waianapanapa state park maui

Pailoa Beach, the famous black-sand beach at Waianapanapa in Maui.

Photo By Daniel Sullivan/HAWAIʻI Magazine

7 must-visit Waianapanapa State Park sites

The black-sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park is mesmerizing, but don’t let it distract you completely from the many other aspects of the park.

black sand beach maui
Detail on the black-sand grains of Pailoa.
Photo: Daniel Sullivan/HAWAIʻI Magazine

Waianapanapa State Park is a popular stop along Hana Highway—the 64.4-mile Road to Hana, known for its 620 curves, countless waterfalls, lush green scenery and remote hidden beauty. At around mile marker 32, 2 miles outside Hana Town, a sign directs you toward the coast onto Honokalani Road for about a quarter mile under large canopies of trees. When you reach the end of it you'll find the sizable park you initially hit the road to reach. Here's what you must see before leaving:

1. Pailoa, a brilliant black-sand beach

A fascinating thing happens when hot lava is cooled quickly by the sea—the basaltic rock shatters and creates black sand. This is how the black-sand beaches in Hawaii are created, including Waianapanapa State Park’s popular black-sand beach, Pailoa (pictured above), made hundreds of years ago when Maui’s large volcano, Haleakala, last sent lava flowing through the moku (district) of Hana. Heavy rainfall has since turned much of the hardened aa lava on the coast into dense foliage, and now the beach’s bright green naupaka shrubs set against the dark-black sand and deep-turquoise sea produce a landscape that dazzles new visitors every day.

 

2. A fantastic native hala forest

hala maui
Hala forest along the coastline of the park.
Photo: Daniel Sullivan/HAWAIʻI Magazine

The splendor of Waianapanapa State Park and all that’s in it are also accentuated by the abundant coconut, breadfruit and guava trees, and the largest wild hala (pandanus) grove in the state, which offer welcome shade on hotter days, punctuated by bird calls from the tiny island perched right offshore.

 

3. The legendary freshwater caves

waianapanapa state park
The Waianapanapa State Park is named after these freshwater caves where the storied legend occurred.
Photo: Daniel Sullivan/HAWAIʻI Magazine

In the Hawaiian language, Waianapanapa means “glistening waters.” The park is named, not after the beach, but for the freshwater caves near the parking lot along a path that takes you down and up a short stairway. These caves were probably once connected, lava tubes before parts of them collapsed, leaving one set of pools exposed to leaves, while the other, much larger pool is protected by an overhanging wall, and is a clear, beautiful aqua color.

It’s in this main cave that an old Hawaiian legend is said to have taken place; the sign at the entrance to the caves details what happened:

Once upon a time, a Hawaiian princess named Popoalaea fled from her cruel husband, the Chief Kakae. She hid on a ledge just inside the underwater entrance to this cave. A faithful serving maid sat across from her, fanning the princess with a feather kahili, symbol of royalty. Noticing the reflection of the kahili in the water, the Chief Kakae discovered Popoalaea’s hiding place and killed her. At certain times of the year, tiny red shrimp appear in the pool, turning the water red. Some say it is a reminder of the blood of the slain princess.

 

4. The King's Highway, a historic hiking trail

king's highway maui
Flat, blue stones mark the trail.
Photo: Daniel Sullivan/HAWAIʻI Magazine

On the western end of the park, beyond the black-sand beach, the fragrant naupaka guides you along the moderate, out-and-back route of the Ke Ala Loa O Maui trail. The rugged, volcanic coastal path—a 3-mile roundtrip—overlooks the ocean, where the terrain marks part of The King’s Highway, the ancient road built through the 15th century under Chief Piilani. It’s easily visible with its flat, smooth river stones lined about a stride apart in stark contrast to the sharp, natural lava rocks that dominate the area. About three quarters of a mile along, a heiau, possibly used as a fishing shrine, can be observed inland as the sea sprays from blowholes carved out by centuries of waves along its storied coast.

 

5. A gorgeous lava tube

lava tube maui
Inside Pailoa Beach's lava tube.
Photo: Daniel Sullivan/HAWAIʻI Magazine

This publicly accessible lava tube site is impressive in its antiquity and beauty. It opens up to the ocean and makes for stunning photography opportunities, especially at dawn.

 

6. Views from the Kipapa O Kihapiilani Trail

waianapanapa state park
The start of the northerly Waianapanapa Coast Trail.
Photo: Daniel Sullivan/HAWAIʻI Magazine

A moderate, occasionally demanding 2.75-mile round-trip trail. Sights along this trail include two coves, the Kapukaulua bruial site, ruins and Pukaulua Point.

 

7. Natural sea arches and sea cliffs

pailoa waianapanapa
The sea cliff in the foreground at sunrise.
Photo: Daniel Sullivan/HAWAIʻI Magazine

In Pailoa Bay, a natural sea arch and sea cliff take prominence. The latter looks like something out of a fairy tale in the right light.