transformation into a state park, guests are not only not charged to explore the caves at Kaumana, but neither they are charged to park their cars.

Where are the Kaumana Caves Located?

If you are driving on Kaumana Drive between the 4 and 5-mile markers (right after 4 mm), you will see a sign for the Kaumana Caves and parking just ahead. Kaumana Drive, Hilo, Hawaii 96720, is the path’s starting point.

Overview of Kaumana Caves

The park is located on the north side of the road, directly across from the parking lot on the south side. Go down the collapsed stairwell on either side of the lava tunnels to reach the interior.

Descending ladders can reach two entrances to the park. Although the first few hundred feet of the lava tubes are public territory, the rest of the tunnels pass through private land. Be mindful of this and don’t venture that far.

The entrance can be approached from any of two different directions. At the entrance, the left tube looks smaller; nonetheless, a narrow passageway leads to a lengthy, pitch-black section of the tube that winds its way down and, at times, necessitates some scrambling over boulders.

It ends in yet another squeezed tube segment. There are stunning tree ferns, native plants, and other tropical vegetation growing around the cave’s smashed entrances because of the constant moisture and warm temperatures.

The roots hang from the ceiling, and the sunlight pours in, creating a somewhat tropical atmosphere. In addition to the cave’s original entrance, there is a short passage leading back to the road from above.

The entrance to the Kaumana Caves is shown with greenery hanging from rocks above the cave mouth.

Dripping from above, the right side of the tube has a significantly wider hole. The closer the walls are to one another, the faster the ambient light from the entry fades, and the more humid and stale the air becomes.

This tube part is almost two miles long, making it significantly longer than the left half. Unique lava formations, spooky graffiti, pitch blackness, and even muck await tourists along the journey.

Raining? Consider rescheduling.

If there is a chance of flooding, you shouldn’t venture too far into the cave during a downpour. Lava tubes, unlike karst limestone caves, tend to be straight and have few branches; this makes getting lost less likely, but you should still use caution. It’s still easy to injure yourself from a minor misstep or slip due to the moisture.

If you wish to take a break and have a meal, you can. Picnic sites and restrooms are scattered around the grounds above the cave regions.

  • While the area is somewhat humid and lush, pack enough insect spray.
  • If you intend to explore the cave, bring along some sources of light, preferably a good quality headlamp.
  • Wear shoes that can withstand the slippery rocks and mud that make up much of the terrain.

You can safely return to the cave mouth after briefly venturing from its entrance when it becomes very dark. There are no paths or walkways beyond the stairs leading down to the caves, and no border marks indicate what private property space within the caves is.

Other Attractions Near the Kaumana Caves in Hilo, Hawaii

Explore the best Hilo offers by reading up on the city’s best attractions and famous tourist destinations. From downtown Hilo, it’s a short drive to Rainbow Falls and the other waterfalls along the Wailuku River.

Coconut Island

This island, near Lili’uokalani Gardens and accessible through a bridge, was once used as a haven and is now a famous family park with two small bridges, a lava tower, and stunning vistas of the bay and Hilo town.

An overhead view of Coconut Island, located near the Kaumana Caves in Hawaii.

The Hilo Farmer’s Market

Fresh vegetables, tasty snacks, Hawaiian pastries, and vendors offering some of the most popular Hawaiian cuisines for takeout can all be found at the Hilo Farmers market, the largest market on the island. Visit the ancient Lili’uokalani Garden on Banyan Drive for romantic vistas and a stroll through a Japanese and botanical garden.

The Public Walkway to Hilo

The pedestrian path runs next to Hilo Bay into the city’s heart. This is the best spot to stroll into town while taking in the bay and the outdoors.

Banyan Drive

Mature banyan trees line this street, originally planted by prominent citizens and government officials who frequented the park. The Boulevard is lined with motels offering affordable stays in Hilo, and the trees have grown to provide a lovely canopy.

Reeds Bay

A wider bay with family-friendly grassy spaces and sandy beaches is opposite Banyan Drive from the resorts. This beach is ideal for stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking due to the shallow water and the bay’s relative safety.

Beachgoers will enjoy a day at either Carlsmith Beach park or Richardson Ocean Park, located on the southern side of Hilo town.

Clubhouses for Canoeing

After work, every day, canoe clubs from over the state and island gather on Hilo Bay to put their boats into the water and run through their drill routines before heading to one of the several statewide competitions.

Looking for more caving adventures while you’re in Hawaii? Be sure to check out this list of Hawaii’s top caves next.

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