What to do with the lava tube? State mulls long term solutions for popular spot off highway

  • Visitors stop to view the Huehue lava tube on Queen Kaahumanu Highway north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole in summer 2018. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file)

  • Visitors cross Queen Kaahumanu Highway to view the Huehue lava tube north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole in summer 2018. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file)
  • The no parking signs are positioned along 1,000 feet of shoulder on the mauka side of the highway where the main entry to the lava tube is located. On the makai side of the highway, no parking signs will placed along 600 feet of shoulder. The concrete barriers will be positioned along 1,000 feet of shoulder on the mauka side of the highway to deter parking along the highway to check out the Huehue lava tube. (DOT/Special to West Hawaii Today)
  • State Department of Transportation crews on Thursday install concrete barriers along the mauka side of Queen Kaahumanu Highway near the entrance to the Huehue lava tube in North Kona. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)
  • State Department of Transportation crews on Thursday install concrete barriers along the mauka side of Queen Kaahumanu Highway near the entrance to the Huehue lava tube in North Kona. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — The State Department of Transportation is looking for a long-term solution for access to the Huehue lava tube.

No-parking signs and concrete barriers are being installed at the popular site located off Queen Kaahumanu Highway, about 2 miles north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole, to address safety concerns while the state determines how to go forward with recreation at the site. A no trespassing sign is also positioned at the entrance to the lava tube, said DOT spokeswoman Kelly Kunishige.

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“Our next step will be to determine the liability issues associated with owning a property that is being used for recreational purposes,” she said, “and to work with other departments who would be better suited to manage and maintain a property like this going forward.”

She did not divulge additional details, including whether the state is considering creating a site where people can stop to look, such as a scenic lookout like is located near Kiholo Bay that provides safe ingress to and egress from the popular viewing site. A timeline was also not given.

Ken Obenski, chairman of the Kona Traffic Safety Committee, chairman of the Hawaii County Traffic Safety Council and a member of the Governor’s Highway Safety Council, said the barriers won’t stop people from visiting the site. Instead, he said, people will likely park on the makai side of the highway and jaywalk across the 55-mph zone, or park before or after the barriers on the mauka side of the highway and walk, to the lava tube.

It’s not going to stop people from going to the lava tube, it’s just forcing them to park in a more dangerous location,” said Obenski, who also writes a column for West Hawaii Today.

Separating the through traffic from those who want to take a look and creating a parking lot is the most feasible solution, he said, adding he recommended the concept of a “simulated island” to the state months ago. He said the National Park Service uses it frequently at sites that become popular for stopping. The county also has something similar in place with the scenic outlook on Kamehameha III Road.

“It’s hard to stop people from being people — they are going to do what they want to do as long as they don’t see the harm they are going to ignore everything you do,” said Obenski. “But, if you make it easy to do the safe thing, then the majority of the people will do the right thing if you let them.”

Others expressed similar sentiment to Obenski in letters to the editor and on social media, asking the state to make the area safe to visit.

“The county depends on the tourist economy for a large part of its budget and salary. Reducing visitor attractions is not in the interest of the County of Hawaii or the State of Hawaii. Make it safe, do not eliminate it,” wrote Kailua-Kona resident Donna Goodale.

The lava tube, created during the 1801 Huehue flow from Hualalai’s northwest flank, attracts visitors and residents alike curious as to what is within. Promotion for the lava tube is easily found online and in travel books, and it’s more than visible from the roadway. Its popularity also seemingly increased amid the ongoing closure of Nahuku or Thurston Lava Tube within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Depending on the time of day, the number of vehicles at the site reached several dozen. In some instances, food vendors, buses and tour vans have been spotted at the site.

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The state began installing no parking signs on Jan. 7 and work to place 1,000 feet of concrete barrier continues. The move follows an August 2018 article published by West Hawaii Today highlighting safety concerns at the popular site near mile marker 91.

During the work, lane closures may be required. Work did not take place on Monday because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, but was planned Tuesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

  1. IRLOYAL January 25, 2019 1:31 am

    Let’s See….People find out about a lava tube. People are naturally curious. People are pulling off to the side of the road and want to walk over and see the lava tube. So the state decides to put up no parking signs on the side of the road where the lava tube sits, put up barriers to keep people from parking and entering the area FOR THEIR OWN SAFETY. So people park in dangerous places and cross the road in dangerous places. Does it seem like the state is RUN BY IDIOTS???
    Seems to me that the state could set up a pay to park area ($1 or $2) and actually provide a safe alternative to parking on the road. Being very conservative, if only 100 cars parked there in a day, that is over $36,000 a year which would be enough to pay for maintenance of the lot plus provide for the safety of those annoying tourists that keep the state running.


    1. Susan Sullivan January 25, 2019 10:11 am

      Another good idea, except if we did this for all of our island’s beautiful places to go, it takes away from being able to see all the beautiful places to go without having to pay for everything you see…..but it is a realistic solution.


    2. Pest Outwest January 25, 2019 12:15 pm

      I hear the next project is going to be putting up barriers to the ocean at Hapuna beach. Hey, people might drown!


  2. Kaipo Wall January 25, 2019 1:34 am

    Just incorporate access to this site in the long planned raceway / drag strip also planned for this same area . Or here’s an idea : blow up the entire entrance , collapse the whole thing . Out of sight , out of mind .


  3. KonaDude January 25, 2019 3:54 am

    They need to hire a consultant to tell them they need to hire 7 people to manage the hole in the ground then raise our taxes to pay for it all. It would literally be like throwing money down a hole( . Y . )


  4. Jeff January 25, 2019 4:33 am

    What I find amusing is that this spot has only fairly recently become such a problem. 8-10 years ago there were maybe the odd 1-2 vehicles stopped to gawk at the tube. Now, as the article states, it’s dozens a day. Maybe this is due to tour books and websites like TripAdvisor writing about it; who knows.

    I don’t think these barriers and signs are the correct solution but something needed to be done. There have been multiple times where I’ve been traveling at 55-60 mph on Queen K and had to slam on my breaks for cars merging onto the highway from the shoulder. There have also been occasions where I’ve had to slow waaay down to not hit the families playing Frogger across the highway. Personally, I’ve known so many people injured or killed in head-on accidents along the N Kona/Kohala stretch of the highway that I wish they’d put those concrete barriers down the middle of the entire road to separate the north and southbound lanes. Sadly, I’m sure that will never happen…


  5. Brdy P. January 25, 2019 4:57 am

    A better short term response might be to reduce the speed limit in the area around the lava tube. It seems to work just fine along Saddle Road at the Pu’u O’o trail head and the like. Way less expensive than 1,000 ft of concrete barriers, and it puts all drivers on alert that there is reason to be cautious in the area. Then, figure out what sort of turn out to build to further improve the area’s safety. The chosen solution is a step backwards, in my opinion.


    1. KonaDude January 25, 2019 7:54 am

      An overpass would be best( . Y . )


    2. Susan Sullivan January 25, 2019 10:08 am

      Good idea!


  6. metalman808 January 25, 2019 9:33 am

    When you have a Dead beat Mayor you put up no parking signs. When you have a Mayor with Vision you build a parking lot put in turn lanes and slow the speed limit down in that area. People come here to see lava fields and lava tubes. The problem is the mayor doesn’t want to spend a Nickle on the people. You get what you vote for.


    1. Susan Sullivan January 25, 2019 10:13 am

      Don’t be talkin’ smack on Harry Kim…not fair to him. Walk in his shoes for a mile then criticize…..let’s just come up with solutions and keep the hate out of it…


      1. metalman808 January 25, 2019 11:47 am

        It’s not hate. It’s what I see all around the island since he’s been mayor. Your the one with hate issues just for bring it up. I can have a opinion whether you like it or not. Sorry but it’s not your way or the highway.


        1. Susan Sullivan January 25, 2019 1:10 pm

          You missed my point…but have a nice day


          1. KonaRich January 25, 2019 5:13 pm

            I understand and know you feel for Harry K. and we should all go along with him no matter what. I for one see him as the greatest Mayor this island has ever had, let us count the ways… I missed your point.

            ~sarc~


          2. Susan Sullivan January 25, 2019 8:05 pm

            Yes, you did miss the point…


      2. Pest Outwest January 25, 2019 12:08 pm

        I don’t know about a mile, hospital slippers are going to get pretty chewed up by that lava. Sorry . . .


    2. ypupule January 25, 2019 6:04 pm

      Kinda not fair to blame Harry — this is all State (Dept. of Transportation) jurisdiction/action at the moment, not the County. Not sure who owns the land where the actual cave entrance is located… but because it’s fairly close to the highway, it may be within the SDOT’s right-of-way as well.

      You could hold Harry responsible for not lobbying the State to do (or not do) something. But it’s still the State’s call — they’ll likely be the ones to pay for any improvements, as well as be the main party targeted in any lawsuits arising from accidents before or after any improvements.


  7. Don Hurzeler January 25, 2019 11:28 am

    I understand that we do not want to have people crossing the busy highway there…makes sense. What does not make sense is putting it behind barriers and a dozen or more signs and then putting up a no trespassing sign. This is one of the first “sights” a visitor to our island might see…it sets a tone. Kind of like putting a sign around the Grand Canyon…no trespassing…someone could get hurt. Right idea to try to make it safer. Wrong idea to make it look like a prison…and to try to keep people out. We do not need a government that exists to eliminate every possible hazard that people face. You might recall that old saying…Land of the Free. This looks more like the land of the government controlled and heavily restricted. Please give it some more thought…but thanks for starting toward improving the situation.


  8. Stephen E Jones January 25, 2019 2:55 pm

    Mr Ken Obenski is so right and knows what he talking about , he should run for Mayor 🙂


  9. wahineilikea January 25, 2019 8:23 pm

    Not sure why we taxpayers should foot the bill for creating costly new parking areas for random lava tubes that tourists decide they just HAVE TO get a look at.


  10. onceawarrior January 26, 2019 8:08 pm

    Get rid of the attractive nuisance.
    Or, create a State/National monument.
    Collect entrance fees as in other national parks.
    Or tolerate the tourism nuisance.
    Provide minimal safety measures to minimize highway incidents.
    There is no engineering solution to eliminate human stupidity.


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