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.
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
Black sand beach
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Green 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.
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.
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.
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.
White sand beach
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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