Located in Papa'ikou on Hawaii's Big Island, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is a 17-acre nonprofit nature reserve at the entrance to Onomea Bay, containing more than 2,000 species of native and international plants. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden was the vision of Dan Lutkenhouse, who happened upon the then-densely-overgrown Onomea Valley area during a vacation with his wife Pauline in 1977.

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Lutkenhouse purchased the 17-acre land parcel for use as a botanical garden space, with the intent to preserve the area’s natural beauty from commercial development, and moved to Hawaii’s Big Island to cultivate the garden. Over the course of eight years, Lutkenhouse and his assistant, Terry Takiue, cleared the Valley’s jungle overgrowth by hand, with care not to disrupt the foundations of the area’s ecosystem, and developed the gardens to incorporate into the existing landscape. The Lutkenhouses formally opened the gardens to the public in 1984, and in 1995, donated the gardens to a 501(c) nonprofit trust in order to protect the area from future development.

Permanent Collections and Gardens

Today, the Garden features over 2,000 plant species of more than 750 genera, both native to the Hawaii area and transplanted from around the world. It is located eight miles north of Hilo, along the Hamakua Coast 4-Mile Scenic Drive near Route 19, and opens out onto the beaches of Onomea Bay. More than 200 species of palm tree are on display at the Garden, including some mango and coconut specimens that are more than 100 years old. A Visitor Center is located at the entrance to the facility, containing a gift shop and large lanai-style porch with visitor seating. Inside the Center, a small Onomea Museum contains photographs documenting the Garden’s development, as well as relics and artifacts from the Valley uncovered during the area’s exploration. Gatekeepers near the Center are available during operating hours to answer visitor questions about the Garden and its plant life. From the Center, a 500-foot Boardwalk, elevated over the dry ravine of Kahalii Stream and enveloped in giant bamboo, banana, and ginger tropical growth, marks the formal entrance to the Garden.

Two cultivated palm tree areas, a Palm Vista and Palm Jungle Trail, showcase palm species from around the world, including the Malaysian wanga palm, the fastest growing variety of palms in the world, and the towering Australian Alexandra palms. Within the jungle trail, the Onomea Stream leads into the three-tiered Onomea Falls, uncovered by Lutkenhouse during the process of clearing the Garden’s grounds. Visitors may view the falls, which is widely considered to be the most beautiful waterfall in the state of Hawaii, from a viewing bridge area.

Several cultivated areas of individual species are highlighted, including a Heliconia Trail, Orchid Garden, and Bromeliad Hill. An Anthurium Corner serves as a tribute to the parents of Marian Kobayashi, who were noted Anthurium farmers on the Big Island. Nearby, the Founder’s Birdhouse is home to several resident South American macaws, all named after prominent landscape features of the Big Island.

At the center of the Garden, the hand-carved Lily Lake reservoir is home to Queen Victoria water lilies, Madagascar travelers trees, and koi fish. Several beachfront trails begin near the lake, including the Trail to the Ocean and the Oceanfront Trail. The Alakahi Stream Trail contains two small bridges crafted from wood salvaged from area sugar mills, and the Boulder Creek Trail and Cook Pine Trail provide views of the jungle’s native areas. At the Bay’s beachfront, Turtle Point overlooks Rock Island and Crab Cove, which serve as a nature preserve for a'ama crabs and opihi. Other wildlife found throughout the Garden includes the gold dust day gecko, the sphinx moth, and the Hawaiian monk seal.

Ongoing Programs and Education

Guided tour packages are offered for small groups, featuring personalized docent-led tours of the Garden’s grounds and a choice of gifts from the facility’s gift shop. Educational tour programs for students are tailored to school curriculum standards and may be customized to meet individual classroom needs. Full wedding packages are available for rental, including full coordination of minister, floral, food, and music services by Garden staff. The Garden’s grounds may also be reserved for banquets, film shoots, and other special events, with banquet seating and catering service available upon request. Workshop add-ons are available for all tours and events, focusing on plant cultivation and artistic uses for flowers.

Shore excursion packages are available for visitors traveling to Hawaii’s Big Island by cruise ship, including transportation service from docking piers to the Garden facility. A 2.5-hour Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden Tour is offered by Tour Dispatch, featuring 90 minutes of self-guided exploration of the Garden along with narrated tours of other nearby area attractions.

27-717 Old Mamalahoa Hwy, Papaikou, HI 96781, Phone: 808-964-5233