Pailoa Beach

Pailoa Beach in Waianapanapa State Park: Visit Maui’s Most Famous Black-sand Beach
Local Expert's Rating:
4.5 / 5
The Bottom Line:

Pailoa is one of Maui’s best-known beaches, on account, it’s one of the island’s only true black-sand strands. It’s the centerpiece of the extremely popular, extremely scenic Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, and easy to reach from the parking lot. Swimming is possible only when conditions are calm, but the scenery’s always wonderful, and there’s great coastal hiking in the vicinity.

- The Local Expert Team

True volcanic black-sand beaches aren’t as plentiful on Maui as they are on the Big Island, but you’ll find a stunner along the Road to Hana. The best-known (but far from only) attraction in Waianapanapa State Park, Pailoa Beach ranks among the most scenic on the Valley Isle: a real must-see.

The black-sand beach of Pailoa Bay derives from coastal erosion of a centuries-old basalt lava flow. When an active flow meets the ocean, the lava rapidly cools, solidifies, and breaks apart in the surf. Pounding waves mold the lava shards into smaller and smaller (and smoother and smoother) grains. Currents transport them alongshore and deposit them against coves and natural breakwaters, just the same as typical quartz sands. 

Such black-sand beaches aren’t permanent fixtures, given there’s a limited supply of those volcanic grains. So enjoy the evocative beauty of Pailoa Beach while you can! (To be clear, on the human timescale, there’s no particular rush.)

Waianapanapa State Park is a short distance northwest of Hana itself, and one of the top stops along the Road to Hana. Bear in mind that, to protect park resources and ward against overcrowding, the park now requires advance reservations to enter. 

Reached by a short walk from the parking lot, Pailoa Beach forms a dark cove pocket edged by lushly vegetated bluffs. The tropical green, black sand, bluewater bay, and nearshore sea stacks and islets create quite a feast for the eyes. 

Don’t expect powdery black sand at Pailoa Bay. Indeed, there’s a healthy quotient of black pebbles among the “sand.” So you’ll want a beach towel or something else for parking yourself here. (You should also expect plenty of company, though the reservation system makes for better-managed crowds at the state park.)

When conditions are calm in the bay, you can swim at Pailoa Beach, exercising the usual ocean-safety common sense. In a placid state, the waters are quite clear. But often the surf is rough in Pailoa Bay, not least with big northerly winter swells. At such times, you ought to stay out of the water. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the breakers and run up against sharp rocks, plus hazardous rip currents are usually active in heavy surf. 

You may well see people jumping from a rocky stack offshore. Here again, that should only be undertaken when the bay’s calm and visibility pristine. 

On the east side of Pailoa Beach, you’ll find a lava-tube cave with skylights. You can actually clamber through this tube to where it opens to the ocean. Also look for the sea arch off the beach, one of a number of such formations on this rocky, wave-battered coastline.

Many visitors to Waianapanapa State Park go no farther than Pailoa Beach, but we recommend sparing some time for hiking in the park. The Ke Ala Loa O Maui/Piilani Trail offers gorgeous views from its coastal route, plus an amazing hala (pandanus or screwpine) forest. 

You won’t find seclusion here, but Pailoa Beach is one of those spellbinding spots every Maui traveler should experience. Head for the Road to Hana to enjoy this black-sand beauty!

Insider Tips:
It’s possible to hike from Pailoa Bay southeastward all the way to Hana Bay: a marvelous coastal adventure on windward Maui.