By Jen Peng
Few tourists visit the Big Island compared to the more popular islands like Maui and Oahu. Fewer visitors still visit the southern end of the island, which is a shame. For those who do, highlights include the southernmost point of the United States, a unique green sand beach and a black sand beach teeming with turtles. Time your visit for June and you’ll not only escape the crowds, but enjoy warm weather, pleasant breezes and limited rain, along with a chance to see some baby turtles.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Polynesians set sail across the Pacific, and eventually made their way to Hawaii. Widely considered the location where they first made landfall, South Point (also known as Ka Lae, or “the point”) on the Big Island is also the southernmost point in Hawaii, making it the southernmost point of the United States. A national historic landmark, artifacts dating to the year 300 have been discovered in the area.
Rugged and windswept, it’s a desolate though stunning location, with a certain wild splendor, and little else around except a wind farm. It was once home to various military installations (including barracks and a missile tracking system between World War II and the late 1970s).
The waters off of South Point are a different story. Teeming with life, it’s long been a prime place to catch fish. You can see the remnants of holes carved into the rock ledges, where ancient fishermen tied off their canoe while they fished the incredibly rich, turbulent waters just offshore.
Along the cliffs just north of South Point are old wooden boat hoists. It’s a popular area for adventurous cliff jumpers. For those less daring, there’s also a metal ladder next to the hoists, and several spots along the cliffs where you can scramble down 50 feet to the water. You can snorkel right below the boat hoists when the water is calm, with the visibility exceeding 100 feet. Do not attempt if the water is anything but calm, however, and do not attempt at all at South Point itself, as the water there is too violent and currents too strong.
Find the turnoff for South Point Road between mile markers 69 and 70 of Highway 11, also known as Hawaii Belt Road. The one-lane road is paved but sometimes has just enough space for one car to pass, so it’s best to drive slowly and carefully. It’s around 10 miles to South Point. After passing the windmills, take a right at the fork for South Point (and a left for Papakōlea Green Sand Beach). From the parking lot, it’s a short walk to the point.
Papakōlea Green Sand Beach
Located just a few miles east of South Point is one of only four green sand beaches in the world (with the other three in the Galapagos, Guam and Norway). Some 49,000 years ago, a volcanic eruption formed the Pu’u Mahana cinder cone, which later collapsed. Time and waves further eroded the cinder cone, revealing and polishing much of the olivine (a semi-precious stone) contained within. The olivine is what’s responsible for the beach’s unique green color. Heavier than lava sand, it tends to stay on the beach while everything else gets washed out.
The hike to the beach is around 2.5 miles along the coastline. The trail is mostly flat, though totally exposed with no shade whatsoever. Many local “taxis” will offer to drive visitors to and from the beach for a “donation” (ranging from $10 to $20) though rampant use of vehicles has caused damage to the fragile landscape, and it’s recommended that you hike. The rugged terrain is incredibly scenic, with black lava rock, pockets of green sand and native wildflowers in season.
Follow the trail from the parking area toward the ocean and take a left at the Kauluna Bay boat launch, staying near the shore. There are several ways down the steep side of the cinder cone to the beach. We took the path closest to the trail, though it’s not that obvious from above. Don’t attempt if the surf is high and no beach is visible.
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach and County Park
Further northeast is the largest and most accessible black sand beach on the Big Island. The sand here is pitch black, made up of real black sand – created when lava flow meets the ocean, which pulverizes them into fine particles. Fringed by tall coconut palm trees and backed by a lotus-filled freshwater pond popular with ducks, it’s an idyllic location to go swimming, snorkeling, tidepooling, picnicking and camping.
What really makes Punalu’u a must-see are the many honu (green) and honu’ea (hawksbill) turtles on the sands and feeding in the shallow waters just offshore. You’ll see them scattered about, basking on the sand. As for snorkeling, you practically don’t even need to enter the water completely to see them in their element, happily munching on limu (seaweed). On my last visit, I simply stuck my head underwater with goggles on and was able to gaze upon three different turtles in the vicinity. Hawksbill turtles are also known to lay their eggs on the sand here, with a nesting seasons that runs from May to December.
The water visibility here is not always the best. And the water tends to be a bit colder than elsewhere nearby, due to a freshwater springs just offshore (which gives the beach its name, or “spring dived for”), though it will be refreshing on a hot June day. Rip currents can also be an issue, so take care not to venture out too far. Please also keep your distance from the turtles.
You can find Punalu’u between mile markers 56 and 57 of Highway 11. There are two parking lots, picnic pavilions, showers, restrooms and concession stands. A permit is required for camping, which is allowed on the grassy area above the beach. Head west from the beach for Kawa Bay, a popular local surf spot, or north past the concrete pier and boat launch for the Kane’ele’ele Heiau.