An emotional return: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park reopens to eager visitors, elated rangers

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Rangers raise the colors at Kilauea Visitor Center Saturday during the reopening of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Visitors see how Halemaumau crater has expanded since the beginning of May's East Rift Zone eruption Saturday during the reopening of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Ranger Josie Acasio talks with guests at Kilauea Visitor Center Saturday during the reopening of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Visitors see how Halemaumau crater has expanded since the beginning of May's East Rift Zone eruption Saturday during the reopening of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

After 134 days of closure, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park reopened its gates to the public Saturday, with a flood of visitors and residents alike eager to see a park reborn.

Although much of the park remains off-limits for the foreseeable future, guests were able to view firsthand the changes to the Halema‘uma‘u crater — which has more than doubled in size since the Kilauea eruption began in May — for the first time.

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“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Hawaiian Paradise Park resident Robyn Halbridge. “I used to come up here for brunch all the time. It’s a reminder that all of this is constantly changing.”

Halbridge joined hundreds of other guests who crowded at the edge of the crater at Volcano House hotel and the Steam Vents, currently the only publicly accessible places in the park where guests can easily view the crater.

Despite the limited access to the park’s roads and trails — which also led to a shortage of available parking spaces — residents, visitors and staff alike were excited to see the park reopened.

“I’m so elated to be standing here today,” said parks spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane, who formally opened the Kilauea Visitor Center at 9 a.m. Saturday. “We’re elated, we’re ecstatic, we’re all the E’s.”

The park’s reopening came on National Public Lands Day, which promotes free entry to many federally managed lands each year.

“When we looked at the theme for National Public Lands Day today, it was ‘resilience and restoration,’” Ferracane said. “And that stopped me in my tracks and I thought ‘man, we have to open on NPL Day.’”

Ferracane said other areas of the park will be addressed in due time. Backcountry hiking routes will require additional assessments to ensure their safety, as will the Thurston Lava Tube, although she said the latter location seemed secure during preliminary assessments.

But while much of the earthquake damage lingers — in particular, Jaggar Museum and the U.S. Geological Survey building remain closed indefinitely — Ferracane announced Saturday that the park’s water system, previously thought to be unusable during the opening, has been restored, providing potable water throughout the park’s facilities.

Orin McCann, general manager of the Volcano House, said the return of potable water will allow the hotel to reopen more quickly than originally planned, although he still requires time to complete renovations and training for staff.

“We still wanted to be open for people to see the view,” McCann said, gesturing toward the yawning chasm of Halema‘uma‘u through the hotel’s windows. Although guests still cannot stay at the hotel, areas like the hotel’s observation deck were buzzing with visitors.

Among those visitors was Mauna Loa Estates resident Lisa King, who said the expanded crater was “very educational,” adding that it made her feel very small.

King said she last visited the park mere days before its closure in May.

“I wanted to be here and support the park on its first day back,” King said.

“I think that after it closed, the community appreciates it even more now,” King said.

Volcano House employee Christian Kamae said it felt “nostalgic” to return to work at the park after so long. Kamae, who has worked at the hotel for two years, said he spent much of his childhood in the park.

“It just feels good to be back,” Kamae said.

Other guests who had never seen the park before were pleased by their good fortune in catching the reopening during their vacation.

Lydie Assie, visiting from France, said Kilauea was “still sleeping” when her trip was planned. Undeterred by the volcanic activity, she carried on with her scheduled trip, which included a two-day stay on the Big Island that coincided with the reopening.

“We knew the whole island wouldn’t be covered in lava or anything,” said Utah resident Rosalie French, whose group’s visit to the state was arranged in May. “Still, it makes you wonder what’s going to happen.”

While some first-time visitors to the island were disappointed by the lack of the volcanic glow at Halema‘uma‘u or frustrated by the limited parking and crowds, most were impressed by the landscape. “It’s very big,” observed Timo Dollt, visitor from Germany.

Angela and David Morriss, from Manchester, England, said they rearranged their trip to the state when they heard of the park’s reopening.

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“We just really wanted to go,” Angela Morriss said. “It’s just worlds away from what we have at home.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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