Hawai‘i’s Onomea Scenic Drive and Tropical Botanical Garden

Highway 19 heading from Hilo to Honoka‘a has magnificent inland and coastal views one after another. Most people find the Onomea Scenic Drive when coming north from Hilo.

Only five minutes from the city, you’ll come to Papa‘ikou town. Just past mile marker 7 and across the road from the Papa‘ikou School, a road posted as the scenic drive dips down toward the coast. Take it. (If you are coming from the Kona side you’ll see a sign between mile markers 10 and 11). Almost immediately, signs warn you to slow your speed because of the narrow winding road and one-lane bridges, letting you know what kind of area you’re coming into.

A brightly-lit stream seen through moss-covered trees.
The Onomea Scenic Drive passes through jungle that covers the road like a living green tunnel. Photo © Brock Roseberry, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Start down this meandering lane past some modest homes and into the jungle that covers the road like a living green tunnel. Prepare for tiny bridges crossing tiny valleys. Stop, and you can almost hear the jungle growing. Along this short four-mile route are sections of an ancient coastal trail and the site of a former fishing village. Drive defensively, but take a look as you pass one fine view after another. This road runs past the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden and a couple of places for quick eats before heading up to higher ground to rejoin Highway 19 at Pepe‘ekeo.

If you’re coming from Hilo, just a few minutes (or 1.5 miles) along the Onomea Scenic Drive is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden (27-717 Old Mamalahoa Hwy., 808/964-5233, daily 9am-5pm, last entry 4pm, adults $15, children 6-16 $16). Remember that the entrance fee not only allows you to walk through the best-tamed tropical rainforest on the Big Island but helps preserve this wonderful area in perpetuity. Tours are offered Saturday at noon for an additional $5 per adult.

The gardens were established in 1978 when Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse purchased the 25-acre valley and have been open for viewing since 1984. Mr. Lutkenhouse, a retired San Francisco businessman, personally performed the work that transformed it into one of the most exotic spots in all of Hawaii. The locality was amazingly beautiful but inaccessible because it was so rugged. Through personal investment and six painstaking years of toil aided by only two helpers, he hand-cleared the land, built trails and bridges, developed an irrigation system, acquired more than 2,000 different species of trees and plants, and established one mile of scenic trails and a water lily lake stocked with koi and tropical fish. Onomea was a favorite spot with the Hawaiians, who came to fish and camp for the night.

These inviting gardens, a “living museum” as they call it, will attract lovers of plants and flowers, and those looking to take really great photographs. The loop through the garden is about a mile long, and the self-guided tour takes about 90 minutes. As you walk, listen for the songs of the native birds that love this ancient spot. The walk is not difficult, but there are steps down to the gardens that are not wheelchair accessible. Golf carts ($5) are available to help those who need it down the boardwalk, and then non-motorized wheelchairs are allowed in the garden itself.

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