Just east of South Point, the windswept southernmost tip of Hawaii’s Big Island, is one of my favorite places: Papakōlea, the Green Sand Beach. It is tucked away at the end of a dusty 2.5-mile hike (each way). Locals offer rides to the beach for $15 per person, and it was worth it. Even if we had a sturdier car, I don’t think we’d survive all the pitfalls and twists of the unmarked route.
The beach itself is tiny, remnants of a collapsed cinder cone Pu`u Mahana (the beach is also known as “Mahana Beach”). Veins of olivine, a semi-precious gem, run through the cone. As the ocean erodes the rock and carries off lighter crystal particles, heavier moss-colored gems remain — for now. Like the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach to north-east of here, the Green Sand Beach will disappear one day (so please resist the urge to take samples home).
In early August, we were here at the height of the season. The beach seemed crowded for such a remote spot. Our driver said it is usually more secluded, especially if you come early in the morning.
People (and pets) braved the waves. Still, the surf here is strong, so use your judgement when venturing out.
Our driver waited for us at the edge of the cone above as we relaxed and took this place in. He was cheerful and very patient, but we didn’t want to take too much of his time. Another adventurous ride, and back we came to South Point, not just Hawaii’s but the country’s southernmost tip.
Getting here is a scenic adventure. Take Highway 11 south from both Kona (on the island’s dry western side) and Hilo (on the lush, rainy east). The road to South Point, or Ka Lae, is between mile markers 69 and 70. It is single lane for much of its 8-mile stretch, surrounded by vast grasslands. Cowboys lived here well before they came to Texas.
The wind is relentless. Trees are rare and windblown.
As you get closer (about 4 miles from the highway), turn right at the fork by the sign that reads, “KALAE.” This land looks wild and bare, and it’s easy to feel lost but hard to actually be so. The road ends at old boat hoists. These rocks likely saw the first humans arriving to the Hawaiian Islands. Remnants of human activity date as far back as 300 CE (“Papakōlea” means “Plover Flats” after the Pacific Golden Plover that overwinters in this area, credited with leading Polynesian sailors to these shores). Life here was always tough, and fresh water scarce, but the waves underneath are teeming with life. People still fish here, and the thrill seekers among them plunge off the cliffs into the waves, then climb back up along metal ladders.
The boat hoists, as dramatic as they look, do not mark South Point. Walk to the left along the shoreline, past the lonely rock wall and the light beacon. There are no cliffs there. You’ll know the spot when you see it. The currents before you can carry you straight to Antarctica, if you let them.
Just east of South Point is the spot where locals offer to spirit you off to the Green Sand Beach or where you can start your hike. However you get there, go. And visit gently.