The Trail to Emesine Cave

There are few open paths to trail ride on this island, a place where landowners gate every side road and jealously guard any access. There are a number of exceptions, but you have to look to find them. One such is a power line road off of Saddle Road. The power line is gone now, the stumps of poles remain where they were sawn down years ago. The road runs arrow straight across the landscape, now serving forestry crews, pig hunters and hikers. Enough traffic traverses the path the keep it clear of growth. Here is a glimpse of natural Hawai’i, where invasive species are relatively few and the calls of native birds echo amongst the ‘Ōhi’a.

Preparing for the Trail
Getting ready to set down the trail to Emesine Cave
While I had hiked the trail a couple years past, cycling gave me a whole new appreciation for the ruggedness of this old power line road. Whole sections were cobble that shifted and rolled under the knobby tires. I got a lot of rock dodging practice, carefully choosing where to run my tires through the rough lava. In the end I was forced to walk the bike along whole lengths of the route where the loose cobble was simply too dangerous to ride. The sections among more recent flows were the rough parts where the road was simply bulldozed through the rock.

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Emesine Cave

It may be a rough trail, but the goal is worth it, a relatively recent cave with an array of classic lava tube features. Emesine cave, is found in the 1881 lava flow that threatened to flow into downtown Hilo, but stopped just short of the city. Today, over a century later, the cave is now an excellent example of volcanic action and how life returns to reclaim the land afterwords.

Emesine Cave Entrance
The entry of Emesine Cave
Erupting from a vent high on the eastern rift zone of Mauna Loa, this flow was typical of Mauna Loa flows. There had been a small summit eruption several months earlier, then a series of lava fountains that fed ‘a’ā flows down either flank of the eastern rift zone. The most dangerous phase of the eruption began mid-November 1880, when a fissure opened lower on the mountain that fed a series of lava tubes. Pahoehoe lava traveling down-slope in these well insulated tubes allowed the flows to advance further and faster than the earlier ‘a’ā flows.

The flows did not stop until August 10th 1881, reaching within a few miles of downtown Hilo. Some fingers of the flow crossed the present day Komohana and Kumukoa Streets near the University of Hawai’i at Hilo campus. When the flows finally did stop a number of lava tubes were exposed, including Kaumana caves, a popular tourist attraction above Hilo. Also formed in the eruption was a series of tubes higher on the north flank of the volcano, Emesine cave.

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Kaumana Cave

A fern draped opening into the earth, that beckons us to explore what was once the domain of Pele. A place of fire and molten rock, now a cool, dripping passage beneath the earth. The island of Hawai’i is riddled with hundreds of miles of lava tubes, most are inaccessible, but some are easy to get to. Kaumana Cave is one of the easy ones.

Kaumana Cave
The fern draped entry to the Kaumana lava tube, HDR blend of three exposures
A steep staircase leads into a collapse pit. Here the cave roof collapsed and allows entry into the lava tube. From here you can enter different sections of the cave, going mauka (uphill) or makai (downhill) paths. I would suggest turning to the right from the staircase and taking the downhill section if a short exploration is desired, but both are good.

Going makai, a short path leads to the entrance. There are a few boulders to step carefully through, after which sections of smooth and mostly level surfaces allow a bit easier access. About 50 yards into the downhill section you will reach a choke point, a little scrambling and a bit of duck-walk is necessary to get through. After the narrow, the cave opens back up again. After another hundred yards there are a series of ledges, old crusts left by cooling lava when it half filled the cave. To continue from here requires crawling through another very low passage. Perhaps a good place to turn around if you are only interested in a short exploration.

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