Naʻālehu’s Natural Wonder
By Stephanie Shor, News Writer
The landscape of Pu’u Mahana Cinder Cone stretches out like the crater-face of the moon for three miles from South Point Road off of Highway 11 to the green sand beach of Papakōlea. The pilgrimage is well-worth the hike if you have given yourself plenty of daylight hours to traverse a full six miles. Walking affords numerous views of historical treasures including many ancient “heiau,” meaning temples used historically as offering sites to the gods. In this National Historical Landmark, they were primarily utilized for plentiful fishing harvests.
One of only four authentic green sand beaches in the entire world and the only one in the entire state of Hawai’i, Papakōlea Beach is carved out in a nook from the cinder cone of Mauna Loa which was formed nearly 49,000 years ago. Constant erosion by the sea causes an accumulation of the mineral-rich lava along the shoreline. Olivine, also known as the precious stone, Peridot, is much more dense than the glass and black pyroxene found in ash fragments and so it remains while the rest is washed away. The result is an emerald-green sand made up of pulverized gemstones.
A great part of the Mahana Bay beach’s magnificence lies in the pure excitement of reaching it. Although the nearly three-mile journey to the cliff above the beach is breathtaking, many prefer to take a jeep and skip the long and arduous walk. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is a must. The terrain spirals and slopes like an ice cream cone licked into concentric circles, up and down and around in the desert-like expanse.
There is a maze of different paths leading to the beach and it is common to meet many pilgrims and other vehicles along the way. Be careful though! The steep terrain and plentiful holes have been known to tip vehicles right over on their sides. Anticipation of those roller-coaster turns and weariness of intoxicated travelers leads to the ultimate natural reward. Upon triumphant arrival at the coast, a visitor’s initial response is often, “well where in the world is the beach?” Proceed to the scenic drop-off, and look straight down. There it is, my friend!
At this point in your journey, you have two choices which will take you to your final destination of the jewel-encrusted green beach below. Either climb down the face of the cliff on the primitive and steep rock staircase, or jump. The cliff-diving spot is easily visible on the left hand side of the lookout. The jump is approximately 40 feet, but is extremely perilous and should only be attempted with a clear head.
Keep in mind the notorious South Point winds and remember that waves at this green-sand wonder can be brutal. Be ready to get pummeled when braving the water! The winds in the rolling, wide-open hills of South Point are so strong in fact, that 14 wind turbines supply nearly 20.5 MW (megawatts) of electrical power to the island, according to the Hawai’i Electric Light Company. For this and every one of Papakōlea’s glories of nature, this is truly a journey that should not be missed.