An uninterrupted half-mile of fine white sand waits for Kona-side beachgoers at Hapuna Beach, a long stretch of pristine, sun-drenched shoreline and electric blue water sandwiched between rocky bluffs dotted with luxury hotels and parched, spindly trees along Big Island’s Kohala Coast.
The beach is found within the much larger Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area, consisting of more than 60 acres of scraggly, windswept coastal land offering hiking and camping activities in addition to swimming, sunbathing, snorkeling, barbecuing and boogie boarding along the beachfront. Hapuna’s reputation on the island is legendary; locals and visitors alike consistently rank it as one of the best white sand beaches in West Hawaii, and compare it favorably to the white sands of islands like Kauai where the wide band of inviting-looking sand the color of raw sugar hugs the shore and seems to go on for miles in both directions.
Hapuna is about the closest thing to this travel brochure vista that Big Island has to offer, considering that more than half of its coastline is made up of unforgiving black lava cliffs crashed against by towering, angry waves. Its grounds are well-maintained and handsomely landscaped, with several square open-air gazebos crammed with picnic tables and positioned next to barbecue pits. The green-roofed structures are expansive; each one large enough to seat several different family groups at once. Gently curving concrete sidewalks running parallel to the beach link the gazebos with stands of public showers and shaded grassy areas ideal for unfurling a picnic blanket.
Like a handful of other popular Kona-side beaches, Hapuna is divided into a southern “public” side and a northern “private” side. The private end is mostly used by guests staying at the adjacent hotels and resorts, including the Hapuna Prince Hotel, The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, and the Hapuna Beach Residences at Mauna Kea Resort. These are the sprawling multi-story white buildings jutting out onto the bluff which seem to make their way into many of the most iconic photos of the beach.
These accommodations provide lounge chairs and parasols for their guests, which can usually be spotted set out on the sand in neat rows or bunched together for storage. “Public” side visitors to Hapuna can still explore any part of the beach they want as long as they respect the hotel facilities and keep in mind that the inland areas north of the State Recreation Area boundary is technically private property. There is no hard boundary between the two sections of the beach, though, and hotel guests regularly wander down to the southern end while swimmers and boogie boarders often set out in search of more ideal waves up north.
Beach conditions at Hapuna change dramatically between summer and winter, where from October through April large waves coming from the northwest charge into the bay and crash on the beach in spectacular fashion, drawing hordes of surfers and boogie boarders eager to ride the swelling waves. This is also the time of year where the beach narrows significantly due to shifting sand, contrasting with the summer months where it grows to its maximum width in or around the month of September. Waves and rip currents are calmer in the summer, too, when it’s typical for the beach break at Hapuna to be little more than a gentle, soothing lapping. Still, lifeguards are on-duty at Hapuna every day of the year and have made many daring rescues during periods of high surf.
However, due to its immense length there are several blind spots along the formidable stretch of sand, especially at either end where rocky outcrops provide ideal snorkeling grounds. Snorkeling isn’t as popular at Hapuna as other world-renown Big Island underwater adventure spots like Two Step at Honaunau Bay, but mask and fin-clad swimmers can still by spotted on most days plying the waters just offshore of the rocky cliffs looking for colorful tropical fish, cities of delicate coral and the occasional Hawaiian green sea turtle. Water visibility can sometimes be poor right offshore due to suspended beach sand and a layer of freshwater supplied by nearby springs which floats on the surface of the seawater. So don’t be afraid to swim out a bit to get a better view, at the same time keeping in mind that lifeguards can’t easily monitor the beach’s two farthest flanks.
A-Frame Camping and Hiking The Ala Kahakai Trail
Set just a few hundred feet inland from Hapuna Beach is a sprawling campground of sturdily built A-Frame structures available for use by campers. They are fully enclosed with bug netting, include sleeping platforms and picnic tables, and feature outdoor cooking facilities and communal bathrooms with cold showers. Each A-Frame can accomodate four people relatively comfortably, and costs around $50 per night with reservations that must be made at least a week in advance. During high tourism season it’s not uncommon for every A-Frame to be booked weeks – if not months – in advance, so it’s smart to plan ahead for a camping trip at Hapuna.
Another great aspect of the recreation area is its proximity to the Ala Kahakai hiking trail. This is a nearly 16-mile-long loop following ancient Hawaiian footpaths that lead along the rugged, parched old lavafields of Big Island’s Kohala Coast. It takes hikers past some of the most pristine shoreline on the island, although in some places it’s poorly marked and even more poorly maintained. It’s important to exercise extreme caution at certain places along the route where the path skirts perilously close to steep sea cliffs
Food and drinks are available within Hapuna State Recreation Area at the Three Frogs Cafe, which is found a little ways up from the beach area and open from 10am to 4pm daily. It’s a good place to grab a light lunch or snack after a long morning of swimming and boogie boarding, and it even offers rental items like snorkeling gear, beach chairs and parasols.
The only downside of Hapuna is that it can get exceedingly crowded on holidays or weekends during high tourism season. If you happen to visit the beach on a very busy day and decide that you want to escape the crowds, just a few miles south of the popular half-mile stretch of white sand is Beach 69 – a secluded and rarely crowded swimming hole shaded by a string of giant kiawe trees growing in stands along the shore. This smaller and more tranquil spot is great for swimming, and offers arguably better snorkeling ground than Hapuna itself. Beach 69 is covered in-depth with its own dedicated article on this website.
How To Get To Hapuna Beach
Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area is easily accessed via Highway 19, otherwise known as Mamalahoa Highway, roughly 30 miles north of downtown Kona and 3 miles south of the tiny Big Island port town of Kawaihae. Coming from Kona, there will be a left turn lane and sign for Hapuna Beach Road at approximately Mile Marker 70. Turn onto Hapuna Beach Road and continue down the hill toward the ocean for less than half a mile until the road turns into the patchy and potholed Old Puako Road. In another hundred feet there will be a right-hand turn into a large parking lot and signs for Hapuna Beach.
Right at the entrance to the parking lot is a manned gate station where state park rangers collect parking and entrance fees. In general, entrance fees are around $5 per person and $10 per vehicle. Hawaii residents with a valid State ID or driver’s license can enter and park for free. However, it’s not uncommon to see the guardhouse closed and the gate left open, letting visitors drive past without making contact with any park rangers or paying any fees. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to when the gate station is occupied or not, so it’s best to come prepared to pay and hope that simply no one’s there. Park at the top of the hill and walk down the wide paved road past the green-roofed pavilions and barbecue pits to get to the beach.
Open fires, consumption of alcohol, pets, use of drones, and harassing wildlife are banned at Hapuna, with a small army of four-wheeler-riding park rangers keen on enforcing the rules and keeping everyone safe. There’s also nighttime security patrols that make sure only registered campers remain at the park after dark. Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area is open from 7:00am to 6:45pm daily for day-use visitors.
For those not wanting to wholly depend on Three Frogs Cafe for snacks and picnic supplies while at the park, the nearby town of Kawaihae has a handful of humble grocery stores but no supermarket. The Foodland supermarket in the medium-sized cowboy town of Waimea roughly 10 miles east of Kawaihae is the closest spot to pick up a broader variety of picnic foods, drinks, and beach gear, with a great range of restaurants and coffee shops found in the same commercial center as the supermarket.
NOTE: As of April 2021, they are also charging a per person entrance fee for non-residents to go to this beach, it is $5 per person with children under 3 being free. Parking is $10 for non residents. See prices below