If you’re a traveler who’s “been there, done that” on the Big Island of Hawaii, here’s an off-the-beaten-path adventure for you. Travel to South Point for a hike to a green sand beach, Papalokea.
You’ll feel like you’ve come to the ends of the earth, or at least the southernmost end of the United States, which you have. It’s one of our favorite boomer adventures in Hawaii and a unique USA day hike.
Getting to Papalokea Beach
The two-and-a-half-hour drive on Highway 11 to South Point is an adventure in itself. Alan and I approached the area from the Kailua-Kona side, where the road travels across lava fields on the flanks of Mauna Loa.
Between mile markers 69 and 70, we turned right on the road to South Point. After passing a few houses and a bed and breakfast, civilization seemed to disappear.
The wind blows constantly here, which is why the few trees that dot the grassy plain all lean in one direction. It’s also the reason for the wind farms that you’ll pass on your way to the end of the road.
Hiking to the Green Sand Beach
Once the pavement ends, a rutted dirt road leads to a parking area and the trail to the green sand beach. We started this adventure with the intention of driving our 4-wheel-drive rental jeep all the way to the beach, which violated the rental agreement, of course.
Driving to Papalokea Beach is also a violation of Department of Hawiaan Homelands (DHHL) rules. So don’t do it. Contrary to advice you might read on the internet, you cannot apply for a $25 permit.
After driving up the first section of the dirt path, we chickened out, parked the car and started the hike. The dirt track turned out to be very doable for a 4-wheel expert like Alan but we were glad we took the hike to the green sand beach instead.
According to our trusty guidebook, Hawaii The Big Island Revealed, the green sand beach hike is a little over 2 miles each way. The wide open terrain is crisscrossed with red dirt tracks created by 4-wheel-drive vehicles.
Even getting to the Green Sand Beach was picturesque. We saw fishermen casting for fish on the rocky shore and plenty of other hikers on the trail.
An ancient volcano created the littoral cone of olivine, the reason for the green sand on Mahana Bay. Olivine crystals are minerals that form from basalt as lava slowly cools.
When you hike down to the beach, you are actually entering the cinder cone of the volcano, although the eastern side of the cone has collapsed into the sea.
Papalokea is only one of four green sand beaches in the world. The others are in Guam, Galapagos Islands, and Norway, although not all of them contain green sand that is the result of volcanic eruption.
To access the beach, hikers walk down a steep cliff face, something this acrophobic baby boomer chose not to do. If you decide to hike down to the beach, be careful of your footing as the trail can be slippery.
While swimming in Mahana Bay is inviting after a hot hike, beware of the rough waters.
Be sure to leave the beach as you found it. Bringing home a souvenir of green sand is illegal.
Even though we didn’t hike all the way down to the beach, this boomer adventure is worth it. The view from the top is stunning with plenty of photographic opportunities.
Tips for visiting the Green Sand Beach (Papalokea)
- Avoid the weekend as it can be crowded.
- Plan your hike for early in the day to avoid the heat (and crowds).
- Bring water, wear a hat and apply reef-friendly sunscreen.
Boomer Travel Tip
Planning a trip to Hawaii? Start your research at our Hawaii Travel Planning Resources page.
Where to eat near South Point
If you visit South Point, be sure to continue on Highway 11 to Na’alehu for lunch at Hana Hou Restaurant and Bakery. Try the loco mocos, a combination of rice, hamburger patty and fried eggs smothered in brown gravy. Although not exactly a healthy meal, they were the best loco mocos we’ve ever tasted.
Stay at a bed and breakfast near the Green Sand Beach
And the next time we’re on the Big Island, we’ll book a room at Kalaekilohana, a bed and breakfast on the road to South Point. The Hawaiian-owned property offers luxury lodging combined with lessons on Hawaiian culture.