Beach Access Concerns in Hawaii

Beach access in Hawaii is likely not a concern for incoming visitors. Hawaii is home to some of the most famously beautiful and easily accessible beaches in the world (once you actually get here).

On Oahu, it’s Waikiki, the North Shore, and Kailua Beach. It’s Kaanapali on Maui, the Kona Coast on the Big Island, and Poipu Beach on Kauai. They attract millions to the Aloha State every year.

The main islands of Hawaii have a combined 750 miles of coastline. Only California, Alaska, Florida have more, and their land masses far exceed Hawaii’s. Access to the coast is vital to the economic, social, and cultural life of the islands. Neighborhood beach parks are plentiful on every island, home to family barbeques and birthday campouts throughout the year.

Public beach access point like this are vital in Hawaii.

In coastal neighborhoods that are generally off the typical visitor’s radar, public easements, or “right-of-ways.” are allow residents and savvy visitors access to beaches and coastlines. They are used by fishing and ocean sports enthusiasts to get to the ocean where there isn’t an expansive sandy beach or convenient parking.

These right-of-ways allow cultural practices, subsistence fishing, and ocean recreation activities that are central to the lives of many thousands of Hawaii residents. To these ocean lovers, restricted beach access is an abominable public policy.

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Access to Hawaii’s beaches and coastlines are restricted, however, in areas dominated by resorts, private golf courses, and exclusive seaside communities. In some cases, owners of beachfront private property have restricted public access by planting vegetation that makes the shoreline inaccessible. Some homeowners have erected locked fences at established points of public beach access. This outrages whole communities in places like Portlock in East Honolulu and Lanikai Beach in Kailua.

There is no better example of the value of public beach access in Hawaii than on Oahu’s North Shore. Every winter, when thousands of surf industry people from all over the world come to the North Shore, dozens of public access paths teem with beachgoers. The North Shore winter season pumps tens of millions of dollars into Hawaii’s economy every year. Restricting public access to those beaches is unthinkable.

The Ka Iwi Coastline from the Makapu'u Lighthouse Trail

In order to combat increased (and unfair) restriction of public access to Hawaii’s beaches, legislative measures have been introduced to limit the reach of private coastal property to the high tide mark. In the 1990’s, the Save Sandy Beach Coalition successfully lobbied against the sale of a large parcel of Ka Iwi Coast land in East Honolulu for private development. Any private development would most certainly have restricted public access to one of the most beautiful and culturally significant stretches of coastline in Hawaii.

Fortunately, there are resources for visitors to find these out-of-the way beach access points. It is important, however, for visitors to understand that these public access points do not have designated parking, restroom and bathing facilities, or Ocean Safety lifeguards. The public uses these access points at their own risk.

Not all Hawaii coastlines are easily accessible.

Many of these public beach access points are in danger not from greedy developers and property owners, but from mother nature herself. Rising sea levels and “King Tides” have caused significant erosion along many of Hawaii’s beaches. That erosion has seen sandy beaches slip into the sea, and beachfront homes imperiled.

A variety of measures and action plans have been implemented to address the rapidly growing concern over the effect of climate change on Hawaii’s coastlines. Studies are underway, and the dedicated stewards of Hawaii’s coastlines are hard at work to mitigate man-made and natural factors that limit public access.