After being shut off from visitors for 134 days, the longest continuous closure in history, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park reopened on Sept. 22.
The first of some 2,000 vehicles to come through the gates, driven by local Hilo residents, arrived at 7 a.m., and the park resumed its previous 24-hour schedule.
"We had beautiful weather, and it felt like a holiday around here," said Jessica Ferracane, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park public information officer. "We were all the E's: ecstatic, elated, excited, and exuberant. There were high-fives all around and huge smiles from the park staff and visitors. ... It's wonderful to return home."
The park closed May 11 after a series of earthquakes in the area and the erupting volcano Kilauea shook the region, damaging roads, water lines and numerous structures in the park and surrounding area.
After three straight months of high volcanic activity, including fissures that released rivers of lava that consumed a community on the southeastern tip of Hawaii Island, the park has been reshaped and several areas still need to be assessed.
"This was a completely unprecedented event," Ferracane said. "In the 102-year history of this park we've never seen this amount of continuous earthquakes, volcanic activity, collapses at the summit and the like. This was all completely new for us."
For the first time in many years, there are no active lava flows inside the park.
"There's still a lot to be done. There are numerous cracks along Crater Rim Drive. There are parts of the park that may never reopen. It's too soon to say, but it's unlikely we will return to Jaggar Museum. Whether it will be rebuilt elsewhere remains to be seen," Ferracane said about the museum and visitor facilities adjacent to Halemaumau Crater, another popular attraction that has been reformed in the last few months.
Some road inspections remain to be done, and a portion of Crater Rim Drive that was temporarily closed in 2008 due to poor air quality and volcanic particulates from Halemaumau is now significantly damaged and there are no plans at present to fix it. Two of the more popular front-country trails, Halemaumau Trail and Kilauea Iki Trail, were badly damaged by earthquake-generated rock falls, are temporarily closed as officials continue assessments and ensure public safety.
But there is still plenty to see and do in the 500-square-mile park. Ferracane recommended walking Crater Rim Trail from Volcano House toward Kilauea Military Camp to an overlook in the middle of native koa forest.
"There is a quiet area near the crater's edge where cultural practitioners can come and it's one of the quieter places for folks to go," Ferracane said. "It's a wonderful place to take in the crater and feel the connection to Pele, the volcano goddess."
The Kilauea Iki Overlook is open and offers a good vantage point for seeing the impacts of the volcanic activity on the summit crater, especially for those who have visited previously and remember the old topography. Ferracane also recommended taking the 0.7-mile hike from the Devastation Trail parking lot to the back side of the crater on the Keanakakoi side of Halemaumau.
"You get great views of the Kilauea caldera and the changes there and also views of Mauna Loa. If you go early when the sun is coming up it's just a beautiful, beautiful view," Ferracane said.
Visitors who are coming to the park should keep in mind that the repairs and recovery effort will be ongoing for several months at a minimum.
"There are a lot of new hazards," Ferracane said. "There are sinkholes that have opened up on some trails and we are strongly urging everyone not to hike after dark. People can twist and ankle or fall in and disappear. The cracks are a real hazard right now, and sometimes people don't realize the ground beneath the ledge of the hole has fallen away and can be very unstable. The earthquakes wrecked the roads."
Moving forward, the park officials and inspectors will use laser imaging tools to inspect the Thurston Lava Tube, a popular park attraction, before it reopens to the public.
Over at the Volcano House, a hotel inside the national park, general manager Orin McCann, said they plan to open to guests again on Oct. 6. The staff scrambled to get the hotel ready for visitors when the park reopened on Sept. 22. The Volcano House's retail shops are open, and they are offering grab-and-go food items, and visitors can take advantage of the hotel's vista views of the volcano crater.
"We're still waiting for some repairs to water lines, and it will take a little bit longer for us to be ready for guests to stay the night," McCann said. "We wanted to get something open because we have one of the best places to see the crater now."
The Volcano House has been inspected, and most of the remaining repairs on site are focused on flooring that needs to be replaced, according to McCann.
"Everything has been checked regarding the building and the stability of the cliffside," McCann said. "We were dealing with earthquakes daily for a while there, and I want to give a shout out to the USGS staff. I was one of the people who still came to the park every day and they were so dedicated and amazing through this process."