Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

On May 4, 2018, following weeks of seismic and volcanic activity, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit Hawaii Island, the strongest tremor there since 1975. Less than two weeks later, the summit of Kilauea exploded, spewing ash into the sky and sending rivers of lava through forests and communities. Over the next few months, hundreds of quakes shook the ground, tearing apart roads and rupturing utility lines.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was completely closed by mid-May, and the staff was forced to wait out the months of accumulating damage. By early August, the activity was subsiding and recovery efforts started. Now, roughly a year since the eruptions ended, the park has made steady progress, recently opening a trail that has been closed for a decade.

The park was afforded minimal extra resources, such as help from experts in geomorphology and engineering, but has mostly executed the recovery with the same staffing levels as before the eruptions.

"It really was a disaster for the park and the Lower Puna community," said Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. "So we are managing the recovery while also conducting the normal operations of the park -- it's essentially doubled our normal workload."

Much has changed in the park, including the landscape. Jaggar Museum is closed, and the Halemaumau crater inside the larger Kiluaea summit caldera, once bubbling with lava, is in a state of collapse as the ground continues to shift and settle.

"The Kilauea caldera is so much different," Ferracane said. "It's four times wider than before."

Visitation to the park has picked back up since the closure, and Tuesdays, when a cruise ship makes its weekly stop in Hilo, can be very busy with traffic backups at the entry gate.

"The best advice is to get here early," Ferracane said. "The park is open 24 hours a day, and if you can do the summit tour before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m., you're doing yourself a favor."

Parking is an especially tricky situation right now as many spaces were lost to earthquake and eruption damage. The parking inventory at Jaggar Museum and the Kilauea Overlook was lost, so people are concentrated in a few areas at the summit, with the Kilauea Visitors Center, the Volcano House, and the steam vents parking all heavily impacted.

At the start of July, park officials announced the reopening of the Napau Crater area and a two-mile stretch of trail. The nine-mile, one-way trek to the crater overlook (seven miles to the campground) is good for serious hikers looking for an overnight trip, or occasionally, very ambitious visitors complete the 18-mile roundtrip in one day.

"We are really excited to open that area back up, because it's been closed for a really long time -- around 10 years," she said. "Pu Oo was active and we couldn't allow people to get to close to the vent."

Ferracane also recommended cruising Chain of Craters Road, which takes visitors through a range of ecosystems where they can see different lava formations, plants and wildlife.

"It's 19 miles and goes from the summit of Kilauea, past the lava flows of the 1969-74 eruptions, past several scenic overlooks and craters ... and then you end at the coast where you can see the jagged black lava rock coastline," she said.

Thurston Lava Tube remains closed, and they are working on securing the area to ensure visitor safety. The Nahuku area, including Thurston Lava Tube, and the Kilauea Overlook are "priority areas" in the coming months, Ferracane said.

She recommended going to the south side of the caldera to the Keanakakoi side of Halemaumau, where there is a good vantage point of some of the destruction.

"You can see where a portion of Crater Rim Drive fell into the crater and a chunk of road is just hanging there. It's pretty unstable, so who knows when it fill fall in," she said. "It's quite eerie and mind boggling."

Those headed to the park are advised to check in with a ranger at the visitors center upon arrival to learn about the latest closings, openings, guided tours and other options. For the latest updates and information visit the park's dedicated recovery page here.  

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