Best beaches on Big Island Hawaii: White, green and black sand beach

Island hopping in Hawaii is such an amazing experience! There’s so much to discover and explore, especially on the Big Island, that we would forget to just unwind and do nothing for a change. And what better place to relax on a tropical island than at the beach? Feeling the soft sand between your toes while listening to the soothing sounds of the ocean, the clear blue waters contrasting with both the green palm trees and the white powdery sand. But did you know that the Big Island is home to beaches in more shades than just white? Here are the best beaches on Big Island Hawaii.

Kika'ua Point Beach Park at the south of Kukio beach, one of the best Big Island beaches

Beaches on Big Island map

For your convenience, we’ve indicated the best Big Island beaches on this map.

Best Big Island beaches by shade

  • Where does the black sand come from?

Sandy beaches are a rarity on the windward side of the Big Island, where most Hilo beaches consist of lava rocks, originating from the nearby Kilauea volcano in Volcanoes National Park. When the hot lava clashes with ocean water, it can fragment into smaller cinders. As the waves keep grinding those fragments, they turn into sand.

Punalu'u black sand beach in Hawaii, one of the best beaches on Big Island

  • Punaluʻu black sand beach

Of the few black sand beaches in the area, Punalu’u is the widest and most popular one. It’s located on the island’s south coast. This famous black sand beach attracts many tourists so expect at least some crowds. The beach is easy to get to and equipped with picnic tables and restrooms.

CosmopoliDad lounging on Punaluʻu black sand beach on Hawaii Big Island
Sparkling flipflops on sparkling black sand beach Punaluʻu in Big Island Hawaii

The sand can get pretty hot yet taking a dip into the ocean is not a safe option since the strong currents make it unsuited for swimming and snorkeling.

Girl standing on Punaluʻu black sand beach in Hawaii, one of the best Big Island beaches

Hawaiian green sea turtles are frequent visitors to Punaluʻu black sand beach

Green sea turtles (honu) love chilling on the warm black sand as much as we did. You have a pretty good chance of spotting these protected creatures at Punaluʻu beach.

Turtles lounging on Punaluʻu black sand beach in Hawaii, one of the best Big Island beaches

  • Latest addition: Pohoiki black sand beach

We were in Hawaii just two weeks before the Kilauea eruption. During that event Punaluʻu beach remained intact. In other areas, the landscape has changed dramatically. The lava has brought destruction but also created new attractions such as Pohoiki, the latest Big Island black sand beach.

  • Where does the green sand come from?

One of the most surprising facts about Hawaii is that it’s home to a unique green sand beach. Papakolea beach is located at the southern tip of Big Island which is also the southernmost point in the 50 states.
The green sand gets its color from the olivine in the rocks. Olivine is a mineral that forms when molten lava solidifies, it crystallises from magma. The fragmented green crystals form this amazing green sand. It’s a rarity since only 4 green sand beaches exist in the world.

  • Papakolea green sand beach

Papakolea beach is a hidden gem, quite literally, located inside the remains of a volcano crater that was breached and eroded by the waves. Reaching this exclusive location does require some effort.

Stunning Papakolea green sand beach, one of the best Big Island beaches

The closest parking lot is located about 5 miles from your destination. From there, you have the option to either hike the rough, rocky terrain in the heat or to pay a local 4WD driver to take you there.

  • Our Papakolea adventure 

Since hiking this Big Island trail would have been too intensive for the kids, we chose the latter. And by we, I mean me and the girls, who seemed to be up for the adventure. CosmopoliDad suffers from motion sickness and wanted to stay close to the rental car. So, we paid the driver $40 and hopped in the back of the truck where we found ourselves in the company of some other tourists.

It wasn’t my first 4WD rodeo but it was definitely the most challenging one. The ride lasted for about 25 minutes and the girls hated every minute but there was no way back. The circumstances didn’t allow me to take any picture, unfortunately.

Wind and sand hitting these girls in the face at Papakolea green sand beach on Hawaii Big Island

When we finally arrived, the wind was blasting sand in our face and we realized that we still had to climb down the steep crater wall before actually reaching the green sand beach. Giving up is not in our dictionary so we persisted and made our way to the olivine crystals and the aquamarine waters. Then there we were, enjoying a much-needed break at this amazing green sand beach. Too soon, after just 15 minutes or so, our time was up. We made our way up and boarded the truck. The girls hated the prospect of having to endure the drive back but it was our only option. This was one of the most challenging activities during our Hawaii travel adventure.

Little girl climbing up the crater of Papakolea beach, one of the best Big Island beaches
It's quite a steep crater descent to reach Papakolea green sand beach

  • Learn from our experience

We only found out after our visit but the shuttles to and from the beach are actually illegal. Driving is prohibited in that area because it damages the fragile local ecosystem. We had no idea at the time but you do now.

If you’re considering visiting Papakolea green sand beach big island, then be prepared for some serious action. It’s one of the most exclusive Hawaii Big Island beaches for a reason.

Was it worth it? For me, it definitely was. But I wouldn’t recommend taking the kids. Traveling as a family is a great opportunity to get out of that comfort zone but we took it too far on this occasion.

Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, a sunhat and sunglasses. We didn’t bring ours because I wanted to travel light on the truck. That was a big mistake because the conditions at Papakolea are extremely windy and the sand literally hits you in the face. Sunglasses are a necessity.

Finally, plan enough time to enjoy the beach. Papakolea green sand beach is just gorgeous.

  • Where to find powdery white sand beaches on Big Island

As opposed to the rocky Hilo coast, the Kona coast and especially the Kohala coast do offer many sandy beaches. Because of that, this leeward side is home to most of the Big Island Hawaii hotels and resorts. While the beaches in Kona tend to be quite small, the ones on the dry Kohala coast are much wider.

Two CosmopoliGirls using their boogie board to protect themselves from the rain

  • Our favorite: Hapuna white sand beach

Hapuna Beach State Park is the most popular white sand beach and one where we spent several days. It’s ideal for boogie-boarding (yep, that’s me on the photo below) and one of the best snorkeling spots on Big Island. We also spotted several turtles when we were swimming here. At Hapuna Beach Big Island the sand is white and soft, the water crystal clear and warm.

CosmopoliMom boogieboarding Hapuna Beach, one of the best Hawaii Big Island beaches

There’s ample parking available for a small fee but the lot fills up quite quickly. Once thing that’s lacking in Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area is shade so bring a beach tent, like we did.

Or you could stay at The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort offering guest a prime beach location on the Big Island. This should be your first choice of you’re looking for a tropical escape on the Big Island.
Another solid option is the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (Autograph Collection) just a few miles up north.

  • Alternative tried and tested white sand beaches: Kukio beach and Kika’ua Point Beach Park

If you’re traveling with smaller kids you might prefer a smaller beach with more shade and less waves. One of the best beaches on the Big Island for young families is Kika’ua Point Beach Park, just south of Kukio beach, also called Keiki beach (literally Children’s beach). While there’s only a thin layer of sand, it does offer plenty of shade and a shallow lagoon without waves or current.

Kika'ua Point Beach Park at the south of Kukio beach, one of the best Big Island beaches for families

Lagoon at Kika'ua Point Beach Park at the south of Kukio beach

We had to pass a gate before reaching it and got in thanks to a vehicle in front of us. There are just a few parking spots at Kika’ua Point Beach Park. Once you parked the car, you take this long, winding path to the beach. Do not touch the lava rocks along that path since this is a sacred site for native Hawaiians. 

Little girl holding a boogie board while walking on the winding pathway leading from the parking to Kika'ua Point Beach Park

  • Other popular options

As mentioned earlier, white sandy beaches near Kailua-Kona are scarce. Old Kona Airport Beach State Park or Spencer Beach park could be an option.
We do regret we didn’t make it to Kekaha Kai State Park which can be found further up north, just a bit past (the actual) Kona airport. Makalawena Beach is said to be a true gem, as is Kua Bay.

Pink sand beach

The island’s beaches come in different shades, but if you’re looking for the illusive Pink Sand Beach on Big Island then we’ll have to disappoint you. There’s no such thing in Hawaii!


Best travel base to visit the sandy beaches of Big Island

As you can see on the map, the Big Island beaches mentioned in this article are spread out over the island. In our article on where to stay on the Big Island we explain how to best divide your time over both coasts. Papakolea beach is located right in the middle.

  • At the Kona coast, especially the stretch between Kona airport and Waikoloa, you’ll be surrounded by white sand beaches. Reaching the green sand beach parking lot will take you about 1 hour 30 minutes from Kailua-Kona and over 2 hours when coming from Waikoloa.
  • At the Hilo coast you’ll be close to the black sand beaches of Big Island. Driving all the way to Papakolea green sand beach will take about 1 hour 40 minutes.

Have a look at the other exciting things to do in Hilo Hawaii.

Which Big Island beach is your favorite?

Now that you know all about the Big Island’s best beaches, you must have a favorite. Which of the featured beaches can you picture yourself lounging on during your Hawaiian vacation? Are you tempted by the soft white sand, the sparkling black sand or the challenging green sand beach? Let us know in the comments!

Pinning one of these images would be much appreciated!

Can’t wait to go to Hawaii but no idea where to start? Then check out our guide on island hopping Hawaii to plan your own Hawaiian adventure.

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  1. We loved Hapuna – that big swath of white sand so perfect for an entire day! And YES to boogie boarding. My last trip to the Big Island I was relegated to a wheelchair and crutches so could not go in the water! It was killing me! Headed back in 2019 – pinning your post, haven’t been to all of these yet – can’t wait. Great tips and beautiful images. Thanks for sharing with #FarawayFiles

    1. Sarah

      Yay! Another boogie boarding fan! Oh Erin, lounging on such a beautiful beach and not being able to swim… That must have been so hard! You’ll have lots to catch up on next year and might enjoy it even more. Happy travels!

    1. Sarah

      It was the highlight of our trip… But I have to admit that we did so much exploring on Big Island that we were pretty exhausted by the time we arrived on Oahu. 😉 So, when we head back, we’ll definitely spend more time on Oahu. Maybe we could exchange notes?

  2. We’ve been to three of these beaches (the black sand is my favorite), but never have made it to the green sand beach. Now that I’ve read your adventure I’m thinking I’m fine not getting there. Gorgeous photos! #farawayfiles

    1. Sarah

      Reaching Papakolea green sand beach was quite the journey, that’s for sure! The bay itself is stunning but the green sand is less of a contrast to a regular beach than the sparkling black sand. So, I can definitely see why that’s your favorite. Glad you like the photos. Thanks for passing by, Hilary!

  3. Saving this one for later!! I just booked a trip to Hawaii for next year. I will be going with my mum and sister and my 12 year old daughter as a reward for finishing primary school. We took my eldest to Japan but this one chose Hawaii. I’m very excited as I haven’t been to Hawaii before and actually haven’t ever really researched it so this post will come in handy. I so far have Pearl Harbour and swim with turtles on my list.

    1. Sarah

      How exciting, Sally! Your kids have excellent taste. 😉 Planning a trip to Hawaii is quite intensive: there’s so much to explore that it’s hard to make a selection. But you ladies will have so much fun! It’s our favorite destination so far. I have an article on Pearl Harbour coming up in a few weeks so, stay tuned. And don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any planning questions, I’d be more than happy to help you out.

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