Fifty thousands years ago, flowing underground magma from Hawai’i Island’s second most important volcano – Mauna Loa – collided with groundwater, causing an violent explosion of volcanic ash and creating what is known among today’s volcanologists as a “tuff ring”. This was a massive mound of mineral rich ash and other volcanic products which grew out of the earth and mounded up to incredible heights – a sort of mini-volcano jutting out of the southwest corner of a massive volcano.
In the eons since its formation, the tuff ring has partially collapsed and become heavily eroded by the ocean. A bright green mineral called “olivine”, a mixture of iron, magnesium and silicate, came slowly pouring out of the ring’s depths as it eroded. At first the green crystals were mixed with a golden-grey ash, but over thousands of years the incessant force from pounding waves carried away the lighter ash particles, leaving only a blanket of green sand which slowly formed into a beach. Today, the crater is usually just called “Green Sands” by locals, and can be accessed via a roughly 6-mile roundtrip hike from Hawai’i Island’s southern tip known as South Point.
Papakolea means “plover flats” in the Hawaiian language, after the Pacific golden plovers – a gold and black speckled migratory shorebird that makes its home in Hawai’i and many other places throughout the Pacific Ocean during wintertime. These birds can sometimes be spotted in the area near the crater, having come in from far-off places like Alaska and Siberia where they spend their summer months.
The hike out to Green Sands traverses countless muddy, deeply rutted four-wheel-drive roads used by illegal shuttle operators who make the bumpy roundtrip drive many times a day. In some places the depth of the ruts are astounding; there photos of six-foot-tall adult hikers walking along the trail where ground level is still several feet above their head. It’s not uncommon to see ruts well over eight feet deep. This can make for some difficult trekking, especially right after heavy rains turn the tannish-brown soil to muck. Hiking guides advise allocating between three and five hours to go out and back.
The trail can be hot and dusty with virtually no shade at all, but finally reaching the cliffs of the crater and peering down into the half-moon bay with its brilliantly sparkling green sand makes it all worth it. After crossing miles of nondescript, windswept black lava rock coast, Papakolea appears and starts to grow larger on the horizon – a golden dome that seems to crop up out of the gently sloping shoreline. This makes navigating the many criss-crossing, badly-rutted roads easier, since hikers can always see the crater walls in the distance and choose the most direct route accordingly.
The beach itself is one-of-a-kind: a mesmerizing crescent of gold and green sand lapped at by aquamarine waves and flanked with heavily eroded sea cliffs carved by the elements into every imaginable texture. The cliffs extend several hundred feet into the ocean, creating a sort of harbor which slows the speed and intensity of the incoming surf. Still, on windy days with high-surf warnings, the beach can become treacherous for even the most experienced swimmers. So it’s wise to spend several minutes standing safely on the sand upon arrival, watching the ocean conditions and whether other hikers visiting the site are swimming that day or not.
People have drowned or been sucked out to sea at Green Sands by strong waves and rip currents, and the isolated nature of the area makes emergency services practically non-existent. This means it’s the responsibility of the visitor to be prepared, to know their limit and plan in advance to come on a day when ocean conditions are manageable.
Getting down the cliffside and onto the beach can be tricky, too. The path is extremely steep and badly eroded, and people with mobility problems might want to think twice before risking it. However, it’s not uncommon to see groups of hikers – strangers to one another – helping stragglers down the path as a gesture of “aloha”.
One Of Only A Handful Of Green Sand Beaches On Earth
Papakolea is one of only four green sand beaches found across the entire globe, and without a doubt the only one even remotely near the contiguous United States. Another can be found at Talofofo Beach, Guam, and the third is Punta Cormorant on Floreana Island in the Galapagos off the coast of South America. Lastly, Hornindalsvatnet in Norway boasts another green sand beach, though with much colder ocean swimming than the other three.
The bright green olivine mineral can be found elsewhere on Big Island, too, mostly enclosed within black lava rock whose dull hue contrasts sharply with the tiny sparkling, gem-like stones. This means the olivine is not easily separated from the surrounding rock and tends to weather away with the lava rather than break free and accumulate as beach sand. This is why green sand beaches are so rare on the island: they result from very specific geological conditions, in this case caused by the green crystals being enclosed in ash rather than rock.
Unfortunately, Papakolea’s beach won’t be green forever. The olivine crystals are eventually broken down by weathering and chemical reactions and washed away with the tide, which for thousands of years have been immediately replaced by a steady supply of crystals eroding out of the tuff ring. Eventually though, the supply of green sand will run out and the beach will slowly begin to look like any other on the island.
Visitors have to fight the urge to take a little of the brilliant green sand home with them, and likely do so unknowingly in shoe soles and the pockets of bathing suits. Though the desire is understandable, locals Hawaiians are quick to warn anyone who will listen that taking any kind of rock, even a small, nondescript lava cinder from the endless lavafields encircling the island, is very back luck. Big Island park rangers will regale listeners with stories of hapless tourists who, upon sneaking back lava rocks in their luggage, are befallen by a string of calamities and on several occasions have mailed the rocks back to the island along with letters of apology, in hopes their luck will turn around.
How To Get There
Getting to Papakolea Green Sand Beach from Highway 11, otherwise known as Hawai’i Belt Road, can be a bit tricky because there are no signs for it. Between mile markers 69 and 70 between the towns of Na’alehu and Ocean View is a turn for South Point Road marked with a road sign. Follow South Point Road for roughly 11 miles until it dead ends at a large gravel parking lot.
It’s from this parking lot that the clandestine shuttle operators depart to bring visitors to the beach. Although it’s arguably a convenient way to see Papakolea without having to do the sometimes-arduous hike, the shabby four-wheel-drive trucks making the journey have caused significant erosion and ecological damage to the area, forcing the Hawai’i Department of Hawaiian Homelands to prohibit vehicular traffic beyond the parking lot. The demand from tourists for the shuttles, however, continues to create an illegal market and government enforcement in the rural area is very lax.
So, visitors are wise to make the journey on foot and allocate enough time to go out and back before dusk sets and the trail becomes impossible to navigate in the dark. South Point is known for constant heavy winds, which on one hand go a long way in cooling down hikers making the journey on hot summer days. The wind can be bothersome for some people, though, and it’s advisable that every hiker bring their own lightweight windbreaker jacket. Papakolea and the South Point area in general is extremely isolated, meaning there are no amenities for visitors besides a few portable toilets in the parking lot. There is no potable water.
This means hikers need to bring all their own supplies, picked up either in one of the surrounding small towns or in Kona or Hilo. On a less windy day with little cloud cover the climate can be very hot and humid, so hikers absolutely must bring enough drinking water and sun protection. The badly rutted roads are uneven and rocky, so sturdy hiking shoes and long pants are indispensable. Slow hikers can expect to spend roughly five hours on the trail plus however long they plan on spending at the beach, so hiking to Green Sands and back can easily become a complete half-day excursion. This means it’s smart to bring a packed lunch and some high-energy snacks, which can be purchased at nearby supermarkets in either Ocean View or Na’alehu.
Locals all seem to have different advice on how to not get lost while traversing the criss-crossing paths, but the most valuable guidance is simply to stick to the ocean. That is: whenever hikers come to a fork in the road, always pick the one that runs closest to the shore. Eventually, the golden mound of Papakolea will come into view, and from that point on hikers can navigate largely by line-of-sight.