A treasure tucked away just outside of Hilo, along the Big Island’s waterfall route, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is a must-visit if you love tropical plants. The 37-acre preserve opened to the public in 1984. Founders Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse built this garden over 5 years and created the non-profit that manages it today.
After securing your tickets at the gift shop/visitor center (tickets cost around $25 for adults), you make your way down a pretty steep boardwalk into the gardens. It’s like descending from the canopy to the forest floor. It’s 500 feet long and descends 120 feet to the floor.
Along the way, splashes of color and delicate petals start to pop out from the dense tropical forest. As you get closer to the gardens, vibrant flora becomes more commonplace.
The Hawaiian Hibiscus is always a favorite.
Beautiful natural patterns from the ferns and Monkeypod trees bring some order to the tropical chaos.
Keep your eyes peeled and your camera lens ready. There may be a surprise or two in the trees, like this little gecko hanging upside down on this heliconia plant.
Behind a leaf, you might even find your beautiful travel companion!
There are two nice waterfalls on the property. The Onomea Creek waterfalls and the Boulder Creek falls.
Many of the flowers and trees in the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden are not actually native to Hawaii. Many are from South America and Latin America. If you’re curious about what specific plants are in the garden, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden has a complete database on their website.
One of the highlights is the beautiful Orchid Garden. When most people think tropical flowers, these must surely be top of mind. The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden has an impressive array of different orchids. I am no botanist, so I present my favorites without explanation.
It takes about two hours to find your way through the gardens. As we walk along this path we hear some commotion.
Parrots at the Founders Birdhouse!
The gardens terminate at Onomea Bay. There is a rock formation in the bay that, legend has it, are two ancient lovers.
“Legend has it that one day, a chief of the village spotted many canoes with sails heading shoreward in their direction. Fearing an attack, the chiefs and village elders held a council to determine a course of action. They decided to build a reef to prevent a landing on their beaches. Not having the means to complete the task quickly enough, they asked the two young lovers to be the guides and protectors of the village. Two willing individuals were found. That night a decree was sent to all who lived at Kahali’i to remain indoors from sunset to sunrise without making any light or sound, on penalty of death.
In the light of the new day, everyone went down to the shorelines where they were amazed to find the lovers gone, and in their place two gigantic rock formations at the entrance to the Bay, attached to each other, as if on guard.”
As we make our way back, we’re catching views of all the plants we missed on the way down. It’s really remarkable how many exotic plants are in the garden. They’ve done it in a way that it looks so natural. But there’s certainly no natural setting that would have this much color and variety.
A nice touch: if you’re mobility-challenged, take a golf cart ride up and down the boardwalk.
The gardens are open every day except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. Admission ends at 4 pm each day, so get in there early. It takes around two hours to walk through the garden on this self-guided tour.