Makauwahi Cave Reserve projecting record visitor numbers

  • Graham Talaber / Special to The Garden IslandA drone camera captures the native flora of the South Shore’s Makauwahi Cave Reserve from above. In the foreground is one of the beaches at Maha‘ulepu.

PO‘IPU — Makauwahi Cave Reserve is on track for its most-popular year ever, two years after the first wave of COVID-19 caused tourist traffic to plummet.

David Burney co-manages Hawai‘i’s largest limestone cave with fellow ecologist and spouse Lida Pigott Burney.

“If you take the kind of visitation we’ve had in the last three months and you extend that out over the entire year, we’ll have 75,000 visitors or more,” he said in a recent interview. “Before COVID, we had built up to about 60,000 visitors per year, and we never had as high a daily visitation rate back then as we’re having now.”

The cave reserve, known for its rich fossil record, saw an influx of local visitors during the pandemic’s early days, even as the coronavirus kept the rest of the world at bay.

Many had never been to the site before, according to Burney, despite growing up and living on the Garden Isle.

Now, tourists have returned, but not all hail from outside Hawai‘i.

“There’s a lot more of this regional tourism going on,” Burney explained. “We certainly have had lots of people coming over from the other islands, and that’s good.”

The reserve is currently reporting 150 to 200 visitors to the cave per day. These daily counts do not include folks who skip the cave tour in favor of the site’s other attractions, which include trails, beaches, birds, native plants and a resident group of tortoises.

This year’s guests are also greeted by a new wayside exhibit.

A sign, titled “Coping with Change at Makauwahi Cave Reserve,” highlights recent wetlands-restoration projects on the cave’s mauka side, as well as archival imagery and a model predicting the effects of sea-level rise.

“The wayside exhibit is a way of not only telling people about what to expect in the future, but also what the past informs us about the future of climate change,” Burney said.

Those planning a trip must prepare to walk into the site, as direct parking is unavailable. Visitors are recommended to park at nearby CJM Stables and enter the reserve by its self-guided Makauwahi Cave Trail.

Burney also suggests those who prefer “the scenic route” to park at the Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i Resort &Spa’s public-access area and hike the longer Maha‘ulepu Heritage Trail to the reserve, around four miles roundtrip.


Scott Yunker, reporter, can be reached at 245-0437 or


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