KAILUA-KONA — Worth a look?
Sure, but at what cost?
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.
“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.”