South Point/Papakōlea Green Sand Beach
Ka’u district, which encompasses southern Big Island, has its distinctive features that make this land unique and worth visiting. Often most a drive-through region when heading from Kona towards Volcanoes National Park, what strikes the eyes the most is Ka’u lava fields and desert-like scenery. In fact, this is one of Hawai’i drier sides-rainfall is a rarity and the landscape reflects it perfectly”. Another characteristic feature of this land is its ever present wind, hence numerous wind farms can be spotted while getting to the South Point (I’ll explain in details later).
Our Visit to Ka’u District
There is only one way to get to Ka’u points of interest-South Point and Green Sand Beach- and it’s by Highway 11 that encircles the island. From the west, leaving Kona and passing Honaunau-Captain Cook towns, the scenery changes abruptly. Tropical settings give away to an arid landscape featuring huge patches of recent lava flows from Mauna Loa and hay colored grassy hills.
Very few people live in this part of Big Island, therefore towns are scarce and spaced further apart from one another. We encountered few fruit stands along Highway 11 and stopped for a delicious Ka’u Coffee and brownie at one of them.
Between mile markers 69&70 on Mamalahoa Hwy (Hwy 11), you’ll find South Point Road that leads to the coast. Follow it for around 8 miles (13 km) to a fork in the road- turn right for a parking lot facing United States’ Southernmost point or Ka Lae in Hawaiian language (which translates simply to “the point”).
The drive to Ka Lae reveals Ka’u district most known feature- wind. Trade winds notoriously batter South Hawai’i, creating a perfect opportunity for wind farming- you’ll see windmills poking from the ground on right-hand side of the road. Wind here is highly directional and very strong (so strong engineers building the wind farms had to reinforce the structure with extra steel frame, or so we've been told by a local resident). Just look at the picture below to imagine wind's brute force around there
Southern tip of Big Island is a place where archeologists dug up Hawaii’s oldest structures and artifacts, which lead them to a conclusion that this area was where first Polynesian sailorsi laid out their settlements. Looking at the surrounding landscape, it’s hard to believe they would choose such a barren place to settle, but the reason behind them liking that particular spot lays hidden below the ocean waves- the mix of currents brings a life giving plankton, which in turn makes South Point an excellent fishing ground. In fact, even today it’s a great place to catch open water fish like Ahi (tuna) or Mahi-mahi (dolphinfish). When you park at the parking lot and walk towards the ocean, you’ll see wooden structures extending beyond a cliff. Fishermen use these handmade hoists to lower their boats 40 feet down to waterline.
When we arrived, there were few brave souls jumping from the cliff and the thought of following their steps came to my mind, but I ultimately chickened out (hey, it’s 40 feet drop:). It turned out to be a good choice as I read back home that a strong current along the coastline can give an unlucky fellow free ride to the nearest land on its path- Antarctica. There is also a large blowhole near parking area and people jump into it as well, but that’s just plain insanity (see picture below)
After spending some time looking at the rugged coastline, we headed back to our car and took a drive to the earlier mentioned fork in the road. The other leg leads to a trail head for Papakōlea Beach, better known as a Green Sand Beach.
Green Sand Beach hike
Papakōlea Beach truly is an phenomenon. Named for the characteristic olive-green sand, it’s like no other beach in the state of Hawaii. It formed when a cinder cone called Pu’u Mahana, which last erupted over 49,000 years ago spilling lava rich in a silicate mineral called olivine, partially collapsed into the ocean, forming a crescent shaped bay. Waves followed, dissolving lighter form of lava from the cinder cone, leaving behind olivine particles that today give this beach its distinctive color.
No paved road leads to Papakōlea Beach, to get there you have three options:
Take a round-trip ride in a back of a pickup truck for around $30. There are local guys at trailhead parking lot that provide that service
Drive the dirt path with 4 wheel drive vehicle. Opted for that Jeep Wrangler rental? Well, road to Green Sand Beach is an awesome 4x4 playground. You’ll mostly likely void your rental agreement by driving past the parking lot, but damn it sure is fun to take that road. Don’t even try to take a non 4x4 (and remember, All-wheel drive cars are not 4 wheel drive), low clearance car on this path- the surface is very rough with many sandy patches and steep grade sections. Also, I wouldn't approach it if you have zero off-road experience. Nevertheless, we've seen a couple of people with smile on their faces abusing their rental Jeeps while we hiked
Hike the 2.6 miles each way trail to the beach (that’s what we did but you know that already:)).
The trail that leads to Papakōlea Beach is no easy trek. You’ll be walking in full sun (rain clouds are as rare as cloudless skies in Hilo) with strong wind sandblasting your skin as it picks up sand from the trail. There are no facilities along the trail or at the beach, so take plenty of water and pack lunch too. All this aside, the vistas along the trail are beautiful. You can also find few ancient heiau (altars) where Hawaiians used to lay offerings to please the gods before each fishing trip. Don’t forget your hiking sandals, sunscreen, sunglasses, swimwear and something to sit on and enjoy this amazing beach. The trail is a little confusing to follow because there are several parallel paths dug up by off-road vehicles. Fortunately, they all lead to the beach so just keep close to the ocean and you should not have problem finding the cinder cone. The last leg of the trail is a steep climb down the bay to the green sand beach below. Just see how people approach it and follow their tracks. The view from atop the cinder cone looking down at waves smothering olive colored sand was a worthy reward after the sweat of a hike we did to get there.
Papakōlea Beach is a stunning place to relax so plan to spend at least an hour before going back to the car. You can take a swim too, but be careful and respect the ocean. Also, refrain from taking any sand from the beach- not only it is illegal and subject to a $1000 fine, but also immoral, as the supply of olivine sand is limited (cinder cone did not erode overnight after all). The state of Hawaii kindly ask for “leave no trace” attitude when visiting Ka’u district (or anywhere else in Hawaii for that matter).
After you soak up the sun, prepare for the walk back to the parking lot (locals can also give you a one way ride for few bucks) and if you have sometime left, explore the area around South Point before returning...
South Point/Green Sand Beach