Tucked away behind a more remote beach on Kauai is Hawaii’s largest limestone cave, one of the most unique archeological sites across the Hawaiian islands. This site is the Makauwahi Cave Reserve and is certainly worth a side trip by anyone fascinated with history (plus there is a pretty cool tortoise farm nearby).
Part of the mystique of the Makauwahi Cave Reserve is that it isn’t the easiest to get to. There are paved roads or parking lots in front of the cave, so those with mobility issues should take caution. There are three ways to get to this location and all require some hiking.
The closest you can get with minimal walking is to take a private dirt road located south of the site, take the left fork when you see signs for CJM Country Stables for the right fork. Note, this is a pretty bumpy road, but you can park along the shoulder once you reach its end. From there, you will see a more narrow dirt trail called the Makauwahi Cave Trail leading north to the cave site.
The alternative routes require following dirt roads north of the Makauwahi Cave Reserve towards the Gillin’s Beach Parking Lot. From the parking lot, you can choose to either follow a dirt trail across the land to the Makauwahi Cave Reserve or go to the beach and follow the beach south. At the very southern end of the beach, where it ends, there will be a light dirt trail inland that winds around the local ironwood trees and finds its way connecting with the aforementioned Makauwahi Cave Trail.
The entirety of the Makauwahi Cave Reserve spans 17 acres, but the true magic of this location starts at the small triangular hole that leads into the underground chamber. Note, this is a very small hole and those who might have balked at the hike should also take into consideration this next part of the journey to the caverns. One of the big reasons this limestone cavern is not more famous or state-sponsored is because it is not very accessible to all. You will need to get onto all fours and crawl through a small and narrow passageway. The good news is that once you pass through, you will stand up and find yourself in what looks like a spacious amphitheater. A spacious and green amphitheater as a surprising amount of plants has taken root and thrived here.
The interior of this cavern is simply spectacular from an archaeological perspective. Evacuations have been ongoing since the early 1990s and have unearthed fantastic fossil evidence of ancient plants and animals, including over 40 species of birds alone. What is unique about these fossils is that the northern part of the ave was formed over 400,000 years ago and then 7,000 years ago, part of that cave collapsed to form a freshwater lake. The result is that archeologists are finding all types of fossils from both periods.
In the south cave, unique types of plants and creatures are thriving. Rare invertebrates, isopods, and the unique eyeless cave spider all call this cave and its adjoining lava tubes their home. Given the delicate nature of these rare creatures and the sensitivity of fossil preservation, there are areas of the Makauwahi Cave Reserve that are closed off to visitors. Please follow all signage and recommendations to keep this area as beautiful and preserved for the next person as it has been for you.
Make sure to also visit the nearby tortoise farm and sanctuary to learn more about other Hawaiian animal life.
While it is possible to go and view the Makauwahi Cave Reserve on your own, to get the best experience you might consider hiring a local tour guide. A tour outfit will mean that you pay more than the current entrance fee (which is donation only), but it also means you will learn more about the specifics of what fossils have been found here and how early Hawaiians used this fascinating limestone cave.