My Experience Visiting the Big Island After the Volcanic Eruption

Aug 30, 2018

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Earlier this month, from Aug. 12 to Aug. 16, my wife Katie and I visited the Big Island of Hawaii to celebrate our wedding anniversary. During our trip, we expected to capture images of the molten lava flowing over the edge of the island during a volcano tour; of “vog” obscuring the views from the island’s black sand beaches; and of the hot metal plates laid out over fissures on the highway.

But by the time our plane had landed on the Big Island, the volcano had simply stopped erupting.

The eruption of Kilauea

In early May, after a series of warning earthquakes, Hawaii’s most active volcano, Kilauea, erupted. For the next few months, the volcano spewed ash and lava, formed flickering blue flames and filled the air with toxic, glass-filled laze clouds.

But despite the violence of the eruption, it can be difficult to conceptualize just how small it was is in relation to the Big Island. Accounting for almost 63% of the 50th state’s area, the Big Island has 4,028 square miles of land. That’s more than the combined land area of Delaware, Rhode Island and Hawaii’s second-largest island, Maui (just 727 square miles).

Even at the peak of the eruption, the lava flows covered just 13 square miles of the island. To put that in perspective:

Kilauea quiets down

In early August, activity at Kilauea began to diminish. Prior to our Big Island-bound flight, the lava — which added a mile to the island’s coast over the course of the eruption — suddenly (and frankly, unexpectedly), stopped flowing. By the time we arrived, the once-hazy skies has completely cleared.

The skies were clear at the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort on Aug. 13, 2018.

During our visit, we ascended 9,200 feet up Mauna Kea to visit the Maunakea Visitor Information Station for the nightly public star gazing event. While we were there, the skies were so clear we could easily see the Milky Way and a dizzying number of stars.

We monitored the Air Quality Index (AQI) during our entire visit, and it was “good” almost the entire time, virtually everywhere we went on the Big Island. On the day we left, Kona’s AQI of 16 was better than pretty much anywhere else in the mainland US:

And it’s actually gotten better. This week, the US Geological Survey released a status report indicating that the eruption is all but over. The earthquakes have returned to a minimal level and lava is no longer visible — even deep inside the new fissure cones. And one key measurement of the Kilauea Volcano is at its lowest point in over a decade:

Sulfur dioxide emission rates at both the summit and [Lower East Rift Zone] are drastically reduced; the combined rate is lower than at any time since late 2007.

This has caused the AQI in Kona to drop to the extraordinarily low level of 3. Meanwhile, the AQI in the New York City area is “unhealthy for sensitive groups” at 118. The air quality in parts of Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston are registering as “moderate.”

But clear skies aren’t the only reason why now is a great time to visit Hawaii.

Likely because of the wall-to-wall coverage of the eruption, there’s been a reduced demand for flights to Hawaii — meaning incredible deals to the Hawaiian islands. Just this week, fares from the West Coast dropped as low as $247 round-trip. And for our own trip, we were able to book an excellent flight deal from Atlanta (ATL) through Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Kona (KOA) for $414 round-trip. Due to the light loads on the wide-body aircraft, we got upgraded both ways to lie-flat business class. As TPG contributor Jason Steele pointed out, there’s been wide-open award availability on flights to Hawaii this summer. 

Likewise, we were able to score reasonable rates at the seemingly empty resorts. And with AutoSlash, we were able to rent a sleek convertible for four days for $140 — total. When we went to pick up our vehicle, the Alamo agent let us choose from a gleaming row of unrented vehicles.

Even Volcanoes National Park — which some Big Island locals told us they thought would never reopen — is planning to partially reopen by Sept. 22. According to a statement from the National Park Service, “as long as the current pause in earthquakes and collapse-explosion events at the summit of Kilauea continues,” park officials hope to have sections of the park open by fee-free National Public Lands Day.

The bottom line

By some measurements, the volcano is at its quietest level in more than a decade and the air quality in parts of the Big Island is practically perfect. So though active volcanoes are unpredictable, and Kilauea could theoretically resume her fierce eruption at any moment, there may be few better times to visit Hawaii than now. Our recommendation? Don’t hesitate to jump on the next incredible Hawaii flight deal and check out the Aloha State for yourself.

Featured image taken by the author at Westin Hapuna Beach Resort on Aug. 13, 2018.

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