The new, ever-changing environment of the Big Island of Hawaii makes it feel quite different than the other islands in the state. Driving to the beaches here, you’ll pass historic small towns, a variety of unique microclimates, and active volcanoes, all of which add to the distinctive qualities that make Hawaii Island so special.
Punalu'u Black Sand Beach
The famous black sand beaches of Hawaii are made from—you guessed it—small fragments of lava from volcanic eruptions, and Punalu’u on the southeast side is easily the most popular and accessible of them all. For those traveling with kids (or sensitive feet), be sure to keep shoes on while walking on this beach since the dark sand tends to retain more heat. The plus side? All that warm sand means Punalu’u is a favorite sunbathing spot for Hawaii’s Green Sea Turtles. The surf is typically very high here, so even advanced swimmers should be extra cautious. Additionally, while the black sand looks beautiful on the beach, it can lead to very low visibility within the water, so snorkeling isn’t recommended either.
Richardson Beach Park
This Hilo beach park also goes by the name of Richardson Ocean Center. The natural lava-created sea walls have formed natural pools and coves, keeping the water calm nearly year-round. Curious beachgoers can spend hours exploring the numerous tide pools full of sea life and black volcanic sand, while others enjoy pleasant ocean conditions for kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, and family-friendly activities.
Hāpuna Beach lies about 30 miles north of Kailua-Kona along the beautiful Kohala Coast. Regularly voted as one of Hawaii Island’s best beaches, it is known for its great weather, nearly year-round excellent swimming conditions, and convenient shady spots for picnicking. Even better, the half-mile stretch of sandy beach is tended to by a local lifeguard, making it the perfect family-friendly beach destination as well. If you get tired of sunbathing or snorkeling, consider hiking a portion of the Ala Kahakai coastal trail down the hill from the parking lot, which follows the coastline over ancient roads. If you’ve forgotten to bring your own snacks or lunch, walk over to the Three Frogs Cafe located in the beach park for tacos, sandwiches, and shave ice.
Kua Bay (Manini'owali Beach)
Manini'owali Beach is located just under seven miles from the Kona Airport. And, for the most part, the required walk down 10 feet of lava rocks to get to the secluded sandy area has left this beach free from large crowds and pollution. The parking lot has showers and restrooms, and the addition of a lifeguard station in 2019 gave it extra props from families with smaller children. Snorkeling in the clear waters is perfect on a good weather day, though the surf can get massive during certain times of the year (pay attention to lifeguard warnings). But even on the days where getting in the water is impossible due to large waves, the incredibly soft white sand in between your toes will more than make up for it.
Waialea Beach (Beach 69)
Also known as “69 beach” because of the number 69 utility pole close to the parking area, Waialea is best visited in the summer months when the surf is low. Back in 1985, Waialea bay became a designated marine life conservation district, meaning the diversity of ocean wildlife here is nothing short of incredible and popular with both snorkelers and scuba divers. Stick inside of the bay to explore the coral reefs rising out of the water, or head to the southern side for more experienced snorkeling. You’ll find Beach 69 just 30 miles north of Kailua-Kona on the west side of the island, just before Hāpuna Beach. Be wary while swimming as there are no lifeguards here.
A famous beach outside the Waikoloa Resort on the Kohala Coast, Anaeho’omalu is famous for its beach activity accessibility. The Beach Hut offers everything from paddleboards, kayaks, floaties, boogie boards, hydro bikes, and cabanas for rent, even offering lessons, guided tours, outrigger canoe rides, and catamaran cruises to beachgoers. Stay until the sun goes down, but don’t forget to head to the far side of the Ku'uali'i fishpond at the south side of the beach to catch the best sunset views.
Kauna'oa Beach (Mauna Kea Beach)
In front of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the northwestern side of the island, Kauna'oa Beach is another excellent family-friendly white sand beach on the Big Island. Parking can be tricky here since the only parking belongs to the hotel. The parking lot holds up to 40 non-hotel visitor spots, but they fill up fast, so be sure to head there early in the morning to avoid paying for parking. What makes this beach truly special is the manta rays which frequent the waters in the evenings. After the sun goes down, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel even turns on floodlights over the water to attract plankton and hungry manta rays.
Also known as “Two-Step,” this calm beach is arguably one of the best snorkeling spots on the entire island. It is frequented by locals and visitors alike, and right next door to the important cultural and historical site, Pu'uhonua O Honaunau Park. There isn’t a massive amount of sandy beach for lounging here, especially when it gets busy on the weekends, but you’ll want to spend most of the time in the water anyways.
Besides being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Kahalu'u Bay in Kona is home to a vast number of fish, turtles, octopus, sea urchins, eels, and more. This, combined with the calm water and protected cove, makes it an excellent place for beginner snorkelers. Besides being rich in wildlife, this beach is also rich in history. There are records over the last 500 years of royal residences in the 18th and 19th centuries here, as well as several heiaus (Hawaiian temples) located throughout the area. One of these heiaus, Ku'emanu Heiau on the northern side of the bay, has a beautiful view overlooking a surf break.
Papakōlea Green Sand Beach
Yes, you read that right. Hawaii Island is home to one of the only green sand beaches on earth (and one of two in the United States). Papakōlea has nearby olivine mineral deposits to thank for its unique olive-green hue, and the results are breathtaking. This special place isn’t exactly easy to get to, and you’ll probably want to dedicate an entire day trip to see it. The beach is located on the southernmost tip of the island and requires a five-mile round-trip hike to get there. Remember to take plenty of water and use sun protection for the walk in and out; there isn’t much shade in the area.