Closure of main part of national park has given rangers more time to improve former ranchlands

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo

    Hikers walk out of an excavated cinder cone during a guided hike called People and Land of Kahuku in the Kahuku Unit of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Ka‘u.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo

    Jess Reynolds takes a photo of a yellow lehua blossom during a guided hike called People and Land of Kahuku in the Kahuku Unit of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Ka‘u.

  • JANICE WEI/National Park Service A couple enjoy the view from Pu‘u o Lokuana cindercone in the Kahuku Unit of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
  • NATIONAL PARK SERVICE photo A family at the base of Pu‘u o Lokuana in the Kahuku Unit of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The closure of the main unit of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park because of the Kilauea eruption has directed more visitors to the previously less-visited Kahuku Unit, and with them a host of improvements.

Kahuku area manager Keola Awong said visitors to the Kahuku Unit have increased more than tenfold since the closure of the main unit. In April, 352 people visited the unit. In June, the first full month of the main unit’s closure, 4,458 people visited.

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“It’s actually nice because people are coming in not expecting to see lava,” Awong said. “They’re just coming because they want to see the park.”

To accommodate the sustained influx of visitors to Kahuku, the park increased the unit’s hours of operation. The Kahuku Unit is now open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

Parks spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane said there has been discussion about whether the Kahuku Unit will expand its hours to the point of being open seven days a week, but said such a change, if it occurs, will not be anytime soon.

In the meantime, the closure of the main unit has allowed the park to direct more resources toward needed maintenance and additional projects at the Kahuku Unit, Ferracane said.

“We’ve been able to make significant repairs to Kahuku Road,” Ferracane said, saying the park replaced and regraded the gravel on the road that leads into the Kahuku Unit from Highway 11, and improved the ditches on either side of the roadway.

Awong said the road also was widened in places and brush was cleared from the sides of the road to improve visibility.

In addition, the park installed features including new gates at park entrances and new wheelchair-accessible ramps at the unit’s facilities.

Ferracane said the park also is introducing new activities at the unit to attract additional visitors. Most significant was the opening of a new hiking trail, the Pali o Ka‘eo, last month.

“People seem to like the new trail,” Ferracane said. “It’s a real workout! You wouldn’t expect a 2-mile hike to be that strenuous, but there’s so much rolling hills that it’s a workout even for experienced hikers.”

Awong said the Pali o Ka‘eo trail was planned well before the closure of the main unit, but was only completed after the eruption in lower Puna began.

A second new trail, a walking trail to the Forested Pit Crater, is currently in development, Awong said. She hopes the project will be completed by Sept. 16. The Forested Pit Crater was closed to the public in 2017 to prevent the spread of rapid ohia death from the nearby woods.

“(Rapid ohia death) seems to have been mostly contained in that area,” Awong said.

The trail’s intended opening date will coincide with a Picnic in the Park event, featuring free food, hula and Hawaiian music.

Other scheduled activities include a guided hike along the Pali o Ka‘eo on Saturday, another guided hike throughout Kahuku on Sunday and Kahuku Coffee Talks hosted on the last Friday of each month, with the next talk discussing the Hawaiian hoary bat.

While the increased focus on the Kahuku Unit has allowed the park to expand its activities there, the condition of the primary unit has not yet been assessed.

Ferracane said park management is “actively working on” developing a plan to send an assessment team into the park to survey the extent of damage the park’s infrastructure suffered after the extensive seismic activity at Kilauea summit over the past months. However, a timeline for that plan has not been revealed.

“As you well know, (the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory) is saying this (eruption) is likely not over,” Ferracane said, explaining that the main unit cannot begin the process of working toward reopening if dangerous conditions reoccur.

However, residents concerned about the future of the park are encouraged to attend a series of community meetings throughout the next several days. The meetings, called “Talk Story with the Park,” are informal and park management will share the latest park developments.

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The meetings are slated for 3 p.m. today at the Tin Shack Bakery in Pahoa, 5 p.m. Friday at Pahala Plantation in Pahala, 1 p.m. Aug. 21 at the Volcano Art Center Niaulani Campus in Volcano Village, and 10 a.m. Aug. 23 at the Kahuku Unit, located just past the 70-mile marker off Highway 11.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.