The Big Island of Hawaii is home to one of only four green beaches on the planet- Papakōlea Beach. The sand here gets its unusual hue from green olivine crystals, the remnants of an ancient volcanic cinder cone. While this beach is inarguably bucketlist worthy, you’ll have to work to enjoy its colorful shores, by making a 2.9 miles trek one-way down the rugged coastline.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Green Sand Beach, the Big Island’s most unique beach.
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Pssst… visiting the Big Island? Check out our other posts on this incredible place: Kona vs. Hilo- Where Should You Stay? Snorkeling at Captain Cook: Everything You Need to Know About the Best Snorkeling on the Big Island Mauna Kea Hike: Everything You Need to Know About Hiking the Tallest Mountain in the World
About the Green Sand Beach Hike
Your dog will get ABSOLUTELY covered with bright orange dirt, but otherwise, they’re welcome to join you on the trail!
About Green Sand Beach
Green Sand Beach, also known as Mahana Beach or simply Papakolea Beach, is located just east of the southernmost point of the United States on the Big Island.
Now, you may be wondering why the Green Sand Beach is, well, green. It’s all thanks to our good old friend, science!
This beach was the site of a volcanic eruption some 49,000 years ago, when a cinder cone of Mauna Loa (which is still considered the world’s largest active volcano!) spewed olivine-rich lava into the bay. Due to the heaviness of olivine and the Green Sand Beach’s location within a narrow bay, the green crystals have just accumulated on the beach as the lighter types of volcanic sand are swept out to sea.
How to Get to Green Sand Beach
The Green Sand Beach on the Big Island is located in the town of Naalehu, along the southern part of the coastline. It’s located relatively equidistant from both towns that travelers usually stay on the Big Island: Kona or Hilo.
The beach is a little over an hour and a half from Kona, known for its stunning beaches, coffee farms, and mantra ray snorkeling, and a little under two hours from Hilo, known for its lush rainforests, towering waterfalls, and volcanic warm ponds, like Pohoiki Hot Springs.
Regardless of where you’re staying on the Big Island, you can easily plug the trailhead to the beach into your chosen navigation app, but make sure to download offline maps for your GPS app and the trail map on AllTrails ahead of time. Cell signal is, at best, quite spotty in this area.
Pssst… you need the AllTrails Pro version of the app to download offline maps, but you can get a 7-day free trial here. If you're wondering whether the app is for you, we wrote a whole post on whether AllTrails Pro is worth it.
There’s a nice big parking lot by the trailhead and even a little stand selling snacks and cold drinks if you need any sustenance for the journey ahead.
To reach Green Sand Beach, you’ll need to walk along one of the best hikes on the Big Island, across a series of rolling sand dunes and arid grassland.
Departing from the trailhead, you’ll start walking downhill and shortly thereafter, reach a boat launch area. From here, you’ll turn left and walk along the coastline for approximately 2.7 miles, passing beautiful coves of volcanic rock, rugged tidepools, and the shimmering turquoise ocean.
Note that the four-wheel drive vehicles that illegally transport visitors (more on that later!) have carved countless roads and trails into the dunes, so there’s no one particular “right” path to follow. Just make sure to hug the coastline and it’ll be impossible to miss the beach!
The walk along the coastline is absolutely stunning and not particularly challenging, only gaining just 370 feet along the path. But for some reason (I’m not sure if it was the hot Hawaiian sun or the wind aggressively whipping red dirt at us), this hike felt longer than expected. So come prepared with snacks and plenty of water!
You may notice while you’re at the trailhead that there’s technically another way to get to the beach- to hitch a ride with one of the many locals who drive bunches of beachgoers in the back of their trucks. One-way will cost each person about $15 to $20 in cash.
Some things to note about these vehicles:
- The land between the trailhead and the beach features fragile grasslands and dunes and the coastline itself is home to many culturally significant artifacts, like heiaus (or ancient temples).
Accordingly, the owner of this land, the Department of Hawaii Home Lands, has prohibited the commercial vehicular access to the beach- meaning the many, many vehicles that haul literal truckloads of tourists to the beach every day are all operating illegally and damaging the environment.
- There’s no actual roads here- just massive ruts eroded into the dunes by these trucks and Jeeps. I’ve seen a number of complaints on various forums, like Tripadvisor, that some riders felt unsafe or even afraid for their lives while standing in these truck beds- which, having seen the “roads’” conditions, is not surprising.
All that being said, I’d strongly advise against being driven to the beach. Let’s protect Hawaii and keep it beautiful!
The beach is located at the base of a deep bowl, with rocky cliffs towering a hundred-plus feet over the sand and the turquoise water below.
No matter how you get to the beach, you’ll need to scramble down a series of stairs and pathways eroded into a very steep hill to reach the shores, so I’d definitely recommend wearing some kind of hiking sandals to offer additional support and traction for this climb (I’m obsessed with my Tevas and my husband, Justin, loves his as well).
Once you’ve reached the sand, this gorgeous beach is yours to enjoy! The waves here are usually quite large and more suitable for body surfing, instead of swimming or snorkeling. But there’s no better way to spend a morning than simply taking in the green sand under your toes and the deep blue water stretching endlessly in front of you.
Pssst… if you're looking for some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island, Kealakekua Bay has some of the best we’ve ever experienced in our lives! Check out our recent video below, where we hike along the Captain Cook Monument Trail and snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay.
Best time to visit the Green Sand Beach
Papakolea Beach is fairly small, but luckily, it doesn’t get too crazy crowded, thanks to its remoteness and the difficulty of reaching its shores.
That being said, it’s grown increasingly popular over the past few years, so, for the best chance of having it all to yourself, I’d recommend getting here in the early morning. As an added benefit, the entire trail is completely unshaded and can feel brutally hot, so, by arriving early, you’ll beat the hottest part of the day!
You also may want to take a peek at the tide chart before you go. I didn’t even think to check the tide before we headed here, but we happened to arrive during high tide, when the stretch of exposed sand was quite narrow. The more you know!
Tips for the Green Sand Beach
- It’s not SUPER green. Okay, I’m going to level with you. When you look at the grains of sand up close, especially when they’re wet, they have a deep olive hue.
At a glance, though, the sand just looks… kinda brown. A lot of the online pictures that you’ve seen of this beach, depicting it with deep emerald colors, have been heavily edited to emphasize its greenness.
Don’t get me wrong. The beach is incredibly stunning and definitely worth including on your Big Island itinerary. But if you expect to see shores of emerald green, you’re probably going to leave disappointed.
- Come prepared for the sun. Averaging only 9 inches of rainfall annually, this portion of the island is more or less a desert, with hot and exceedingly dry days. There’s also no shade along the trail or on the beach- so be sure to bring along reef-safe sunscreen to protect your skin from those nasty UV rays, as well as more water than you think you’ll need.
Justin and I have these Nalgene bottles that we take everywhere and I LOVE them. Not only are they better for the planet than single-use bottles, but they also are easier on our wallets. So much winning!
- Understand the beach’s limitations. As you might expect for a beach that you have to hike almost three miles to, there’s limited amenities here- and by limited, I mean none. There’s no snack or drink stands, bathrooms, umbrellas, lifeguards- nothing but you, the green sand, and the Pacific Ocean. Plan accordingly.
If you’re looking for a slightly more family-friendly, yet unique beach nearby, I’d recommend checking out Punaluʻu Beach, about 40 minutes northeast of the trailhead. This black sand beach is out-of-this-world gorgeous, has tons of sea turtles (in fact, it’s one of the best places to snorkel on the Big Island with honu!), and amenities, like bathrooms and a lifeguard.
- Practice the leave no trace principles. This is an incredibly special place (did you hear me when I said there’s only four of these babies on the planet?!), so let’s treat her with the care and respect she deserves! Pick up and pack out your trash and don’t take any green sand home with you as a souvenir.
In fact, there’s a local legend that Pele, the volcano goddess, views Hawaiian rocks and sand as her babies and will curse anyone who removes them from the island. And you don’t want to have a literal volcano goddess peeved at you, do you?!
- Be prepared to get dirty. Beyond being hot and dry, there are two other facts you should know about the trail- (1) it’s very windy and (2) it has the world’s finest red dirt that said wind loves to blow around.
Justin’s and my lower torsos got completely covered in a fine red powder along the trail. So I’d refrain from wearing your best white suit on the trail (or really, anything you care a lot about) and even packing along some baby wipes to clean off before getting back in your rental car.
What are you waiting for? Go enjoy the Green Sand Beach on the Big Island! Let me know if you have any questions about visiting this unique gem in the comments below!