If you’ve ever dreamt of visiting a remote tropical beach with gleaming sands and pristine surf—and you have, haven’t you?—your dreams can come true along the Big Island’s Puu Alii Bay! Here, at the northern end of the Kona Coast, you’ll find gorgeous Makalawea Beach, one of Hawaii’s finest strands and only accessible by foot.
Makalawea is one of a trio of stellar beachfront within Kekaha Kai State Park (formerly known as Kona Coast State Park). It’s the middle one, in fact, with Mahaiula Beach to the south and Maniniowali Beach to the north. All three are worth visiting, but Makalawea has some special magic about it.
You can get to this far-flung swath of sand from either the north or the south. That said, your best bet is from the south. The northern trailhead is reached via an extremely rocky and rutted 4WD road that only high-clearance vehicles and experienced drivers should attempt, so otherwise, you’d want to walk it, adding some foot mileage to that approach.
The southern trailhead is obtained via a somewhat rough road turning west off Highway 19 between mile markers 90 and 91. This is the access to Mahaiula Beach, and most passenger vehicles, driven slowly and carefully, should be able to make it. You’ll reach the start of the trail to Makalawea Beach about 1.5 miles from the blacktop. You want sturdy footwear for the hike in, given the substrate involved, but tote along your preferred beachwear. Soft sand awaits!
The hike—about a 20- or 30-minute affair—skirts the tempting seashore of Mahaiula Beach and heads north through rugged aa lava-lands. You’ll then hit a tract of sand dunes that funnel you to the south end of Makalawea Beach.
Needless to say, you won’t find any facilities or services here, let alone lifeguards. But the waters of the Puu Alii Bay coves here are often very much calm enough for safe swimming. Snorkeling’s also a possibility, as is bodyboarding. As anywhere on the Hawaiian coast—heck, any seacoast—spend a little bit watching the ocean before getting in, and don’t do so if the surf’s rough.
It should be noted that one of the Big Island’s most precious ecological sites lies in the back of Makalawea Beach, though it’s surrounded by private acreage and not accessible. A 12-acre freshwater wetland—called Makalawena Marsh or Opaeula Pond—comes filled with red shrimp and nourishes critical foraging and breeding habitat for a number of beleaguered native birds, including the Hawaiian stilt, Hawaiian coot, and black-crowned night heron. It’s significant enough to have been declared a National Natural Landmark decades ago.
Makalawena Beach is a vision of a fairly pristine Big Island coastal paradise. Pack along plenty of water and sun protection for the hike in—and pack out all of your belongings and any trash—and you’re likely to have an amazing time here.
-In the winter, Makalawea Beach sometimes affords shorebound glimpses of Hawaii’s migratory humpback whales.
-Yes, the Kona Coast sunsets are great from west-facing Makalawea Beach. Unfortunately, you probably shouldn’t be appreciating them. You want to give yourself time to hike back to the trailhead and drive out, after all.