The best swimming spot in Hilo is Carlsmith Beach Park. Several tranquil and windswept beach parks line the four-mile-long Kalanianaole Street east of Hilo’s main downtown intersection, and Carlsmith is our favorite.
Carlsmith inhabits a peninsula of land that juts off of the Hilo coast a few miles past the city’s iconic breakwater, and features several small coves and inlets of brilliantly clear, shallow water. Its swimming holes are well-protected from the ranks of lumbering waves charging their way inland farther up the coast, making it a popular spot for families with small children and those just learning to swim. Patches of sand and smooth black lava rock line the bottom of the pools, easily spotted from the hilly lawns of green grass above where gaggles of sunbathers, picnickers, joggers and dog-walkers relax in the cool shade provided by plantings of native trees and shrubs.
This stretch of lush, verdant land and its groves of broad-leafed flora bordering the ocean inhabits a shelf of smooth lava rock known in Hawaiian as “pahoehoe” (pah-hoy-hoy). Its lawns are punctuated all over with evidence of the park’s volcanic past: bare spots of jet-black, glossy and brittle-looking lava line the footpaths and poke up through the soft, finely cut grass. Towering over the sunbathers are coconut palms with their bunches of swelling golden fruit, some as tall as four-story buildings. Not far from these are stands of the park’s resident ironwood trees, with their gnarled branches and fans of needle-like leaves that shimmer in the constant onshore breeze and emit a distinct whistling sound.
Set back a bit from where the turquoise ocean waters meets the smooth, ropey black rock shelf is a large lagoon that snakes around the peninsula. It’s fed by freshwater springs and is composed of cold but exceptionally clear brackish water that carries with it a faint reflection of the inviting light blue hue of the bay. Schools of small colorful tropical fish can be seen darting around in these shallow, translucent pools, having rode in on the ranks of white-tipped waves making their interminable assault against the rocky coast. Wading out into the lagoon can leave swimmers with a strange sensation of simultaneously feeling two different temperatures; this is due to fact that the cold freshwater seeping in from a number of surrounding springs tends to float on top of the warmer saltwater.
On the left-hand side of the peninsula is a white plastic and stainless steel rail lifeguard tower keeping watch over those milling around the bay and making sure hapless swimmers don’t venture too far out to where the big waves are breaking. In general, though, Carlsmith is an exceptionally safe place for ocean-goers, and the lifeguards on duty here often look downright bored from the lack of excitement – a welcome sign for visitors to the island who’ve heard horror stories of rip currents and rogue waves.
Big Island boasts a long list of beach parks that can become excessively dangerous during rough ocean conditions, but Carlsmith is undeniably low on it. This is thanks to its position on the sheltered side of an ocean-facing peninsula, with a series of flat-bottomed shallow pools stretching out to meet the submerged reef offshore which tempers the force of incoming waves and slows down rushing water during tidal changes. Swimmers should still exercise caution while at Carlsmith, though, and should remember to check with lifeguard staff about current ocean conditions if they have any concerns. As with all ocean activities in Hawaii, it’s crucial to remember the statewide water safety motto: “If in doubt, don’t go out!”
The park’s shallow coves and extensive lagoon also provide an ideal feeding ground for Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, which can often be spotted sunning themselves on the numerous rocky outcrops that get revealed during low tides. The turtles are exceedingly friendly and don’t seem to mind humans very much, and it’s easy to mistake their brownish-black shells and dark scaly skin for yet another mound of lava rocks. Although it can be tempting to get up close and personal with the turtles, keep in mind that they are a critically endangered species, and that strict state and federal protections are in place demanding their protection and doling out stiff punishments for violators. So, keep at least ten feet away from these adorable, majestic animals and never touch, feed or harass them.
In addition to modern restroom facilities near the park’s entrance, other amenities at Carlsmith include covered pavilions outfitted with picnic tables, outdoor public shower stands, drinking fountains, barbecue pits and a handful of stainless steel handrails positioned at several different entrances to the lagoon. The handrails look like those clinging to the steps of public swimming pools, and can prove to be invaluable for beach-goers with slight mobility problems, as many other Hilo-area beach parks do not have these types of accessibility aids. So, count on having an easy time getting in and out of the water and stick to the established swimming areas.
The Family-Friendly Atmosphere of “Four Mile”
Similar to Richardson Ocean Park – another iconic Hilo swimming spot a bit farther down the road – Carlsmith is named after the original family who long ago owned the land that now comprises the park. Although not as common these days, the Carlsmith was once almost ubiquitously referred to as “four mile”, after the fact that it was located exactly four miles from downtown Hilo. After all, it is very common on Big Island for locals to name places – especially beaches – after mile markers, as is the case with the beloved, secluded white sands of Beach 69 in the Puako area of North Kona.
Kealoha Beach Park is right next door to Carlsmith, and discerning the border between the two can be tricky to the uninitiated, as Kealoha’s long diagonal breakwater of seaweed-clad lava boulders looks out onto several of its neighbor’s shallow, electric-blue coves full of swimmers and waders. Many of those heading to Carlsmith opt to park in Kealoha’s expansive, easy to navigate parking lot on busy days when the spots along the main road closest to the footpath are crammed bumper to bumper.
No matter what you choose to call the park, it’s a safe, peaceful and welcoming swath of windswept grass and smooth lava rock with coves of some of the clearest water of any Hilo beach. And its reputation as one of the best swimming spots in East Hawaii means it can get pretty crowded on weekends, holidays and throughout the peak of tourism season. During these times it’s not uncommon to see the lawn space checkered with beach blankets and folding chairs, however the brackish lagoon and its surrounding tide pools are hardly ever crowded thanks to their sprawling size and many different secluded areas. So, it’s possible to have a slice of Carlsmith all to yourself, especially on weekday mornings in the summertime when much of the park’s grounds can appear deserted.
How To Get to Carlsmith Beach Park
Beach-goers can get to the shady, placid waters of Carlsmith Beach Park by heading east at the intersection of Highway 11, otherwise known as Hawaii Belt Road, and Kamehameha Avenue along Hilo’s main bayfront thoroughfare. From this intersection, turn onto Kalanianaole Street and continue for roughly four miles, passing the Port of Hilo, Kuhio Kalanianaole Park, Big Island Motors, Keaukaha General Store, Keaukaha Beach Park and Kealoha Beach Park.
Park on the side of the highway and take the well-worn footpath skirting along the lagoon that leads into the forested grove past a hand-carved wooden sign emblazoned with the park’s name. The footpath takes visitors past all of the main ocean access spots (outfitted with steel handrails) and then loops back inland again bringing them to the restroom building next to the main road. This makes for a short, peaceful walk beside the seashore along a path of gravel and dirt that can get pretty muddy during rainy season.
Carlsmith is located just a few miles from Hilo International Airport, and is a very popular destination for vacationers fresh off the plane who want to get a head start on some beach time. So, if your flight into Hilo arrives before dark on a calm, sunny day, consider immediately heading here to jump in the warm pools, see a spectacular sunset and catch a few glimpses of the towering, magnificent mountain Mauna Kea in the distance as the sky starts to become painted with streaks of orange and red.
Carlsmith Beach Park is open from 7:00am to 8:00pm daily.