Lava flow takes detour, new viewing site set up

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HILO, Hawaii -- Getting a look at live, flowing, red-hot lava here on the Big Island is an easy 20-minute walk from a parking lot now that the lava flowing from Kilauea volcano has changed course.

The rivers of 2,000-degree lava that flow into the sea from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park have veered out of the park boundary near the end of Highway 130 at Kalapana.

Clients who want to see the lava after dark should bring a flashlight. Hawaii County officials, seeing that the lava had changed course out of the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, set up a viewing area and parking lot about an hour's drive from Hilo.

"[The lava flow is] out of the national park, so it's our responsibility now," said Hawaii County deputy managing director Peter Young.

"By opening up and fixing an old road out there, we have shortened the walking distance by four miles," he said. "We did this because it's safer for everyone."

Previously, visitors and residents only were allowed to see the lava flowing into the ocean by walking about five miles over old, hard lava in the national park.

The walk was long and dangerous, especially at night.

Now, by entering from the Highway 130 side, visitors simply park their cars and walk three-quarters of a mile to where the lava is flowing into the ocean.

Young cautioned that the new access could end if the lava flows change their course again.

Getting to see the lava flowing into the ocean on the Big Island is no longer a four-mile walk over hard, sharp lava fields. Now, the hike is about 20 minutes from a parking lot near Kalapana. After opening the new viewing area Aug. 17, it was closed again for a few days because a rogue finger of lava flowed over a new path the county had created.

That flow abated, and the viewing area reopened.

To get to the site from Hilo, clients can take Highway 11 toward Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, then take Highway 130 to Kalapana. The end of the road is where clients park cars and start walking, said Young.

The county set up a parking lot, and an entrance fee is collected to pay for the cost of building the parking lot and fixing the road.

The fee for cars is $5 each; for commercial tour vehicles, $20 each.

The viewing area is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., but the latest visitors can enter the viewing area is 8 p.m., said Young.

In the first three weeks that the new viewing area was open, 12,000 visitors came to the venue, he added.

"The day I was out there, there must have been 200 people, but there was plenty of room," said Young.

Even though the lava has changed course and is much easier to view now, the basic rules of safety for unstable, 2,000-degree lava remain the same, he said.

"Follow the directions that are posted out there," said Young.

"There is what looks like a nice black-sand beach, but it is not safe. Stay behind the barricades. The beach is a lava bench that will break off, and if you're on it, you're gone."

Young also said to take valuables out of your car and lock your car when you leave it in the parking area.

The county has set up a Web site with more information on the viewing site, at www.hawaii-county.com.

Browsers should follow the What's New link to the Lava News section.

Young said the best time to view the lava is after dark.

Visitors who come during the day still can see lava, although it won't appear as red as it does at night.

"At night it's significantly better because you get the glow of the flow," said Young.

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