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Hawaii Road Trip: Four Mile Scenic Drive on the Big Island

Updated on January 3, 2018
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The author lives in a quiet rural community in lower Puna on the Big Island. He's an avid gardener, traveler, and photographer.

Travel back in time to the plantation era on the Big Island.
Travel back in time to the plantation era on the Big Island. | Source

A guide to do Onomea Scenic Drive on the Big Island’s windward side

Take a leisurely drive through Old Hawaii on a narrow, winding road – passing lush rainforests, quaint plantation villages, hidden streams and waterfalls, and the breathtaking historic Onomea Bay!

The drive is short but you will be enchanted by the beautiful scenery and filled with a sense of wonder, awe and curiosity about the past.

Onomea 4-mile scenic route (in red)
Onomea 4-mile scenic route (in red) | Source
Old church in Papa'ikou village.
Old church in Papa'ikou village. | Source

Cruising through history

Starting from Hilo, drive north on Highway 19, also known as the Mamalahoa Highway or Hamakua Coast Highway.

About 2 miles out of Hilo, take a quick side trip and stop at Honoli’i Beach Park – one of the most popular surf spots on the island.

From the sea cliff, enjoy a sweeping view of Hilo Bay and the spectacular surfing show put on by local and pro surfers in the waves below!

Honoli'i Beach Park
Honoli'i Beach Park | Source
Small waterfall under an old bridge.
Small waterfall under an old bridge. | Source

Continue on Highway 19 for about 5 miles, you will see the sign “Scenic Route 4 Miles Long” on the right side of the road.

Turn right at the sign and start your magical journey!

Follow the road, you will pass the charming village of Papa’ikou with its sleepy homesteads and cross an old single-lane bridge.

There will be several single-lane bridges on this 4-mile scenic stretch, some are older (and narrower!) than others, but all are picturesque.

The curvy road then takes you through the thick rainforest where sunlight can barely pass through the tree canopy.

Hanging vines, ferns and palm fronds on both sides of the road reach out, some almost touch your car as you drive by.

Tall, ancient banyan, mango, monkey pod, and African tulip trees (with brilliant orange-red flowers) grow alongside the road, many have been here for decades or even more!

Narrow road shaded by tree tunnels.
Narrow road shaded by tree tunnels. | Source
Around another curve through the rainforest.
Around another curve through the rainforest. | Source

Stop anytime to take pictures! It’s an unforgettable experience to stand on the road and immerse yourself in the beauty of nature.

Feel the cool moist air around you, listen to the sound of chirping frogs and singing birds – and don’t worry, no snakes or tigers will be jumping out of the jungle to attack you!

The road continues to go in and out of a seemingly endless tree tunnel: one moment you drive on a dark shady road, next you’re under a bright sunny sky!

Now and then you encounter a towering rock cliff on one side of the road, or a steep gulch on the other side.

Some of the gulches are so deep that from your car’s window, you can only see the tops of many palm trees reaching up for sunlight!

BE ON ALERT! Streams and waterfalls are abundant but not easy to see because of the dense vegetation, just look for them whenever you cross one of those single-lane bridges (some will have a narrow area to pull over for viewing).

Listen to the sound of a bubbling jungle stream.
Listen to the sound of a bubbling jungle stream. | Source

About half way through the drive, where the road hugs the coastline again, you see the stunning blue water of Onomea Bay!

In the early 1800s, Onomea Bay was a village with a busy seaport where people and goods were transported to the island from faraway lands.

During the 19th century plantation era, a big sugar mill was built on the hills above the bay, producing a great amount of sugar for exportation.

Donkeys were used to carry heavy sacks of sugar from the mill, down a dirt trail to the docking ships at the port.

Onomea Bay with its rocky inlets and sea caves.
Onomea Bay with its rocky inlets and sea caves. | Source
Onomea Bay trailhead.
Onomea Bay trailhead. | Source

Park your car along the roadside (near the scenic lookout), and take a short hike down the “Donkey Trail” (now a paved trail) to the shoreline of Onomea Bay.

At the end of the trail, where a small freshwater stream flows into the ocean, enjoy the incredible view of the bay!

Explore and walk around, try to picture a seaport village and what life was like at this spot more than a century ago.

Crashing waves on Onomea Bay.
Crashing waves on Onomea Bay. | Source
Ships and villagers are long gone, only trees and rocks remain.
Ships and villagers are long gone, only trees and rocks remain. | Source

Back on the road, drive for another quarter mile, where you can stop at the world-famous Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.

Built in 1978 and opened to the public in 1984, this garden features over 2,000 species of tropical plants and flowers, many of them are native to Hawaii and listed as rare and/or endangered.

Meandering trails, soaring bamboo groves, strange exotic flowers, serene waterlily pond, and cascading waterfalls – you will be mesmerized by all!

The garden trails take you from the lava cliff high above down to the ocean valley below – where you see big waves crash against the rocky shoreline, just a few steps away from where you stand!

Flora along the Donkey Trail.
Flora along the Donkey Trail. | Source

Leaving the garden behind, you continue the drive. Getting hungry? Next stop is What’s Shakin’s – a small roadside café known for their delicious sandwiches, salads, and smoothies.

Homemade snacks, fruits from local farms, and fresh coconuts are also for sale, it’s the perfect spot for your lunch break!

Clutching an ice cold smoothie, you get back into your car to finish the last stretch of the scenic drive.

Fresh papayas at What's Shakin'
Fresh papayas at What's Shakin' | Source
Cattle ranch near Pepe'ekeo village.
Cattle ranch near Pepe'ekeo village. | Source

From this point on, the road is still narrow and curvy, but with less tree canopy and more open vista of farmland as far as the eye can see.

What were once vast sugarcane fields, these farmlands are now cattle ranches, banana, coffee, or tea plantations.

You pass Pepe’ekeo, another sugarcane plantation town of yesteryear Hawaii, with a few old homes, lovely gardens and quiet streets.

The scenic route ends at Sugar Mill Road intersection – at the first stop sign you see since the beginning of the drive!

Turn left, you will run into Highway 19 which takes you back to civilization!

Turn right and follow the road lined with palm trees, it takes you to another historic landmark near the sea cliff: Pepe’ekeo Sugar Mill.

Built in mid 1800s, the remnants of this once thriving sugar mill, including its rusty machinery and smoke stack, are still standing tall on the land, witnessing time passing by.

Another peaceful stream flows toward the ocean.
Another peaceful stream flows toward the ocean. | Source

Tips for driving the 4-mile scenic route

  • DRIVE SLOWLY! The road is extremely narrow with countless hairpin curves.
  • If you stop to take pictures, pull your car over and park on the roadside, but make sure there’s enough room, i.e. no deep gulch waiting for you when you step out of your car!
  • Watch for cars coming around a blind curve if you walk or stand on the road to take pictures.
  • Do not park your car in the middle of any single-lane bridge!
  • If you take selfies on top of a sea cliff, be mindful of your footing!
  • Hawaii does not have snakes or tigers, but bring plenty of mosquito repellent!
  • Lock your car and take valuable items with you when going for a hike down the “Donkey Trail” to Onomea Bay.

Bamboo and palm forest along the scenic route.
Bamboo and palm forest along the scenic route. | Source

About This Article

The author has driven this 4-mile scenic drive many times and never gets tired of it. He loves the mango tango smoothie from What’s Shakin’ shack.

All photos were taken by the author with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera and iPhone6.

© 2017 Viet Doan


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    • punacoast profile imageAUTHOR

      Viet Doan 

      3 years ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      Aloha Dora! Now that's an adventure of a lifetime - to walk the 4-mile scenic drive. It would be a good exercise too! Thank you for reading the article and I'm so glad you enjoy it.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      3 years ago from The Caribbean

      "One moment you drive on a dark shady road, next you’re under a bright sunny sky!" Sounds exquisite and fun. Thanks for the tour. I think I would rather walk these four miles and take the time to view those beautiful scenes you share.

    • punacoast profile imageAUTHOR

      Viet Doan 

      3 years ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      Aloha Travel-Wise! Thanks for your comments. It's true, you can make this short drive into an adventure. Hope you will get to do that one day soon!

    • Travel-Wise profile image


      3 years ago

      All of your photos are stunning but those trees beckon loudly! It looks like a place that demands to be explored and hiked slowly so you don't miss a thing.

      Hawaii is such a gorgeous place and you've planned out a fantastic adventure! Thanks for sharing :D

    • punacoast profile imageAUTHOR

      Viet Doan 

      3 years ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      Aloha Mary! I hope you will get a chance to visit the Big Island soon. Many places on this island still retain the old Hawaii charm, traditional way of life, and natural beauty. Thank you for your kind comments. I'm glad you enjoy the photos. Aloha!

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 

      3 years ago from Brazil

      You have a great eye for photos. I have never been to Hawaii but perhaps one day.

      I hope people who visit the islands do more than stay in the hotel complex or go to an "authentic luau". I cringe when I see lines of people waiting to receive a lei at the airport.

      I would like to think they'd get in their car and do this drive and experience the natural beauty of the island instead of sanitized and manufactured version of what a tropical island should be.


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