Papakōlea: Hawaii’s Remarkable Green Sand Beach

Few places in the world come close to offering the diversity of beaches that Hawaii does, but Big Island beaches up the ante even further. From golden shores on the Kona coast to white sand coastlines in Kohala and black sand beaches in Naalehu, the Big Island doesn’t play. And for those who feel like they’ve done and seen it all, what awaits at the southern tip of the Big Island is a sight found in only a few other places around the world: Hawaii’s one and only green sand beach.

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What Beach in Hawaii Has Green Sand?

Hawaii is home to some of the most incredible beaches in the world, but perhaps none more unique than the Papakōlea green sand beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. A scarce gem, the Papakōlea green sand beach is one of only four green sand beaches in the entire world.

What Does Papakōlea Mean in Hawaiian?

Funnily enough, even though its sand is its most distinctive feature, Papakōlea isn’t named after the green sand. 

The Hawaiian name Papakōlea can be broken down into two words: papa and kōlea. Papa means “flats,” while kolea is the Hawaiian name for the Pacific golden plover (the name phonetically imitates the sound of the bird’s call). 

Papakolea green sand beach is a popular spot for bird watching thanks to the Pacific golden plover.

During the winter, the Pacific golden plover becomes a snowbird, traveling south from Siberia and Alaska to spend the colder months on one of Hawaii’s most famous beaches on the Big Island. 

Fun Fact: Green sand beach also goes by another name, Mahana Beach, after the cinder cone that gives the shore its distinctive green color.

Green Sand Beach FAQs

From its name to its sand, everything about Papakōlea is unique. Anxious to know more about this one-of-a-kind place? If you’re on the edge of your seat, get ready to travel to the edge of Hawaii as we fill you in on everything you need to know about the Papakōlea green sand beach.

Why Is the Sand at Papakōlea Green?

Before Papakōlea was the world-famous beach it is today, it was just another shoreline. The real eye-catching feature would have been the cinder cone volcano, Pu’u Mahana, sitting sentinel on the shore. Formed by volcanic eruptions from Mauna Loa, the largest volcano in Hawaii, the olivine-rich lava found in the cinder cone is to thank for Papakōlea’s unique coloring.

Referred to as Hawaiian Diamond, olivine is a common mineral found in Hawaiian lava. And while this means you can find other beaches in Hawaii with olivine crystals, none come close to the amount of olivine that Papakōlea green sand beach has. 

The green color of Papakolea beach comes from the olivine-rich cinder cone, Pu’u Mahana.

Combined with its location in the narrow bay, the tide here washes away much of the lighter basalt rock and black sand, leaving the much-denser green olivine crystals on the beach.

Because of this, the richness of the green sand beach can change daily. Depending on the amount of olivine compared to other particles on the beach, like black lava rocks and seashells, some days the green tint to the beach appears greener than others.

How Do You Get to Green Sands Beach in Hawaii?

Two hikers looking out over Papakolea beach.

Papakōlea beach sits just north of Ka Lae, or South Point, the southernmost point of the entire United States

Unlike other beaches in Hawaii, you can’t drive straight up to the green sand beach. First, you’ll need to drive to South Point. Start down Highway 11 and turn off onto South Point Road between mile markers 69 and 70. When you near the end of South Point Road, it’ll continue on the right to the southern tip of the island, but keep your eyes peeled for a turnoff to your left. There should be a sign pointing the way to the parking lot. 

From the parking area, start hiking toward the ocean. You should reach a boat ramp on the shore in about half a mile. Once here, make a left and follow the coast to Papakōlea green sand beach.  

The hike is roughly 2.5 miles long and takes about an hour each way. While it’s not a challenging hike, it can be grueling, with little shade but lots of dust and sand. However, the view at the end makes up for it: a secluded green sand beach surrounded by a stunning landscape and breathtaking ocean views.

Can You Drive to Papakōlea Green Sand Beach?

It’s actually illegal to drive to Papakōlea beach. On top of most rental car companies not allowing off-roading, the land is owned by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL), which has outright banned it.

However, despite being illegal, you’ll find locals offering visitors rides from the parking lot to the green sand beach for $15 to $20 per person. Unfortunately, this kind of activity does irreparable damage to the ecosystem and sacred lands. As such, the only respectful way to visit the green sand beach is to hike there.

Can You Swim in Green Sand Beach Hawaii?

Visitors swimming in the water at Papakolea beach.

Although the south shore is notorious for its rough surf, you can swim at the green sand beach. When the ocean is calm, swimming offshore of one of the world’s most extraordinary beaches is a one-of-a-kind experience. However, with no lifeguard present, pay attention to the weather and surf.

Of course, if you’d rather lounge on the soft green sand, you have a quarter mile of beach to find your perfect spot and lay out. The contrast of the turquoise water against the green sand and dark rock of the volcanic crater is breathtaking whether you enjoy it from the waves or the sand. Whatever you decide, just remember to pick up after yourself and leave no trace.

Can You Hike at the Green Beach in Hawaii?

You can hike at the green sand beach in Hawaii. In fact, it’s the only way to get there. From the parking lot, it’s a two-and-a-half-mile hike to Papakōlea beach. The path travels along the coast and passes sacred sites like heiau (ancient temples), one of the many reasons driving to the green sand beach is illegal. So, watch your step! 

While it takes about an hour, the hike is only moderately challenging. It’s worth the trek to take in the spectacular sea views alone, but the ultimate destination of the green sand beach makes this a must-do hike for visitors to South Point. 

What’s the Best Time to Visit Green Sand Beach in Hawaii?

The time you choose to go to Papakōlea beach is crucial because it can affect your time getting there and enjoying the beach. Consequently, visiting early is best. 

While hiking to the green sand beach is long and dusty, the cooler morning temperatures offer a respite from the worst of the heat. It also means you can spend the time the sun is at its zenith splashing in the cool waters at Papakōlea. The beach has only become more popular in recent years, so planning your visit during the week will help you avoid the worst crowds.

Pro-tip: Check the tide chart before you go. During high tide, the accessible beach can shrink to a narrow strip of sand.

Is the Green Sand Beach Really Green?

So, just how green is the green sand beach? Truthfully, not that green. If you’re expecting emerald-hued shores, you may find yourself leaving disappointed. 

Though the beach is made up of green crystals, olivine is more—you guessed it—olive in color than bright green. When the sand gets wet, this is even more apparent. 

Most photos of the green sand beach have been edited to make the shore appear greener than it is. But don’t let that dissuade you from going—the green sand beach in Hawaii is still a sight to behold.

Is Green Sand Beach Worth It?

As one of only four green sand beaches in the world, the green sand beach on Hawaii Island is worth the trip to get there. A one-hour, dusty walk reveals a secluded cove where blue waves lap at green shores—few other pictures in the world can compare.

While the grueling hike may be enough to turn some away, the payoff is stepping foot on one of the rarest beaches in the world. And as it’s the only one of its kind found on the Hawaiian islands, this is one crazy bucket list experience for the books.

Are There Any Nearby Attractions to Green Sand Beach?

Other popular Big Island attractions surround Papakōlea. South Point lies just beyond the parking lot for the green sand beach and is a popular spot to experience the elements. Only the sea, wind, and sky go on beyond South Point. 

Less than an hour away, visitors can see active glowing lava at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or step foot on another rare sand beach at Punalu’u black sand beach. In addition to sporting classic palms and an enchanting atmosphere, Punalu’u is popular with sea turtles, too, so you may find yourself sharing the warm black sand with a few reptile companions.

Whether you need to replace Papakōlea beach with another attraction or fill out your trip itinerary with as many activities as possible, you won’t have to search for things to do on the Big Island.

Tips for Visiting the Green Sand Beach in Hawaii

Papakōlea beach has zero amenities unless you count the picnic bench overlooking the shore. Consequently, you’ll want to ensure you’re prepared for the long journey there and back.

  1. Wear hiking shoes. The terrain is relatively flat but rough, thanks to plenty of lava rocks, so sturdy shoes are a must.
  2. Go early. Cooler temperatures in the morning make the hike easier and more pleasant to get through.
  3. Bring water, a hat, and sunscreen. You won’t find any shade along the way, so be sure to bring water and protective gear like a hat or sunscreen to shield against the sun.
  4. Don’t take the green sand home. While we all love souvenirs, the sand at Papakōlea beach is precious, and leaving it where it belongs will ensure the shores of Papakōlea remain green for years to come.

Next Vacay Gets You the Best Flight Deals to Hawaii’s Green Sand Beach

Before you can worry about hiking to Papakōlea green sand beach, you’ll need to get to the Big Island. Luckily for you, Kona International Airport sees its fair share of visitors. And the easiest way to be one of them is with a deal from Next Vacay.

Next Vacay’s team of skilled deal hunters scours the web for the best deals to hot destinations worldwide, including the Big Island and its sister isles. When a deal becomes available, you get a notification in your inbox, and minutes later, you can be booked and ready to go. 

If it’s your dream to walk across the only green sand beach in Hawaii or just jet off on an island getaway, Next Vacay is your ticket to paradise.

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