When you picture Hawaii, what do you see? Swaying palm trees, a sunset setting red over a wide ocean on a pale sandy beach?
While most of the beaches in Hawaii are light tan, there are a number of beaches, particularly on the Big Island, that are especially unique. You can visit these unusual beaches (usually hike, as most are off the beaten paths) and take pictures, but it’s illegal to take back samples of the sand.
Hawaii’s Beach Diversity
Tan or yellow sand is the most common beach type in Hawaii, but it can range from powdery in texture (as at Barking Sands, where the fine sand squeaks with each step you take in a sort of bark) to coarse and almost pebbly. This sand is found on the older islands, and is composed primarily of shells and corals that have been ground fine by the action of wind and wave on pumice rock lining the ocean bed for hundreds of miles around the islands.
Pebble beaches are common on the western sides of the islands. These incorporate a wide variety of rocks, from coarse pumice to smoothed granite and coral. I’m not sure why these congregate to the west, unless it’s because the waves don’t grind the rocks against the island but instead sweep things up on shore in an incidental sort of way here. Pebble beaches are okay for hiking, but they don’t hold much attraction for swimmers, surfers, or fishermen. On some of these deserted stretches, though, you can spot the elusive hona (green sea turtles) or monk seals sunning themselves.
Rock beaches, on the other hand, teem with life both underwater and on top of the water. These beaches are made up of small, medium, and huge black basalt or pumice formed thousands or just hundreds of years ago by the volcanoes. The basalt makes for a great place for fishermen to stand to do some shore-based saltwater fishing, which is rich and plentiful in these areas.
It’s the pumice that makes these beaches stand out. Pumice is formed when molten rock, ash, and volcanic gases are blasted from a volcano in a sort of fizzy mass. The gases trapped in the rock give it the texture of baked goods, and when the rock hardens, its spongelike texture makes it ideal for beach bacteria and other small life forms to grow in. This, in turn, draws small life like tiny insects, then crabs and small fish, and of course corals. Pumice-rich rock beaches teem with life, and it’s great fun to peer into all the cracks to see what’s living in this niche. Even better, Hawaii has no snakes and very few poisonous insects; a well-monitored child can safely get close to nature.
More Exotic Beaches
To find Hawaii’s most exotic beaches, you’ll need to visit the Big Island and be ready to walk. Black sand beaches are formed here when hot lava meets the ocean, then shatters into tiny glasslike fragments. New black sand beaches are not visitor-friendly, but the older ones that have not eroded away are amazing. You’ll find the best one at Punalu’u Beach Park, and you’ll also find green sea turtles nesting in its warm sands. Swimming here is not safe due to the harsh rip currents out in the water (some locals swim anyway, but they’re familiar with the waters). Instead, check out the turtles, look for the sacrificial stone on the north end of the beach, and enjoy the warm black sand.
Punalu’u is fairly accessible, but the next exotic beach is not. Mahana Beach is a green sand beach, formed in much the same way black sand beaches are but from olivine rather than black pumice and obsidian. This is a primitive beach, and you’ll have to hike two or three miles to get there (or rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and get the right permit), but it’s worth the trip. Because of the sand, the water is a unique aquamarine, but it’s not safe to swim in. This is another beach to hike back to, bring a lunch and water, and just enjoy the beauty.
Both these beaches are found on the southeast side of the Big Island, not far from Volcano National Park and close to open lava flows. If you’re staying in Hilo, you’ll probably drive through the volcanic park to get to them, and that drive itself may be worth the trip.