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I think it’s really cool that one of the four green sand beaches in the world is right here on the Big Island! The chances of this happening give you a really neat outlook on geology and makes you think about how rare the chances are of this coincidence happening.
Getting to Papakolea requires a hot, sunny hike, but it’s such a unique thing to see with your very own eyes.
Aloha with love,
- It is illegal to drive to Papakolea. All rental car companies do not allow you to drive to Papakolea in their cars. Your contract will be void and you will have to cover the damage (which happens a lot).
- Local residents may offer to drive you for a fee, and unfortunately many people take them up on it. This damages culturally significant areas on the way. Please respect the rules so we can continue to enjoy this unique beach.
- Do not bring home the green sand. It is against the law and taboo in our local culture.
About Papakolea Beach
History and facts
More than 49,000 years ago, Mauna Loa erupted and created this cinder cone, Puu O Mahana. Over the years, the waves created what we now call Mahana Bay. The sands in Mahana Bay are a noticeable olive green shade and are filled with grain-sized pieces of black lava rock, white sand, and olivine crystals – nicknamed “Hawaiian Diamond” but more commonly known as peridot.
These days, Papakolea Beach is commonly referred to as Green Sand Beach or Mahana Beach. Papakolea can be translated to
“plover flats”, kolea meaning the golden plover – a migratory bird that visits Hawaii all the way from Alaska.
Listen for their unique short and sharp cry as you hike. They are extremely people shy so you might not see them as they like to keep their distance. They blend into the background, but you can easily distinguish them from their unique stop-dash-and-fly movement.
Local tip: If you’ve climbed Diamond Head in Oahu, you might have noticed small bits of green crystals embedded in all of Diamond Head. That’s olivine, too!
Papakolea Beach is located in the Kau district of the Big Island, north of Ka Lae (South Point). In general, the Kau district is known for its remote and rural atmosphere. Despite that, Papakolea draws a crowd and is popular among tourists and locals alike.
How to get to Papakolea Beach
Getting to Papakolea is a 2-step process. First, drive toward Ka Lae (South Point) and go to the Green Sand Beach trailhead. Next, hike down to Papakolea Beach and enjoy the coastal views.
At minimum, the hike is 2 hours round trip not including the time you spend at Papakolea Beach. Most people stay here for about an hour or so exploring the sand, taking pictures, and enjoying the view.
Driving to South Point
Begin on Mamalahoa Highway (Hwy 11) and turn south (towards the ocean) on South Point Road. This road will take you toward the point and you’ll eventually see a Green Sand Beach sign. The parking lot can get full on busy days so come early.
Again, it is illegal to drive the rest of the way to Green Sand Beach, however, it is rarely enforced if at all. I do ask Aloha With Love readers to be respectful and mindful that this is a culturally-sensitive area. The overuse of vehicles has led to deep ruts in the ground several feet deep and the land suffers from severe erosion.
Hiking to Papakolea
What to expect: Depending on your stamina level, the hike to Papakolea Beach should take you 1 – 2 hours. If you’re used to hiking, you won’t have a problem and this will be a breeze since the hike is flat. Keep in mind though that there’s no shade at all and it will get hot and dry. I recommend starting your hike early so you can avoid the hot sun. Also, it gets windy on this side island. Make sure your hat is secured or it might fly off.
Start your hike on the worn-out paved road. This will quickly turn into a dirt and dusty path, then will split off into several small trails, but don’t worry because they all lead to Papakolea Beach.
Climb down: The only “difficult” part would be climbing down to the walls of the cinder cone to get to the sand. You’ll have to work your way down layers of lava rock, which are more like steps than a steep hill. Finally, there will be a metal ladder (one person at a time) taking you down the rest of the way to the sand.
Things to bring
- Bring a hat. This hike has zero shade and can get hot.
- Water to keep you hydrated.
- Wear good shoes. You’ll be walking on different kinds of terrain.
- Slippers (flip-flops) so you don’t get your shoes wet or sandy.
- Sunscreen. If you plan to go in the water, consider reef-safe sunscreen.
Activities at Papakolea Beach
The green sand is the main attraction here, but with Papakolea Beach being so remote and the waves on the rougher side, there aren’t any water activities that can be done safely here.
I do recommend that before you climb down into the bay, you continue walking along the ridge of the cinder cone. As you work your way around you get a beautiful view of the surrounding area. While it is possible for some to work their way down from here, for safety reasons I recommend just turning around and going down the usual way.
Can you go in the water?
The waves can be rough out here, so if you do plan to go in set your expectations at bobbing. It can be fun to jump and roll with the waves, but more than likely you’ll get a lot of sand stuck in the wrong places and there’s no running water nearby to rinse you off. Remember, you still have to walk back to your car and the friction can ruin the rest of your day.
More about Papakolea
- I recommend Big Island Hikes’ Papakolea Green Sand Beach post. It’s got a lot of info and will really help you prepare for this hike.
- Also check out Love Big Island’s Papakolea post. It’s a terrific site about Big Island travel, too.
- Stop at Ka Lae (south point). It’s the most southern place in the United States of America!
- Visit Kalalea Heiau near Ka Lae (South Point) and check out the surrounding ruins, salt pans, and mooring holes. You can learn the facts from the National Park Service’s South Point Complex page.
- About a quarter of the way in you’ll come across Kaulana Boat Ramp and near it an old, rusty propeller with the words “to all the fallen fisherman”.
- About three-quarters of the way in, there are several rock formations that look like rock walls along the coast. My best guess is that these are ruins of the Hawaiian fishing village that used to exist near Ka Lae (South Point). I can’t find any reports or readings online to back this up though, so if anyone knows more, please let me know!