All about Big Island Lava and the Hawaiian Diamond

A'a and Pahoehoe Big Island Horizon BnB
A'a and Pahoehoe lava

Hawaii is a series of islands composed, primarily, of lava. Lava isn’t all the same. Two main types are A’a (ah-ah) and pahoehoe (paw-hoey-hoey). There is also a third type, but you’re not likely to encounter it as it forms during submarine eruptions, this is called ‘pillow’ lava.

The dynamics of a lava flow generally dictate which type of lava forms. A’a lavas are associated with high discharge rates and steep slopes, while pahoehoe flows are associated with lower discharge rates and gentle slopes. Geology aside, pahoehoe is usually darker and a’a tends to be lighter and brownish to reddish. The reddish comes from oxidation of the iron to iron oxide.

Pahoehoe tends to be smooth. You can generally walk on it without shoes. A’a on the other hand is chunky and sharp  – think of the sound you’d make when trying to walk on it bare foot!

Two Steps Big Island Hawaii Captain Cook Horizon Guest House
Two Steps

If you snorkel at Two Steps, only minutes from Horizon Guest House and adjacent to Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, or Place of Refuge, you’ll find yourself walking over smooth pahoehoe before entering the water.

Black sand Horizon Guest House Honaunau Captain Cook Hawaii
Black sand

When the lava is broken up into fine grains we end up with a black sand. However, when the mineral olivine is present in large enough quantities, and is packed into a sedimentary formation, natural erosion creates a green sand beach.

In the photo below is the ‘famous’ Green Sand Beach – also called Papakōlea Beach. This unique beach is located about two miles from the southern most point of the Big Island, South Point, and is approximately an hour’s drive south of Horizon Guest House.

Green Sand Beach Big Island Hawaii Horizon B&B Captain Cook
Papakōlea Beach

Papakōlea Beach is one of only four green sand beaches in the world, the other three are in Guam, Galapagos Islands and Norway.

The cliff in the background of the photo is a loose, sedimentary formation containing a relatively large amount of olivine as fine crystals. The green crystals are mixed with black (lava) and white (coral/shells) sand and, as a result, some patches of sand are greener than others.

How to get there

To get to Papakōlea Beach involves a drive and a hike (but it’s well worth the extra effort).

  1. Take the road to ‘South Point’ between mile markers 69 and 70 on Hwy 11 (between Kona and Volcano Village). Drive to the small harbor at the end. On the left hand side there is a car park.
  2. Walk from the car park to the ocean and take the road to the left (facing the water, toward the east). Follow the road with the ocean on your right for approximately 2.5 miles. At this point you will be above the beach. Next, make your way carefully along the lava cliff on the west side of the bay.

Tip: Leave early and try to make the trip on a weekday to avoid the crowds.

You can see in the next photo how green the olivine sand is. There is also a lava rock with olivine occlusions, and a bracelet made from larger olivine crystals.

Peridot Horizon BnB Hotel Captain Cook Hawaii
Olivine sand and lava

Fun fact! A type of olivine is peridot (also found in meteorites) and is a gem quality stone. Peridot is also referred to locally as ‘Hawaiian Diamond’. Found in only a fraction of the olivine deposits, it is the birthstone for the month of August.

Strange but true! When lava is ejected into the air, it can form an usual solid lava that has an uncanny resemblance to petrified wood. These samples below came from the Hualalai mountain, which is the mountain you see when you land at the Kailua-Kona airport.

Solid lava Hawaii Big Island Horizon Guest House
Solid lava almost identical to petrified wood!
Author: Angus Meek

Visiting Green Sand Beach Hawaii (Papakōlea)

Green Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii is one of the most unique beaches in the world, in one of the most isolated places in the world. Access to the beach isn’t easy and we explore the best ways to get there.

Kau District

Green Sand Beach is very close to Ka Lae (South Point) in the Kau district of Hawaii. South Point is the southernmost point in the United States and is also well-worth a side-trip or a separate trip on a different day.

Green Sand Beach is not far from the small settlement of Naalehu, one of the few towns on the main highway between Volcanoes National Park and South Point. The beach is about 2 hours south of Kona.

How to get there

Drive towards South Point, between mile markers 69 and 70 on Highway 11. At the end of the road it will fork. To the right is South Point itself and to the left is the Green Sand Beach parking lot.

We visited Green Sand Beach on a beautiful sunny Thursday afternoon and found the parking lot at the end of the paved road already close to full. There are a couple of options for visiting Green Sand Beach from this point:

  1. Take your own car – keep in mind that you will need a 4×4 and you will need to check your rental car company’s policy to ensure that you can take it off-road in this location (we recommend against this option – the road is extremely challenging and the landscape had been devastated by the off-road activity).
  2. Hitch a ride with a local. Locals do a roaring trade here by offering a ride on the back of truck for around $20 per person. (We also recommend against this option. Potentially dangerous, you’ll be standing in the back of pickup truck hanging on as best you can while the truck bounces precariously around like a demonic rollercoaster).
  3. Hike. Our recommended option. Park in the parking lot and walk in.

The hike

The hike to the beach is approximately 4.5 miles roundtrip. Key to making this an enjoyable hike is avoiding the sun. There is no shade on the hike and it will be dusty (passing cars kick up significant amounts of dust). Start early, bring plenty of water and proper hiking shoes.

From the parking lot, make toward the boat ramp and once there head to the left and onto the trail. The hike will take about an hour each way depending on your pace.

There are no restrooms but there are port-a-potties in the parking lot and also back at South Point.

Papakōlea Beach

Did you know that Green Sand or Papakōlea Beach is one of only four green sand beaches in the world? The others are located in Guam, the Galápagos Islands and Norway.

The beach used to be a cinder cone volcano. The lava ejected from the volcano was full of olivine. Subsequent to the eruption, erosion caused by wave action and weather began to erode the basalt rock until only the olivine was left remaining – hence the green sand!

We discovered the hard way that the road from the parking lot to the beach is in fact a collection of roads, many of which are treacherous, even with a 4×4. Unfortunately, these dirt tracks have caused significant damage to the landscape and the land is deeply scarred by the effects of large-scale traffic. 

We had to backtrack a number of times when we found that the route we had taken would not be passable, or the ground too unstable. At one point we followed a local truck ferrying people to and fro which turned out to be the best strategy. 

A parking area is visible just above the access to the beach.

Access down to the beach by foot is steep. A ladder makes the descent easier but make sure to wear sensible shoes, especially if you intend to hike there and back.

What is olivine?

The olivine group is made up of eight minerals, including forsterite (magnesium silicate, MgSiO4) and fayalite (iron silicate, (FeSiO4). These minerals are end members of a solid-solution series based on the mutual substitution of iron and magnesium.

Olivine crystals are formed at depths of at least 25 miles below the earth’s surface, in the high pressure zone of the Earth’s upper mantle. Volcanic eruptions bring the magma to the surface and these magmas solidify into basalt and basaltic pumice.

For example, Kilauea has a magma chamber that is between 3 to 6 miles beneath the surface but draws magma from much deeper where olivine crystals are present.

Visiting Green Sand Beach is well-worth the effort but how you get there is just as important. Off-road access is causing significant damage to the landscape, while catching a local ‘shuttle’ is not only considered illegal by the state it’s also dangerous. We recommend reducing your environmental footprint by hiking in and enjoying one of the Big Island’s amazing natural attractions.

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What you don’t know about Green Sand Beach

Green Sand Beach Hawaii
Photo credit: explore-the-big-island.com

Green Sand beach is one of the must-see attractions on the Big Island. The beach consists of green crystals, known as olivine, mixed with black and white sand, which give the beach the green tinge it’s well-known for. A trip to Green Sand beach makes a great day trip from Kona, or Hilo. We’ve got all the details on how to make your trip to this amazing beach a memorable one.

Green Sand Beach Hawaii
Photo credit: explore-the-big-island.com

About the beach

Green Sand Beach in Hawaiʻi is one of only two Green Sand beaches in the US (the other is in Guam). The beach is part of a bay carved into the side of Pu’u Mahana, a cinder cone which first erupted over 50,000 years ago. The lava flows were heavily concentrated with olivine (a heavy green silicate) and were not easily washed out to sea (hence their presence on the beach). Over time the cone has degraded causing more olivine to move onto the beach.

Note: The beach itself is not patroled by a lifeguard and the currents can be unpredictable.

Green Sand Beach Hawaii
Olivine. Photo credit: lovebigisland.com

History

Nearby Ka Lae, Hawaiian for South Point, is thought to be the original landing point of the first Polynesians that arrived in Hawaiʻi from Tahiti. Ruins of an ancient Hawaiian temple can be found in the area.

Green Sand Beach Hawaii
Remnants of a Hawaiian temple at Ka Lae near the Green Sand Beach. Photo credit: Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images

When to go

As with a number of attractions on the Big Island (and throughout the Hawaiian Islands) the earlier you go, the better your experience will be – fewer people and cooler temperatures. The hike to the beach can be hot and windy so make sure you have enough water, adequate sun protection (shade is limited to non-existent), and sensible walking shoes. Be aware, you’ll need to take your trash with you – it helps to take your own trash bag!

Help preserve the natural environment – don’t take the green sand home with you, it belongs in Hawaiʻi.

Green Sand Beach Hawaii
Photo credit: bigislandhikes.com

How to get there

Green Sand beach (also known as Papakōlea beach) is accessed by taking Highway 11 and then turning off at the road to South Point (between mile markers 69 and 70). Drive down the road until you reach the end. You’ll find a parking lot on the left hand side.

From the parking lot, hike toward the ocean and turn left. Follow the road which runs parallel to the beach for approximately 2.5 miles. The road ends above the bay. Navigate the lava cliff carefully on your way down to the beach.

Green Sand Beach Hawaii
Photo credit: lovebigisland.com

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