Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, HI: Complete 2024 Visitor Guide

Papakolea Green Sand Beach. Yes, you read it right – green sand beach!

How do you get a green sand beach? The green color is imparted by olivine crystals that were part of ancient lava flows.

Papakolea (aka Puʻu Mahana) is an ancient volcanic cinder cone that partially collapsed into the ocean, and the remnants, a crescent-shaped tuff ring rich in olivine mineral deposits, are gradually being eroded.

When this olivine-rich lava is eroded from the continuous pounding action of the ocean water and waves, the olivine crystals, being heavier than the basaltic sand, remain deposited on the beach, hence the green sands!

Papakolea Green Sand Beach, a stunning green sand beach in Hawaii, at the bottom of a volcanic tuff ring
Papakolea Green Sand Beach, a stunning green sand beach in Hawaii, at the bottom of a volcanic tuff ring

Unfortunately, while you can easily access family-friendly, black sand beaches on the Big Island like the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, the only green sand beach on Big Island is not easy to get to.

We had to hike a roughly 2.5-3.0 mile trail, and then climb down a steep volcanic cone slope to the beach.

But the payoff is definitely worth it, and likely is the one and only green sand beach we’ll have seen in our lifetime.

Your interest piqued? Let us help you plan your trip to Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii, and the things to do there.

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!

Green sands and blue ocean waters, dramatic contrasts at Papakolea Green Sand Beach
Green sands and blue ocean waters, dramatic contrasts at Papakolea Green Sand Beach

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Papakolea Beach Trailhead Directions

Located on the extreme southern corner of the island, Papakolea Green Sand Beach is (legally) reachable only after hiking a 2.5 mile dirt trail over ancient lava fields, now pasture lands.

To get to the trailhead, take Highway 11 south to South Point Road, which comes between mile markers 69 and 70.

South Point Road takes you down to the southern end of the island, and forks with a sign pointing left for the Green Sand Beach. Stay on the left side and continue to the end of the road to a parking lot and the trailhead.

Papakolea Green Sand Beach, a remote and secluded beach at the southern end of Big Island of Hawaii
Papakolea Green Sand Beach, a remote and secluded beach at the southern end of Big Island of Hawaii

Papakolea Beach Trailhead Parking

Parking at the trailhead was absolutely a breeze when we went, lots of open spots in this large parking area.

We were solicited by locals offering to shuttle us to the beach and back for a price. The shuttle service is illegal, and you should avoid it.

Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, HI, can be accessed by tourists with 4-wheelers on a dirt road, but prohibited due to erosion concerns
Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, HI, can be accessed by tourists with 4-wheelers on a dirt road, but prohibited due to erosion concerns

The owner of the pasture lands, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, banned tourists from driving 4-wheelers due to erosional damage to the ecosystem and the sacred ancient sites.

Your rental contract will prohibit you from driving the vehicle to the beach.

Papakolea Green Sand Beach Map

The Papakolea Beach map below shows the location of Papakolea Beach, and the main attractions nearby.

Hike the Trail to Papakolea Green Sand Beach

The 2.5 mile long trail to Papakolea Green Sand Beach takes roughly an hour to hike, over relatively flat, ancient lava fields that are now pasture lands.

The trail is along the coast, and when we came to forks, which were many since there are networks of trails, we stayed along the coast or keep the coast in sight.

Some parts of the trail are rocky, others are dusty, and sometimes the wind would pick up and blow dust.

Trails to Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, HI
Trails to Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, HI

We used good hiking shoes and switched to water shoes at the beach.

We found lack of shade to be the main hurdle on this hike, so take a lot of water, protect yourself from the sun with reefsafe sunscreen, and head out early to beat the heat.

From the parking lot, after a few minutes we came to Kaulana Boat Ramp, used for launching boats into Kaulana Bay, and then the trail curved to the left along the ocean.

Along the trail, we saw some heiau (ancient temples), sometimes nothing more than rock and stone remnants. Please be respectful and do not disturb the structures.

Getting to Papakolea Green Sand Beach

After about 2.5 miles, you’ll reach Papakolea Green Sand Beach. You can get some excellent photos from the first viewing of the beach, and also if you continue along the trail to the other end of the crescent-shaped volcanic tuff ring.

At the north end of the rim of the cinder cone is a path down to the beach, which includes a staircase, clambering down some rocks, and a steep path down the conical side.

Initial ladder on volcanic cone slope to take you to Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii
Initial ladder on volcanic cone slope to take you to Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii

Apart from the ladder, the climb down can definitely be a challenge, especially if you don’t like heights. We stayed close to the lava cliff wall on the right, which was a bit of a comfort to touch and hold.

Papakolea Green Sand Beach Reservations

Currently, no reservations or permits are needed for visiting the Papakolea Green Sand Beach. No entry fees as well.

Papakolea Green Sand Beach Amenities / Facilities

Location: Ka Lae (South Point), Kau, Big Island of Hawaii
Lifeguard: No
Beach Amenities: Picnic tables
Food Nearby: None. Occasional food truck at parking lot
Parking: Free public parking at trailhead
Directions: Highway 11 south to South Point Road, keep left at the fork

Papakolea Green Sand Beach is a secluded beach, pristine and unspoiled. No facilities at the beach.

Beautiful and pristine Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, HI
Beautiful and pristine Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, HI

When we visited there was a food truck at the trailhead parking lot, and the Hawaiian tacos they served were delicious!

Porta potties were available at the parking lot.

Make sure you stop at Ama’s Kitchen (see Papakolea Green Sand Beach map above), we loved the food there!

We heard good reviews of Ka Lae Garden Thai Food, but didn’t get time to stop there.

Best Things to Do at Papakolea Green Sand Beach

1. Take in the Views from the Tuff Rim

The views from the rim of the volcanic tuff ring are stunning, especially when we made our way to the edges of the crescent.

You can continue beyond the ladder to the far extreme point of the semi-circle to get some beautiful photos of the conical slopes, the green sands and the blue ocean waters, framed by lava sea cliffs on the sides.

Views from the far corner of the crescent-shaped rim of Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, HI
Views from the far corner of the crescent-shaped rim of Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, HI

But be careful, we had to clamber up and down lava rocks, and the footing was uncertain in places.

2. Admire the Green Sands on Papakolea Beach

That’s why we were there after all!

Oddly enough, the intensity of the green coloration seemed to vary significantly depending on the sun’s position, and its lighting and reflection.

Ocean waters lapping the green sands of Papakolea Beach, Big Island of Hawaii
Ocean waters lapping the green sands of Papakolea Beach, Big Island of Hawaii

At times, the sands were clearly green, at others, more golden brown with a tinge of greenness.

If you’re expecting intense green or emerald green, you will be disappointed, the coloration is more mild green or light green.

We picked a fistful of sand to show the olivine crystals to our kids, but make sure you don’t take anything back with you!

Green olivine crystals interspersed with grains of sand at Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, HI
Green olivine crystals interspersed with grains of sand at Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, HI

We saw distinct green hues on the slopes of the cinder cone, marking the olivine mineral deposits carried with the lava flows.

Green hues on the slopes of Papakolea Green Sand Beach, indicating olivine mineral deposits
Green hues on the slopes of Papakolea Green Sand Beach, indicating olivine mineral deposits

3. Papakolea Green Sand Beach Swimming

When we visited Papakolea Green Sand Beach, the waters were calm and the waves were quite gentle.

Tourists cooling off in the warm waters of Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii
Tourists cooling off in the warm waters of Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii

Chatting with a couple of locals, we learned the currents here can be treacherous, so be careful not to venture too far from the shore.

We had a refreshing dip to cool off after the hike, but stayed close to shore.

We did see youths swimming in the open ocean waters further from the shore, they were most likely locals familiar with the beach.

There are no changing facilities, we wore our swimsuits under our hiking clothes.

4. Sunbathe or Relax with a Book on the Papakolea Green Sand Beach

Papakolea Green Sand Beach is quite small, but given its remoteness and difficulty in getting to the beach, you’ll find ample space to relax on the finely powdered sands.

I usually like to lounge on the sands when we first get here, take in the ambiance and the beauty of the natural surroundings, before heading into the waters to cool off a bit.

People relaxing on the finely powdered green sands of Papakolea Beach, Big Island of Hawaii
People relaxing on the finely powdered green sands of Papakolea Beach, Big Island of Hawaii

We saw many people doing the same, sunbathing or relaxing with a book.

The beach tends to get more crowded towards the afternoon and evening, so if, like us, you want some quiet time at the beach, get in early.

5. Stay Back for Spectacular Sunsets

Sunset colors at Papakolea Green Sand Beach are stunning, and worth staying back for.

Beautiful sunset colors at Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii
Beautiful sunset colors at Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii

Most people tend to catch the sunset from the rim or along the coast on the way back, since hiking back after dark is not advisable.

If you do decide to stay for the sunset, be warned it gets pitch dark quickly. Make sure you take headlamps and torches, and be aware of the risks.

When we visited with small kids, we chose to actually head to South Point Cliff Dive (a short detour drive on the way back, see the Papakolea Green Sand Beach map above) for the sunset.

Boy, were we glad we stopped here – truly amazing colors, and one of the most spectacular sunsets we’ve viewed!

6. Admire Turtles and Monk Seals on Papakolea Green Sand Beach

While we didn’t spot any Hawaiian green sea turtles or monk seals basking in the sand when we went, from chatting with locals, apparently they are quite common here, especially towards late evening.

These are protected animals, please keep your distance (at least 10 feet per NOAA).

We did see a couple of turtles swimming in the water (actually, we didn’t spot them, a couple of keen-sighted kids did, and immediately attracted a crowd of onlookers)!

Hawaiian green sea turtle swimming near the beach
Hawaiian green sea turtle swimming near the beach

On the hike to Papakolea Green Sand Beach, our kids spotted a pod of spinner dolphins off the coast, and were delighted to see them breaching and spinning in the air!

If you’re visiting in winter, you may see migrating humpback whales along the hike or from the rim of Papakolea Green Sand Beach.

Other Activities at Papakolea Green Sand Beach

Given the remoteness of the beach, you won’t find much else to do here than the things we’ve mentioned above.

When we were there, we saw a few people kayaking and boogie boarding, because the ocean waters were calm in summer and amenable to these activities.

For the most part, the people doing this were locals, who probably brought the gear in their trucks. Lugging a kayak or even a boogie board on a 2.5 mile trek requires a lot of dedication!

Remote, secluded Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii
Remote, secluded Papakolea Green Sand Beach, 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?).

Beautiful Papakolea Green Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii
Beautiful Papakolea Green Sand Beach on the Big Island of 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.
Be careful on the steep climb down to Papakolea Green Sand Beach, and the rough waves
Be careful on the steep climb down to Papakolea Green Sand Beach, and the rough waves

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!

Tourists at Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii, one of four green sand beaches in the world
Tourists at Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii, one of four green sand beaches in the world

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