Stunning Mauna Kea Beach, Kauna'oa Bay, Big Island, HI

Kauna’oa Beach (Mauna Kea Beach), Big Island, HI: Complete 2024 Visitor Guide

Kauna’oa Beach, popularly known as Mauna Kea Beach. An incredible slice of tropical paradise on the Kohala coast of the Big Island of Hawaii!

Kauna’oa Beach, Big Island, is fronted by a stunning, intense blue, Kauan’oa Bay, and backed by the luxurious Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, one of Marriott’s Autograph Collection resorts.

With finely powdered, white sands and typically calm, ocean waters allowing for fun water activities, Kauna’oa Beach regularly appears in the top 10 US beaches list!

Beautiful Kauna'oa Beach (Mauna Beach), Big Island, Hawaii, USA
Beautiful Kauna’oa Beach (Mauna Beach), Big Island, Hawaii, USA

Despite all the accolades, Mauna Kea Beach is relatively uncrowded, for a simple reason: very difficult to find parking unless you come in early (about 8:00 am).

While all Hawaiian beaches are open to the public, Mauna Kea Beach is virtually a private beach for the sprawling Mauna Kea Resort, and they allow only 40 parking spaces for the general public.

Having visited Kauna’oa Beach multiple times, we’ll share with you all the tricks to get to this stunning beach, and once there, what are the best things to do, from outrigger canoeing to night time viewing of the graceful manta rays!

Planning a visit to the Big Island? Snorkeling Captain Cook at Kealakekua Bay should definitely be on your itinerary: check out our guide to the best Captain Cook snorkel tours!

Manta ray gliding through the ocean waters, feeding on plankton attracted to the spotlights
Manta ray gliding through the ocean waters, feeding on plankton attracted to the spotlights

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Kauna’oa Beach Directions

Set on the sunny Kohala Coast of Big Island, Kauna’oa Beach is about 30 miles north of the tourist hub of Kailua Kona.

Take the scenic Highway 19 past Kekaha Kai State Park and Hapuna Beach to Mauna Kea Beach Drive (mile marker 68), which winds down to the ocean and the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (expand the Kauna’oa Beach Map below for additional details).

Look for a lava rock wall with Mauna Kea on the side, and enter.

Sunset on Kauna'oa Beach (Mauna Kea), Big Island, Hawaii, USA
Sunset on Kauna’oa Beach (Mauna Kea), Big Island, Hawaii, USA

At the gate, ask for a public parking pass to the Mauna Kea Beach.

>> Book an exciting, 5-star rated, highly popular, Big Island tour now!

Kauna’oa Beach Parking

Knowing there are only 40 public parking spots, the first time we visited Mauna Kea Beach, we arrived early, about 7:30 am, and had no trouble getting one.

You still have to pay for parking (as of this writing, $20) at the machine near the parking spot.

What if you can’t come early? Plan on a weekday, and try to come around lunchtime then, hoping someone will be leaving. Or try the below options.

Valet Parking at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

The second time we visited Mauna Kea Beach, we came around 4:00 pm, and all the spots were gone (there was a sign at the gate to that effect).

The kids were hungry, and we opted for valet parking instead ($40 at that time), and let the guards at the security gate know we were here to try their restaurant.

If you eat at one of the restaurants, which we did for early dinner, you can get partial validation ($20 credit).

Beachside restaurant at Mauna Kea Resort, Kauna'oa Beach, Big Island, HI
Beachside restaurant at Mauna Kea Resort, Kauna’oa Beach, Big Island, HI

We just stayed back after dinner, and spent some time at Mauna Kea Beach as well! We enjoyed a fabulous sunset, and later viewed manta rays after dark from the Manta Ray point.

Parking at Hapuna Beach State Park

Your last option is to use the neighboring Hapuna Beach, which has ample public parking ($10 / vehicle for non-residents).

Walkway along the shoreline of Kauna'oa Bay, Big Island, HI
Walkway along the shoreline of Kauna’oa Bay, Big Island, HI

Enjoy Hapuna Beach and walk down along the coast to Mauna Kea Beach, about a mile (15 minutes roughly). Not only do you get to enjoy a beautiful coastal hike, you’ll also save $10 in parking!

Don’t forget, Hapuna Beach State Park gate closes at 8:00 pm, allow plenty of time to get back. Hiking along the coastal trail after sunset will be tricky as well.

Kauna’oa Beach Map

The Kauna’oa Beach map below shows the location of Kauna’oa Beach (Mauna Kea Beach), and the main attractions nearby. Please expand the map for details.

Kauna’oa Beach Access

From the public parking lot at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel to Kauna’oa Beach is roughly 1/4 mile or about 5 minutes walk on a nice, shaded path.

Kauna’oa Beach Reservations

Kauan’oa Beach doesn’t need any reservations.

>> Book an exciting, 5-star rated, highly popular, Big Island tour now!

Kauna’oa Beach Amenities / Facilities

Location: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kohala Coast, HI 96743
Lifeguard: No
Beach Amenities: Restrooms, showers
Food Nearby: Mauna Kea Resort restaurants
Parking: Paid parking, Mauna Kea Resort or Hapuna Beach parking lot
Directions: North on Highway 19 from Kailua Kona, left on Mauna Kea Beach Drive at mile marker 68

Picking a beach to visit backed by a ritzy resort has some perks, like clean restrooms, showers, rentals and food options.

The downside? Resort prices!

The Hau Tree at the Mauna Beach Resort is beachside and casual, offering snacks, lunch, dinner and drinks.

Next to the restaurant is a concession stand (you don’t have to be a hotel guest to rent) with beach umbrellas, snorkeling gear, boogie boards, and gear for many other water activities.

Surfboards for rent at Mauna Kea Resort on Kauana'oa Beach, Big Island, HI
Surfboards for rent at Mauna Kea Resort on Kauana’oa Beach, Big Island, HI

Best Things to Do at Kauna’oa Beach (Mauna Kea Beach)

Though small at about 1/2 a mile long, Kauna’oa Beach is a perfect picture postcard, with finely powdered, white sands, turquoise blue waters, and swaying coconut palm trees bordering the beach.

Picture postcard Kauna'oa Bay framed by plumeria trees, Big Island, HI
Picture postcard Kauna’oa Bay framed by plumeria trees, Big Island, HI

As to be expected, with a resort backing the beach, you’ll see a large number of beachside, cabana chairs with beach umbrellas, lining the side of the resort.

But more unusual for a beach so beautiful, we found it relatively uncrowded, especially after visiting the neighboring Hapuna Beach, equally beautiful, but busy!

The warm waters of Kauna’oa Bay are typically calm, especially in summer, and you’ll find all kinds of people enjoying water activities.

Calm summer waters at Kauna'oa Beach (Mauna Kea Beach), Big Island of Hawaii
Calm summer waters at Kauna’oa Beach (Mauna Kea Beach), Big Island of Hawaii

But note that no lifeguards on duty here, so enter the water at your own risk.

>> Book an exciting, 5-star rated, highly popular, Big Island tour now!

1. Snorkel at Mauna Kea Beach

Mauna Kea Beach, as shown in the below aerial photo, has extensive coral reefs on either end. When the waters are calm, which is usually the case, these reefs provide for some excellent snorkeling.

Extensive coral reefs at both ends of Mauna Kea Beach, Big Island, HI
Extensive coral reefs at both ends of Mauna Kea Beach, Big Island, HI

The reef on the southern side (your left, facing the ocean) is a bit easier to get to, and better for beginning snorkelers and kids.

The reef on the northern side is more extensive, but you need to swim out further along the lava rock wall to under the viewpoint for the best coral reefs, more for the experienced snorkeler.

In either case, I recommend you wear fins to help you.

We saw lots of beautiful tropical fish including yellow tangs, butterflyfish, wrasses and goatfish.

To recognize and identify these beautiful fish, refer to our Hawaiian fish snorkeling guide.

If you are looking to buy personal snorkeling gear instead of renting, check out these light travel-ready ones that we love to take to Hawaii!

2. Swim at Mauna Kea Beach

Mauna Kea Beach slopes gently into the ocean, with the result that you have shallow waters with a sandy ocean floor for some distance from the shore.

Shallow, calm waters on Kauna'oa Beach (Mauna Kea Beach), Big Island, HI
Shallow, calm waters on Kauna’oa Beach (Mauna Kea Beach), Big Island, HI

When waters are calm, the beach is excellent for a refreshing dip or swimming laps along the shore.

Winter waters are usually too rough, and without lifeguards to consult, entering the water is too risky. Often, treacherous rip currents develop during high surf in winter.

3. View Manta Rays at Night

If you’re visiting the Big Island of Hawaii, night time manta ray viewing is something that must be on your bucket list!

Manta rays feeding on plankton attracted by spotlights
Manta rays feeding on plankton attracted by spotlights

Your best option for manta ray viewing is a snorkeling or scuba-diving tour, where you can view manta rays clustered together in an uncanny, night time setting!

Not wanting to take a tour? Mauna Kea Beach Resort (as do many other oceanside resorts) turn on floodlights into the ocean water, attracting plankton.

Manta rays are graceful, winged-like giants that feed on the plankton, and you’ll often find a crowd of these gentle creatures collecting around the light.

A lookout called Manta Ray Point, part of the Mauna Kea Beach Resort, offers excellent viewing points from where you can see manta rays, silhouetted against the light, gliding around the ocean floor, feeding on the abundant plankton.

Viewpoints along Kauna'oa Bay, Big Island, HI
Viewpoints along Kauna’oa Bay, Big Island, HI

An incredible, breath-taking experience, not to be missed if you are on the Big Island of Hawaii!

>> Book an exciting, 5-star rated, highly popular, Big Island tour now!

4. Surf or Boogie Board at Kauna’oa Beach

In winter, with rough, larger waves, you’ll see a lot of surfers and boogie boarders riding these thrilling waves at Kauna’oa Beach.

Winter waves tend to be more for the experienced surfers, while summer swells are more suitable for beginners.

Surfboard on Mauna Kea Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
Surfboard on Mauna Kea Beach, Big Island, Hawaii

The concession stand at Mauna Kea Resort, next to the beachside restaurant, rents surfboards and boogie boards, even if you’re not a guest at the hotel. 

4. Kayak or Standup Paddle Board or Canoe

Summer waters are usually calm, and Kauna’oa Bay is a great place to try your hand at water activities on the open ocean waters like kayaking, standup paddleboarding or canoeing.

Larger, group outrigger canoes are available for rent, making for a great family outing.

Tourists in outrigger canoes, Kauna'oa Bay, Big Island, HI
Tourists in outrigger canoes, Kauna’oa Bay, Big Island, HI

The coastline views from the ocean waters are beautiful!

Our friends were more adventurous and tried standup paddleboarding, and reported balancing on the calm ocean waters wasn’t difficult, once they got used to it.

Standup paddleboarders in Kauna'oa Bay, Big Island, HI
Standup paddleboarders in Kauna’oa Bay, Big Island, HI

5. Sunbathe or Relax with a Book or Stroll along the Beach

Kauna’oa Beach is relatively small, but quite wide and uncrowded, so finding a quiet spot for sunbathing or relaxing with a book is not difficult.

Or splurge and rent a beachside cabana chair and sip one of the Hau Tree’s (the Mauna Kea Resort’s beachside restaurant) exotic cocktails. You’re on vacation after all!

Especially in winter, when surf is high, most of your activities should be on the fine, soft sands! We helped our kids and some other kids build a sand castle.

Strolling along Kauna'oa Beach, Big Island, HI
Strolling along Kauna’oa Beach, Big Island, HI

While the Mauna Kea Beach itself is small, you can still take a relatively decent hike along coastal trails, after you run out of the sandy beach.

My wife and I spent an evening exploring the trails and coves along the coast, while our kids were busy with water activities, and enjoyed the relaxing stroll!

>> Book an exciting, 5-star rated, highly popular, Big Island tour now!

6. Stay Back for Spectacular Sunsets

The Kohala coast of the Big Island is well-known for spectacular sunsets, and Kauna’oa Beach is no exception, and one of our favorite sunset locations!

You get a stunning array of colors touching every tinge of the yellow, gold, orange and red, as the sun sinks gracefully into the dark blue Pacific Ocean waters.

Stunning sunset at Mauna Kea Beach, Big Island, HI
Stunning sunset at Mauna Kea Beach, Big Island, HI

If you parked at Hapuna Beach parking lot, I recommend you view the sunset from Hapuna Beach, equally spectacular, and definitely easier to get back to your vehicle before the gates close at 8:00 pm.

7. Admire Turtles and Monk Seals on Mauna Kea Beach, Hawaii

What amazes us as we keep going back to Hawaii for vacations is the resurgence of some of the critically endangered marine life, especially post-Covid!

Hawaiian green sea turtles are no exception, and you can’t go to a beach on Big Island without encountering at least one or two.

Mauna Kea Beach, though small, still had some turtles basking in the sand, late afternoon and evenings.

Hawaiian green sea turtle or honu on the beach
Hawaiian green sea turtle or honu on the beach

You’ll see turtles while snorkeling as well, feeding on the plentiful algae and seaweed on the lava rocks and coral reefs.

Please stay at least 10 feet away, as per the guidelines of NOAA for endangered species.

While we didn’t spot any monk seals here, from conversations with locals on the beach, they do come here occasionally.

With expansive views of the ocean from Mauna Kea Beach and vantage points along the coast, you are likely to spot spinner dolphins and migrating humpback whales (in winter).

Humpback whale breaching the surface
Humpback whale breaching the surface

>> Book an exciting, 5-star rated, highly popular, Big Island tour now!

Other Activities near Kauna’oa Beach (Mauna Kea Beach)

If you fancy a round of golf, the oceanside courses at Mauna Kea Beach are amazing, with spectacular ocean views, and you have two award-winning golf courses to choose from.

Oceanside golf course at Mauna Kea Resort, Kauna'oa Beach, Big Island, HI
Oceanside golf course at Mauna Kea Resort, Kauna’oa Beach, Big Island, HI

If you’re a foodie, the Mauna Kea Resort and neighboring Westin Hapuna Beach Resort offer some excellent fine dining options with stunning oceanfront views and tropical resort ambiance.

In particular, the Manta Restaurant specializes in an ocean-to-table menu, and we loved the fish options here. Obviously, you should change from your beachwear, but most fine dining restaurants are relatively casual, and you won’t need a formal jacket.

If you haven’t been to a Hawaiian luau yet, check out the luau at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, often rated #1 on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Snorkeling and Water Activities Gear Checklist

Though you can rent snorkeling gear or use the ones that come with tours, we invested in our own gear, mainly due to Covid-19 (why take the risk?).

Tourists on outrigger canoe at Kauna'oa Bay, Mauna Kea Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
Tourists on outrigger canoe at Kauna’oa Bay, Mauna Kea Beach, Big Island, Hawaii

Ocean Safety Tips

Hawaii’s beaches are beautiful, but ocean activities can be dangerous. Ocean conditions are dynamic and can change without warning.

Here are some tips to enjoy the ocean and beaches safely:

  • ALWAYS heed posted warning signs.
  • Check conditions just before you arrive at your chosen beach, and watch conditions at the beach for a bit before you decide to enter the water.
  • Swim at a lifeguarded beach and ask the lifeguard for advice before you enter the water.
  • Never turn your back on the ocean, whether you are standing at the shore or on a cliff above. If you see wet rocks or sand, it means the water has been here recently.
  • Know your limitations, especially if you are not an experienced swimmer. If in doubt, do not go out.
  • If you choose to enter the water, go with a partner or in a group.
  • Know that alcohol can impair judgment and motor skills in the water.
  • Keep children close and always keep your eyes on what they are doing in the water.
  • Watch for sharp coral or rocks or sea urchins.
Rough waves and sharp lava rocks on Kauna'oa Beach, Big Island, HI
Rough waves and sharp lava rocks on Kauna’oa Beach, Big Island, HI

The Best Big Island Tours

Have you booked these top-rated Big Island tours yet?

Guided snorkeling with manta rays at night, a bucket-list underwater Big Island adventure to watch the amazing manta rays up close. Sightings guaranteed or go again.

Big Island in a Day excursion from Kona or Waikaloa, including Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, ‘Akaka Falls, and the Waipi’o Valley Lookout!

Snorkeling historic Kealakekua Bay, one of the top snorkel spots on the Big Island. Look for dolphins en route (plus whales in season)! Don’t want to snorkel? Take a dinner cruise instead.

Sunset and stargazing at the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest point in all of Hawaii! Travel up and down in a luxury 4X4 van. Hooded parkas and gloves provided!

Thrilling zipline adventure over KoleKole Falls, a 7-line Hilo ziplining experience that allows you to soar over lush forest vegetation and the 250-foot waterfall!

Renting a Car on the Big Island of Hawaii

Most visitors that travel to the Big Island choose to rent a car because the island is, well, BIG, and the Big Island must-see attractions are scattered around the island.

Depending on where you choose to base — Kona or Hilo are the main places visitors choose — you can pick up a rental car in either location.

We always use Discover Cars to book Kona car rentals or Hilo car rentals. They search across a variety of rental car companies, both budget and brand, to offer you the best deals, AND they offer free cancellations. Plus, there are no hidden fees.

>> Check availability and prices on Kona car rentals now!

>> Check availability and prices on Hilo car rentals now!

Where to Stay on the Big Island

Kailua-Kona, on the sunnier leeward side of the Big Island, ands Hilo, on the lush windward side, are the main bases on Hawaii Island, also known as the Big Island. Most visitors to the Big Island split their stay between these two places.

You will find the biggest choice of hotels and resorts in Kailua-Kona and Waikaloa, with both chains and boutiques, while Hilo has fewer hotels and inns.

The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort is an excellent choice if you are looking for a pristine beach out the front door. The Hilton Waikaloa Village is a great choice if you are traveling as a family.

The Mauna Lani on the Kohala Coast, just 40 minutes from Kailua-Kona, is a fabulous resort for a splurge. The SCP Hilo Hotel is the perfect base from which to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

You will find VRBO listings all over the island, especially in Kailua-Kona, Hilo, and Volcano (the base for travelers spending a night or more visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park).

We have stayed in VRBO rentals in Volcano as well as in Kailua-Kona and Hilo and we’ve found the choice and quality great.

>> Look for a Big Island vacation rental on VRBO now!

White rocks, corals and sail on the south end of Kauna'oa Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
White rocks, corals and sail on the south end of Kauna’oa Beach, Big Island, Hawaii

More Big Island Travel Inspiration

Planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii? Also known as Hawaii Island, the Big Island is home to some spectacular scenery and lots of activities.

Learn about the 4 national parks on the Big Island, including Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where you may be lucky enough to catch flowing lava!

Head to the southeast part of the island to admire Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, possibly the most striking of the Big Island’s black sand beaches, and read our guide to the rare green sand beach on the Big Island!

The state parks of the Big Island protect some of the island’s best treasures. A few miles north of Hilo, you will find Akaka Falls State Park, home to the 442-foot Akaka Falls.

Also on the scenic Hamakua Coast, stop to visit the lush and beautiful Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden, with its numerous varieties of tropical plants.

On the leeward side of the island, you’ll find many beautiful beaches. Must-visit Hapuna Beach is a picture-postcard tropical beach with its long stretch of white sand.

Kauna’oa Beach, also known as Mauna Kea Beach, is another white sand beach north of Kona you have to visit. It routinely makes the top 10 beaches in the USA list!

Part of the Kekahai Kai State Park, Manini’owali Beach is yet another stunning white sand beach on the Kohala Coast just north of Kailua-Kona.

South of Kailua Kona, you’ll find arguably the best snorkeling spot in all of Hawaii at the Captain Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay. Our guide to the best Captain Cook snorkeling tours will help you find the perfect tour for you!

Also on the South Kona Coast is Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, one of the Big Island’s national park sites that is historically and culturally significant. And, it’s very scenic!

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Discover everything you need to know to visit Kauna'oa Beach on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii! Also known as Mauna Kea Beach, this gorgeous beach features powdery white sand and usually calm waters.

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