The sands of West Hawaii beaches are predominantly white, made of finely pulverized coral built up over millennia. But on the eastern shores, Punalu’u Beach the sands are black; a testament to its active volcanic heritage, where rivers of lava from the massive volcano Mauna Loa and its smaller offshoot, Kilauea Volcano, charge downhill to the ocean and explode as they contact cold seawater. This violent phenomenon causes the near-shore ocean to boil, and all this activity smashes the rapidly cooling, glass-like rock into trillions of tiny pieces, which are then ground down further by waves and tide and deposited along the shore.

Repeat this process for years – centuries even – and enough sand will accumulate to fill in entire bays, blanketing the formerly rugged, rocky coastline with finely ground, freshly forged jet-black sand. These are East Hawaii’s legendary black sand beaches, which go in tandem with many other volcanic curiosities in the area: Kilauea Volcano’s interminably smoking Halemaumau Crater, Kaumana Lava Tube Caves found in the hills above Hilo, stretches of steaming, still-hot highway from the 2018 Lower Puna Eruption – even Papakolea Green Sand Beach, with its own uniquely colored sand and geological backstory.

Punaluu Black Sand Beach Beaches

Perhaps the greatest example of these beaches unique to East Hawaii is Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. It’s an isolated, windswept waterfront park full of raw beauty and amazing ocean vistas located roughly 10 miles past the small coffee-growing town of Na’alehu along the island’s southern coastal highway. There’s a crescent-shaped bay of black sand and deep blue water punctuated in places by outcroppings of porous lava rock, and just up from the shore is a forest of towering coconut palms stretching the entire length of the beach.

This is a great spot for sunbathing, picnicking, swimming and snorkeling, and on a calm day the ocean waves are little more than murmurs as they gently lap at the patches of sand and banks of stones revealed by the dropping tide. Visibility underwater drops off significantly at Punalu’u Beach as the ocean gets choppier, so snorkelers have their best luck on days when the bay is calmest. A variety of Hawaiian sea life has established themselves on the once-desolate nearshore rocky bottom, and groups of snorkelers can often be spotted plying the bay on cloudless days when the penetrating sunlight illuminates the nooks and crannies of the black rocks best. 

Entering the bay is easiest from its northeastern end due to there being fewer large rocks at water’s edge to scramble over. At high tide many of these rocky sections are submerged, creating an impressive and almost uninterrupted half-moon of inviting-looking sand that’s a perfect spot to take a nap on a beach blanket in between snorkeling sets. After awhile, first-time visitors will notice a twinkling in the corner of their eye; this is the wet black sand catching the sunlight – something white sand can hardly claim to do so strikingly – causing the beach to sparkle in a similar way to the crystal blue ocean water itself.

Punaluu Black Sand Beach Sand Beaches

In Hawaiian, “Punalu’u” (pooh-nah-loo-oo) means “spring water dived for”, named after the array of freshwater springs feeding into the bay. The freshwater is colder than the seawater, but is also much less dense, causing it to nonetheless float on top and impart swimmers with the strange sensation that they are submerged in cold and warm water at the same time. As the old legends go, in times of drought the ancient Hawaiians living around the bay would free-dive below the surface, locate the springs and fill gourd vessels with fresh water before bringing them up to the surface.

Slippery Rocks and Strong Currents – Tips For Staying Safe At Punalu’u Beach

Punalu’u is very isolated; it’s more than an hour’s drive away from both of Big Island’s main cities, Kona and Hilo. And although there is a lifeguard on duty during the beach park’s open hours, it’s important for visitors to still keep safety in mind and consider some basic guidelines for avoiding some of the hazards present in such a rough, rugged and out-of-the-way place.

Many visitors opt to wear water shoes at Punalu’u; locals would likely say that foot protection isn’t necessary at the majority of Big Island’s well-frequented beaches, but would be in agreement that at this particular spot it is a good idea. Walking over slippery, uneven lava rocks in order to get in the water can range from uncomfortable to downright dangerous, so find the sandiest looking spot and don’t be shy about wearing those booties. 

Some swimmers opt to take advantage of the small boat ramp on the left side of the beach, which does make for a slightly more sure-footed entry than the beach itself. However, the ramp does face the open ocean and strong currents are often present here just offshore, so those choosing to use the ramp should be acutely aware of ocean conditions before getting in at this spot.

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On high surf days, even locals recognize that Punalu’u can be dangerous and tend to stay out of the water and just enjoy the beach and coconut forest. There’s even a freshwater pond full of waterlilies located up from the beach that makes for a great recreation spot on days when the ocean is churning like a washing machine.

Turtles, Hawks, Seals, Dolphins and Whales

A striking variety of endangered Hawaiian marine species call the bay home – some for just part of the year – including the hawksbill turtle, green sea turtle, Hawaiian monk seal, spinner dolphin and humpback whale. Hawaiian hawks, known in the language as “’io”, can often be seen flying over the sandy shoreline or surrounding sea cliffs, going to and from the nests they build in the trees at Punalu’u. Other native birds make the journey everyday from their upland nesting grounds down to the coastline to hunt for food, flying over the beach area to the delight of day-tripping birdwatchers.

Some of these species are exceedingly rare; the hawksbill turtle, for example, is a federally listed endangered species, and marine biologists suggest that it is the rarest sea turtle in the entire Pacific Ocean. Some research has estimated that there are fewer than 100 of the turtles left in the Hawaiian Islands. The green turtle is also a threatened species, and one of the most easily spotted at the beach. They haul themselves up onto the rocky coastline at Punalu’u to rest in the warm sunshine when they aren’t plying the shallow waters below looking for seaweed to munch on.

Punaluu Black Sand Beach Shower Beaches

State and federal laws require visitors to stay at least 20 feet away from sunbathing turtles (and sometimes more for other protected species), even though the turtles don’t seem to mind the presence of beach-goers and are not very easily spooked. 

How To Get There:

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is easily accessed via Highway 11, otherwise known as Hawaii Belt Road or Mamalahoa Highway. It’s roughly 30 miles south of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and about 10 miles north of the small coffee-growing town of Na’alehu (nah-ah-lay-hoo). From the highway, close to mile marker 55, turn onto Punalu’u Road or Ninole Loop Road. Both of these wind down to the coast and eventually intersect at the beach park’s parking lot roughly one mile after branching off from the highway. Ninole Loop Road is a more direct access to the campsites at the south end of the bay, as well as to the local 3-star hotel known as Sea Mountain found just up the road from the beach. Besides the hotel, there are very few lodging choices in the area, making Punalu’u Beach a day trip from Volcano or South Kona for most Big Island visitors. 

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There’s a large wooden sign denoting the park, along with a complex of picnic pavilions, restroom and shower facilities, ample parking spots, lifeguard tower and campsites available by reservation. However pets, open fires and removing sand, rocks or plants from the area is prohibited. The park is very isolated, so be sure to stop off in a larger town along the way like Captain Cook, Ocean View or Volcano to pick up snacks, drinks, beach supplies and maybe even some picnic staples. For those heading to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach with a hankering for something sweet, the beach’s namesake – Punalu’u Bake Shop – is located in the town of Na’alehu just a few miles away, and offers up freshly baked pastries, sweet breads, homemade ice cream, locally grown coffee, Hawaiian plate lunches and much more.

Weather at the park can be unpredictable, and its bright green, leafy landscape suggests it sees more than its fair share of rainy days throughout the year. Also, the bay faces the open ocean and sometimes the onshore breeze can be quite powerful – enough to make some visitors chilly on cloudy days, especially in the wintertime. So, check the forecast before starting off and choose a beach day with promising conditions, and be sure to remember to bring sun protection, rain gear and good shoes for walking across lava rocks.