Punaluu black sand beach, Big Island, Hawaii

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, HI: Complete 2024 Visitor Guide

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Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, Hawaii! Breathtaking!

Sparkling, jet-black sand. Intense blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Lush green vegetation.

Black sand beaches are a rarity, only found on the newer islands like Maui and the Big Island, and are a direct reflection of the tumultuous volcanic birth of these islands.

So visiting beautiful Punalu’u Black Sand Beach should definitely be on your list of things to do on the Big Island.

The black sand on Punalu’u Beach is formed by the instant disintegration of hot molten lava into millions of fragments when it hits the colder ocean waters.

You won’t find black sand beaches on Oahu or Kauai, at least the jet-black ones. The black sand has long since eroded away, swallowed by the ocean.

With no new lava flow from active volcanoes to replenish the black sand, these beaches disappeared ages ago.

Jet black sand, lush green vegetation and intense blue waters at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
Jet black sand, lush green vegetation and intense blue waters at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, Hawaii

Because of its scarcity, the black sand on Punalu’u Black Sand Beach and other black sand beaches in Hawaii are protected, and it is illegal to remove black sand, or even take a bit as a souvenir.

Besides, Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, jealously protects her lava rocks and dust, you definitely don’t want her curse of bad luck following you out of Hawaii!

Want to learn more about black sand beaches and how to visit Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii? Join us, and let’s explore the best things to do here!

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

Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, coconut palm trees, and freshwater pond
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, coconut palm trees, and freshwater pond

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Best Big Island Tours Covering Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

Island hopping and short on time? A guided island tour that includes Punalu’u Black Sand Beach on its route may be a great option, with pickup from your hotel or a convenient central location.

Several tours are available, and here are some of the 5-star rated, highly popular ones:

Big Island in a Day: Volcanoes Waterfalls Sightseeing and History

One of the most popular (and 5-star rated!) of the Big Island tours, and limited to 12 people for a better experience, this tour includes Punalu’u Black Sand Beach and the Waipio Valley Lookout, along with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, waterfalls, and more!

>> Check pricing and availability on the Big Island in a Day: Volcanoes Waterfalls Sightseeing and History tour now!

Big Island Highlights: Coffee, Volcano, Black Sands & Waterfall

Another popular and 5-star rated, Big Island tour, Big Island Highlights: Coffee, Volcano, Black Sands & Waterfall, covers Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, along with other Big Island attractions like Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Rainbow Falls and Kona coffee farms.

>> Check pricing and availability on the Big Island Highlights: Coffee, Volcano, Black Sands & Waterfall tour now!

Small Group Big Island Twilight Volcano and Stargazing Tour

This popular small group tour stops at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, along with other attractions like dramatic waterfalls, coffee farms, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

>> Check pricing and availability on the Small Group Big Island Twilight Volcano and Stargazing Tour tour now!

Here are the three best Big Island tours described above:

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Directions

Most black sand beaches on Big Island are difficult to get to, either in remote, inaccessible places or requiring difficult hikes.

One major exception: Punalu’u Black Sand Beach!

Though on the remote, southeast coast of Big Island, Punalu’u Beach is just off Highway 11, the Hawaii Belt Road.

Aerial view of Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, HI
Aerial view of Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, HI

Exit on the Ninole Loop Road (between Naalehu and Pahala). Refer to the Punalu’u Beach map below for details.

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

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Parking

If you’re coming from Hilo, the first turn into the Ninole Loop Road takes you to the north end of the beach and a dirt parking lot next to the freshwater pond, the concession stand and the lifeguard tower.

Concession stand selling fruits, snacks and drinks at Punalu'u Beach Park, Big Island, HI
Concession stand selling fruits, snacks and drinks at Punalu’u Beach Park, Big Island, HI

The second turn into the loop road takes you to a much larger parking lot at the south end of the beach, next to the restrooms, showers and picnic tables.

The beach is quite small, so it doesn’t matter where you park, you are few minutes walk from the other end.

Both parking lots are currently free.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Map

The Punalu’u Black Sand Beach map below shows the location of Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, and the main attractions nearby.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Access

The parking lots are right next to the beach, and you can walk down from your parking spot onto the black sands.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Reservations

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach requires no reservations, and has no entrance fees. However, if you plan to camp, you will need a permit.

Note, only day camping is allowed at Punalu’u Beach Park.

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

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Amenities / Facilities

Location: Between Naalehu and Pahala, South Kau Region
Lifeguard: Yes
Beach Amenities: Restrooms, showers, picnic tables
Food Nearby: Concession stand
Parking: Two free public parking lots
Directions: Highway 11 to Ninole Loop Road

Lifeguards are present at the beach daily between 08:30 am and 5:00 pm.

Lifeguard tower at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, HI
Lifeguard tower at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, HI

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

Best Things to Do at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

Formed from hot, molten lava from Kilauea volcano, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach consists of coarse black sand, pellet-sized pebbles polished by the waves, and lava boulders, smooth and ropy remnants of pahoehoe flow.

Pahoehoe lava flow rocks (ropy) along the south end of Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Hawaii
Pahoehoe lava flow rocks (ropy) along the south end of Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Hawaii

Lava flows are basaltic and black, and the fragments from these flows are black as well, hence the black sand.

But the black sand is not the only curiosity here!

With many freshwater springs in the surrounding region flowing underground into the ocean, the ocean waters have a unique two-layered feel, with the cold freshwater floating to the top of the denser and warmer ocean salt water.

According to Hawaiian folklore, the name Punalu’u which means “spring water to dive for” comes from ancient Hawaiians diving into the ocean to fill up gourds with freshwater during times of severe drought.

You even have a large, beautiful freshwater pond, hidden behind the coconut palm trees bordering the beach at the north end to explore.

Towering palm trees along the Punalu'u Beach border
Towering palm trees along the Punalu’u Beach border

The ocean waters can be rough, and there are strong and treacherous currents. In addition, the ocean floor is rocky. Be very careful if you decide to enter the waters, and check with the lifeguard on duty.

1. Admire the Black Sands at Punalu’u Beach

The black sands at Punalu’u Beach are generally coarse, and, as you walk along the beach, in areas, you’ll find pellet-sized stones to boulder-sized lava rocks.

The color of the sands are from the basaltic lava rock, and the black sands at Punalu’u Beach glisten in the light, due to their glass-like nature.

Pellet-sized black stones at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Big Island
Pellet-sized black stones at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island

Walk down the beach to the rocks at the south end (be careful, they may be slippery when wet), from where you can get a panoramic view of the entire beach.

The shimmering black sand contrasts dramatically with the lush green vegetation and the intense blue ocean waters, presenting an incredible photo opportunity for your Instagram!

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

2. Visit the Freshwater Punalu’u Pond

On the far side of the beach, at the north end, beyond the swaying coconut palm trees is a beautiful freshwater pond, the surface replete with water hyacinths.

Freshwater pond with water hyacinths on Punalu'u Black Sand Beach
Freshwater pond with water hyacinths on Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

The pond is quite large, and attracts pretty Hawaiian water birds. The last time we were there we saw a few Muscovy ducks swimming in the waters.

Muscovy duck on Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, HI
Muscovy duck on Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, HI

3. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Snorkeling

Snorkeling at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is not the best snorkeling in Big Island, with the water visibility quite poor.

But then you do get to spot Hawaiian green sea turtles and Hawksbill turtles in these water, and often, quite easily, because of the abundant red seaweed and algae here.

Make sure you bring all your snorkeling gear, and I highly recommend water shoes since getting into the water will mean navigating sharp lava rocks and pebbles.

Snorkeler heading into the waters of Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Big Island
Snorkeler heading into the waters of Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island

The nearby Ninole Cove towards the south end of the beach (a short hike away) offers better snorkeling for colorful tropical fish and tidepools for beginners and families with kids.

Make sure the ocean waters are calm and don’t venture too far from shore, since you’re likely to encounter strong currents during high surf.

If you’re looking to buy travel snorkeling gear, check out our recommendations.

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

4. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Swimming

With high surf conditions, strong currents and a rough ocean floor, swimming at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is not a good bet.

The most I’ve seen people do here is to wade close to shore or in the tidepools, mostly to experience the curious two-layer mix of cold freshwater from the underground springs and the warm ocean salt waters.

Again, water shoes are highly recommended since the ocean floor is rocky.

Punalu'u Black Sand Beach with varying sizes of black sand and rock
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach with varying sizes of black sand and rock along ocean floor

The north end of the beach has a bit less of a rocky water access, or you can try the old boat ramp.

Irrespective of how calm the ocean waters appear, stay close to shore since there are dangerous currents in these waters.

5. Sunbathe or Relax with a Book on the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

Rough waves? Avoid the water and relax on the beach, enjoying the unusual black sands!

The beautiful shimmering black sands are great to sunbathe, curl up with a good book or take a leisurely stroll along the beach.

Black sand is very heat absorbent and can get really hot. Even walking on black sand can get uncomfortable, so use water shoes.

With so many tall coconut palm trees lining the beach, finding a nice, shaded spot is easy!

Palm trees growing on the black sands of Punalu'u Beach, Big Island, HI
Shady palm trees growing on the black sands of Punalu’u Beach, Big Island, HI

We brought our lunch with us and had a nice picnic in the beach park, with fabulous ocean views and the relaxing, rhythmic sound of the waves crashing on the shore and lava rocks.

Picnic table at Punalu'u Beach Park, Big Island, Hawaii
Picnic table at Punalu’u Beach Park, Big Island, Hawaii

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

6. Admire Turtles and Other Wildlife on Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

At Punalu’u Beach, you’ll find all kinds of algae and seaweed on the rocks and in the waters, attracting sea turtles that feed on them.

Green algae on the lava rocks at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Big Island
Green algae on the lava rocks at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island

In fact, their presence is so common, sections of the beach are marked with rows of lava rocks, isolating them from the rest of the beach for sea turtles to rest (obviously, they don’t always land up at just these sections!).

Hawaiian green turtles basking in the sun at Punaluu Black Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii
Hawaiian green turtles basking in the sun at Punaluu Black Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii

The ocean waters at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach have two types of sea turtles, Hawaiian green sea turtles (honu) and Hawksbill turtles (honu’ea).

While both are endangered and protected, the latter is much rarer, with only about a hundred or so estimated in these waters.

Please heed the signs posted, and keep your distance (at least 10 feet per NOAA).

The Hawaiian hawk (Io), endemic to the Hawaiian islands, and now found only on the Big Island, may be spotted hunting, diving to catch its prey.

Shingle urchins or helmet urchin at Punalu'u Beach, Big Island of Hawaii
Shingle urchins or helmet urchin at Punalu’u Beach, Big Island of Hawaii

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

7. Admire the Rich Vegetation around Punalu’u Beach

While you will readily recognize the towering coconut palm trees growing on the black sands and Punalu’u Beach’s inner border, there’s a lot more to see!

At the feet of the coconut palm trees is dense undergrowth of naupaka, a native Hawaiian plant.

What’s fascinating about naupaka are its flowers, they bloom on one half of the stem!

Not only that, apart from the coast where naupaka is abundantly found, you’ll also see these pretty plants on the mountain side, and amazingly, the flowers there bloom on the other half of the stem!

Naupaka in bloom among tree trunks at Punaluu Black Sand Beach
Naupaka in bloom among tree trunks at Punaluu Black Sand Beach

On the freshwater pond’s surface, you’ll see water hyacinths, very pretty when blooming.

And what about the trees with the curious sideways-winding trunks? They are from Australia, Moreton bay fig trees!

Australian Moreton Bay fig trees at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, HI
Australian Moreton Bay fig trees at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, HI

To recognize and identify some of these beautiful Hawaiian plants and flowers, refer to our guide on Hawaiian plants, trees and flowers.

8. Watch Native Hawaiians Fish in Punalu’u Beach’s Koa

The unique mixture of freshwater springs with ocean waters provides a habitat for a variety of fish, and the waters in which they flourish are referred to as “koa” or fish houses.

Depending on the koa, you can find tuna (ahi), mackerel (ono) and other kinds of fish.

Native Hawaiian with fishing net at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, HI
Native Hawaiian with fishing net at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, HI

We saw native Hawaiians net fishing in these waters, with the fish providing a critical source of protein in their daily diet.

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

Other Activities near Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

The area around Punalu’u Beach is steeped in history. You can see Hokuloa Church, a historic chapel, on a hill above the beach.

Several ancient Hawaiian temples or heiau structures can be found nearby, several dedicated to fishing. You can see some near the old boat ramp, but please don’t disturb the piles of stones or wall structures.

An ancient trail, the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, runs near the beach and used to connect the ancient coastal villages.

The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail running along the coastline
The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail running along the coastline

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

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?).

Water shoes are advisable to protect your feet from scorching black sand and rocky ocean floor
Water shoes are advisable to protect your feet from scorching black sand and rocky ocean floor

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.
  • Check advisories regarding water quality at various beaches here.
Lifeguard tower at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, HI
Lifeguard tower at Punalu’u Black Sand 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!

Hawaiian green sea turtles on Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii
Hawaiian green sea turtles on Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island of 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: check out the top things to do on the Big Island!

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 the Stunning Punalu'u Black Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii! Things to do, how to get there, more!

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