Think Hawaii, think long runs of golden sand backed by stooping palm trees, glistening bays of turquoise water rolling over ivory sand banks, and glassy waves that bend into coves of daffodil-tinged powder. That’s the image that the travel brochures paint, but there are also some downright stunning black sand beaches Hawaii has to offer…
The bulk of them wait on Big Island (also known as the Hawaii Island), which is no surprise since that’s where you also find the smoke-belching cinder cones and calderas of the Volcanoes National Park. Below those mighty mountain peaks is a coastline interspersed with jagged rock reefs and gleaming black-sand strands, all of which are the product of the unique geology and vulcanology of the region.
This guide will home in on five of the most incredible black sand beaches Hawaii has up its sleeve. It’s got four options on the aforementioned Big Island, but also one on the famous R&R mecca of Maui, so you can break up those days on the golf courses and cruisy surf breaks with a visit to an altogether different sort of Aloha coast. Let’s begin…
Pohoiki Beach is among the most distinctive black sand beaches Hawaii has on its roster. It’s also known as Isaac Hale Beach because of the surrounding Isaac Hale Beach Park. Look for it at the extreme eastern end of Big Island, down Highway 132 – it’s just shy of 40 minutes in the car after you leave Pahoa town.
What’s truly amazing about this one is the fact that it simply didn’t exist prior to 2018. It was formed during what’s now called the Lower East Zone Eruption (LERZ), which took place in the summer of that year and saw nearly 14 square kilometers of the local east-coast territory of Big Island totally engulfed by powerful lava flows.
Pohoiki Beach itself formed on the spot where the lava meets the ocean, creating a great dash of whittled down volcanic rock that eventually ground away to become black powder. It now fronts the coastline right beside a gnarly mass of petrified ash and magma, which stands as a constant reminder to the brutality of the eruption some years back.
A lot was destroyed in the formation of Pohoiki Beach. Before the LERZ, this spot was famed for some fizzing barrel-worthy surf breaks and a buzzy marina, which often drew fishing folk and families. Today, that’s all disappeared. But nature did leave other treats, like the series of natural thermal pools in the surrounding jungle (the local government are at pains to remind people that they aren’t officially disinfected, so don’t jump in if you’ve got open cuts or sensitive skin!).
We’d rate Punaluu Beach as the single most beautiful black sand beach Hawaii has on offer. Again, it’s a Big Island beach, sat in a deep horseshoe bay on the rugged southeast coast, a mere 15-minute drive from the town of Naalehu. Because it’s been around for some time (AKA, it wasn’t made in any recent eruptions), the spot comes with good amenities, onsite parking, and even its own boat ramp.
There’s plenty here to keep adventurous travelers busy. But first, the looks. Surveying Punaluu Beach, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d been transported over to some long-lost isle in the midst of the Pacific Ocean; some Robinson Crusoe getaway. A 300-meter curve of jet-black sand bends through the middle of it all, with some smooth basalt rocks washed by the oceans at the center. A fringing of lush palm trees add contrast to the back, while clusters of sea grapes clamber over the cliffs to the east and west.
On calmer days, Punaluu Beach is a fantastic Big Island snorkeling location. It’s especially well known for its resident population of sea turtles, who come and go during the main nesting and laying seasons between April and September each year. Swimmers should beware, though. Strong currents come from the nearby river mouth and a series of underground freshwater springs. You’ll need to know how to deal with rips if you want to dive in here.
Like Pohoiki before it, Kehena Beach is another relatively new addition to the line-up of black sand beaches Hawaii has on the menu. It’s not quite as young as its compadre to the south, having been created way back in 1955 by lava flows that came down from the volcanic cones that lurk high up among the clouds overhead.
While many black-sand beaches disappear due to the movements of the ocean and the natural dropping away of the darker stone, this one stuck around. It’s now famed as a stunning run of shadowy strand that skirts the Big Island shoreline just beneath a clutch of rainforest and jungle.
Swimming at Kehena Beach is swell dependent. There’s virtually zero protection from the oncoming Pacific waves, so bigger days mean you’ll probably have to stay out of the water. The upside to the exposure is that groups of spinner dolphins are known to come super close to the shoreline in these parts, and they can even be observed from lookout points on the coast.
One other thing to know about Kehena Beach: This is one of Hawaii’s very few unofficial clothing-optional spots. We say “unofficial” because, technically, nude beaches aren’t allowed in the Aloha State full stop. That doesn’t stop the locals though, so don’t be surprised to find folks bearing all and tanning the natural way!
Kaimu was once a bustling beach town on the south coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. Then came the mega eruptions of the 1990s and it was completely buried by an unstoppable march of magma from Puʻu ʻŌʻō – a volcano that currently holds the world record for the longest continuous outpouring of lava on the globe!
Anyway, gone is the beach town that once was. But from the ashes springs life. Cue modern-day Kaimu Beach. It’s been formed on the very cusp of the petrified lava flow from 30 years back, and now runs for about 325 meters between two flanks of stone that jut out into the Pacific. It’s a desolate place compared to many of the other mentions on this list – no palms, no sunbeds. However, therein lies the beauty of it. This is raw, wild, Hawaiian coastline, forged in the belly of the volcanic beasts that command Big Island itself!
Even getting to the beach is a bit of a trip through time. You’ll need to drive a section of Highway 130 that was also covered by the 1990 eruption. The asphalt is now perched right on top of the lava, as are a number of new villas and homes!
Waianapanapa State Park
Waianapanapa State Park is the sole black sand beach Hawaii can offer that we focus on that’s not on the Big Island. Nope, this one makes its home in the district of Hana on the much-loved vacation mecca of Maui. To get there, drive up the 360 coast road from Hana town for about 10 minutes, or just a touch less. Look for the turn off to Waianapanapa Road. There’s parking at the end. It’s $10 per vehicle for the whole day.
The ticket price is worth it, though – there are umpteen natural wonders to explore in this designated state park. First, the black sand beach itself. Set in deep cove with two-meter high bluffs of lava stone surrounding it on all sides, it’s a secretive little nook in the shoreline. The colors are what strike straight away. You’ve got sea grapes glowing emerald on the rocks and pure turquoise seas washing in right in front.
Take some time to walk the coast up and down Waianapanapa. There’s a whole lava tube visible, along with frozen fields of lava reef. Just behind the beach itself is a protected swathe of coast forest that’s laden with red and pink orchids and hibiscus plants. Nearby, you’ll find blowholes that spurt water into the air on larger swells, along with a series of tidal pools that mysteriously turn red a few times each year. It’s an amazing place!
The best black sand beaches Hawaii has – our conclusion
Yes, it’s the golden sands and paradise bays of the Aloha State that really put it on the tourist map and help make it one of the most sought-after vacay destinations in the whole USA. But never forget that these are volcanic islands at heart. And that means black sand beaches. Oodles of them.
Big Island, in particular, doesn’t disappoint. That sprawling mass of stone on the southeastern end of the chain hosts a whole medley of darker beaches, some of which were only created with recent eruptions in 2018 and 2014. There are also others on offer in Maui, with a framing of green coconut palms and lush coast vegetation.