Popular lava tube entry north of airport becoming major traffic concern

  • Visitors walk the lava field amid cairns, or stacked rocks, above the lava tube on Queen Kaahumanu Highway north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Visitors stop to view the lava tube on Queen Kaahumanu Highway north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • A car tries to merge onto Queen Kaahumanu Highway after stopping to view the Huehue lava tube north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Visitors stop to view the Huehue lava tube on Queen Kaahumanu Highway north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Visitors cross Queen Kaahumanu Highway to view the Huehue lava tube north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Visitors park on the side of Queen Kaahumanu Highway to see the Huehue lava tube north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Visitors stop to view the Huehue lava tube on Queen Kaahumanu Highway north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Worth a look?

Sure, but at what cost?

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State transportation officials are assessing safety concerns at a popular West Hawaii lava tube — Huehue — that sits just off Queen Kaahumanu Highway in North Kona.

The lava tube, created during the 1801 Huehue flow from Hualalai’s northwest flank, is located about 2 miles north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole, and attracts visitors and residents alike curious as to what is within.

And that’s kind of the problem at play.

Sitting on the mauka side of the highway, visitors pull off and park alongside both sides of the road to check the site out, with those stopping on the makai side crossing the highway, creating a seemingly unsafe environment as cars whiz through the 55 mph zone.

“It’s a safety hazard,” said Kona resident David Baldwin. “I’ve had children walking across the highway; people doing U-turns. They just walk across the street like it’s a park, and I just can’t believe it.”

Promotion for the lave tube is easily found online and in travel books, and it’s more than visible from the roadway.

And, in recent months, especially with the closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and thus Nahuku or Thurston Lava Tube, the site has become increasingly busier. Depending on the time of day, the number of vehicles at the site can reach several dozen. In some instances, food vendors have been spotted serving visitors at the site.

“It’s getting progressively worse in a rapid period of time,” said resident and commuter Dolena Brand. “In a couple of months, it went from a couple cars to 30-40-50, and just it keeps climbing.”

Seeing the entry alongside Queen Kaahumanu Highway was how Sarah Savet, visiting the island with her three sons from Washington, D.C., came across Huehue lava tube. She came back to the site Monday after inquiring about it at her hotel.

“It’s very cool,” she said while taking photos of her youngsters standing in front of the tube’s opening.

But, she also recognized the dangers associated with the pull-off spot, frequently reminding her children to be careful because they were along a state highway.

“It’s kind of not so safe for the younger kids,” she said before the group headed north on the highway to their next destination.

A dangerous situation

During several 20-minute visits to the site during recent afternoons, including on Monday, there were at least two dozen vehicles — including commercial tour vans and taxis — parked and more than a dozen people who crossed the highway between passing vehicles.

Some pedestrians forced vehicles to slow down, and in one case, a vehicle with a line of cars behind it came to stop to allow a family of five to cross. Those who crossed declined to comment on the record, but some said it wasn’t a problem as there was a large enough break in traffic for them to cross.

Brand said she had a close call herself last week when a vehicle parked on the mauka side of the highway pulled a U-turn in front of her.

“I had to slam on my brakes at 55 to zero and honked and they just stayed in front of me going crazy slow,” she said. “Didn’t look at all. It would have killed me.”

Resident Patti Kaminski knows the area well, having seen people run across the highway and cars suddenly pull U-turns “like no one else is on the road” to check out the site, among other dangerous moves.

“I’ve seen people literally walking across the highway like they’re in a crosswalk on their phones paying no attention to the traffic. I’ve seen people just stop and cars have had to screech and jet over and stop,” she said. “I’ve seen everything.”

She added, “I would hate for anybody to have their vacation turn into a tragedy.”

Many also take offense to the cairns created by stacking rocks at Huehue, noting the “fad” now seems to be occurring at other sacred spots, like Pololu Valley.

“The rock stacking drives me crazy,” said Kaminski. “To me, it’s so disrespectful.”

State now looking into issue

Though residents have a lot to say about the area, including online in Facebook group posts, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) said it was unaware of a possible safety issue at the lava tube entry site until contacted in July by West Hawaii Today.

“Our preliminary crash data and complaint logs did not show this area of the highway as a safety concern, but we will coordinate with HPD and investigate your report of illegal U-turns and unsafe stopping and parking in our jurisdiction,” said Shelly Kunishige, a DOT spokeswoman said in response to a detailed list of questions submitted in early July.

She continued, “Should our investigation determine the activities of those stopping and parking along the mauka and makai sides of Queen Kaahumanu at mile marker 91 present a danger to those using the highway, we will consider signage prohibiting those activities in line with Hawaii Revised Statute §291C-111.”

HRS 291C-111 covers noncompliance with stopping, standing, or parking on a highway.

The state did not address any particular questions posed by West Hawaii Today regarding liability, people entering caves/lava tubes and parking along the highway in violation of state law and if there’s ever been talk of creating a safe means for stopping at the site, such as can be found at the scenic lookout at Kiholo Bay.

What could be done?

Simply making it illegal to stop or park isn’t necessarily the solution, according to input from a variety of people who sounded off to the newspaper as well as in online postings.

“It’s an interesting attraction, a lava tube is obviously a very special attraction but unless they build a turn out or fix the road someway it’s going to be really dangerous,” said Baldwin, who noted one of the first things that must be fixed is the drop-off in the pavement.

Kaminski, like others, agreed a safe pull-off lane would be a plausible solution, but a parking lot should not be added, like the overlook at Kiholo. An easy answer could simply be informing visitors upon arrival that, yes, this site is here, but it can be dangerous, she said.

“It is a big problem you want the people to come here for a vacation to be safe and not have their vacation ruined,” she said. “I think awareness is the biggest thing.”

Legislators representing the district in which the lava tube entry falls said their offices had not been contacted regarding a possible safety situation near Huehue.

However, House Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona); Sen. Lorraine Inouye (D-Hilo, Hamakua, Kohala, Waimea, Waikoloa, Kona) and Hawaii County Councilwoman Karen Eoff (North Kona) each expressed their concerns and said they were eager to look into the issue.

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“It’s definitely time to start having a conversation about this and what we should do about it going forward,” Lowen said.

Said Eoff, “We need to be proactive before an accident happens because public safety is our No. 1 concern.”

  1. KonaDude August 21, 2018 3:10 am

    Spending money on a pull out would not solve the problem, you can’t buy common sense..


    1. Buds4All August 21, 2018 4:43 am

      If common sense were common everyone whould have it. I am just supprised more people have not been hurt there.


    2. Ernest T Bass August 21, 2018 9:43 pm

      just like you can’t buy a “do over” when you get hit on the Highway……just a matter of time till the odds win….the odds always win…..eventually.


  2. angkoldoy August 21, 2018 3:26 am

    Try read Hawaii Revised Statutes 6d-7.


    1. KonaRich August 21, 2018 8:21 am

      I visited that page and its short and self explanatory a ambulance chasing lawyer, which we have an abundance of here, will make himself a nice payday and make a visitor family rich to boot


      1. angkoldoy August 21, 2018 10:24 am

        Per the State’s attorney generals office, whoever owns the land above any part of the cave owns the cave and those who wish to enter must seek permission from that owner. In reference to this cave, the entrance appears to be within the right of way of the highway, hence DOT. Those portions of the cave under lands mauka of the right of way is the responsibility of the land owner above the cave. This HRS refers to caves in cliffs along the shoreline also.


  3. guest August 21, 2018 3:47 am

    Been a problem for years. I’m guessing the solution will be a 35mph speed limit for 2 miles near this area then add crosswalks with stop for ped signs. So much for efficiency of the soon to completed highway.


    1. KonaRich August 21, 2018 8:04 am

      How about pour the same lava rock they have been spreading in the Median 2 miles south and 2 miles north both, giving visitors a chance to experience walking over a lava field 2 miles in street shoes. There will be studies ad nauseum. Just wait until some kiki runing across the highway, loses her slippa and stops to put it back on and some visitor driver is TEXTing or a homeboy…


  4. Buds4All August 21, 2018 4:41 am

    Just now noticing? I woud say put a safe pullout there but it would cost 100M and take 10 years! Not a project our current BI Administration can handle.


  5. CongressWorksForUs August 21, 2018 6:46 am

    The problem is the idiots doing 50 mph suddenly breaking and pulling off to the side of the road in the space of 3 seconds. It is only a matter of time before someone stood on the side gets hit.

    Simple solution; install a barricade along the edge of the road 100-200 feet either side of the tube, preventing people from pulling off to the side right by the tube, with big NO STOPPING signs.


    1. Du Mhan Yhu August 21, 2018 5:38 pm

      he problem is the idiots doing 50 mph suddenly breaking and pulling off to the side of the road

      Gee, I bet those are not loacals. I strongly have suspected for years now the majority of accidents are caused by tourists rubbernecking and doing spastic things no one expects them to do.

      Crashes are often caused by drivers trying to avoid erratic drivers, and hitting other drivers.

      Mandatory tour buses for tourists unless some sort of test may be passed?


  6. Du Mhan Yhu August 21, 2018 8:39 am

    Reminds me of the discussion about snorkeling tour boats dropping swimmers off just outside the Honokohau harbor entrance. Some twit wanted boats to slow to 5mph a mile from the harbor.

    Others saw no problem having swimmers in a boat channel and thought it was the boat drivers’ problem.


  7. Kaipo Wall August 21, 2018 9:09 am

    Come on now , we all know tourists are the safest drivers around . Especially those from China or Japan . The answer is simple , put in another traffic light . There are so many new lights on the expanded section of the highway that one more will not even be noticed . Another option is to have DHHL come in and put up a big yellow gate , barbed wire and KAPU signs at they entrance of the tube. DHHL has plenty of those materials available and could get the work done in about a month . How about if HPD simply posts a traffic control officer on the scene ? He/she could write tickets for Speeding ,no seatbelts , cell phone use , and out-of-date stickers to vehicles using the Queen K , while waiting to monitor small flocks of tourists dashing through the highway speed traffic .


    1. Kaipo Wall August 21, 2018 9:37 am

      Viewing the video : Totally irresponsible for the Kapoho DaKine driver guide to park his van on the makai side and walk his people across the Queen K . Kapoho needs to determine who that is and either advise him never to do that again or fire his dumb akole . Reeedicolous ! Inexcusable really . Commercial guides should know better .


  8. angkoldoy August 21, 2018 10:15 am

    §6D-7 Access. No person may enter or traverse a cave, or any segment thereof, without the property owner’s prior written consent. [L 2002, c 241, pt of §2]


  9. enviroman63 August 21, 2018 10:30 am

    Why not Widen the shoulder of the Road in that area and create a scenic pull off area with some parking and an easement lane back into the HWY Traffic


  10. enviroman63 August 21, 2018 10:32 am

    OR Just Get a D-9 and Fill in the Lava Tube cover it up so nobody can see it. Game over nobody will pull over if there is nothing to view. One of two options the second being the least expensive


  11. Colin12345 August 21, 2018 10:56 am

    No simple solutions, because this roadside lava tube opening leads into a tube section with a very rocky path that many people can slip and fall and break bones, etc. (although very, very few actually get more than cuts on their feet and legs as it is today), so the potential for law suits against the State or whoever owns this land is huge. Add to that the probability of big pohaku chunks falling from the “ceiling” of the tube in this area where there is already much rubble from falling rock sections on the tube’s “floor.” Then, add to that that there is a mauka exit people can and most people do climb out of, and continue walking inland to the visible NEXT collapsed lava tube sections, and the NEXT one after that!!! So, people are wandering all over about 2 acres of pahoehoe, from the highway frontage to perhaps 400 feet (and more) mauka of that, and maybe 200+ wide.
    Placing a NO Parking ban in that vicinity will not help, other than to identify the location for tourist trying to find it! All they will do is just park beyond the signed area, and walk back. Remember, tourists by the many dozens, including young children, are walking all the way down into Waipio Valley, and back up, today! And every day. So, forget the signage idea, even if it’s a half mile in either direction (which covers the entrance to the Kekaha Kai park road, where people will pull over and park at, and then run across the highway). Better to fence off the whole 2 acres with an 8 foot high chainlink fence, ugly as hell, or else create a parking lot with restrooms and accept huge liabilities for injuries from going into and through the multiple tube sections. All choices are bad, only fencing it off – and maintaining a watch for illegal parking and fence penetration – can be done economically in the current reality of government money. A very sad situation all around. 🙁


  12. Bill August 21, 2018 11:15 am

    Temporary solution:

    Put up no stopping signs, fill in the mouth of the lava tube with gravel and come up with a better long-term solution in the meantime before somebody gets killed.


  13. Ernest T Bass August 21, 2018 12:35 pm

    Perhaps a great tube…….. but it would be very hard to top the 1881 Kaumana Caves in Hilo.
    25 miles long…..Lots of safe parking.


  14. Kia August 21, 2018 4:07 pm

    Tickets for all those who park on the Makai side, stupidity shouldn’t be rewarded by allowing them lawsuits … people should start thinking and not expect the government to take care of them from birth to death…


    1. Kaipo Wall August 22, 2018 1:10 am

      can you believe that Kapohodakine van parked on the makai side and the driver leading his tourists to run across? Unbelievable


  15. joedriver August 21, 2018 7:55 pm

    Making a mountain out of a mile hill. More people die on that highway by fools spreading and recklessly passing than those visiting the tube


  16. Mr.Mangoes August 22, 2018 9:22 am

    All the focus seems to be on an unlucky tourist having a vacation ruined. Where is the concern for the unfortunate driver who is going to eventually run over one of these self-centered tourists? And what is the deal with all this rock stacking? Have you looked at the place lately? There a hundred rock stacks out their now. What an eyesore! I agree with shutting it down. It is only a draw because of the tour books and being right beside the airport.


    1. guest August 22, 2018 1:12 pm

      I agree, the rock stacking is an eyesore! Someone commented they should take a D-9 out there and cover the opening. I think that is the best solution. There is enough for tourists to see on this island without this lava tube hazard. Goats, don’t get me started on tourists and goats!


  17. MilitantModerate August 22, 2018 5:06 pm

    The proper procedure is slow to a safe speed and blow your horn all the way through that area while waving with proper aloha spirit.


  18. kenmccabe August 22, 2018 9:15 pm

    Especially not safe for us cyclists as the shoulder is in bad repair and no one is watching out for us when pulling in our out. Something needs to be done soon… But I’m not very hopeful. DOT can’t even keep up with keeping roads repaired, roadsides mowed and clean like everywhere else in the world. Do these guys ever travel outside of the state and take note?


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