We opted to make use of our 4×4 rental vehicle (Ford Explorer) and see how far we could go. We took off from Kailua-Kona after a leisurely “local kine ” breakfast and L&L Drive Inn (yes, I spelled it correctly). Then off on Highway 19 south. Pretty quickly we depart the dry and sunny coastal low-lands of Kailua and Keauhou Bays and the road winds and climbs up into South Kona. We are now on the southern slopes of the Hualalai volcano and gaining some elevation. Soon we pass the turn off for Honaunau National Park (Place of Refuge) – note: this is the last public restroom opportunity for some while (all the way to Ocean View), so make a pit stop if necessary — we had to stop for the kids…
The road gets pretty boring as we continue towards South Point. We finally spot the turn off and make a right-turn (south) – keep in mind you will NOT see a sign saying “Green Sand Beach” – instead, look for a sign saying “South Point” between mile markers 69 and 70 off of highway 11. The South Point Road is a lonely 12-mile stretch that begins as a (barely) 2-lane paved road with very narrow shoulders, then several miles into the journey, reduces to one lane. There are many dips, undulations, and blind turns, so please drive carefully and avoid the urge to slam down your accelerator! Our cell-phone coverage began to become roaming and intermittent; then we lost our cell signal altogether. Barren grassland began to break out from the trees on both sides of the drive and there were some skinny cows and other livestock grazing. It was barren and windy and the trees had evolved to the ever-present southerly winds – most of the trees grew diagonally, wind-swept from the time they were mere saplings.
Continuing south on this road, we began to make out giant windmills just to the right of the road up ahead. As we got closer we could see that none of the windmill arms were spinning, the 30-or-so windmills were in dilapidated condition, rusted out, and many missing windmill arms completely. It really looked like a scene from a Mad Max movie after the apocalypse. These windmills are the Kamoa Wind Farm, constructed in the 1980s and no longer in operation. As we continued down this desolate (and now sci-fi creepy) road, we noticed another, smaller, wind farm – this one the Tawhiri Wind Farm comprised of what looked like 14 brand-new turbines (circa 2007), all but one spinning gracefully from the force of the South Point winds.
We finally hit the “Y” in the road that our map depicted. Continuing to the right would take you to the South Point (Ka Lae) cliffs and boat ramp. We opted to turn left, past an abandoned settlement, towards the Green Sand Beach. The road gets considerably rougher at this point, but still navigable by all cars and trucks. Eventually the road began a slow descent and a make-shift parking area came into view below. Here is where all cars and 2-wheel drive trucks (and even a few Jeeps) made the cautious surrender and were parked. Ahead, through an open gate (with large swinging metal gate arm) was the rough 2.25 mile road, the final stretch to Green Sand Beach. The kids were enjoying the ride so far, but were getting restless asking continually “are we there yet” and “how much further”. This became slightly more distracting as we began the rough 4×4 path…
This road is a bear! It will challenge even the experienced off-roader (and even those who have received professional instruction!) That said, it can certainly be done by a Jeep, or any 4×4 with good tires and lots of ground clearance. We started in with our 4×4 Explorer (with stock AT tires and massively low running boards beneath the chassis). This would become an issue as some portions of the road have very deep ruts and pose significant ground clearance issues for a vehicle such as this one. To say there is “one path” to get to Green Sand Beach would be completely misleading. In fact, once you leave the parking area at the end of the road, you have to navigate through a network of different inter-connected trails. Some are easier than others to follow, some are insanely more difficult to traverse. If you can follow behind a “local” driver that knows his way, you are set! Otherwise, try to take the “high road” when you have the option; as you progress you will notice a fence line on your left (west) – try to navigate the paths closest to the fence, they are the easiest to traverse. Other than that, you may be doing some stopping, getting out of the car to scout the path ahead, and even some backing up to try a different way.
All the while as you crawl over rocks, dirt mounds, and loose sand, you will pass people walking the 2.25 miles with everything from backpacks to plastic bags and boogie boards in their hands (some even wearing flip-flops!) In some cases, as we stopped to verify the road ahead and scratch our heads in confusion – some people even passed us while walking! The road here is very dusty – it is predominantly the famous Hawaiian “red dirt” that you or your tourist friends will pay $30 to get a stained Tee Shirt dyed by this stuff. We forgot one of the kids had their window rolled-down in the thick of our 4-wheeling allowing a giant cloud of red dirt to envelope the inside of the truck (and our face and skin too). We made sure we wiped down the whole interior so the rental car company would not know of our adventures!
As the road climbed over every rise in the road, we kept thinking – “this must be it”, but then we saw the road continue on and on ahead. Finally, we rounded a cove and saw what looked like a small volcanic mound up ahead (similar to the one at the edge of the Kilauea Iki crater). This looked somewhat like the photos in the guide books. As we traversed the trail to come around closer to the coast here, we finally saw a group of other SUVs and trucks parked at the edge of a steep embankment – we had finally made it!
We got out of the truck and peeked down the cliff-side. The wind was howling and drowning out the sounds of the waves beating down on the sandy shore below. Down below was the magnificent Green Sand Beach at last and there were about a dozen or so people at the bottom, some swimming in the deep blue waters, others huddled on rocks marveling in the sight. Our kids were very excited about this new color of sand. So, we grabbed our hats, backpacks, water bottles, lathered up in sunscreen, and began to survey the best path to descend down to the beach. We found what looked like a portion of a wooden staircase complete with banister, tethered to the top of the cliff – this helped you get down the steepest portion of the descent. From there the lava rock cliff’s edge formed almost a natural staircase and we zigzagged down the cliff face, making sure we went slow with the kids. Shoes or at least Crocs is mandatory for this maneuver. It was a lot easier than it initially looked from the top – regardless, make sure you go slow and watch out for loose rocks or loose dirt that could ruin your day.
No trees here at the bottom, but the angle that the sun was shining from created pockets of shade beneath rocky overhangs. People gathered in small groups eating snacks on the rocks. Most were enjoying this stunning beach – with high towering cliffs on three sides and the open Pacific Ocean straight ahead out of this small (unprotected) cove. No houses, condos, or hotels in sight! The kids were thrilled to play chicken with the salvos of incoming waves smashing the shore. The sand is green here as the olivine mineral (found plentiful here) mixes with the lava-eroded black sand beach.
The wind wreaked havoc with the northern portion of the cove. The wind whipped through the beach and grabbed a hold of one of the unattended boogie boards and threw it up onto the cliff face, over a hundred feet above. I am not sure the owners of that board were ever able to climb that precarious perch to retrieve it. The ocean water in this cove was a deeper, darker blue than over on the Kona shores. I’ve read from various books that the ocean current just off shore here goes deep south – all the way to Antarctica.
After spending some time at the beach, building gigantic green sand castles, and bobbing in the waves, it was time to hike back up the side of the cliff back to the truck. Then it was time to re-trace our trail back to the paved road. It was just as dicey coming back on the path – at one point the truck was on only three tires due to the uneven terrain. Through the cloud of red dust we finally arrived back at the “parking area” where the less-brave lingered, unable to challenge the dirt road to the Green Sand Beach. Just prior to arriving at this point we heard a loud “thud” and some bottom scraping – so we stopped for a thorough under-body inspection and fluid check of the engine. All was well other than the deep layer of dirt covering the outside of the vehicle. Luckily, on our drive back to Hilo at the end of the day, we encountered a driving deluge of rain – effectively rinsing our filthy rental car thoroughly! The drive back through the lower Ka’u district was uneventful and we passed the entrance to the Volcanoes National Park where we had spent the day earlier in the week. We finally traveled the end of the highway and pulled into the eastern side of Hilo.
Things to remember:
- Bring proper footwear if you are walking the 2.25 miles (each way) to the Green Sand Beach
- Bring proper footwear even if you have 4-wheel drive, to wear on the descent from the cliff to the Green Sand Beach.
- Pack water, sunblock (the sun was roasting and there is little shade), a hat, and basic first aid kit.
- Let friends and family know where you are going as there is no cell phone coverage at the Green Sand Beach.