The Devastation Trail parking area was less than half full at about 4:30 a.m. Oct. 20. A bright harvest moon lit the way for visitors to the spot just off the old Crater Rim Drive in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
About a mile down the trail, the forest cleared and the legendary red glow of the ongoing eruption in Halema‘uma‘u crater of Kilauea volcano became a beacon for the rest of the way to the Keanakako‘i overlook. About 15 or 20 people watched as lava fountained from the single active vent in the western wall of the crater.
On the hike back to the parking lot, the number of people streaming toward the viewing area had easily doubled. By about 5:45 a.m., there were no parking spots left and some drivers were waiting to snag a spot as others were leaving.
The park is in the “business of volcanoes.” After all, two of the world’s most active volcanoes reside within the park’s boundaries on the Big Island ‒ Kilauea and Mauna Loa. The park’s mission is “to protect, study and provide safe access” to the volcanoes and “perpetuate endemic Hawaiian ecosystems and the traditional Hawaiian culture connected to these landscapes.”
Eruptions usually mean an increase in visitors to the national park, including residents of the Big Island, Hawaii’s other islands and beyond.
And more visitors equals more dollars for the park, but also additional costs to provide services.
“If you look at visitation statistics for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you’ll almost always see a notable spike in the number of people visiting the park during big eruption years,” said park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane.
In 1959, for instance, when the Kilauea Iki eruption was very visible from several locations, visitation to the park totaled 786,000 people, a 70% increase from 1958.
The beginning of the Pu‘u ‘O‘o eruption in 1983 resulted in that year’s visitation numbers being the highest the park has ever experienced, totaling more than 2.2 million, a 13% increase.
Visitation climbed again in 2016, the year the 61G lava episode from Pu‘u ‘O‘o reached the ocean during the park’s centennial year. It was a long, difficult hike to see the flow, but many made the trek. The lava lake within Halemaʻumaʻu also rose that year and was easily viewed from several vantage points.
“Eruptions, and sometimes multiple eruptions simultaneously on one or both volcanoes, are not uncommon and are to be expected,” Ferracane said. “In the 10 years I’ve worked here, it’s far more unusual for no eruption to be happening.”
How long an eruption goes on also plays a role in visitation, as well as where it happens.
“Certainly, in the years where the summit of Kilauea is erupting, where there is developed visitor infrastructure, like parking lots, trails, roads, bathrooms and visitor services, visitation will be high,” Ferracane said. “It’s a lot easier to park your car and walk a few hundred feet to see an active eruption than it is hiking seven miles one way in the dark, remote, coastal lava fields.”
Visitation also tends to rise and fall in correlation with the U.S. economy, which impacts travel, Ferracane said. Other factors include hazards, government shutdowns, fee-free days and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2008, the Halema‘uma‘u crater erupted for the first time since 1924, providing a steady glow in the night sky that was easily seen by park visitors for the next decade.
But visitation that year was lower than the previous year. Nearly 1.3 million people found their way to the park in 2008, but that was less than the almost 1.5 million people who came in 2007 because of the Great Recession, Ferracane said.
Park visitation increased every year from 2010 until 2018, when the summit collapse at Halema‘uma‘u during the 2018 eruption in Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone forced the park to close for nearly five months for safety reasons.
Visitor numbers are likely lower for the current summit eruption than for the previous event, which lasted from Dec. 20 to May.
“The last eruption happened right in the middle of the busy travel season; this current eruption happened during the slow season,” Ferracane said.
The park is also in the business of making sure visitors can view the volcanoes safely and with as much information as possible. And that takes money.
The park generates revenue by charging an entrance fee under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.
The revenue collected from park fees can be used for repairs, visitor information, habitat restoration related to hunting, fishing, wildlife observation or photography, as well as law enforcement and other operating and capital costs.
Projects have included printing visitor information about past eruptions, park brochures and site bulletins, as well as the soon-to-be-completed Ohia Wing renovation project, which will be used for natural and cultural exhibits.
Eruptions can mean greater costs for the park. The park, for instance, may open for nighttime viewing of the volcanos, costing $2,000 to $3,500 a day, said administrative officer Berkeley Yoshida.
“Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to visit an active volcano like Kilauea,” Ferracane said, from the thrill of witnessing the raw forces of nature to a connection with Hawaiian culture.
There are other reasons to make the trek.
“Even when the volcanoes are not erupting, the park has so much to offer,” Ferracane said. “There are 155-plus miles of hiking trails, and the park is more than 335,000 acres. Its borders span the coastline all the way to the summit of Mauna Loa and encompass seven different ecological zones.”
The park is almost as big as Oahu, but it also has many opportunities for solitude and for connecting to the Hawaiian culture. And, according to Ferracane, having the best and safest visit is ultimately the responsibility of the visitors ‒ and that means planning ahead.
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