I have visited many botanical gardens around the United States but Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is hands down my favorite! This is a pristine 40 acre rainforest garden. While this one of a kind garden contains over 2,000 species of tropical plants; it is so much more than just a botanical garden. It is also a stunning tropical nature preserve and sanctuary that features a multi-tiered waterfall, several streams, and an amazingly beautiful ocean front walk along Onomea Bay. This garden is acclaimed as one of the most beautiful locations in Hawaii; a distinction I think it well deserves.
The adventure begins 2 miles before you even reach the Garden…
Just the drive to the Garden is an experience like no other. Located on the Hamakua Coast just a few miles from Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens is about halfway down the Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive. This drive is a short 4 mile section of the Old Mamalahoa Highway. This is a narrow and winding coastal road where the vegetation is damp and lush with heavy vines dangling along the edges of the road. This is the rainforest jungle that you have dreamed about visiting!
A little over a mile down, don’t be confused by the cars parked along the edge of the road, this is a trailhead down the old mule trail into Onomea Bay. The Garden is just a little further down with a nice off road parking lot on the left.
As a side note about this trail head, we did a portion of this hike on our last visit to the Big Island but missed the best part because of my confusion over the guard at the gate. I assumed the hike ended at the bridge into the Garden and simply followed the path along the Garden's property line fence. Study the map that the garden provides on their website. Hawaii state law requires that the Garden allow public access to the Na Ala Hele Trail System. While they will not allow you to leave the garden to hike it or enter the gardens from the trailhead, they must allow you to cross the bridge and walk down the trail between their fences. Although, I wouldn't attempt this hike on the same day I visited the Gardens, I'm really kicking myself over missing this!
I won't lie, tickets are pricey here but in my opinion it's worth every penny. If you will be on the island for an extended stay consider asking about their annual membership. Just two trips to the garden and you'll be money ahead with the savings. They will even allow you to purchase a one day ticket and apply that money toward a membership if you purchase it that same day.
Round trip walk through the garden is a little over a mile. They say you can see it all in 90 minutes but I have never spent less than 4 hours here.
After passing through the Garden gate on the ocean side of the road, you will begin your decent to the gardens 120 feet below via a 500 foot long elevated boardwalk. This walkway winds you through an exotic narrow steep walled ravine just packed with a variety of orchids, palms, heliconias, gingers, and bromeliads; just to name a few of the beautiful rare and exotic plants. We visited in winter while most of the flowers were out of bloom but even so, it was still amazing!
This path is too steep to be handicapped accessible, the Garden provides golf cart transportation for those that feel they need it. Ask about it in the gift shop when purchasing your tickets. If you decide to walk it, you are in for a treat and there are plenty of benches along the way to rest. Just watch out for those golf carts they are constantly zooming up and down this walkway.
About halfway down, you'll find the story about how the garden all began...
On June 8, 1977, newly-married Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse visited the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time. They purchased an old “vacation house” on the Hilo side of the island with plans to return often to visit and renovate the old house.
While shopping for that old house, they were also shown a 17 acre piece of property that sat on the ocean in a valley and was so overgrown that you need a machete just to walk through it. Not much more than a junk yard, it was filled with old cars, machinery, appliances and trash of all kinds; even so, it was still absolutely breathtaking! Dan immediately fell in love with the property. He decided he would purchase this land, too. His dream was to plant a unique and peaceful garden for people to enjoy, forever preserving this beautiful ocean valley.
Dan was 56 years old at the time; he sold his transportation business on the mainland and within a year, had embarked on bringing his dream to fruition. For the next 8 years, Dan with the help of an assistant and two other workers were busy clearing the land, designing the garden, collecting the plants and finally planting. All work had to be done by hand to avoid disturbing the natural environment and destroying valuable plants. They built a lake, discovered hidden waterfalls and carved out beautiful trails throughout his Garden. Lastly, he named it Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, and created a nonprofit corporation insuring that it would be protected for generations to come. The Garden finally opened to the public in 1984.
Over time, the Lutkenhouse’s were able to purchase additional adjoining ocean-front property which they also donated to the Garden preserving 37 acres of beautiful Onomea Valley.
Millions of visitors from around the world enjoy this gardens and nature preserve every year. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens is self-sustaining, governed by a small Board of Directors; the Garden thrives on visitor’s admissions and private donations. The Garden Gift Shop conceived by Pauline Lutkenhouse and online sales of vibrant Tropical Flower Bouquets supplement the Garden’s coffers. They have never accepted government funding of any kind.
At the bottom of the walkway, I have always headed left to the stairs where you get a wonderful panoramic view of the entrance to the Palm Jungle. The Gardens is home to almost 200 species of palms and you can see many of them from here.
Entering the Palm Jungle is almost a spiritual experience much like entering a cathedral. You'll notice a temperature drop when you enter this heavily shaded area and it's quieter here. It's a wonderful place to spend some time on a hot day.
These towering Alexandra palms are common to areas that are severely inundated during heavy rain events and grow profusely in the valleys along the Hamakua Coast. Their ability to withstand these conditions allows them to become the dominant species.
A little further along, you’ll get your first glimpse of Onomea Stream running along the right side of the path. This is the area that Dan Lutkenhouse was clearing when he discovered the waterfall. I can’t even imagine his excitement as he hacked and slashed his way through heavy vines and overgrowth and began to hear that wonderful sound of rushing water that is always a prelude to a waterfall. As my husband says, "There's nothing better than rushing water in the woods!"
Then suddenly, there it is, look at that beauty of a waterfall! Onomea Falls is definitely the crown jewel of the Gardens. This multi-tiered waterfall gracefully cascades down into the valley and divides into a second smaller waterfall when it hits the first pool. Spend some time here and enjoy the view.
From here, you will backtrack through the Palm Jungle and follow the Heliconia Trail that ends at the Orchid Garden.
Since we visited in winter, many of the flowers were not in bloom but the Orchid Garden was absolutely spectacular!
Here is just a sampling of some of the amazing flowers that I photographed while in the Gardens. Check my Flowers & Gardens Collection for others. I could edit for years on just the flower images that I shot on my two visits to the Gardens. I will continue to add more florals to The Art Gallery as time permits.
Click on each photo to see the complete image...
While traveling through the Gardens watch closely for wildlife. The geckos can entertain me for hours and they aren't quite as skittish here as they are in most areas of the islands. I have also spotted the Hawaiian Hawk 'Io and other birds in the trees. Mongoose dashing across the pathways and A'ama crabs climbing in the lava along the coastline.
The legend of Twin Rocks…
Long ago, the fishing village of Kahali’i was located right on this spot in Onomea Bay.
Legend has it that one day the chief of the village spotted many canoes heading their way. Fearing an attack he asked for two young lovers to be guides and protectors of the village by giving their lives.
The next morning the village was safe and the lovers were gone. In their place were two giant rock formations at the entrance of the bay, attached to each other, as if on guard. The lovers of Kahali’i and their offspring still stand today, sentinels at the head of the bay. They are now called Twin Rocks.
Onomea Bay is a very historically significant area of the Big Island. This was one of the island's first natural landing areas for sailing ships. In the early 1800s the fishing village, known as Kahali'i, grew into a shipping port; first importing the materials used to build the Onomea Sugar Mill and then later for exporting the raw sugar that was produced there. From the Sugar Mill, sacks of the unrefined sugar were loaded onto donkeys and driven down the donkey trail to the docks to be loaded onto ships.
The settlers that came here to work the sugar cane fields and build the Sugar Mill were a mixture of Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos. These early settlers removed all of the valley's native vegetation. All that remained were some tall coconut palms, which now are over 150 years old. The tall mango and monkeypod trees that can be seen in the valley today have been growing here since 1850. These settlers are also the ones that built the old stone walls that are still located within in the Garden. These walls were used to keep the land from eroding into the nearby stream and for making terraces for growing their taro and sugar cane.
After the Sugar Mill ceased operations, the settlers began to move away. Relics of the old mill can still be found in the hills above the Garden. A Portuguese bake oven that is located on the Cook Pine Trail was discovered while clearing that area and is another remnant from this time
Later, a part of the valley was a lilikoi (passionfruit) farm. Cattle were grazed here in the valley, as well. A row of stately old palms that line the scenic drive were planted by the plantation supervisor from the Onomea Sugar Mill. Wild banana, mango, coconut and guava trees planted by the early settlers are still growing. These old fruit trees are huge now!
By the early 1900s, Onomea Valley was deserted and the vegetation grew so densely that few signs of former habitation could be seen. I imagine it was quite a sight when Mr. Lutkenhouse first started clearing it in the late 1970's.
Today, thanks to the Dan Luntkenhouse's vision, exotic plants gathered from distant tropical rainforests grow side by side with native Hawaiian plants. Together they form a spectacular living work of art in the only tropical botanical garden in the United States that is situated on an ocean coast.
Visit the Hawaii Collection and also the Flowers & Gardens Collection to see more images from Hawaii and Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens.
See an image you like? You can purchase Susan's work in The Art Gallery.
All images in the her collection are available as wall art, fine art prints, on home decor, gift items and apparel.
I am the 8th photographer in 4 generations of my family. Back in 2006, my husband accepted a job traveling and I jumped at the chance to go with him. We have spent the last 11+ years traveling the United States.