When we were first planning our family vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii, we weren’t even going to visit the Hilo area. We stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the opposite side of the island for the first part of our trip and at Volcano House in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for the second part, and Brian didn’t think we’d have time to drive across the entire island to visit Hilo.
But when I began researching fun things to do on the Big Island, I discovered that there are a lot of awesome, family-friendly things to do in and around Hilo, Hawaii. I was determined to explore the area and finagled us a day trip to Hilo. After exploring Rainbow Falls and the giant Banyan Trees, visiting the Boiling Pots and Pe’epe’e Falls, and checking out Wai’ale Falls, we headed over to nearby Kaumana Caves State Park for some underground adventuring.
When we parked in the Kaumana Caves parking area across the road from the park, I wasn’t quite sure why this park was on the list of amazing things to do near Hilo. (I didn’t do much research on the Kaumana Caves.) All I saw were a few picnic tables, restrooms, and some metal fencing… big deal!
What you don’t see are the incredible Kaumana Caves, part of the 25 mile long Kaumana Lava Tube, that lie below ground.
The Kaumana Lava Tube
On Nov. 5, 1880, the Hawaii’s giant Mauna Loa volcano erupted and the lava slowly flowed toward Hilo. By late June 1881, the lava flow was within five miles of Hilo village and began picking up speed. According to Hawaiian legend, Princess Ruth, sent from Honolulu, was carried into the hills in late July and sat in front of the lava flow, pleading and praying to Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of religion and fire, to spare the tiny village. Her efforts were rewarded and the lava flow slowed, and eventually stopped in early August only one and a half miles from Hilo Bay.
The Kaumana Lava Tube was formed as the lava flowed down the hills above Hilo and, after cooling, served as a major artery for the hot lava that continued to flow. Today it is estimated to be about 25 miles long.
Kaumana Caves State Park
The Kaumana Caves are two caves measuring about 16-18 feet in diameter. The entrance to the caves is actually through a skylight created from a ceiling collapse in the lava tube. A steep concrete staircase with a metal handrail descends into the collapsed area between the caves, with one cave to the left and one to the right. Thanks to all the rain Hilo sees, the cave openings are surrounded by tropical plant life, moss, and leafy ferns, and roots and vines hang down over the openings.
While the lava tube stretches out for miles, the section of the caves open to the public extends about two miles because it passes under private property. The areas near the cave entrance are well lit by sunlight, but the deeper you go into the cave, the darker it gets, and after about 300 feet, you’re in total darkness.
The inside of the cave is damp, about fifteen degrees cooler than the above ground temperatures, and due to rain, they can be a bit muddy and slippery. If you’re going to exploring deep in the caves, it’s a good idea to have a hard hat, water, and multiple sources of light, as well as to wear pants and sturdy shoes. Low ceilings, rock outcroppings, and varying ceiling heights ranging from thirty feet to only three feet, make the caves treacherous if you’re not careful.
You may think of skipping this stop if you’re not prepared to explore deep in the caves on your own, but that’d be a big mistake! Even if you just explore the areas just inside each cave entrance, you’ll be amazed and intrigued — and your kids will love it!
When climbing down the ladder into the caves, it felt like we were in the jungle, exploring some place that would be in Jurrasic Park or prehistoric times. Inside the caves, we were fascinated by the rock formations, and the bold red lava.
The lava actually cooled so fast during the 1881 flow that it kept its color!
When looking for fun family activities in Hawaii, the Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park always comes up, and rightfully so, as it’s an amazing experience. Kaumana Caves on the other hand, often don’t show up at all. Many people have no idea they even exist. As a result, the Thurston Lava Tube, which is well lit with electrical lights, has a flat floor for tourists, and ample parking for tour buses, is almost always crowded. The Kaumana Caves on the other hand have fewer visitors, so you’re more likely to have the caves to yourselves or only have a couple other families exploring.
Know Before You Go
- Kaumana Caves State Park is located at 1492 Kaumana Drive, Hilo, Hawaii 96720 near the 4-mile marker. Note that Kaumana Drive is also known as Highway 200 and Saddle Road. The parking area is about 20 minutes from downtown Hilo and sits on the south side of the road, while the park is on the north side.
- Be very careful when crossing the street! You’ll be crossing at a blind curve with no traffic signs or crosswalks and the cars passing by are traveling very fast.
- Visiting Kaumana Caves State Park is free, and there are picnic tables and restrooms available.
- The Kaumana Caves extend into private property. To explore past the lit area at the cave entrances and venture deep into the lava tube caves, the County of Hawaii requires you to obtain advance permission from the property owners and a signed risk waiver. It’s also a good idea to wear a hardhat, pants, and sturdy shoes.
- If you want to explore the darker areas near the entrances, be sure to bring a flashlight (and a backup light) with you as the lava tubes will become pitch black with zero visibility.