Roughly 30 miles north of Kona town on Big Island’s west side, along a sun-beaten highway with vast black lavafields stretching out on either side, lies the stunning white sands of Puako and its well-hidden gem of a swimming spot, Beach 69.
Its official name is Waialea Beach, but hardly anyone calls it this. For decades, numbered telephone poles ran along the winding coastal road beside it, and telephone pole #69 sat right at the entrance to the beach’s parking lot, earning it its nickname. The poles are long gone now but the name has stuck, and the area in general is often just referred to as “Puako”.
The beach is a roughly quarter-mile long crescent of gently sloping golden sand, divided into dozens of smaller mini-beaches by the writhing, tangled trunks of massive kiawe trees growing right out of the sand (pronounced KEY-AWE-VAY). At high tide, it’s impossible to walk from one mini-beach to another along the shoreline due to these walls of branches separating each area, and visitors will usually resort to the upland trail which connects both ends of Beach 69 with the parking area.
Sunbathing, snorkeling, swimming, and stand-up paddle boarding are all popular at Beach 69, and on hot Kona afternoons during high tourism season the place can be packed with each individual mini-beach occupied by visitors and locals alike, with many large families sprawled out on the sand. Waialea Bay protects the beach from much of the high surf of Big Island’s leeward side, making it a popular place to bring young children learning how to swim. On a calm day with slight onshore breeze, waves gently lap at the shoreline and kids chase each other in and out of the surf while their parents lay out lunch spreads on the many picnic tables found scattered along the shore.
There are three main snorkeling areas at Beach 69: the north end, the south end, and the outcrop of lava rock jutting out of its center. These are the places where Puako’s blanket of ubiquitous white sand gives way to some rocky underwater features, with ample amounts of coral, brightly colored tropical fish, eels, urchins, octopus – and in some cases even giant sea turtles! Snorkelers often make their way here from neighboring Hapuna Beach – a more traditional, spread-out, postcard-type white sand beach – which isn’t as protected and requires a farther swim to get out to the good spots.
Many opt to still wear their fins at Beach 69, but with such gentle surf and a very short swim to the outcroppings, they aren’t really necessary. A labyrinth of intricately formed coral in every imaginable shape – sponges, brains, mushrooms, cups, antlers, fingers – can be found on the seafloor, serving as the building blocks of the tidal ecosystem. At low tide, many of these formations are exposed, making navigating through them difficult, but at high tide many of these snorkeling spots can be anywhere from 10 feet to 30 feet below the surface.
A Beach Where Visitors Leave Their Parasols In The Car
Swimmers, snorkelers and boarders take breaks in between sets and lie out on beach towels underneath the welcome shade of the kiawe canopy. Families build sandcastles out of the soft, fine white sand, and adventurous children climb around on the piles of interwoven trunks, while tiny colorful birds can be seen flittering back and forth high up on green branches. All of this gives Beach 69 the appeal of a secluded white sand beach tucked into a forest, and makes it unique compared to most other adjacent swimming spots like Mauna Kea Beach and Hapuna Beach, where wide open swaths of sun-cooked sand are frequented by swimmers relaxing beneath rows upon rows of lounge chairs and parasols.
The hottest days of summer along the Kona coast can see mid-day temperatures approaching triple-digits, and the sand at many popular swimming spots becomes too hot to stand on. These are arguably the days when Beach 69 is busiest, as locals and visitors look for places to stay cool. Even on a 100-degree afternoon, its pockets of shaded sand remain comfortable and breezy, and swimmers will spend awhile frolicking about in the waves being blasted by an unrelenting sun and then take time to rest in the shade, trying to stave off sunburns.
Probably its greatest draw, though, is its seclusion. Unlike most other beaches around the Puako area, Beach 69 is uninhabited by hotels, condos or resort complexes, making it a destination for those wanting to get thoroughly immersed in nature. It is – as some guidebooks describe it – a “getaway” beach. This also helps with wildlife watching, as the typical crush of humans isn’t there to scare away animals like dolphins, turtles and even humpback whales during winter months. The roughly 35 acres of land and water comprising Waialea Bay is a designated Marine Life Conservation District, which is a zone specifically set aside to conserve and replenish marine species populations.
Although Beach 69 is more off the beaten path and rustic than typical Kona-side beaches, it still hosts much of the same amenities as its counterparts: a large restroom facility, well-maintained concrete walkways down to the shore complete with steel handrails, and a multi-user outdoor shower to blast off all the fine white sand that seems to cling to bathing suits. There’s a grouping of several picnic tables near the beach’s entrance downhill from the restroom and shower, ideal for larger groups of visitors and multi-family swimming trips.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are no lifeguards on duty at Beach 69. On calm days with favorable ocean conditions, the waters in Waialea Bay are placid and peaceful, but conditions can change quickly and visitors with little experience in ocean swimming must be careful. As a general rule, stick to the statewide Hawaii ocean safety motto: “If in doubt, don’t go out.” Be sure to check weather and tide forecasts when planning a trip to Puako, and remember to spend a few minutes after arriving watching the ocean and paying attention to whether other swimmers are out that day.
How To Get There
The drive out to Beach 69 isn’t as straightforward as those to other Puako-area beaches, but this is arguably part of its appeal as a semi-hidden gem.
To find it, follow Highway 19 north of Kona International Airport for roughly 23 miles, past the junctions for Waikoloa and Mauna Lani resorts. A few miles after passing a firehouse on the left, a left-hand turn lane will appear with signage for Puako Beach Drive. Take this left and drive less than a mile downhill, and then take the first right onto the unmarked Old Puako Road.
Another mile or two along this winding, narrow one-lane road will bring visitors to the entrance of a clearly marked parking lot with a large yellow gate. The parking area is open from 7am to 8pm daily, though the closure time has varied in the past, and it’s smart to confirm this upon arrival. In the past, there have been instances of beach-goers getting their vehicles locked in at the end of the day. Parking in the paved area is available for a small fee, payable at the automated booth.
There are drinking fountains attached to the restroom facility with potable water, so hauling several jugs in the car for the day isn’t necessary. Besides these few basic amenities, though, there’s little else for visitors to avail themselves of, and it’s smart to pick up beach snacks, picnic supplies, sunscreen and refreshments in Kona town along the way. For beach-goers coming from the opposite direction, the closest supermarkets are in the towns of Kawaihae and Waimea, while old Puako town has a convenience store selling basic essentials.
The concrete walkway skirting the restroom and shower slopes down to the shore, and visitors can choose to go either right or left at this terminus: to the right is a smaller but easier-to-access grouping of mini-beaches that quickly ends at the bordering sea cliffs, while to the left lies the majority of Beach 69 swimming spots, though some of these have rockier bottoms and steeper drop-offs.
Important Note About Shoes: Keawe trees are notorious for their long, sharp thorns. The trees readily drop them in even the slightest breeze, and the beaches and trails around Beach 69 are usually littered with keawe twigs. This makes walking barefoot at the Beach a very bad idea, and many visitors in the past have learned this the hard way. There are even North Kona locals who swear that keawe thorns are strong and sharp enough to pierce the soft rubber soles of flip-flops. So, be sure to bring sturdy shoes with thick soles for the walk out, and to make sure to warn every member of your party about the hazard.