A constellation of molten rock leapt out of Halemaumau's active rift, spattering the nighttime black of the crater floor with a luminous collection of red dots, each glowing like a glob of radioactive raspberry jam.
It was a little after 1 a.m., and I was one of just two people standing at the Jaggar Museum lookout in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the southeast side of the Big Island. And while we couldn't see the lava lake itself, the geologic wonder was just 150 feet or so below the crater floor, sending up occasional bursts of molten red rock and making all kinds of noise.
At times, the lava sounded like rushing water, hurrying through river rapids. At others, the lake popped and hissed, even gurgled, coloring the fluffy plume of rising gas and steam a fiery orange and rose.
I'd shown up so late because I had hoped to hear some of those signature sounds, knowing that large crowds often gather earlier in the evening and drown out the noise. But I was surprised when the only other individual braving the early hour with me at the crater rim began chanting in Hawaiian, offering a spellbinding greeting to Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes many believe resides in Halemaumau.
Jessica Ferracane, the public affairs specialist for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, said she likes to wait a few hours later in the morning to view the spectacle up at the crater, which is about a five-minute drive from the park's main visitor center.
"Coming in the morning is great before dawn," she said of the view, noting that the park is open 24 hours. "My favorite time to go up there, frankly, is about 4 to 4:30 in the morning."
Ferracane said she's often working with film crews at the Jaggar Museum overlook at that hour of the day, taking advantage of the typically clear skies to get the best shots.
"You get the great lava glow," she said. "Then there's maybe one or two or maybe zero people up there, the sunrise comes and it's just like 'Whoa!' You can still see the glow but also the whole crater and how vast it is — the caldera of Kilauea as well as Halemaumau Crater. All those features come into light, and that's a really spectacular thing to see."
The best way for travelers to enjoy some of the late-night or early-morning magic up at the Halemaumau overlook is to plan a stay at the national park's Volcano House, a member of the Instinct Hotel Collection managed by Aqua-Aston Hospitality.
A deluxe room at the Volcano House hotel in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, with a view of Halemaumau.
Folks can simply book a crater-view room at the property and enjoy a more distant look at the volcanic glow anytime they'd like from their window. But thanks to the Volcano House's location, directly across the street from the park's visitors center and perched on the crater's rim, making the short drive up to the Jaggar Museum for a more intimate experience with the natural attraction couldn't be easier. Visitors staying at the 33-room property also get a head start on the park's many wonderful hiking trails, because there's no lengthy commute from the accommodations like there is from the island's western Kona side, a drive which can take hours. Even those staying closer in Hilo will need to plan on about a 40-minute trip to the national park.
Word appears to be out, however, about the benefits of a stay at the Volcano House. According to the property's sales and marketing manager, Michiko Kakimoto, business has been terrific lately.
"We've been very busy the last three months especially," she said. "Most of the guests are surprised when they get here by all the amenities and the high level of service. … They usually don't expect much because a national park lodge is the image they have."
The comfortable, crater-view rooms, starting at $385 a night during the high season, and the top-notch food at the property's restaurant, which also showcases a terrific look at Halemaumau, mean folks interested in staying at the hotel need to book three months out, according to Kakimoto.
"When people book a room they should also reserve a table at the restaurant if they want a window seat looking at the crater," she said. "The sooner they reserve a table the better."
For the latest on the lava lake conditions up at Halemaumau Crater, visit www.nps.gov/havo.