Who doesn’t love a good naturally occurring geographic oddity, especially when there are only 4 of them in the world! We’ve all heard of the pristine white sandy beaches of Waikiki, but very few know about the green sand beach of Papakolea on the big island of Hawaii. Part of the the charm of the big island is that it still isn’t really recognized as popular tourist destination in comparison to islands like Oahu or Maui. Even once you arrive at the island, you’ll quickly realize that zero effort has been put into anything that resembles promoting many of the island’s natural wonders. In my opinion this actually makes for a more rewarding experience because it’s prevented a lot of these sites from being turned into tourist traps.
“But why green!?” I asked when first hearing of this bizarre natural specimen. Pay close attention because there is no touristy signage at the trail head giving you a scientific breakdown behind this geological oddity (This way you can sound like an expert volcanologist with who ever you make the trip with.) Once upon a time (50,000 years ago) there was a cinder cone (type of volcano) named Pu’u Mahana that exploded. The liquid hot lava left behind a special kind of deposit called Olivine (the green sandy stuff) which has hung around unlike some of the other silicates (stuff from the Earth’s crust) due to it’s heaviness. Sadly though all good things must come to an end. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point all that Instagram worthy olivine will be washed out to sea… just another reason to book a trip to Hawaii today.
Navigating the Big Island:
The number one requirement when planning a trip to the big island is renting a car…. because just as the name says the island is pretty bloody huge. You either have the option of flying into Kona on the west side of the island or Hilo on the East. Personally I enjoyed Hilo much more because the city (more like a town) feels like it’s been left behind in time. Papakolea (the green sand beach) is found on the southern tip of the island, which is actually the most southern point of the United States! So which ever city you fly into it is more or less about an hour and a half drive to the start of the beach trail head.
As I mentioned before, you aren’t going to see any big signs pointing you in the direction of the green sand beach. When you are on Highway 11 between the 69 and 70 mile marker, look out for the South Point road turn off. The road is about an 8 mile long stretch that runs straight down to the coastline. Towards the very end hang a left at the fork and the road and you’ll have reached the trail head! You can either do the next stretch of the journey on foot hiking an hour long zig zagged trail that hugs the coastline – or you can pay one of the locals 10 bucks to give you an Indiana Jones style ride on the back of one of their trucks. If you choose to hike (my recommendation) you’ll come across some ancient shrines called “heiau” used by the Hawaiians to make offerings to the gods before heading out to sea to fish. When you finally arrive at the destination, you’ll have to navigate down a lava cliffside – not actually as challenging as it sounds – and from there you can kick back and enjoy sitting at the Southern tip of the United States on a rare geological oddity.
One final note!! As I mentioned before, despite the heaviness of the Olivine, it is slowly disappearing… so don’t go speeding up the process by pinching grains and adding it to your weird sand collection back at home.