If you have ever traveled to south Maui and asked around for beach recommendations, ‘Big Beach Makena’ is a name that has certainly come up more than once. Big Beach (also known as Makena Beach) is one of three beaches in Makena State Park. This white sand, ⅔ mile long and more than 100 feet wide beach is among the largest and most popular on the entire island. Snorkeling at Big Beach Makena is only safe with specific ocean conditions.
Big Beach is well-known for its expansiveness, vivid blue/green waters, and often dangerous shorebreak. When there is a big south swell, gutsy boogie boarders and surfers come here to ride the rough, unforgiving waves that crash onto the sandy shore. But when there isn’t a swell, the waters are calm and provide great snorkeling opportunities.
No matter the ocean conditions, there is never a dull day at Big Beach and it is a fantastic location to hang out in the sun all day. So grab your beach chair and your snorkel gear rentals and let's explore what snorkeling at Big Beach Makena has to offer!
History of Big Beach Makena
Long before European contact, native Hawaiians managed Makena in a traditional Ahupua’a system. The uplands in this area boasted dryland taro, bananas, sweet potatoes, and towering sandalwood trees. In the mid-19th century, a land ownership system called the ‘Great Mahele’ was created. This arrangement made it possible for non-Hawaiians to own land, which brought with it substantial change. The coasts of Makena became essential loading ports for plantations when property changed hands, which resulted in the loss of native sandalwood trees. This changed the environment from coastal springs to dryland woods. As ranching became more popular, the previous fishing systems of the Makena beaches also began to disappear.
In spite of these changes, traces of previous fishing techniques can still be found in Makena. There are heiaus (worshiping sites) along the coast, along with ko'a (fishing shrines) located on top of Pu’u Ola’i (a cinder cone bordering Little Beach) and on Nahuna point.
Driving Directions to Big Beach Makena
Big Beach Makena is a quick 15 minute drive from central Kihei. Head south on Pi’ilani Highway until it loops down towards Wailea Golf Course and turns into Wailea Alanui Drive. Take a left at this light, and enjoy the scenic drive flanked by world-class resorts on the makai (ocean) side and panoramic views of Haleakela on the mauka (mountain) side. After ten minutes of driving on this road, food trucks will start to line the street. I recommend grabbing a bite to eat at one of these trucks before or after your beach day. Jawz Tacos is a local favorite for some tasty beach day fuel!
Parking at Makena State Park
There are three entrances to Big Beach Makena. If you plan on snorkeling, be sure to turn into the first parking lot with the large ‘Makena State Park’ sign out front. This will take you to the northern edge of the beach, which is where the best snorkeling at Big Beach Makena is found. It costs $10 per car to park here, free for local residents. This lot has a few portable restrooms and food trucks located near the beach access walk. If you want to explore the other ends of the beach, keep driving and you’ll come across two more parking areas. When those lots fill up, there is always room to park out on the street.
Maui’s Most Breathtaking Sand Beach
The beauty of this beach is truly astounding! The surrounding cliffs of lava rock provide a stunning contrast with the soft sand and vivid green/blue color of the sea. A large volcanic cinder cone, Pu’u Ola’i, towers over the north end of the beach. There are endless stunning views to soak in when snorkeling at Big Beach Makena!
At the northern end there is a path over to Little Beach Makena. Despite Hawaii's ban on public nudity, Little Beach is an isolated beach where people go to tan in the nude. A fair warning if you don’t want to be caught off guard!
There are three lifeguard stands lining the beach to ensure the safety of those who attempt to swim in the riptide currents. Big Beach Makena is one of the few south shore beaches that has lifeguards, which adds a necessary layer of safety.
Snorkeling at Big Beach Makena
After an easy entry into the water, I swam towards the reef around the point. The water was warm and comfortable, around 78 degrees. It wasn’t too long of a swim before I came across various lobe, cauliflower and finger coral formations. The water was murky near the shore, but I was still able to make out some of my favorite Hawaiian fish. I saw multiple triggerfish, trumpetfish and Hawaii’s state fish, the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a. As I swam further around the point towards Little Beach, the visibility became much more clear. Here I was able to clearly spot some black triggerfish and raccoon butterfly fish!
An important note about snorkeling at Big Beach is that the coral and sea life are deep beneath the surface. The visibility wasn’t great on this day, so I don’t think I could have seen much if I didn’t swim down to where all the action was. It might be challenging for some to see sea life if you aren’t as experienced. Also, the water can become rough very quickly, so swimming here isn’t safe for small children and inexperienced swimmers.
It is always important to check the snorkeling conditions before heading out to your snorkeling destination. This is especially the case at Big Beach! If you don’t, you may be disappointed when you arrive and see huge waves breaking near the shore. The Maui Snorkel Report provides daily snorkeling and weather conditions for west and south Maui. Be sure to check this out before heading out! I would also advise snorkelers to brush up on their skills with these snorkeling safety tips before embarking on an adventurous day of snorkeling at Big Beach Makena.
Thanks to it’s size, Big Beach Makena is the only beach in south Maui that will never feel packed no matter how many people go there. I found it was the perfect getaway from the bustle of Kihei and when the conditions provide, this location offers great snorkeling. If you haven’t been, Big Beach Makena is one of the top places to visit during a Maui vacation.