HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – The (Very) Scenic Drive

By Kelly Moran

The (Very) Scenic Drive

The four-mile alternative to Hwy 19 between Papaikou and Pepeekeo has long been one of my favorite places on the Big Island. The road is narrow and winding, with many one-lane bridges, so you have to drive it slowly – the better to appreciate all the lush vegetation, the many streams and waterfalls, and the stunning vistas of knife-edged ridges and sheer rocky cliffs along the coast. Maps and road signs proclaim it to be “The Scenic Drive,” and for good reason. It’s a short version of the 50-mile road to Hana, on Maui; and like that more famous route, it offers a glimpse of the Hawaii of yesteryear.

Head north from Hilo, and turn off the highway just past Papaikou. Soon you’ll see old store-fronts, some of which are in ruins. But one has become The Toulouce Gallery (,  specializing in realistic, plein-air (outdoor) paintings of nature and local scenery. Like the store-fronts, a small cemetery nearby reminds you that this road once served a bustling, workaday community.

At the mid-point of the drive is Onomea Bay. A century ago, a sugar mill overlooked the ocean from the head of the valley. But there was no dock or shore landing. Boats had to anchor in the bay to load sugar and unload building materials, hauling everything up and down with long wire cables and strong winches. Such industrial relics are long gone now; but the bay, studded with treacherous rocks, is still a rugged place to sail into.

Since the 1970s, however, the valley itself has become the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden (

The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, along the Scenic Route.
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, along the Scenic Route.

It offers an extraordinarily large collection of native and exotic plants, flowers and shrubs, trees and ferns, all of which are meticulously labeled with their Latin names, common names and nicknames.

Flowers and plants both local and exotic are on display.
Flowers and plants both local and exotic are on display.

A paved, mile-and-a-quarter path loops along photogenic streams and waterfalls, and a picturesque stretch of the coastline. Just across the road from the entry, there’s a museum of local historical artifacts and a gift shop, both of which have free admission; but the $20 charge to walk through the garden is a bit steep. (So is the trail down into the garden, a few segments of which have stairs, and are therefore not wheelchair-accessible).

For a free view of the bay, though, two public hiking paths bracket the garden, leading down to the ocean from trailheads along the road. One starts a few hundred feet on the Hilo side of the gated entrance; the other about a hundred feet past it, on the Hamakua side. (Those trails can be muddy – dress accordingly.)

The near trail offers a fine panorama of the bay, and takes you right down to where freshwater streams meet surging ocean waves. The farther trail leads onto a promontory with a superlative view of the entire bay, as well as a once-famous sightseeing attraction. It’s just a notch in a hill, now, but it was an enormous wave-cut arch until 1958, when it collapsed in a minor earthquake.

Rough and rocky Onomea Bay.
Rough and rocky Onomea Bay.

You might be hungry or thirsty after your hike, or even after oohing and ahhing as you drove along this incredibly scenic road. So give a thought to stopping at What’s Shakin, in Pepeekeo, for one of their big sandwiches or tall fruit smoothies.

By the time you rejoin Hwy 19, a mile or so later, you’ll be able to say you saw something rare: a bit of the “old” Mamalahoa Highway that is still reminiscent of old Hawaii.

Hamakua Coast Motorcycle Ride

Since I share a love of motorcycle riding, especially along the relaxing and beautiful roads of the Big Island, I’ll be dedicating some upcoming posts to just that. Helping me as a guest contributor is Aaron Geerlings, fellow riding enthusiast and University of Hawaii at Hilo student. We also have an Aloha Rider page dedicated to this adventure, which includes motorcycle links of interest and a short bio to help you get to know Aaron.

Here’s Aaron’s first contribution about our Hamakua Coast ride:

Aloha Everyone!
Hawaii as long been known for its great beaches and lovely weather, but what it’s not known for is its great motorcycle riding. Most think of it as an island (which it is), but one that is lacking in great riding asphalt — well I am here to put that myth to rest. Over the following weeks I will be introducing you to some great places to ride, eat and relax here on the island, so suit up and enjoy the show.

Our first ride took us from Hilo, Hawaii up the Hamakua Coast on the Mamaloha Highway that winds along the eastern side of the island. It was simply a stunning day. We couldn’t have asked for better.Our first detour along the way was the 4 mile scenic route along the old Mamaloha Highway. This is a beautiful detour that winds along lush forest, waterfalls, Onomea Bay, smoothie shack and a botanical garden.The road is almost completely covered by plants in some areas, giving a feeling as though you are riding through a living tunnel, and in a way you are — just watch for the moss growing on the road as it is very slippery and can lead to some un-fun sliding.

Onomea bay is absolutely amazing (it can be seen in the first video linked at the end), and to think they once unloaded freight from ships there! After we enjoyed the view for a few minutes we continued on past the botanical gardens to What’s Shakin smoothie shack, where we met Tim Withers who owns and operates it with his wife Patsy. Here we interviewed Tim about his upcoming Baja races and his feelings about Hawaii motorcycle riding.

After our fantastic smoothies we continued our ride along the coastal route before coming back to the highway. It was a true detour.As we continued along the highway enjoying the great view, wonderful asphalt and the gorgeous day, we came in contact with one of the few speed traps on the island. Between two 55 mph zones there is a 45mph zone. It isn’t very big so people don’t seem to slow down, so the police sit on the side of the road and enjoy the easy prey as they fly by. But we easily missed this trap as having lived here for quite some time we knew the secrets. Riding through the gulches can be a lot of fun — long wide sweeping turns allow a lot of space to lean and drag your knee. The rest of the ride was uneventful other than the great view and wonderful weather.

We finished the ride at an amazing home overlooking an amazing bay. We relaxed and enjoyed the view before heading back.

This was an amazing ride that covered approximately 120 miles. Although this could easily be added-to if you explored all the various side roads that wind through farms, forests and orchards, it was a fantastic ride in the middle of February.

Stay tuned for the next entry that I can hopefully do this Sunday if the weather holds out. I also hope to take more stills, but this time our still camera broke at our first stop, and all we had is the video camera.