These are our favorite beaches on the Big Island. We pick our #1 White, Black and Green sand beach and describe those below, together with directions and an explanation on why the beaches are white, black or green.
For beach activities, check out our information about snorkeling rentals and snorkeling safety in our snorkeling guide, or find out more about surfing on the Big Island. If you are in Hawaii during whale season (December-April), keep an eye on the horizon. Did you know you can hear the whales sing under water even if they are a couple of miles away? Read more in our whale watching guide.
The black sand of all black sand beaches on Hawaii is made out of tiny fragments of lava. In contrast to the green and white sand, most of the black sand is created almost instantaneously, as hot lava enters the water and cools down so suddenly that it solidifies, and shatters into large amounts of ‘black sand’.
Black sand also retains the most warmth, as you will notice when you are walking on the sand during a warm sunny day. This is the reason why the sea turtles choose black sand beaches to build their nests – and because of this the best beach to spot turtles are the black sand beaches!
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
Punalu’u beach is the most famous black sand beach on Hawaii, and has even acquired the nickname ‘Black Sand Beach’. It is the most expansive and easily accessible black sand beach on the Big Island, and great for swimming, snorkeling, coastal hikes or a nice picnic. You can often also see the endangered Hawksbill and Green turtles basking in the sun on the beach.
Unfortunately, there can be strong currents in the water at Punalu’u beach. The best place to enter the water is the small boat ramp on the left (facing the water) of the beach. Stay out of the water if the surf is high. A better place to snorkel is Ninole Cove. Ninole Cove is a short walk from Punalu’u, and offers a sheltered bay with sand channels that provide decent entry to the action. You can either drive there (park below the clubhouse of the sea mountain golf course), or take a sort but rewarding hike from the black sand beach parking lot. Follow the unmarked grassy trail southwards (going right if you face makai/the ocean) for 5 minutes.
Directions to Punalu’u Beach:
Punalu’u beach is most easily accessible from Volcano Village, and is one of our recommended activities while spending time in Volcano. To get there from Volcano Village, take Hwy 11 towards Kona, and turn Makai (towards to ocean) between mile marker 56 and 57 on Alanui Road. If you pass Whittington Beach Park, you have driven to far.
Green sand beach gets is name from the green glassy crystals (Olivine) that make up most of the sand on this beach. They are washed out of a 49.000 year old cinder cone that spewed olivine-rich lava, and that still is visible on the east side of the bay. Olivine is locally known as “Hawaiian Diamond, and is denser and tougher than the ash fragments, glass and black pyroxene of the rest of the rocks and lava flows. Therefore it tends to accumulate on the beach whereas the usual volcanic sand is swept out to sea. The ‘greenness’ of the beach then is a direct reflection of the ratio between the green olivine and the other sand-components.
Papakōlea Green Sand Beach
Green sand beach is one of two green sand beaches in the united states, and not easy to reach. It takes a day trip to really enjoy this beach (take a picnic basket!), but the payoffs are great! Its remoteness guarantees that you will have most of the beach for yourself, and the bay is calm and good for snorkeling. The hike to and from green sand beach is 5 mile round trip (see directions below), so be prepared and take plenty of water. This is one beach that you will not easily forget in the coming decades!
If you would like more information, read our full article on Papakōlea Green Sand Beach.
Directions to Papakōlea:
Take the road to ‘South Point’ between mile markers 69 and 70 on Hwy 11 (between Kona and Volcano Village), and drive to the little harbor at the end. Here is a parking lot where you can leave your car. Although it is possible to take a 4WD car all the way to green beach, using the car damages the road and environment, and is heavily frowned upon by the locals. Walk to the ocean and take the road to the left (facing the water, East direction). Follow this road with the ocean on your right hand for about 2 1/2 miles and you will get to the cliffs above the Green Sand Beach. Climb down along the lava cliff on the west side of the bay, and wear plenty of sunscreen!
In contrast to most white sand beaches that mostly are composed of ‘inorganic sand’ (e.g. quartz and other minerals), the white sand on the beaches of Hawaii is mostly made of shells from marine organisms and coral fragments. Both waves (“mechanical erosion”) and marine animals (“bio erosion”) break down the reefs and shells and deliver the sand to the beach Parrot fish especially are know for munching the coral whole and spitting it out as sand. One downside of this if you like building sand castles, is that the sand tends to have rounded edges, and does not stack well..
If you are interested in the exact composition of the sand you are lying in, pick up a couple of grains and have a closer look! Chances are you can still recognize many shells and pieces of multicolored coral. For an extra spectacular effect, try the macro function on your (digital) camera.
Hapuna beach is 1/2 mile long, almost almost sunny, and with a continuous shore break that is great fun to play in for all ages. The beach only gets 10 inches of rain annually, but the beach is lined by trees and a shaded picnic pavilion to offer shelter. There is also a professional life guard on duty year-round, making this a great family beach. OH, and we almost forgot to mention that Hapuna Beach regularly is voted amongst the ‘best beaches in the world’!
Snorkeling is also good at Hapuna beach. You can snorkel around the small cliff to the north of the beach (but do not go alone, you will not be in sight of the life guards there), or around the rocky point on the South of the beach.
The drawback of these stellar statistics, is that the beach can become very crowded. Make sure to go early for a good parking spot and a shady place on the beach.
Directions to Hapuna Beach
Hapuna Beach lies North of Kailua Kona, around mile marker 70 of Hwy 19. Turn makai (towards the ocean) at the sign for Hapuna Beach State Park and continue for 1/4 mile to the large parking lot. Do not leave valuables in your car! Visitors to the Big Island pay a $5 parking fee to help maintain the park. Parking is free for locals.