No Hawaiian vacation is complete without multiple day trips to the beach and the Big Island is no exception. On the Big Island, you’ll have a wide selection of picturesque white sand beaches, unique black and green sand beaches, as well as ideal snorkeling spots that are teeming with marine life. However, unless you’re a local, you won’t have enough time to visit all the beaches Hawaii has to offer. So how do you choose?
In this Big Island beach guide, I’ve curated a list of the most popular beaches that will satisfy most beach lovers. This guide is structured as follows:
- List of Big Island Beaches
- Selection Criteria
- Best of Big Island Beaches
- Popular Beaches We’d Skip
List of Big Island Beaches
Here is the list of Big Island beaches that we planned to visit during our 7-day Big Island road trip. This is not an exhaustive list of all the beaches one could visit while on the island but is representative of the most popular recommendations that are mentioned in numerous local and tourist guides.
Most Frequently Mentioned Big Island Beaches (A-Z)
- Waialea Beach (Beach 69)
- Kealakekua Bay (Captain Cook Monument)
- Papakōlea Beach (Green Sand Beach)
- Hāpuna Beach
- Pohoiki Black Sand Beach (Isaac Hale Beach Park)
- Kahaluʻu Beach
- Kaimū Black Sand Beach (Keauhou)
- Kekaha Kai State Beach
- Kīholo Bay
- Manini’owali Beach (Kua Bay)
- Magic Sands Beach Park
- Makalawena Beach
- Kaunaʻoa (Mauna Kea) Beach
- Pololū Valley Beach
- Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
- Honaunau Bay (Two Step Beach)
Popular Big Island Beaches We Skipped
- Kekaha Kai State Beach, Manini’owalu Beach, & Makalawena Beach: We planned to visit all of the beaches in Kua Bay in one day but had to skip it because of the rainy, cloudy weather. I would love to come back to the Big Island and hike along the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail that runs through the beaches of Kua Bay. If you’re interested, here’s the hiking guide we originally planned to follow.
- Kīholo Bay: One of the best places to see turtles, we were sad to have missed spending time at Kīholo while we were on the west side of the island. If you’re interested in a beautiful hike and swimming with turtles in turquoise waters, then you may want to stop by here. Note, the water here is murky so snorkeling for other forms of marine life isn’t as great as elsewhere on the island.
- Papakōlea Beach (Green Sand Beach): Though tempted by the novelty of visiting one of only 4 green sand beaches in the world, it is a 1-2 hour drive from either Kona or Hilo one-way to get to the trailhead and about a 5-6 mile round trip hike to get to the beach. It probably makes the most sense to do this as one of the first stops when driving from one side of the island to the other. However, we didn’t have time on our trip since we needed to be in Kona before our manta ray snorkeling tour. We also personally weren’t interested enough to warrant making a 4-5 hour trip to visit the beach so we skipped this stop (and have no regrets for doing so).
List of Popular Beaches We Actually Visited
- Mauna Kea Beach
- Hapuna Beach
- Beach 69
- Kiholo Bay
- Makalawena Beach
- Manini’owali Beach at Kua Bay
- Kekaha Kai State Beach
- Magic Sands
- Kahaluʻu Beach
- Keauhou Bay
- Snorkeling at Captain Cook Monument
- Two Step Beach
- Papakōlea Green Sand Beach
- Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
- Pololu Valley Beach
I’ll caveat that our list of “Best Big Island Beaches” is based on our subjective opinions. Because “best” is personal, I want to share the criteria we used to select and rank the beaches we visited during our trip.
- Safety: How safe are the surf conditions for snorkeling? Though I’m a comfortable swimmer, I know how quickly things can turn dangerous in the open ocean. We always referenced Hawaii Beach Safety to check the weather, surf, and beach conditions before going anywhere. If the conditions were poor or unsafe, we skipped.
- Quality of Snorkeling: Is it suitable for snorkeling? After safety, the quality of snorkeling was our most important factor in choosing which beaches to add to our list. As a native Southern Californian, I am lucky that I can sunbathe at the beach on a whim. However, our waters are too cold and murky for snorkeling.
- Marine Life Diversity: What types of marine life are you likely to see? For us, this specifically meant researching the likelihood of seeing other animals besides tropical fish (notably, green sea turtles, manta rays, and dolphins).
- Views: How picturesque are the views? There were some beaches we visited because the views were spectacular, even if we couldn’t go in the water.
Other Important Considerations
- Parking & Amenities: Is parking hard to find? Is parking free or paid? Are there restrooms and tables onsite? Knowing parking availability is helpful to determine if we need to visit a beach first thing in the morning. Onsite restrooms are useful for changing clothes and tables are a nice-to-have if you’re trying to protect something from getting too sandy.
- Access: Is the beach or snorkeling site easy to get to? Understanding how accessible a beach is will determine if there’s any pre-planning involved.
Best of Big Island Beaches
- Kealakekua Bay (Captain Cook Monument) (Kona side)
- Hāpuna Beach (Kona side)
- Kaimū Black Sand Beach (Hilo side)
- Pololū Valley Beach (Hilo side)
- Kaunaʻoa (Mauna Kea) Beach (Kona side)
- Punalu’u Black Sand Beach (Hilo side)
- Honaunau Bay (Two Step Beach) (Kona side)
#1: Kealakekua Bay (Captain Cook Monument)
“we saw multiple spinner dolphin pods along our kayak ride”
Why it made the list: This was our favorite snorkeling spot on the whole island. While not a beach, no trip to the Big Island is complete with a visit to Kealakekua Bay (also informally referred to as Captain Cook). The Bay gets its nickname from the large obelisk that memorializes the spot where Captain Cook was murdered, after attempting to seize power from the then King of Hawai’i. You can learn more about the monument’s sordid history here. Kealakekua is home to many varieties of fish and its waters are calm and clear. While we didn’t see any manta rays, we saw multiple spinner dolphin pods along our kayak ride.
Things to Know: The waters of Kealakekua Bay are protected and require a permit issued by the Division of State Parks to enter. There are only 3 ways to get to the monument: by hike, kayak, or boat tour. If you are able, I’d highly recommend either the hike or self-kayak option so that you’re not bound to someone else’s schedule. We chose to kayak because we heard that would be the greatest chance of spotting spinner dolphin pods, which are harder to spot if you stay close to the monument.
#2: Hāpuna Beach
“If we hadn’t seen dolphins at Kealakekua Bay, Hāpuna Beach would be in the number 1 spot… we saw a large variety of tropical fish and multiple green turtles gliding through the water.”
Why it made the list: If we hadn’t seen dolphins at Kealakekua Bay, Hāpuna Beach would be in the number 1 spot. Hapuna is a huge white sand beach that’s great for most water activities, including snorkeling. Even in the early afternoon, we saw a large variety of tropical fish and multiple green turtles gliding through the water.
Things to Know: You can snorkel from either end of the beach but we followed this Hapuna Beach guide and stuck to the right to have the best chance of seeing turtles (which we did!). There are large rocks on both sides of the beach, which become hazardous when the tides change. We noticed the surf was high and visibility reduced in the late afternoon so we’d recommend making this one of our first beach stops in the morning.
#3: Kaimū Black Sand Beach
“has spectacular cliffside views of the Pacific and is accessible by a short, black and red sand trail”
Why it made the list: Kaimū Black Sand Beach was our favorite beach on the Hilo side of the island. Located in the Pahoa, it is a newly formed black sand beach created by the 2018 volcanic eruption. It is not suitable for any water activities but has spectacular cliffside views of the Pacific and is accessible by a short, black and red sand trail.
Things to Know: You can navigate to Kaimū Black Sand Beach by searching for “Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar” on Google Maps. It’s a perfect stop to make on your drive from Hilo to Kona.
#4: Pololū Valley Beach
“You’ll get a magnificent view of the valley and beach from the Pololū lookout”
Why it made the list: While Pololū Valley Beach is not suitable for swimming, the valley views are spectacular. You’ll get a magnificent view of the valley and beach from the Pololū lookout. I also 100% recommend the 1-mile hike down to the beach if you go on a sunny day.
Things to Know: The hike is steep and rocky so I wouldn’t recommend going down to the valley floor if it’s raining. Here’s the All Trails route you can follow, which will take you from the lookout point down to the beach floor. You can also hike past the beach to the other side that faces the Honokane Nui Valley. While the path is well-trodden, there are minimal signposts. Here’s the guide we followed to make sure we stayed on the right path.
#5: Kaunaʻoa (Mauna Kea) Beach
“Kaunaʻoa is by far the most picturesque white sand beach we visited… we [saw] a school of fish, swimming and turning in unison”
Why it made the list: Kaunaʻoa is by far the most picturesque white sand beach we visited. We didn’t see as many fish compared to Kealakekua Bay or Hāpuna Beach (which we went to after) but we did see a school of fish, swimming and turning in unison.
Things to know: There are limited paid parking spots (only 40 parking spaces) unless you’re a guest at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. If you don’t get there early enough and the spaces are all taken, you’ll need to park at Hapuna Beach State Park and walk about 1 mile to get to the Mauna Kea. On a sunny day, the hike is easy and the ocean views are spectacular.
#6: Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
“…less spectacular compared to others but is worth the quick stop to get close up to the turtles”
Why it made the list: Punalu’u is the island’s most famous black sand beach and a popular stopping point on the drive from Hilo to Kona. While you can swim (or snorkel on a clear day), most people stop by to see the sea turtles laying on the rocky beach. Even in the rain – which is when we stopped by -, you can spot multiple turtles resting on the lava rocks. Of the black sand beaches, I found the beach itself to be less spectacular compared to others but is worth the quick stop to get close up to the turtles (and by close, I mean at least 10 feet away).
#7: Honaunau Bay (Two Step Beach)
“…another great snorkeling spot with many interesting areas to discover abundant sea life and coral”
Why it made the list: Honaunau Bay is another great snorkeling spot with many interesting areas to discover abundant sea life and coral (and possibly spinner dolphins if you’re lucky).
Things to know: The Bay gets its name from the “two steps” you take from the lava rocks into the water as there is no beach. You do need to time the surge of the waves as you enter and exit the water, in order to prevent bashing into sea urchins or the lava rocks.
Popular Beaches We’d Skip
Waialea Beach (Beach 69)
On a good day when the surf isn’t too strong, Waialea Beach is a great snorkeling spot. There’s a lot of marine life, ample shade, and you may even spot humpback whales in the winter. However, it’s not a great beach if you’re looking to sunbathe on warm, soft sand or if you’re a beginner snorkeler due to the large rocks inside the bay. We came here after Hapuna Beach and wished we’d stayed at Hapuna longer, where we could already tell the waves were becoming more powerful. I’d skip this beach if the surf is too strong based on conditions at Hapuna or after checking surf conditions.
Isaac Hale Beach Park
If you’re looking for a relaxing day of sunbathing and swimming at the beach, this isn’t the beach for you. The waters can become too dangerous to swim, the views aren’t bad but aren’t particularly notable, and the drive is an hour round trip detour from the main route to get to Kona. We also weren’t interested in wading in the hot spring (if you are looking to swim in a geothermal pool, then maybe you will want to stop by since this might be one of few places where you’d be able to do so on the island).
Kahaluʻu Beach (Keauhou)
Kahaluʻu Beach is a beginner-friendly snorkeling spot. It’s easy to get in and out of the water and there is a lifeguard on duty. There are also bathrooms and picnic tables in the park area. We went to Kahaluʻu Beach in the afternoon. By then, only a small number of fish were visible and most of them were ones we had seen at Two Step Beach earlier. Given the constraints of our trip, I would have skipped it and stayed at Two Step Beach longer. However, on my next visit, I would like to try coming back in the morning and see if that helps with the visibility and presence of marine animals.
Magic Sands Beach Park
Magic Sands is a white sand beach, centrally located in downtown Kailua-Kona. There is a lifeguard on duty and the beach park has restrooms, tables, and outdoor showers. Given its location, the beach can get crowded during peak hours so I’d advise going early in the morning or late afternoon. While you can surf, the beach is not suitable for snorkeling and it can even be hard to swim when the waves are strong. If you’re in the downtown area, planning to surf or body swim, or want to lounge on the beach, this might be the spot for you. I personally would only recommend coming here if proximity to downtown Kona is your most important factor. Otherwise, there are so many other great beaches on the island.