By CALEB JONES
HONOLULU (AP) — The recent eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has quieted to the point that federal officials are ready to allow people back to the dramatically changed summit crater, which has quadrupled in size, lost all of its lava and collapsed downward so far that the Empire State Building could now fit inside.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park will reopen its main gates Saturday. Officials are bracing for long lines and crammed roads as visitors flock to see Kilauea’s new landscape and the area where a well-known lava lake once bubbled. The reopening also coincides with National Public Lands Day, so admission is free.
“We are projecting well over 5,000 people just in one day,” Hawaii Volcanoes National Park acting spokeswoman Shanelle Saunders said.
While interest is high, accommodations will be somewhat limited. Damage to the park closed about 30 percent of its former parking capacity.
“We’re really expecting long lines, and we hope people have plenty of patience when they’re trying to get parking spaces,” Saunders said. There’s still no access to clean drinking water in the park, and the summit’s Jaggar Museum remains closed, she added.
The national park — normally the state’s most-visited tourist attraction — has been closed for 135 days as volcanic activity caused explosive eruptions, earthquakes and the collapse of the famed Halemaumau crater. Ash clouds shot skyward from the summit crater and blanketed the region in volcanic debris.
Kilauea has been active for decades. But the eruption that began in May has transformed both the park and the rural Big Island coastline that surrounds it.
Outside the park, lava flows consumed entire neighborhoods, filled an ocean bay and created miles of new shoreline with fresh black sand beaches and jagged rocky outcrops. Inside the park, molten rock drained from the summit lava lake and vanished from view as the landscape underwent a monumental change.
The summit crater floor sunk 1,500 feet (460 meters), and the overall Kilauea caldera widened — expanding from about 200 acres to over 1,000 acres, or more than 1 square mile, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“This eruption was really unprecedented in the historic record,” Ingrid Johanson, a research geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “The changes we’ve seen at the summit are much more dramatic than anything that’s happened in the last 200 years.”
The crater looks “completely different,” Johanson said. “I think people are going to be really awestruck when they see it.”
However, one of the park’s biggest draws — the radiant red light from the 2,000-degree lava lake that has been a Kilauea hallmark for over a decade — is completely gone.
“There is no glow at all,” Saunders said. “You can’t even see your hand in front your face it’s so dark in a lot of these areas. I mean, the stars right now are incredible, but there’s actually no flowing lava.”
The park will be open 24 hours a day, but visitors should be careful at night because of new cracks in trails and walkways. “Even if people are really familiar with those trails, they may have changed since they’ve been here,” Saunders said.
Public access to the volcano remains limited because of damage to its infrastructure. But visitors can once again hike around some parts of the summit area and see the aftermath of the historic eruption.
“The crater rim trail is open to a certain point,” Saunders said. “And from there, they can see down into the crater itself.”
The theme of this year’s National Public Lands Day is “resilience and restoration,” said Hawaii Volcanoes National Park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane, who noted that park repair work had been pointing toward a late-September reopening.
“We really wanted to invite visitors back without them having to pay on that first day,” Ferracane said. “The theme was so uncanny that we thought it would be a real good fit.”
Regardless of when the park reopened, officials expected big crowds.
“If we reopened on a Monday in the middle of the school year, it would still be busy because people really want to come in and come back to the park,” she said.
While volcanic activity has slowed significantly in the past month and no lava is reaching the surface at Kilauea, scientists aren’t ready to declare the latest eruption over.
“There is still material that could feed into an eruption,” Johanson said. “I definitely expect that lava will return one day.”