The Big Island of Hawaii is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, but many people are surprised to discover that black sand beaches are common on the island.
When people talk about the black sand beach on the Big Island, they probably refer to Punalu’u Beach — one of the most popular black sand beaches in Hawaii.
The Big Island is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but it’s also home to some of its most unique and interesting natural wonders — black sand beaches. They really look like something out of a movie!
In this blog post, I’ll show you why these unusual black sand beaches should be next on your list when planning your trip to the Hawaiian islands.
I will mainly focus on Punalu’u Black Sand Beach and briefly discuss some of the other best black sand beaches on the island. These beaches include Waipio Valley, Pohoiki, Pulolū Valley, Kehena, Richardson Park, and Kaimu beaches.
If you’re looking for something different from what most tourists see, then keep reading!
Before we begin, let’s answer two important questions below.
So what exactly is black sand made of?
Black sand is formed in a variety of ways.
Firstly, the black coloring can come from eroded lava that contains high amounts of magnetite, an iron oxide. Magnetite has a dark gray metallic luster, along with other basaltic rocks, which help give the sand its black coloration.
Secondly, lava flowing into the water can form a highly vesicular (porous) rock called pumice, a very light-colored rock that floats in water. If this pumice is then overturned and stuck in beach sediments, it will over time be coated with a darker layer of sediment.
Lastly, lava flowing into the ocean can form black sand from the reaction of seawater on hot lava. The hot lava reacts with the saltwater to produce steam which erupts through the molten rock explosively, blasting small particles of rock upwards.
These rock particles will eventually become black sand and help form new black sand beaches. See below for a cool video of this process in action!:
Why does Hawaii have a lot of black sand beaches?
Hawaii has lots of volcanic activity, which is the catalyst to produce the black sand.
The lava that emerges from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island contains all of the ingredients necessary, which turns into black sand when broken down by waves during a beach’s formation process.
Now that we have answered the two questions above, let’s talk about the famous black sand beach on the Big Island.
Overview of Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
Punaluʻu Beach is located on the western side of The Big Island on Hwy 11, about 23 miles south of Kona or about 4 miles north of Naalehu.
This popular spot is known for its picturesque black sand beach and the endangered hawksbill and green sea turtles. It’s very common to see these turtles basking in the sun here.
Punaluʻu Beach is also easy to get to and free to visit.
How to get to Punalu’u Beach
Punaluʻu Beach is a 1-hour and 40-minute drive from Kailua Kona or a 45-minute drive from the Volcanoes National Park.
We visited Punalu’u after spending the day at the Volcano National Park, and it was one of the best decisions we made on this trip since we were staying on the Hilo side and it was only a 45-minute drive to get there.
From Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you can take the Chain of Craters Road and Crater Rim Drive to HI-11/ Hawai’i Belt Rd/ New Volcano Road, then turn left onto HI-11/ Hawai’i Belt Rd/ New Volcano Road.
From Kailua Kona, you can take HI-11/ to Ninole Loop Road.
If you’re going by car, make sure you have enough gas because there are limited gas stations along this route.
We made the stupid mistake of not filling up thinking we would get gas closer to Punalu’u, but there weren’t many options.
The gas station we planned on going to was out of service, and in fact, it looked like it had been closed for months.
Driving on low gas was extremely stressful after the beach on the way back to our Airbnb. It was dark outside, and we almost thought we would be stranded on the side of the road.
Thank goodness we made it to the gas station somehow.
Don’t be like us; get your car filled up before going to Punalu’u
Punalu’u Black Sand History
Punaluʻu means “spring water” in the native Hawaiian Language. This dates back to when ancient Hawaiians would dive into the ocean to collect fresh water from the underground aquifers for daily use.
The site had multiple uses; it was used as a port location, a place of tributes, and a place for offerings.
Green Sea Turtles
Punaluʻu Beach is a great place to visit if you’re looking for green sea turtles. Many people who go snorkeling at the beach make it a mission to see these beautiful creatures, and I don’t blame them at all.
The green sea turtles are an endangered species and protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Just remember that it’s illegal to take any living thing out of these waters, so do not try and grab them or harass them in any way!
If you see a sea turtle, please don’t touch or try and swim close to them under any circumstance. They are protected by federal law for a reason!
The green sea turtles are so magnificent, graceful, cute, and majestic!
The green sea turtles can get to 4-5 feet long and weigh up to 400-500 pounds. The hawksbill turtles can grow up to 4 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds.
We saw at least six turtles chilling in the water while we were there snorkeling and taking pictures.
The Hawksbill Turtle
Their narrow head and hawk-like beak distinguish the hawksbill. Their dorsal side is covered with olive-green scales, which have slightly serrated posterior margins ending in spines, giving them a feathery appearance.
Adult hawksbills have long tails, a crosswise bar pattern of scutes (plates), and long narrow fore flippers.
Swimming at Punalu’u Beach
Swimming is allowed at Punalu’u Beach, but be careful and watch out for strong currents. There is a lifeguard available between 8:30 AM and 5:00 PM.
Please keep in mind that there are strong currents and big waves, especially during the winter months from November to March. Always practice caution if you decide to swim here.
Is snorkeling good at Punalu’u?
In my opinion, snorkeling at Punalu’u is just okay, and certainly not the best on the Big Island due to the water visibility.
The visibility wasn’t the best when we went, but it can be better if the water is calmer.
Just make sure you are a strong swimmer before you go snorkeling, as the currents can change quickly!
If you are looking for some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island, I highly recommend you visit Two-Step Beach in Kona or Captain Cook.
Snorkeling Close to Punalu’u
If you love snorkeling and want to do it close to Punalu’u, you can visit Ninole Cove. This little cove is located southwest of the main beach at Punalu’u.
You can hike to the Ninole Cove from Punalu’u. The trail is an unmarked grassy trail and should take about 5-7 minutes to get there, depending on how fast you walk.
What other facilities are at the beach?
There is a bathroom at the main parking lot.
There is also a shop called Punaluʻu Bake Shop, located across the street from the beach. They have a variety of baked goods, sandwiches, fruit, and coffee drinks. They also have souvenirs for sale too!
Black Sand Beach Hawaii Reservations
You do not need a reservation to go to Punalu’u Beach. Parking is free and on a first-come, first-serve basis.
If you are looking for reservations at the black sand beach at Waiʻānapanapa State Park on Maui, you can visit their website directly for reservations.
What other black sand beaches are on the Big Island?
In no particular order, here are some of my favorite black sand beaches on the Big Island:
Waipio Valley Black Sand Beach
On your way to the beach at Waipio Valley, you’ll see an unbelievable view.
This is a very spectacular place, but prepare to hike down a very steep hill to get there. There are no restrooms or facilities at the beach, so plan accordingly.
If you are not up for a steep hike, Waipio Valley Black Sand Beach has an overlook, and you can view the beach from this overlook.
You can make this a quick stop instead of hiking down. I promise you the view is spectacular and one that cannot be missed while visiting the Island of Hawaii.
Pohoiki is located in the town of Puna on the eastern side of the Island. Compared to some of the beaches mentioned in this post, Pohoiki is a relatively new beach formed in 2018 due to the recent volcanic activity of Kilauea.
Pohoiki is a popular surfing spot on the Big Island. The waves here are very consistent, and while not as big as what you would see at the North Shore of Oahu Beaches, they are still worth visiting.
The beach is also not crowded, which is a plus because who wants to visit a crowded beach, right?!
There is a boat ramp at Pohoiki, so it’s a popular destination for kayakers and paddleboarders.
There is also plenty of free parking available at this beach. There are no lifeguards on duty here, so please practice caution while visiting.
Pololu Valley Beach
Pololu Valley is a top-rated destination on the Big Island because of its beautiful black sand beach and spectacular views. This is by far one of my favorite views and hikes in Hawaii.
By the way, if you love hiking and are on the Big Island, be sure to do the Makalawena Beach hike.
As I parked my car along the side of the road and walked down to the hiking trail, I was utterly blown away by the views around me.
Located in the Puna District on Hawaii’s Big Island, Kehena Beach is known for its black sand.
This beach is clothing optional, so if you are not comfortable with people walking around naked, be sure to visit this spot very early in the morning when no one else is there.
We ended up going to Kehena Beach multiple times because we loved it so much and wanted to enjoy it without too many people around.
Okay, maybe this was one of the first few black sand beaches I had ever seen, but it was spectacular in my opinion and the sand was so soft!
The reason we went back multiple times is because we wanted to enjoy it without other people around.
We went there around 8:00 AM and no one else was there. We relaxed and swam by the water in our bathing suits until people started to show up.
We also visited towards the end of the day around 5:00- 5:30 PM, and there weren’t that many people around.
Things to Note: The waves here can be pretty intense. Don’t swim here if the waves are too high.
Be careful when going up and down the steps, and make sure to watch the waves at all times.
I saw some huge waves that made it hard to get down or get back up.
Remember never to turn your back away from the ocean while visiting this beach. In fact, it’s recommended to never turn your back away from the ocean in all of Hawaii.
Richardson Ocean Park
Richardson Ocean Park is a serene beach park that has been around for decades. This park is known to have some of the best snorkeling in Hilo.
The beach itself has very fine, powder-like sand at the water’s edge, with larger, coarser grains found up further towards the park’s grassy areas.
Some lava rock outcroppings make it difficult to swim out to the offshore reefs. However, there is a channel that you can swim through to get out there.
The park is a great place to visit if you are in the mood for a family gathering and an afternoon at the beach. There is plenty of parking and shade available.
They also have bathrooms with showers on-site, which is nice if you’re looking to rinse off after spending some time in the ocean.
After watching one of the best sunrises on the Big Island by the Hilo coast, we visited this beach and were lucky to find that only three other people were snorkeling.
If you are not a big fan of crowds, I highly recommend starting your day as early as possible to beat the crowds.
Kaimu Black Sand Beach
Unfortunately, Kaimu Beach was closed when we went in September of 2021. Hopefully, it will reopen again in the near future.
Kaimu Black Sand Beach is the perfect place to visit if you want a remote, less crowded black sand beach.
There were only four other people when we went back in 2019, and that was on a weekday in the middle of the afternoon!
Frequently Asked Questions
Why are black sand beaches black?
Black sand beaches are black due to eroded volcanic material like basalt rocks, lava, and other dark-colored minerals. To learn more about how black sand is formed, you can visit the National Ocean Service website.
How does lava turn into sand?
Lava turns into sand when waves break it down at the shoreline. Black sand also carries a lot of moisture which is why it feels heavier than normal sand.
Most black sand beaches are composed of a mixture of lava and coral fragments called coquina.
Which Hawaiian island is the best to see black sand beaches?
The Big Island of Hawaii and Maui have the most black sand beaches in the entire Hawaiian Archipelago.
I prefer the beaches on The Big Island due to their easy access to reach. Most of the beaches I listed in this article are very close together.
Where is the black sand beach in Kona?
Makolea Beach is the only black sand beach close to Kona, and it is part of the Kekaha Kai State Park.
If you are staying on the Kona side and have time to visit some of the black sand beaches I listed in this article, I highly recommend doing so.
You will find the most beautiful black sand beaches on the eastern side (Hilo) compared to Kona.
If you have limited time and are only visiting the Kona side, then Makolea will give you a dose of a black sand beach.
In my opinion, it will not be as spectacular as the other beaches I recommended in this article, but it’s still worth it if you want to see a black sand beach.
Is there a pink sand beach in Hawaii?
So here is the thing, technically there is a RED sand beach in Maui, but people usually refer to it as the PINK sand beach.
The Pink Sand Beach, also known as Kaihalulu Beach, is located on the remote northwest coast of the island, along Hana Highway.
You might be wondering how this beach got its name because it’s not pink at all. This beach has its name because there are tiny grains of red-colored minerals found along the beach.
The grains are easily disturbed and strewn about by wind and waves, making them appear pink in color.
Please note that the hike to the beach is challenging and not meant for the inexperienced hiker. Also, technically this hike to get to the beach is on private property.
To wrap it up
The black sand beaches on the Big Island are a sight to behold. From Punalu’u Beach, where you can see hawksbill sea turtles and green sea turtles basking in the sun, to Richardson Ocean Park, where the entire family can relax — you will not be disappointed.
There’s no shortage of opportunities for snapping memorable photos.
These natural wonders are unlike anything else in Hawaii, and most people who come here can’t stop talking about how beautiful they are!
We hope this blog post has helped inspire your travel plans or made you want to book that vacation right away!
Until next time, Aloha!