The finely ground soft white sand of Spencer Beach Park delivers swimmers, snorkelers, kayakers and board-riders into the crystal-blue waters of the surrounding bay, which on a typical sunny North Kona afternoon is calm enough for small children to safely frolic.
Spencer is one of the northernmost white sand beaches on the island, and a welcome reprieve from the otherwise rocky and unforgiving coast of its North Kohala district neighbors. It essentially marks the transition point where Kona’s sprawling, iconic, and picturesque shoreline of sandy bays and turquoise water that stretches for dozens of miles north of the city turns into the wild and rugged coast of the island’s northern flanks leading to the quaint rainswept town of Hawi (ha-vee).
It’s the last installment in a line of fully-outfitted beach parks that stretches along a length of the island’s western side, offering visitors a grand opportunity to explore Kona’s legendary beaches by simply driving up the highway a few miles at a time from one beach park to the next. Similar to other spots along this line, Spencer Beach offers modern amenities like restrooms, public showers, drinking water stations – even a large covered pavilion filled with picnic tables that includes electrical outlets in the walls for charging phones, lights and maybe even a crockpot.
Then there are the long, curving concrete sidewalks that skirt around the bay delivering beach-goers to the park’s different areas, including a large sloping lawn of green grass dotted with beat-up looking barbecue pits across the way from a well-maintained fenced basketball court. The ball court essentially marks the center of the park, with two distinctly different camping areas on either flank and a wide, flat sandy beach that’s ideal for setting up volleyball nets. Then there are the kayaks, outrigger canoes and stand-up paddle boards employed by the paddlers making the rounds just offshore – these watercraft can usually be spotted stashed in bunches taking up a seldom-used corner of the parking lot.
Snorkeling is a popular pastime at the park thanks to its stretch of shallow reef just offshore that tempers the force of incoming waves and slows down otherwise immensely strong currents. This makes for a shallow, gently sloping body of typically placid water, with crashing waves offshore finally coming in to the beach as little more than a soothing lapping. Groups of reef explorers clad in their fins and facemasks can usually be spotted out in the snorkeling grounds plying the seafloor of coral-clad submerged rocks looking for colorful tropical fish, eels, turtles and octopus.
However, visitors should keep in mind that near constant ship activity in the nearby Kawaihae Harbor can sometimes send murky water into the bay, cutting down visibility and making it hard to spot the schools of reef fish. So, plan to snorkel at Spencer Park on a day with ideal ocean conditions, or opt to go to another inarguably better spot in West Hawaii like the much-loved Two Step at Honaunau Bay – consistently ranked among the best snorkeling experiences on the island.
The resident lifeguard tower made of molded white plastic and stainless steel railings adds a degree of safety for newbie swimmers and those trying out snorkeling, although on some days the structure is inexplicably unmanned. For those wanting to play it safe and stay close to the tower while enjoying the warm, calm water of the bay, it’s easy to find upon arriving to the park: just look for the stand of several large kiawe (key-ah-vay) trees in the center of the beach with the tower tucked into the shade beneath them and surrounded by a scattering of picnic tables.
Camping is available at the Spencer Beach Park by permit only, and costs roughly $20 per adult per night. Due to the park’s popularity with locals and tour groups, it can get very busy on weekends and holidays with no vacancy available at the various campsites, although this doesn’t happen very often especially during tourism’s off-season. Safety can be an issue at many Big Island beach parks, especially those offering overnight camping, and thankfully Spencer enforces an all-hours ban on alcohol consumption, with a team of security guards that conducts sweeps around the park grounds throughout the night to ensure no campers are being disturbed.
The County of Hawaii uses an online reservation system to collect camping fees and reserve sites for visitors at spots like Spencer Beach Park. Visit the website hawaiicounty.ehawaii.gov/camping and follow the prompts to complete a reservation with a debit or credit card. Discounted camping rates for Hawaii residents are available with a valid State of Hawaii ID or driver’s license.
Security staff also enforce a “no re-entry” policy at the park, where the main gate is locked at 9:00pm and remains closed until 6:00am daily. This provides an added layer of safety, preventing the arrival of hordes of loud drunken partiers in the middle of the night. Keeping this policy in mind, campers should make sure they are set up with all necessary supplies before the gate is locked for the night. Exceptions to this rule are made for medical emergencies and other unforeseen circumstances, but it’s still possible that even with a legitimate excuse the guards will still not let you back in. No camping is allowed in the pavilions, as they are intended for day use only – these can be reserved for special functions with a separate permit.
Who Was Samuel Spencer?
The beach park’s namesake – Samuel M. Spencer – served as a judge and chairman of the Hawaii County Board of Supervisors from 1893 to 1944, back when the island chain was still a U.S. territory. During his life, Spencer worked hard to develop the North Kohala Coast, and served as a Postmaster at the town of Waimea’s post office. The postal name of the town is “Kamuela”, which means Samuel in Hawaiian, and is named in honor of its legendary hometown political figure. He’s also remembered for using his position as county chairman to help improve access to Waipio Valley – one of the most spectacular and breathtaking areas of natural beauty on the island.
The famed politician died without ever having set foot on the beach park named in his honor. Midway through his life, in the summer of 1935, Spencer planted one of the Banyan tree saplings lining the looping coastal road running along Hilo’s Waiakea Peninsula known as Banyan Drive. This leafy waterfront route is regarded as the city’s “Walk of Fame”, and features what are today towering banyans planted by celebrities and notable locals of the era including Hollywood directors, sports legends, music pioneers, and influential politicians like Spencer. Small hand-carved wooden placards adorn each massive tree stating which famous person put them in the ground nearly a century ago.
How To Get There
Spencer Beach Park is located at the end of Spencer Beach Park Road, which juts off from Highway 270 immediately south of the small Big Island port town of Kawaihae (kah-vie-high). Follow Spencer Beach Park Road for roughly half a mile, passing the entrance to Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site along a narrow road that winds downhill through several switchbacks to the seashore.
This sightseeing attraction midway to the beach is comprised of an awe-inspiring ancient Hawaiian temple made up of giant mounds of un-mortared lava rock – looking very much like a stone castle by the sea – complete with an interpretive center of educational exhibits and models, as well as a gift shop. The heiau (Hawaiian for “temple”) complex features several picturesque hiking trails and is featured in its own in-depth article on this site.
For campers and day trippers heading to the park, it’s wise to stock up on supplies in Kona town (roughly 35 miles south) or locally in the towns of Kawaihae or Waimea (12 miles east). There is no concessionaire at Spencer, and the dependable parking lot food trucks found at more urban beach parks on the island like Magic Sands and Kahaluu along Kona’s Alii Drive are similarly absent. So it’s important to pack in everything needed for your visit, including camping gear, sun protection and beach snacks (with the notable exception of drinking water, which the park provides in several areas).
Kiawe trees completely dominate the landscape in this region of Big Island, with their gnarled trunks and broad canopies of tiny leaves. One of the most noticeable characteristics of this curious variety of hardwood native to the islands is its ranks of large needle-like thorns. Kiawes have a habit of regularly dropping their thorny twigs, which at North Kona beaches tend to land in the golden sand and get partially buried, until an unfortunate barefoot beach-goer steps on them. Their thorns can get massive – up to an inch long or more, and are sharp enough to punch through the rubber soles of flip-flops. So, always wear decent shoes while walking across beaches like Spencer that are inhabited by kiawes, and be careful where you step.