Too young geologically to have many great beaches, the Big Island instead has more colorful ones: brand-new black-sand beaches, salt-and-pepper beaches, and even a green-sand beach. If you know where to look, you’ll also find some gorgeous pockets of golden sand off the main roads here and there, plus a few longer stretches, often hidden from view by either acres of lava or high-end resorts. Thankfully, by law all beaches are public, so even the toniest hotel must provide access (including free parking) to its sandy shores.
Note: Never leave valuables in your trunk, particularly in remote areas, and please respect the privacy of residents with homes on the beach. For details on shoreline access around the island, see the maps and descriptions at www.hawaiicounty.gov/pl-shoreline-access-big-island. For more information on state beach parks and reserves, visit http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/parks/hawaii.
The most popular beach on the Kona Coast has reef-protected lagoons and county park facilities that draw more than 400,000 people a year. Coconut trees line a narrow salt-and-pepper-sand shore that gently slopes to turquoise pools, home to schools of brilliantly colored tropical fish. In summer, it’s an ideal spot for children and beginning snorkelers; the water is so shallow you can just stand up if you feel uncomfortable—but please, not on the living coral, which can take years to recover. In winter, there’s a rip current when the high surf rolls in; look for any lifeguard warnings. Kahaluu isn’t the biggest beach on the island, but it’s one of the best equipped, with off-road parking, beach-gear rentals, a covered pavilion, restrooms, barbecue pits, and a food concession. Come early to stake out a spot. If you have to park on Alii Drive, be sure to poke your head into tiny, blue-roofed St. Peter’s by the Sea, a Catholic chapel next to an old lava rock heiau where surfers once prayed for waves. Note: The park is closed till 10am the first or second Tuesday of each month for maintenance.
Kekaha Kai State Park
Brilliant white sand offsets even more brilliant turquoise water at this beach park with several sandy bays and coves well hidden from the highway and two official entrances. About 4 1/2 miles north of the airport off Highway 19 (across from West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery) is the turnoff for Maniniowali Beach, better known as Kua Bay. A thankfully paved road crosses acres of craggy lava, leading to the parking lot and a short, paved walkway to an even shorter, sandy scramble down a few rocks to the beach. It has restrooms and showers, but absolutely no shade or drinking water. Locals flock here to sunbathe, swim, bodyboard, and bodysurf, especially on weekends, so go during the week, and in mornings, when it’s cooler; exercise caution since serious injuries have occurred in the strong shorebreak. If you have 4WD, you can take the marked turnoff 2 1/2 miles north of the airport off Highway 19 and drive 1 1/2 bumpy miles over a rough lava road to the parking area for sandy Mahaiula Beach, reached by another short trail. Sloping more steeply than Kua Bay, this sandy beach has stronger currents too, although if you’re fit you can still swim or snorkel in calm conditions. You can also just laze under the shade—you’re likely to see a snoozing green sea turtle or two—or follow the rugged path north through the lava about a mile to the white sandy coves of Makalawena Beach. The park is open 8am to 7pm daily.
Kiholo State Park Reserve
To give yourself a preview of why you want to visit here, pull over at the marked Scenic Overlook on Highway 19 north of Kekaha Kai State Park, between mile markers 82 and 83. You’ll see a shimmering pale blue lagoon, created by the remains of an ancient fish pond, and the bright cerulean Kiholo Bay, jewels in a crown of black lava. Now take the unmarked lava-gravel road (much smoother than Kekaha Kai’s road to Mahaiula Beach) just south of the overlook and drive carefully to the even bumpier day-lot parking area. An unpaved road to the left leads to the campground parking lot; both lots have portable toilets and are a short walk to the shore. The “beach” here is black sand, lava pebbles, and coral, but it’s fine for sunbathing or spotting dolphins and seasonal humpback whales. Keep your sturdy-soled shoes on, though, because you’ll want to keep walking north to Keanalele (also called “Queen’s Bath”), a collapsed lava tube found amid kiawe trees with steps leading into its fresh water pool, great for a cooling dip. Continue on past several mansions to the turquoise waters of the former fishpond, cut off by a lava flow, and the darker bay, clouded by freshwater springs. Green sea turtles love this area—as do scampering wild goats. The park opens at 7am daily year-round, with the access gate off the highway locked promptly at 7pm April to Labor Day (early Sept), and then at 6pm through March 31. See our Camping section for details on reserving campsites.
Kohanaiki Beach (Pine Trees)
Hidden behind the Kohanaiki golf course development, 2 miles north of the main entrance to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park off Highway 19, the 1 1/2 miles of shoreline here include anchialine ponds, white-sand beaches, and a reef- and rock-lined bay that’s home to a popular surf break called Pine Trees. Paddlers, snorkelers, and fishermen also flock to the rugged coastline, where a county park offers parking, restrooms, showers, water fountain, campsites, and a covered pavilion for cultural practices; there’s also a well-marked petroglyph. From the Kohanaiki entrance on Hwy. 19 (at Hulikoa Drive), turn right at the first fork and follow nearly 1 mile to the first parking lot for beach access; facilities and more parking are farther south along the one-lane paved road, but you can also explore the shore to the north. It’s open daily from 5:30am to 9pm (no camping Tues–Wed).
Laaloa Beach (White Sands/Magic Sands Beach)
Don’t blink as you cruise Alii Drive, or you’ll miss Laaloa, often called White Sands, Magic Sands, or Disappearing Beach. That’s because the sand at this small pocket beach, about 4 1/2 miles south of Kailua-Kona’s historic center, does occasionally vanish, especially at high tide or during storms. On calm summer days, you can swim here, next to bodyboarders and bodysurfers taking advantage of the gentle shorebreak; you can also snorkel in a little rocky cove just to the south. In winter, though, a dangerous rip develops and waves swell, attracting expert surfers and spectators; stay out of the water then, but enjoy the gawking. The palm-tree-lined county beach park includes restrooms, showers, a lifeguard station, and a small parking lot off Alii Drive.
Old Kona Airport Park
Yes, this used to be the airport for the Kona side of the island—hence the copious parking on the former runway at the end of Kuakini Highway about a half-mile north of Palani Road in Kailua-Kona. Now it’s a park jointly managed by the county and state, which in 1992 designated its waters a marine life conservation district. It’s easy to get distracted by all the other free amenities: two Olympic-size pools in the Kona Community Aquatic Center (808/327-3500), a gym, tennis courts, ball fields. Yet there’s a mile of sandy beach here, fronting tide pools perfect for families with small children, and Pawai Bay, whose reefs draw turtles and rays, and thus snorkelers and divers. The beach area also has covered picnic tables and grills, restrooms, and showers.
Hookena Beach Park
A community group known as Friends of Hookena (www.hookena.org) have managed facilities and concessions at this secluded, taupe-colored sandy beach (technically a county park) since 2007. Visitors can rent kayaks and snorkel gear here to explore Kauhako Bay’s populous reefs (avoid during high surf) or camping gear to enjoy the view—sometimes including wild spinner dolphins—from the shore. Reservations for gear and campgrounds can be made online; the welcome concession stand at this remote spot even accepts credit cards. Facilities include showers, restrooms, water fountains, picnic tables, pavilions, and parking. From Kailua-Kona, take Highway 11 south 22 miles to the Hookena Beach Road exit (just past Hookena Elementary School), between mile markers 101 and 102. Follow it downhill 2 miles to the end, and turn left on the one-lane road to the parking area.
The Kohala Coast
The Big Island makes up for its dearth of beaches with a few spectacular ones, like Anaehoomalu, or A-Bay, as many call it. This popular gold-sand beach, fringed by a grove of palms and backed by royal fishponds still full of mullet, is one of the most beautiful in Hawaii. It fronts Marriott’s Waikoloa Beach complex and is enjoyed by guests and locals alike (it’s busier in summer, but doesn’t ever get truly crowded). The beach slopes gently from shallow to deep water; swimming, snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and windsurfing are all excellent here. At the northern edge of the bay, snorkelers and divers can watch endangered green sea turtles line up and wait their turn to have small fish clean them. Equipment rental and snorkeling, scuba, and windsurfing instruction are available at the north end of the beach. Facilities include restrooms, showers, picnic tables, and plenty of parking; look for access signs off Waikoloa Beach Road, about 1 mile west of Highway 19. No lifeguards.
Just off Queen Kaahumanu Highway, below the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, lies this crescent of gold sand—a half-mile long and up to 200 feet wide. In summer, when the beach is widest, the ocean calmest, and the crowds biggest, this is a terrific place for swimming, bodysurfing, and snorkeling. But beware of Hapuna in winter or stormy weather, when its thundering waves and strong rip currents should only be plied by local experts. Facilities at Hapuna Beach, part of the Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area, include A-frame cabins (for camping by permit), picnic tables, restrooms, showers, snack bar, water fountains, a lifeguard station, and parking. You can also pick up the coastal Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail here to Spencer or Holoholokai parks to the north and south, respectively.
Kaunaoa Beach (Mauna Kea Beach)
Nearly everyone refers to this gold-sand beach at the foot of Mauna Kea Beach Hotel by its hotel nickname, but its real name is Hawaiian for “native dodder,” a lacy, yellow-orange vine that once thrived on the shore. A coconut grove sweeps around this golden arc, where the water is calm and protected by two black-lava points. The sandy bottom slopes gently into the bay, which often fills with tropical fish, sea turtles, and manta rays, especially at night, when lights shine down from a viewing promontory. Swimming is excellent year-round, except in rare winter storms. Snorkelers prefer the rocky points, where fish thrive in the surge. Facilities include restrooms, showers, and public-access parking (go early). No lifeguards.
Spencer Park (Ohaiula Beach)
Virtually in the shadow of the massive Puukohola Heiau to the north, this is a great place to stop when heading to or from the scenic and historic sites in North Kohala. The gently sloping, white-yellow sand beach is Ohaiula, though most just call it “Spencer,” since it’s part of Samuel M. Spencer County Park. Protected by both a long reef and Kawaihae Harbor, the beach has relatively safe swimming year-round. Parking is plentiful, but it may fill up on weekends and holidays. From the intersection of highways 19 and 270, take Highway 270 a half-mile north to a left turn at the sign for the park and Puukohola Heiau, and follow this to either of two parking areas at the end of the road. Facilities include picnic tables, restrooms, showers, grassy lawns, and shade trees; lifeguards are on duty weekends and holidays. Campsites at either end of the beach often serve the area’s homeless population. (It’s safe during daylight hours, but I’d avoid walking through the tents section.) Note: The park is typically closed all day the second Wednesday and Thursday of each month September through May.
Waialea Bay (Beach 69)
Once a hidden oasis, this light-golden sandy beach in Puako, between the Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea resorts, earned its nickname from the number on a former telephone pole off Old Puako Road, which signaled one of the public-access points. Still tucked behind private homes, it’s now a proper beach park, with a paved parking lot, a trail to the beach, restrooms, and water fountains—but no lifeguards. The bay is generally calm in summer, good for swimming and snorkeling; waves can get big in winter, when surfers and bodyboarders tend to show up. From Kailua-Kona, take Highway 19 north to a left on Puako Road, and then a right on Old Puako Road; the access road to the parking area is on your left, near telephone pole No. 71 (the nickname has not caught up with the times).
Leleiwi Beach Park
This string of palm-fringed, black-lava tide pools fed by freshwater springs and rippled by gentle waves is a photographer’s delight—and the perfect place to take a plunge. In winter, big waves can splash these ponds, but the shallow pools are generally free of currents and ideal for families with children, especially in the protected inlets at the center of the park. Leleiwi often attracts endangered sea turtles, making this one of the island’s most popular snorkeling spots. Open 7am to 7pm, the beach park is 4 miles east of town on Kalaniana‘ole Avenue. Facilities include a lifeguard station (staffed weekends, holidays, and summer), picnic tables, pavilions, and parking. A second section of the park, known as Richardson’s Ocean Park, includes showers, restrooms, daily lifeguards, and the marine life exhibits of Richardson Ocean Center. Tip: If the area is crowded, check out the tide pools and/or small sandy coves in the five other beach parks along Kalanianaole Avenue between Banyan Drive and Leleiwi, especially the protected white-sand lagoon of Carlsmith Beach Park, just a 2-minute drive west. It has lifeguard service in summer and on weekends and holidays, as does the rocky but kid-friendly Onekahaha Beach Park, at the end of Onekahakaha Road off Kalanianaole Avenue, just under a mile west from Carlsmith.
Kolekole Beach Park
Not a place to enter the rough water, this streamside park is nonetheless an unusually picturesque spot for a picnic. The lush greenery around you contrasts with the black rock beach, aquamarine sea, and white sea foam where waves meet Kolekole Stream, several miles below Akaka Falls in Honomu. You may see local kids jumping from a rope swing into the stream, which also has a small waterfall. Facilities include picnic pavilions, grills, restrooms, and parking. It’s open 6am to 11pm. From Hilo, take Highway 19 north 11 miles to a left turn on Old Mamalahoa Highway, and take the first (sharp) right, which descends a quarter-mile down to the park. No lifeguard.
Most of the shoreline in this volcanically active area is craggy, with rough waters and dangerous currents, although the oceanfront thermal pond at Ahalanui and the Waiopae Tidepools are certainly worth seeking out. Pounding waves have reclaimed much of the newest black-sand beach near Kalapana, born in the 1990 lava flow that buried Kaimu Beach. It’s best viewed from the cliff above it, since rogue waves may suddenly break high on the beach. Note: Although nudism is common at secluded, unmarked Kehena Beach, it is illegal.
Papakolea (Green Sand) Beach
The island’s famous green-sand beach is located at the base of Puu o Mahana, an old cinder cone spilling into the sea. It’s difficult to reach; the open bay is often rough; there are no facilities, fresh water, or shade; and howling winds scour the point. Nevertheless, each year the unusual olive-brown sands—made of crushed olivine, a semiprecious green mineral found in eruptive rocks and meteorites—attract thousands of oglers. From Highway 11, between mile markers 69 and 70, take South Point Road about 8 miles south to a left fork for the Papakolea parking lot; be aware much of it is one lane. Driving from there to the top of the cinder cone is no longer permitted by the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, although enterprising locals now offer a round-trip shuttle for $10 to $20 (cash only); that’s preferable to the windy, challenging hike along the remaining 2 1/2 miles across unshaded dirt roads and lava rock (wear closed-toe shoes, sunglasses, and a hat, and bring lots of water). In either case, you’ll still need to clamber carefully down the steep eroded cinder cone to the sand. If the surf’s up, check out the beach from the cliff’s edge; if the water’s calm, you can go closer, but keep an eye on the ocean at all times (there are strong rip currents here).
Green sea turtles love to bask on this remote, black-sand beach, beautifully framed by palm trees and easily photographed from the bluff above. The deep-blue waters can be choppy; swim only in very calm conditions, as there’s no lifeguard present. You’re welcome to admire the turtles, but at a respectful distance; the law against touching or harassing them is enforced here (if not by authorities, then by locals who also like to congregate in the park). Park facilities include camping, restrooms, showers, picnic tables, pavilions, water fountains, a concession stand, and parking. There are two access roads from Highway 11, at 7 3/4 and 8 miles northeast of Naalehu. The first, Ninole Loop Road, leads past the rather unkempt Sea Mountain golf course to a turnoff for a paved parking lot by the bluff. The second access from Highway 11, Punaluu Road, has a turnoff for a smaller, unpaved parking area.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.