Exploring Kaumana Caves – What You Need to Know

Located just outside of Hilo, these caves offer a unique opportunity to explore an underground environment created by flowing lava.

Exploring Kaumana Caves

Did you know that you can explore a huge lava cave right outside Hilo?

The Kaumana Caves is a 10-minute drive from Hilo and puts you right inside a massive lava tube that was created by lava flow from a volcanic eruption.

Kaumana Caves has parking and restrooms, and it’s a public area so you don’t need to pay anything or make a reservation to check it out.

We went spelunking at Kaumana Caves to find out how difficult it is to go through the caves, and what is really needed when visiting the Big Island’s 2nd most popular lava cave.

Kaumana Caves Details

  • Location: Kaumana Caves – Google Maps
  • Distance: 2 miles (Most people don’t travel the entire distance)
  • Hike time: 1-2 hours is enough for most people to explore the caves
  • Difficulty: Medium-Hard. Expect to be on your hands and knees for some portions.
  • Terrain: Slippery, Rocky, Uneven, Steep. Crawling is required at times.
  • Weather: Chilly and humid in the caves
  • Price: Free
  • Permits/Fees: None Required
  • Parking: Paved parking area near the cave entrance
  • Facilities: Public Restrooms, Picnic Tables

Caution: Do not explore Kaumana Caves during heavy rains, as it is prone to flooding.

What to Bring to Kaumana Caves

If you don’t intend to actually go into the caves, you won’t need anything except a sturdy pair of shoes.

The entrance to Kaumana Caves is awesome to check out, even if you don’t want to go inside. It’s a lush hole in the ground with tropical plants and ferns underneath a rainforest canopy.

If you want to explore and go inside Kaumana Caves, here is what you should bring:

  • Headlamp or Flashlight (The interior of the caves is pitch dark)
  • Light Jacket or Long Sleeve Shirt (It’s a little chilly in the caves)
  • Sturdy hiking shoes (The ground in the caves is VERY rocky and slippery)
  • Water Bottle for drinking

Kaumana Caves Walkthrough

After parking at the paved lot next to the caves, walk across the street to the entrance.

The entrance to the caves is a steep staircase down, so be careful in your step since it’s usually wet and slippery.

The slippery stairs going down the Kaumana Caves entrance
The stairs at the entrance of the Kaumana Caves are steep and slippery. Be careful going down!

As you walk down the stairs, you’ll feel like you’re being transported into a different world amongst the lush greenery and overhanging roots.

The dark entrance to the Kaumana Caves
Going into Kaumana Caves is like stepping down into a different world!

As you descend into the cave entrance, you’ll feel the temperature drop rapidly – it felt like it got 10 degrees cooler once we entered the cave.

You’ll soon realize that there’s not one cave – there are two!

Well, not exactly.

Both cave entrances are part of the same lava tube. During the volcanic eruption, the roof of the lava tube collapsed, creating the entrance that we use today.

During the eruption back in 1881, visitors to the cave entrance could see lava rushing through a few feet below the surface.

Here’s where the Kaumana Caves go today:

  • The cave on the left side follows the lava tube mauka uphill toward Mauna Loa.
  • The cave on the right side follows the lava tube makai downhill toward Hilo.

Back in 1881, the lava flow came from the cave on the left and flowed out through the cave on the right.

The cave on the left side looks smaller from the entrance – but it actually opens up quite a bit once you go inside.

The left cave is a challenge to get into, but it’s much easier to walk through once you get past the first part.

Trey standing in the left cave at Kaumana Caves
The left cave opens up into a large lava tube with high ceilings and a relatively flat walkway.

The cave on the right side looks larger and more inviting from the entrance. But in our experience, the right cave is more difficult to traverse.

Looking out of the Kaumana Caves toward the entrance to the cave
The entrance to the right cave is wide open and more inviting – but it gets much harder after this point!

The terrain is rockier in the right cave and there are lots of narrow passageways that you need to crawl through if you want to keep going.

Man exploring Kaumana Caves Lava Tube
This is as far as we got in the right cave. You can see the moisture on my Dad’s back – that’s from water droplets falling off the ceiling of the cave.

How Long Are the Kaumana Caves?

The surveyed distance of Kaumana Caves is about 2 miles long.

However, the Kaumana Caves span into private areas. The private areas of the caves are still mostly unexplored, so the true distance of Kaumana Caves is still unknown.

History of the Kaumana Caves

The history of Kaumana Caves dates back to 1880 when Mauna Loa started erupting.

The volcano erupted for a long period of time, and the eruption persisted into 1881.

A substantial portion of the lava flow from the eruption created lava tubes. The Kaumana Caves is one of those lava tubes.

How Were the Lava Tubes Created?

The lava tubes that make up Kaumana Caves were created by the 1880-1881 lava flow from Mauna Loa.

The 1880-1881 lava flow erupted for 280 days from the northeast rift zone of Mauna Loa. The lava flow nearly reached Hilo town before finally stopping on the town’s outskirts.

Most of the lava from this eruption created and flowed through a lava tube system. Kaumana Caves is one of the lava tubes.

Here’s a perspective on how the lava tubes were created back in 1881:

At the advancing front the lava seems to come out of its tunnel and flow in an open red river of fire as much as several hundred feet long. This then appears to clog up and cool on top, and the lava pushes out in great and small lobes, piling one over the other and eventually forming a new tunnel underneath for the molten lava.

E.D. Baldwin, Notes on the 1880-1881 Lava flow from Mauna Loa

Stopping the Lava Flow

In July 1881 Princess Ruth Luka Ke‘elikōlani and Princess Regent Lili‘uokalani traveled from Honolulu to Hilo. Their goal was to meet up and devise a plan to save Hilo.

They discussed many options, such as building structures to divert the lava flow and using dynamite to drain the lava tubes.

Their plans were sent back to Honolulu for review.

Eventually, Princess Ruth got tired of waiting for an official decision and took matters into her own hands.

She went up and faced the lava flow one-on-one. She performed chants and offered tribute to appease Pele (The Hawaiian volcano god).

Princess Ruth’s tribute consisted of brandy (the alcoholic drink) and a few red scarves (pieces of cloth).

By all reports, the lava flow stopped after Princess Ruth’s chants and tribute. Only one homestead outside of Hilo was destroyed by the lava flow, and the entire town of Hilo was spared.

Trey Lewis is an outdoor enthusiast. Whether its hiking knife-edge ridges or just fishing by the river, Trey isn't afraid to get dirty in search of the next adventure.

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