After spending the first half of our vacation at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, exploring the Kohala Coast and Kailua-Kona, and taking a day trip over to Hilo, and the second half of our vacation at Volcano House, exploring Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, we had put almost 400 miles on our rental car! We had also tackled an enormous number of popular things to do on the Big Island.
On our last day of vacation, we left the national park and first drove toward Hilo to Akatsuka Orchid Gardens to visit one last pressed penny machine. We then turned around to head in the opposite direction toward Kona to visit the Punalu’u Bake Shop and the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.
The Punalu’u Beach Park
When we arrived at the parking area for the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, we realized the beach is actually part of the much larger Punalu’u Beach Park.
Know for its world-famous black sand beach, Punalu’u Beach Park is a coastal oasis. With stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, a large grassy picnic area with picnic table and covered pavilions, and intriguing tidepools tucked between basalt lava deposits, the park is a fantastic spot for a picnic.
Punalu’u means diving spring, as offshore there are underground, cold fresh water springs that mic with the ocean water. Long ago, native Hawaiians would dive underwater to the springs with bottles to collect the freshwater.
We parked near the picnic area and set out to explore the rugged, rocky, basalt plateau stretching out in front of us. Standing along the short, sheer volcanic cliffs, with the ocean waves crashing against them and spraying lightly with sea water was absolutely amazing. And, we all enjoyed poking around the tidepools, finding tiny sea creatures and thin sheets of salt.
Then, as we moved north, we saw the dark black sand beach lined with coconut palms!
The Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
Sitting on the southeastern coast of Hawai’i, in the Ka’u Desert, the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is made of ground basalt and tiny pieces of jet-black volcanic glass and is the most famous black sand beach in Hawai’i.
Also found at the Punalu’u Beach Park, across a bridge at the north end of the black sand beach just behind the coconut trees, is a large freshwater pond. Behind the pond are the remains of the Ka’u Center for Hawaii History and Culture that was built in 1973 and destroyed in a 1975 tsunami created by the earthquake that shook Hilina Pali.
The minute we stepped onto the beach, we noticed how different the texture was from the normal white sand beaches we’re used to. The black sand is much more coarse and much warmer. At first, the texture tickled our bare feet a bit, but after walking on it for a while, it began to hurt and we put our shoes back on. It also didn’t stick to our feet like white sand does.
The most amazing part of our visit to the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach were the sea turtles! Black sand beaches retain a lot of heat, which makes them a destination for nesting sea turtles and the best places to see sea turtles in Hawai’i.
Punalu’u is frequented by endangered Hawksbill Turtles (honu’ea) and Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles (Honu), which are often found resting on the warm black sand.
When we visited the beach, there were 14 giant sea turtles spread out across the beach! It was incredible and we spent at least an hour just observing the majestic animals and snapping photos.
- The Hawksbill Sea Turtle is a federally listed endangered species and is the most rare sea turtle in the Pacific Ocean. Researchers believe there are less than 80 in Hawai’i and of those, 67 nest on the Big Island.
- The Green Sea Turtle is a threatened species that feeds on marine plants in shallow waters along the coastline, including the red seaweed that thrives on the coral crusted rocks in the shallow bay at Punaluʻu.
If you visit Punalu’u and there are no sea turtles on the beach, look for them in the shallow water, floating in the surf.
About Black Sand Beaches
The ongoing volcanic activity on the Big Island of Hawai’i has created white sand beaches, a green sand beach, and black sand beaches.
Several beaches throughout Hawai’i are called black sand beaches, but they aren’t true black sand beaches. Instead they are a mix of various grey sands with a tiny portion of shiny black volcanic glass mixed in — sometimes as little as one percent. True black sand beaches only exist on the Big Island.
Unlike white sand and green sand, black sand is created when molten lava connects with cool sea water, cools down and solidifies almost instantaneously, and shatters into black sand. The basalt pieces are broken down into minuscule pieces of volcanic glass by the pounding ocean waves and turned into black sand. Over time, a beach is created as the waves and currents push the black sand onto the shore.
The ground basalt sand found on black sand beaches is finite and not continuously replaced the same way white sand is, so removing black sand from the beach is strictly prohibited.
Know Before You Go
- Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is located 8.6 miles from the The Punalu’u Bake Shop on the Big Island of Hawaii partway between Kailua-Kona and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on Ninole Loop Road, Na’alehu, Hawaii 96772. Look for signs with turtles on them.
- The county park is open 24 hours a day, but there are no lifeguards on duty.
- Admission is free.
- There are two parking areas, one close to the beach and one closer to the tidepools, picnic area, and restrooms.
- The Punalu’u Beach Park includes the black sand beach, a large tidepool plateau, freshwater ponds, and a grassy picnic area. Facilities include restrooms, showers, drinking water, a large paved parking area, picnic tables and covered picnic pavilions, a small snack bar and souvenir shack, and a permit-only campground.
- The Punalu’u Beach Park is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike, so if you want a weekend picnic table, arrive early in the day!
- Punalu’u is a popular resting place for sea turtles. Visitors are required to keep a 15 foot distance from the turtles at all times. Disturbing or touching the turtles is illegal and comes with a hefty fine
- If you want to swim, be careful! There is often rough surf and strong currents. The best place to enter the water is near the public boat ramp at the northern end of the beach.
- Snorkeling at Punalu’u is often difficult due to low visibility. The best place to snorkel nearby is Ninole Cove. You can drive there or follow a quick, unmarked, five minute trail south from the Punalu’u parking lot.