I stand at the top of a volcanic tuff ring that was formed over 49,000 years ago and look down at the glitter of green-golden sand. I’m about to step foot on something extraordinarily rare, and suddenly the 17-hour flight, 2-hour drive and 1-hour hike seem completely worthwhile. Carefully, slowly, surely, I pick my way down to Papakolea beach, my feet sinking into olivine crystal sand – Hawaiian Diamond – and I’m on one of the most unique beaches in the world.
In this guide, I’ll share with you how to visit Papakolea Green Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii.
I have not edited or added filters to any of my photos of green sand beach. These are real pictures of Papakolea taken with my iPhone. Most websites edit the beach to make it look more green than it is. This causes disappointment. I won’t add to it. What you see is what you’ll get when you visit.
Papakolea beach is one of only four green sand beaches in the world and this rarity makes it one of the most popular things to do in Big Island. The other three green sand beaches are in Guam, the Galapagos and Norway. Isn’t it mind-blowing that one of them is located in the United States?
Why is green sand beach green?
As with many things on Big Island, the volcanoes are at the heart of it. Nearly 50,000 years ago, a volcanic eruption created a tuff ring known as Puʻu Mahana. What the devil is a tuff ring? In simple terms, it’s the sides of a volcanic crater. The Mahana tuff ring is made up of green volcanic ash that contains a common mineral called olivine. A blend of magnesium and ferrous iron, olivine has a subtle olive-green colour. And, on Big Island, green sand beach exists because the ocean has eroded the tuff ring, crumbling the olivine-containing ash into sand.
You might see Puʻu Mahana also referred to as a cinder cone. This technically isn’t correct. You can find out about the different volcano cones here.
Why is it called Papakolea beach and Mahana beach?
The tuff ring responsible for creating the beach is known as Pu’u Mahana, which is why Big Island’s green sand beach is sometimes called Mahana Beach.
Meanwile, Papakolea (Papakōlea in Hawaiian) is the name of the area where the beach is located. It’s named after the Pacific Golden Plover birds that visit the area in winter. Papa means ‘flat’ and kōlea refers to the plover birds. And that’s why you’ll sometimes hear it referred to as Papakolea beach.
Of course, the beach is also known as green sand beach, for obvious reasons. Locally, olivine is known as Hawaiian Diamond which I think would be a great name for the beach but perhaps that’s just me.
Where is green sand beach?
The green sand beach in Hawaii is located in a sheltered bay near the southern most tip of Big Island, sitting to the southwest side of Mauna Loa volcano. It’s located almost equal distance from Kona on the west, and Hilo, the capital of Big Island, on the east.
How to drive to Green Sand Beach
The most important thing to know is that you can’t drive directly to green sand beach, no matter what Google Maps and GPS tell you. The closest you can get is around 2.25 miles from the beach. You then have to park and hike the rest of the way.
Can I drive my rental car to the beach?
No. First of all, it’s illegal to drive past the parking lot. Secondly, the land between the parking lot and the beach is treacherous for cars with huge ruts and gulleys that your average saloon car can’t handle. Thirdly, Big Island’s car rental companies specifically forbid driving to the beach in their cars, even if you rent a 4×4.
Should I use the 4×4 shuttles at the beach?
It’s tempting to hop on one of the 4-wheel-drive shuttle trucks that hang around the parking lot and offer a quick route to the beach for $20-$25 each-way. I get it. Especially if you don’t feel fit enough for the hike. But please don’t take the shuttles. Again, it’s illegal to drive to the beach. Even for the locals. The shuttles ruin the land and by using them, you’re contributing to the destruction of the area. Remember: Green Sand Beach is rare. One of only four in the world. And the hike isn’t that difficult. Promise.
Driving from Kona
Papakolea Beach is 64.1 miles (103 km) from the popular tourist resort town of Kona on Big Island’s west cost and it takes 1 hour 35 minutes to drive there. HI-11 is the Hawaii Belt Road that runs from Kona along the south of the island and up to Hilo on the other side. Near the most southern point, you leave the belt road for South Point Road (between mile markers 69 and 70), travelling for around 8 miles until you reach the beach parking lot.
There are plenty of great sights along the way from Kona including South Point and Captain Cook Bay (though keep in mind that it requires a hike to get to Captain Cook Bay).
Driving from Hilo
Papakolea Beach is 79.1 miles (127 km) from Hilo and it takes 1 hour 45 minutes to drive there. As with the drive from Kona, you take the HI-11, Hawaii Belt Road south then split off onto South Point Road until you hit the parking lot.
On the way from Hilo, you’ll drive past the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park sign (great for a quick photo stop). When I drove this route, I combined it with a stop at Kaumana Caves near Hilo and Punaluu Black Sand Beach.
Driving from Hilo to Kona via Green Sand Beach (& vice versa)
I’ve done this drive a couple of times and it’s always a long but exciting day. While it’s technically quicker to drive through the centre of the island from Hilo to Kona or Kona to Hilo, taking the route across the south turns the journey into a fun road trip with lots of sights along the way. The non-stop drive takes 3 hours 25 mins covering 143 miles (230 km).
Tip: start early and build in at least 3 hours extra if you want to visit the beach.
Parking near the beach
There is a parking lot near the beach trail head. It’s pretty rustic in parts, i.e. park on the side of the road. But it is free and safe (though, as normal, don’t leave your spare Rolex temptingly on the front seat). Anybody who tries to charge you for parking is trying to scam you out of money.
How to hike to the beach
And this is where the fun begins – hiking to the beach – because is there anything more rewarding than a bit of effort to be able to visit something rare? In this section, I’ll give you the low-down on how to hike to green sand beach, starting at the parking lot.
How far is the hike?
The hike is approximately 2.25 miles (3.6 km) from the parking lot. I say ‘approximately’ because it’s a wide expanse of land that you cross and how far you hike depends on the way you cut across. The most scenic way is close to the coast and ocean, which might add a quarter of a mile or so to your hike. If you cut a little further inland, you’ll save a few steps.
The hiking trail
The trail is an in-and-out trail, i.e. you walk the same trail to get to the beach and the same trail to get back. And if I was to use just a few words to it, I’d say flat but hot and dusty.
From the car park, the trail starts with a rubble path but that quickly turns into a sandy trail. It’s nicely soft underfoot though you’ll find yourself getting pretty dusty pretty quickly. Thanks to the 4x4s and the nature of the landscape, there are some dips along and there are a few rocky sections. It doesn’t make the trail too strenuous. You just need to pay attention to where you step.
Beyond the trail, the rest of the landscape is grassy.
I could give you complicated route instructions – go northeast, turn southwest, etc. But really: keep the ocean on your right and you’ll eventually see the bay and beach appear in front of you. There is decent cell reception in the area so you’re able to check you’re heading in the right direction if you become unsure. Tip: if you prefer the quick versus scenic route, follow the tracks of the 4x4s. They cut a little inland and will shave some distance off the hike.
How long is the hike?
The hike takes around 1 hour each way at a fairly leisurely pace including stopping for photos.
How difficult is the hike?
This is always a tricky question to answer because it will depend on your health, fitness and, not to be underestimated, having an ‘I can do it’ attitude. So, let’s start there: if you can walk for 1 hr in the heat, you can probably do this hike. It might have you a bit tired at the end but that’s ok, right?
Still not sure? Here’s a bit of context about my fitness level. The first time I visited Papakolea Beach was over 10 years ago when I was backpacking in Hawaii. I was relatively young and fearless. Which is great because the beach wasn’t so touristy back then. At the time, there were no other people on the trail to follow, there was no GPS map to help find the trail and only three other people on the beach when we got there. Oh, and there were no steps to help you down. It was a scary scramble down the sides of the crater to the bottom.
Since then, I’ve had knee surgery and gained a decade (I’m on the ‘wrong’ side of 40) so I wasn’t sure how easy the hike would be this time round. Plus, I had my +65 year old dad with me on this trip. He hikes never and has some knee issues. Yet, we both managed the hike to the beach and the slope onto the sand. We then repeated the hike to get back to the car. My biggest issue was not having enough water. I drink a lot and one 750ml bottle wasn’t enough. I wish I’d had an extra bottle waiting for me in the car because we didn’t see a gas station until we were close to Kona, over an hour away.
Tip: Your footwear will make a significant difference. You need trainers/running shoes. Do not attempt this hike in sandals or flip-flops.
Love hiking? Consider taking a hike on the Napali Coast on Kauai.
How to get down to the beach
When you reach the bay, the sight can be intimidating. At this point, you’re stuck at the top off the tuff cone crater and it seems a long, steep way down to the beach. Don’t be put off. Head around the bay to the north side, the furthest part of the rim from the ocean, and there you’ll find easy(ish) access to the bottom.
I honestly didn’t think I was going to get onto the beach this second time round, because of my knee surgery. I did not fancy my chances with the downhill scramble. However, since my first visit, somebody has helpfully added a set of steps. Yes, they are rustic and yes, careful climbing is required. But, taking it one foot at a time, it’s manageable. At first, my dad stayed at the top. But, having gotten half-way down, I realised he’d be just fine so I went up, got him and he also made it to the bottom – a nice treat after the hot hike.
Best time to visit
Green sand beach is a year-round destination and you can visit at any time of day. It is better to go early, because there are fewer people and you avoid hiking under the hot mid-day sun. However, if you are on a longer road-trip from either Hilo or Kona, you might find yourself there at exactly the ‘wrong’ time. I did do the hike at mid-day, and it was fine. Compared to other beaches in Hawaii, Papakolea is less crowded no matter what time you visit.
Tip: the sand looks most green when reflected in the sunlight. Visit on a sunny rather than cloudy or rainy day if you can.
There are portable toilets at the parking lot and they were of the standard you’d find at a festival – you smell them before you get to them. But, if you’re desperate (I was), its better than nothing. There was toilet paper but pack your own hand sanitiser. Otherwise, there are no facilities at or near Green Sand beach – no water refills, no shops, no snack bars, no changing facilities, no vendors, no fruit stalls. So, take everything you need, especially water, food and sunscreen.
Can you swim at the beach?
While it’s possible to go into the water at Green Sand Beach, you might want to stick to having a dip in the shallows. There are strong currents which will challenge even the strongest swimmer and there is no lifeguard on the beach.
Tip: I’d recommend changing out of your hiking shorts to swim, even if they are designed for the water. If you don’t have time to properly dry, you might get some chaffing on the hike back. Sorry to be indelicate, but it can make a hard hike even harder. Pack a light travel towel and you can do a quick change on the beach.
Can you take kids to the beach
I would only take older children/teenagers to Green Sand Beach. As well as the hike being long and hot (and certainly not suitable for a buggy), the kids need to be able to safely get to the bottom of the slope without help. There isn’t space for two people to go down at the same time. Also, the water isn’t safe for children.
Beach tips, safety and etiquette
- Leave no trace – in other words, don’t litter. Whatever you take to the beach, make sure you bring it back with you.
- DO NOT TAKE SAND FROM THE BEACH. It’s illegal and all those ‘it’s only a little bit’ add up. It’s rare, it’s precious. Leave it there for someone else to enjoy.
- Beach toys are not recommend – trying to carry an inflated ring down the cliff side onto the beach nearly cost one man a broken limb.
- Wear lots of sunscreen – it’s hot and there is no shade.
- Beware of windburn – as well as sunburn, there’s a risk of windburn from the fierce wind coming off the coast. Sunscreen will give some protection.
- Take lots of water – there are no facilities at the beach. I’d recommend at least 1 litre for the two-way hike and another bottle in the car for when you return.
- Use a backpack – carrying a backpack rather than an over the shoulder beach bag will keep your hands free for helping you get onto the beach. I pack a lightweight travel backpack that folds up small.
- Wear good sports shoes with grip. Do not attempt this hike in sandals or flip-flops.
- Don’t wear white sports socks (like I did). They will never be white again.
How green is green sand beach?
“It’s not that green,” is perhaps the most common complaint about visiting green sand beach. And I understand why – so many photos online have been so heavily edited that you’d be forgiven for thinking the beach should be luminous green. In fact, the beach is closer to a brown sand, tinged with an olive shade of green. That’s just the natural colour of green olivine crystals. My photos are unedited. This is what green sand beach really looks like
Is it worth it?
So, it’s a hard to reach beach that isn’t all that green – is it really worth it?
YES! It’s rare. It’s been made by flaming magma bursting out of the earth’s core. You’d have to go to Guam or the Galapagos or Norway to see it elsewhere. And it’s one of the few remaining tourist sights that requires a bit of effort to get to. Perhaps it isn’t the bright green that social media has led you to expect, but where else in the world can you walk on Hawaiian diamond?
That’s my guide to how to visit Papakōlea Beach Hawaii. Leave a comment below if you have any questions or tips.
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