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Nāhuku-Thurston Lava Tube is Open to Visitors Again! Here’s What You Need to Know About This Big Island Wonder

One of the Big Island’s most fascinating natural wonders is back open for business. Guests of the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park (HVNP) can once again visit Nāhuku, the Thurston Lava Tube. 

After its closure during the Kīlauea eruption in 2018, the tube remained closed for nearly two years to ensure that visitors would be safe. During the lava emergency there were over 60,000 earthquakes within a few months, which led to rocks shifting and falling, trees falling, and other issues that compromised visitor safety. Now park rangers have done the work — clearing out precarious rocks and blocking off other areas that may not be as stable, installing new monitoring equipment that allows them to know what’s going on in the cave in real time, and putting up new signage, among other precautionary measures. The park reopened to excited visitors on Friday, February 21, 2020.

If you missed the reopening, the guys at Hawai'i PODD (Hawai'i Tracker) made a video showcasing opening day.

 

 

Get to Know Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube)

 

Stats

Age: 500 years old

Elevation: 3,900 feet

Length: 600 feet long

Location: On the Kīlauea Crater in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

 

What’s a lava tube?

Lava tubes are underground caves that have been formed by the flow of lava. As a river of lava flows underground, the outer parts of the lava cool thanks to the surface air, crusting over and forming channels. The lava then flows through these channels until the eruption is over. Learn more about how fascinating and awesome lava tubes are here.

visitors inside Nahuku
Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons licensed.

 

Were lava tubes important to Native Hawaiians?

Lava tubes served many purposes for Hawaiians: they were used as shelter from the elements and enemies, a place to find water, and a place to store food to extend its life due to the cooler temperatures. Some tubes were also used as ceremonial and burial sites; these tubes are protected and closed to the public.  

 

When was the Thurston Lava Tube discovered?

The tube was discovered in 1913, just three years before Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park was established as an American national park in 1916. 

 

Who was the Thurston Lava Tube named for?

The tube was named for Lorrin Thurston, who discovered the tube. Thurston was a local newspaper publisher and advocated for the establishment of HVNP as a national park.

Visitors stand outside of the entrance to Nahuku lava tube.
Photo by Janice Wei, courtesy NPS.

What does the Hawaiian name, Nāhuku, mean?

The Hawaiian name for the lava tube is Nāhuku, which means “protuberances.” It’s likely that this name refers to the lava drippings that previously hung from the ceiling. Sadly, these were all stripped by souvenir collectors who visited the tube.

 

What lives inside of a lava tube?

Inside Nāhuku, most of the life is concentrated on the walls and the ohia roots that hang from the ceiling in certain areas. There are various living creatures including distinct species of crickets and spiders, as well as colonies of microbes. These creatures are known as troglobites, small animals that live in caves and have adapted to do so. While the tube was closed, the absence of artificial light gave some of the cave microbes the chance to flourish, growing their colonies along the walls.

When visiting the cave, you can see that some ohia roots have grown through the rock to hang into the cave. These roots are home to insects that are endemic to caves and spend their entire lives on these roots. HVNP asks that guests not touch the roots in order to preserve them and the life that lives on them.

visitors walk along a rainforest trail
Photo by Jessica Ferracane, courtesy NPS.

What are some tips for visiting the Nāhuku lava tube?

Be aware of the potential hazards that come with visiting the lava tube: there are low ceilings, there is potential for rocks to fall, there is often standing water in the lava tube, and there is always the possibility that an earthquake can happen at any time. 

For the best experience when visiting Nāhuku, HVNP rangers recommend parking at the Devastation Trailhead. This gives you the chance to see some of the best features of the park during a 3.5 mile (one-way) hike. For a quicker trip, park at the Kīlauea Iki Overlook; from there the rainforest hike to the lava tube is only .5 mile. 

Parking is very limited at the park, in general. It’s best to arrive well before 9 a.m. for a better chance at finding parking, and it’s always good to have a backup plan in case your preferred starting point has no available parking (and pack your patience). For Nāhuku, HVNP recommends exploring the cave before 9 a.m. or after 4 p.m. for best results. 

The cave is lit from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Outside of those hours, visitors should bring flashlights. 

Here are some additional tips from HVNP.

Signage about lights in Nahuku lava tube
Photo courtesy NPS.

How can I be a good visitor to this special place? 

Nāhuku is a good example of what happens when you don’t practice good stewardship over the land — all of the ceiling drippings that probably inspired the name were taken by souvenir collectors after the tube was discovered. To ensure that the tube doesn’t face further desecration, there are a few things that you can do. Do not touch the walls or the roots in the tube — the cave is home to entire ecosystems, and touching them could disturb them.

Practice safety precautions and come prepared: wear good footwear, bring rain gear, snacks, and water. And of course, don’t litter or deface any elements in the park (or anywhere, for that matter).

 

As with any of the amazing natural wonders found on Hawaii Island, the park and its features are always subject to the fluctuations of Mother Nature. Be sure to check park information when planning any trip to visit Nāhuku inside Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.

Learn more about lava tubes, the beautiful Big Island Nāhuku lava tube, in particular, at the National Park Service website. Or, better yet, go and visit the park yourself and learn first-hand how awesome this natural wonder is.