Papakōlea Beach – Naalehu, Hawaii - Atlas Obscura

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Papakōlea Beach

A beach made of semi-precious green sand on the Big Island of Hawai'i. 


About six miles from the South Point is Papakōlea Beach. There are beautiful cliffs, clear blue-green Pacific Ocean, and green sand. Unbelievably coarse, speckled green sand.

It is the only beach with green sand in the United States, and one of only a couple in the entire world. Despite its remote location, accessible only by miles-long hike or four wheeler, it is a site on Hawai’i’s Big Island that is worth the hassle. Situated beneath Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano, a unique mix of chemistry and geology has combined to form this bizarre and beautiful sandy environment.

Over thousands of years, Mauna Loa’s eruptions formed a massive cinder cone that circled around to create a small bay. Like many of Hawai’i’s volcanoes, the eruptions brought tons of minerals to the surface, including an abundance of the semi-precious mineral olivine. It brought so much olivine to the surface that much of the cinder cone surrounding the bay is made from the silicate mineral.

As the cinder cone eroded, most of the other ash and glass from the eruptions were washed out to sea. But the denser chunks of olivine survived the tides, and caused the beach to turn a rare green color.

Since the last eruption was 10,000 years ago, a short time in geological terms but a long time in an active volcanic region, the beach is actually living on borrowed time. Not because of another coming eruption that will destroy the beach, but in fact because of a lack thereof. The supply of olivine is slowly running out. Although it washes away slower than other minerals, it will eventually all erode, turning Papakōlea back into a normal beach.

For professional tanners and those who appreciate geological novelty, the time to plan a trip to South Point is fast approaching, and you may only have a few more millennia to see the distinctive beach. 

Know Before You Go

Papakōlea Beach beach is located at the southern tip of Big Island. It's a 2.5 hour drive from most resorts along the Kohola Coast.

The hike through the coastal areas is relatively flat, scenic and easy to walk through, but the harsh conditions make it highly challenging. The sweeping wind reigns at South Point and there's no shade on the trail.
There are volunteers that troll the area for donations to get you to the beach but this is in fact illegal since it damages the fragile ecosystem.

When you reach the bay, you'll need to climb your way down to the beach along the steep slope in order to reach the green sand.

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