Makalawena Beach: Everything You Need to Know (Hiking & Snorkeling)

Makalawena Beach is one of the most stunning beaches on the Big Island.

The beach requires a bit of work to get to which means that chances are you will be dealing with smaller crowds which is yet another major draw to this beach.

But how exactly do you access this beach and is it really that difficult?

In this article, I will tell you everything you need to know about visiting Makalawena Beach, including info on snorkeling and the hike/drive in.

How to access Makalawena Beach

There are multiple ways to access Makalawena Beach.

In this article, I’m going to focus on what I believe is the best route which is the route that we did. This is the route where are you park at Kekaha Kai State Beach and then hike about 1.3 miles in through a lava field (and I’ll give you all the details on this route below).

Another option is to hike along the coast from Kekaha Kai State Beach. The views would be amazing but this path probably has the most treacherous terrain because you will be hiking along lava rocks on what appears to be an unmaintained path.

I’m not sure if there is any kind of recognizable trail or route along the coast so that is probably best for experienced hikers. (I only know about this route because our valet driver told us about it.)

Finally, there is also the option of coming in from the north from the Makalawena Trail Head. If you have a high clearance vehicle and experience with driving on very rocky road, you could drive all the way to the beach or at least down a portion of the road.

Otherwise, you will have to hike in from this area, which could be fine because there are a couple of different hiking paths you can take including one that gives you the option of hiking on top of a cinder cone, Puʻu Kuʻili.

I personally try not to off-road in rental vehicles and off-roading here would still be almost as time consuming as hiking in from the other side, so this option did not appeal to me very much. If we return to this beach though, I would be interested in hiking from this side.

If you want to get a sense of what this drive would be like, here’s a good video:

Drving in to Makalawena Beach

As mentioned above, we took the route from the south. This meant that we would turn off Highway 19 for the entrance road to Kekaha Kai State Beach which is located near the lava flow of 1801 and at GPS coordinates (19.76945443184312, -156.02173211491825). It’s about 3 miles north of Kona International Airport.

The road that you turn down looks like this photo below.

Makalawena Beach road

As you turn off this road, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful lava fields. This was our first time driving through a lava field and it was just a stunning stretch of landscape.

Makalawena Beach road view

As far as what this road is like, it does get a little rough at spots but it’s more of your typical rocky off-road experience and nothing too risky.

Some people did choose to park at the entrance of this road and walk all the way down while others drove partially down the road and then parked on the road where it got extra bumpy.

I will say that I think a lot of vehicles can make this drive. For example, take a look at the photo below and you’ll see a smaller car along with a minivan that made it down. If you’re an experienced driver, you can probably navigate the road even if you don’t have great clearance.

Makalawena Beach parking lot

After exactly 15 minutes, we made it to the main parking lot near Kekaha Kai State Beach (formerly known as Kona Coast State Park). If you wanted to, you could keep driving down the road to Mahaiula Beach but we decided to park right by the trailhead.

Makalawena Beach parking lot

Hiking to Makalawena Beach

The hike from this side was about a total of 3 miles round-trip. It took us about 40 minutes one way.

From the Kekaha Kai State Beach side, there is virtually no elevation gain other than when you hit the sand dunes there is a little bit of it.

Overall, it’s a pretty easy hike but don’t underestimate the heat and the tiring effect of walking through sand + snorkeling/swimming. You might be a little bit more drained on your way back than you would think!

Note: If you’re sitting on the left side of the plane flying in to Kona from Honolulu, you may be able to get a great view of this beach and the entire hiking route.

I wasn’t sure about visiting this beach but after we flew over it, I knew we had to go! So I’ll show you some photos from the flight that will give you some context and inspiration to visit Makalawena Beach.

Overview of the trail

The first part of this journey is the drive in through a lava field on a rocky (but very manageable) dirt road.

Makalawena Beach dirt road

Next, is the hike to Mahai’ula beach, which is along a pretty well kept path.

Mahai'ula beach

Then, you’ll make your way through the sandy Mahai’ula beach.

Mahai'ula beach

After that, the “hardest” part of a hike is going through the rocky lava field.

Makalawena Beach lava field

Then you will arrive at Makalawena Beach!

Makalawena Beach aerial view

Step-by-step guide of the trail

The first segment of the trail is through a lava field and will take you to Mahai’ula beach. Once again, the scenery is beautiful.

Makalawena Beach trail

This section of the lava field is not as rocky as the next section so it’s pretty easy to get through. Take a look at the photo below and you can see how (relatively) smooth it is.

Makalawena Beach trail

After about a quarter-mile you will arrive at Mahai’ula beach where it is time to hike through some loose sand.

There is a turn off sooner than this that takes you to Mahai’ula beach but unless you plan on stopping there, you may want to just continue on this path to avoid the extra sandy walk.

Mahai’ula beach is a beautiful beach and could easily be your final destination if you did not want to continue with the hike.

So why would you continue on the hike?

Well, first Makalawena Beach is going to be less crowded because it takes more work to get there. Also, Makalawena Beach has more picturesque water and overall scenery, in my opinion.

Mahai'ula beach

There’s a second mini beach further down that had this really beautiful secluded feel to it with an isolated grove of towering palm trees above. We spent a little bit of time relaxing there before heading on.

Mahai'ula beach

After about .2 miles you will be out of the loose sand and it’s time for the Makalawena Beach Trail.

Makalawena Beach trail

This next portion of the lava field is much more rocky than the first.

When I say rocky, I mean small, loose lava rocks — the kind that could twist and ankle if you were careless. We decided to wear sturdy hiking boots for this reason and those allowed us to more or less fly through this section.

I did see a couple of people in more flimsy tennis shoes were going a bit slower and I’m sure some people have attempted this and flip-flops but I would not do that.

If you are doing this with kids, I think this is kid friendly even for small kids.

Makalawena Beach trail hiker

In terms of following the trail, it’s very easy to make out the trail so getting lost should not be a concern. The main concern is probably the sun as it can get quite hot with the lava rocks baking below.

Makalawena Beach trail lava field

After about half a mile in the lava field, you’ll arrive at some sand dunes covered in beautiful green vegetation and purple flowers. Take advantage of some shade if you need a little bit of a break.

Once you hit the dunes, this means you are very close and have about .4 miles left to get to your final spot but you still have to deal with some loose sand, so the work out is not quite over.

Makalawena Beach sand dunes
Makalawena Beach sand dunes

There’s a cool little mini pool as you get close to the beach that’s worth checking out. The water looked pretty stagnant so I’m not too sure about getting in.

Makalawena Beach pool

And then after you have been hiking about 1 mile from the trailhead, you will finally see the first section of Makalawena Beach!

While its turquoise waters will be very stunning, this is probably not the section you want to stay at because it has the rocky shore. You’ll likely want to keep going (while getting plenty of photos of course).

Makalawena Beach
Makalawena Beach

And then, after you have hiked a total of about 1.3 miles you should be at the section of Makalawena Beach where you want to set up and enter the water.

Most likely, this is where you will see most of the other people and potentially boats so that’s how you can know you are there. If the beach is littered with rocks, that’s not the main beach people use.

Makalawena Beach
Makalawena Beach
Makalawena Beach

You can find some trees offering much-needed shade — if you get there early enough they should be available.

Makalawena Beach

Some people did bring chairs and umbrellas which would be easier to do if you drove in from the other side.

Makalawena Beach

I did not hike in wearing my bathing suit because it is so uncomfortable to hike in so I just ran behind a dune to change where I don’t believe anybody could see me. (There are no bathroom facilities here.)

The one challenge with changing here related to shoe selection. It was a little bit of a task to clean off our feet from all of the sand and put our socks and hiking boots back on.

I’d recommend bringing an extra water bottle to scoop out some water out of the ocean and using that to clear off the sand on your feet. Perhaps find a spot on the lava rocks to place a towel on and then sit on that while you rinse and dry your feet.

There are also some other sections of Makalawena Beach that you might want to explore. If you can navigate some rocks, you can get into the water at these sections, although there may be some easy entry points.

If you want privacy, chances are there will be much smaller crowds or potentially nonexistent crowds at these other coves.

Makalawena Beach
Makalawena Beach

It’s also pretty interesting to climb up on the rocky that jut out into the water. There were some interesting sea urchins and other little creatures to check out, including some agile crabs.

Makalawena Beach

Some people do surf at this beach so waves can be a lot stronger in some parts, especially in the winter. So just use some common sense and look for the calmer waters where you won’t find surfers.

Bodyboarding is also popular to do here so if you’re not a surfer you may want to bring one of those along.

Snorkeling at Makalawena Beach

Prior to our trip, I heard very mixed things about snorkeling at Makalawena Beach.

Some people told me it was not a snorkeling beach and that the beach was more about just spending time in the water and on the sand.

When we arrived, I saw a lot of people doing just that and only a few people snorkeling.

But I’m extremely happy that we brought our flippers and snorkeling gear because I had a great time snorkeling here!

The water was a great temperature, pretty calm, and with good visibility.

Best of all, the entry from the beach could not have been easier.

During our snorkels, we mostly hung around the rocky outcroppings and we also ventured to the edge of the reef. We saw most of the usual suspects like triggerfish, parrotfish, yellow tang, and lots of trumpet fish.

Things might be different during other months of the year but we visited in late March and it was definitely worth it.

Here are some shots from our snorkeling adventure to give you a sense of what to expect.

Snorkeling at Makalawena Beach
Snorkeling at Makalawena Beach
Snorkeling at Makalawena Beach
Snorkeling at Makalawena Beach
Snorkeling at Makalawena Beach

After spending about an hour relaxing and snorkeling, we decided to head back.

It was a little bit challenging putting the hiking socks and shoes back on as mentioned above but if you come prepared with a water bottle (or two) to rinse your feet, it will probably be a lot easier. This was just our first time hiking to a sandy beach so we didn’t come fully prepared.

If you get an early start, keep in mind that it’s going to be pretty warm on your way back most likely.

Aside from a spot here and there on the beaches where you can get some relief, you are completely exposed to the Sun. A good hat, reef-safe sunscreen, and sunglasses will help a lot. And of course, make sure you bring plenty of water.

Related: Bringing Sunscreen on a Plane: Don’t Get Burned by TSA’s Rules!

Makalawena Beach trail
Makalawena Beach trail hiker

When you return close to Mahai’ula beach, you may lose the trail for a second but just hug the rocks on the left and you will see where the trail appears.

Makalawena Beach trail

Final word

Makalawena Beach is one of the sites we visited on the Big Island that left no doubt about whether or not it was worth it. I enjoyed the easy to moderate hike to get to the beach and liked that the crowds were smaller here then at some of the other popular beaches. The snorkeling was also great, despite what some people had told me. So if you’re down for a little bit of a hike, this beach is a great spot!

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