My Hawaii Hostel’s Road Trip Guide to Naalehu’s Natural Wonders
One of the most epic road trips on Hawaii Island is an adventure to South Point and Green Sands Beach. If you love cliff-jumping, hiking, stunning views, and rugged, natural spaces this is a ‘must’ for your Big Island bucket list. Starting from My Hawaii Hostel in Kona, this blog will cover the road trip to South Point and Green Sands Beach, plus where to stop along the way for good eats and sights.
Why visit South Point and Green Sands Beach?
South Point, or Ka Lae, is the southernmost point of the United States and a popular destination for cliff-jumping. Giant 50 foot cliffs look out over the Pacific Ocean, with incredible views of Hawaii Island’s coastline. Locals and visitors who are brave enough leap into the deep blue water below, often performing flips and wild acrobatics in mid-air.
Green Sands Beach
Green sand! Like a landscape from another planet, Green Sands, or Papakōlea Beach is one of the most unique and beautiful beaches on the Big Island. The sand gets its green hue from the mineral olivine which erodes from a 49,000 -year-old cinder cone from Mauna Loa volcano. Located south of South Point, Green Sands can be accessed by a 2.5-mile hike (one way) over a dirt track. The beach is large and fun for swimming, sunbathing, and body surfing.
Ok, let’s get this road trip started!
When to Go
This road trip is best on a weekday morning. Leave as early as possible to beat the hot midday sun if you plan to do the hike to Green Sands. On weekends, South Point and Green Sands Beach tend to be more crowded.
The drive from My Hawaii Hostel direct to South Point is about 1.5 hours. The majority of the drive is spent on Hwy 11/Hawaii Belt Road which takes you south from Kailua-Kona through Kealakekua, Captain Cook, Honaunau, and Ocean View. The road south from Captain Cook to Ocean View is extremely narrow and winding with steep drop-offs and stunning ocean views. Drive slowly and with care. There are many accidents on this stretch of road.
Just before the town of Naalehu, you’ll spot the turn off for South Point, marked with a green sign. South Point Road is a scenic, winding one-lane road, with room for only one car to pass at a time, so drive slowly and with care. From the turn-off, it’s about 10 miles to reach the cliffs.
A note on public transit: While Hele-on bus does run south from Kona to Naalehu, no buses return to Kona from Naalehu in the afternoon. The road trip is best with a car unless you are willing to do some hitchhiking and plan to spend the night in Naalehu. There are a few reasonably priced Airbnb’s like the Pattie's Motel Studio located near the main road in the center of town. If you spend the night in Naalehu, you can catch a bus back to Kona in the morning, or continue to Volcano or Hilo the next day via the Ka’u - Volcano - Hilo Bus route.
For those that are up for the adventure, you would take the bus from Ali’i Drive in Kona (stops in front of the King Kam Hotel) to the Wong Yuen Store stop in Naalehu and then hitchhike 9 miles back the way you came to the South Point Road turn off. You would then need to catch a separate ride down South Point Road.
If you are going to hitchhike (at your own risk), we recommend following these guidelines:
Go with a buddy.
Bring a working phone.
Tell someone where you are going.
Stand in a spot where drivers can safely pull off to the side of the road to pick you up.
To reach Green Sands from South Point, drive back the way you came for about .5 miles and then take a right. Drive about .5 miles to a dirt parking lot by the boat ramp and the trailhead for Green Sands Beach. Important to note: driving over the 4x4 road to Green Sands is not permitted by rental car companies. The owner of the land, the Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL) does not permit driving over the 4x4 road, as it damages the fragile landscape. A new management plan to restrict 4x4 driving is currently in process. Despite this, you may see people driving in, and locals ferrying tourists in the backs of pickup trucks for money. We strongly encourage you to hike in instead and help preserve and protect this special place.
The hike to Green Sands is a 2.5-mile one-way hike over a dirt road track. Watch out for 4x4 vehicles. The hike has no shade, so make sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection. The hike is flat and can be done in flip-flops, but sneakers would be more comfortable. After a recent rain, it can get muddy, with lots of puddles for stomping!
Accessing the beach requires climbing down a steeply sloped sandy trail (basically the side of a cinder cone) to the beach floor. On the north side of the beach, there are some small rock caves and overhangs which can be fun to explore and take photos inside.
What To Bring
Green Sands and South Point are both exposed to the sun with no shade. Make sure to bring sun protection - rash guards, reef-safe sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses. If you plan to hang out on Green Sands Beach for a while, a lightweight beach umbrella is great to have. Pack plenty of water and some snacks. Don’t forget your towel, bathing suit, and your GoPro if you plan to cliff-jump.
Where to Grind Nearby
After a long day at Green Sands and South Point, you’re going to want to grab some food before the drive back to Kona. Our favorite spot right nearby is Punalu’u Bakery, for delicious sweet stuff and also filling standard fare like hot dogs, hamburgers, chili, sandwiches, and more. Save room for their malasadas and legendary sweet bread baked on-site.
Ocean View has several good spots to eat. For Thai food, check out Ka Lae Garden Thai Food, open Wednesday - Sunday. For a slice, stop by Ocean View Pizzaria. For grocery items and some prepared foods, there’s Malama Market.
On Wednesdays, the Naalehu Farmers Market goes down from 8 am - 12 noon-ish in the center of town in front of Ace Hardware. There are usually some food trucks and a few dozen vendors selling crafts and value-added ‘made in Hawaii’ products. This is a nice pit stop for those who aren’t going to hike to Green Sands and have more time to kill.
Detour #1 - Kula Kai Caverns
A good road trip wouldn’t be complete without at least one detour. This one takes you deep into Ocean View’s lava fields. Ocean View, the community immediately north of South Point sits in the middle of Mauna Loa Volcano’s past lava flows. Mauna Loa’s eruptions created a network of lava tube caves that snake for miles underground. Kula Kai Caverns offers tours of this incredible cave system with reservations. Their tours start at just $28 per person for a 1 hour guided tour and talk on the history, archaeology, and geology of this amazing underground world.
Detour #2 - Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
If you stop by Punalu’u Bakery, you’re just a short drive south from Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. That’s right, you can see two different colored beaches in one trip! This beautiful black sand beach, fringed with palm trees, often has turtles resting onshore. Keep your eyes peeled for palm weavers making hats for sale who can sometimes be found in the parking lot. You can swim at this beach, but the water tends to be choppy and murky due to the black sand. When the waves are up, you can spot bodyboarders here.
Detour #3 - Mark Twain Monkey Pod Tree
If you’re a Mark Twain fan, make a quick pit stop and stand where he stood in 1866. At 31 years old, before he was a famous writer, Twain visited Hawaii Island for several months and traveled around on horseback, leading to two books Letters from Hawaii and Roughing It. He planted a Monkey Pod Tree next to Waiohinu Park, between South Point Road and Naalehu town. The second generation of that tree still stands today in the same spot.
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By M the Writer
M came to the Big Island in 2013 as a backpacker, and never left. Since then, she’s been on a quest to explore the best beaches, hikes, and unique sites around the island. You can read more of her work at https://mthewriter.com