Hawaii’s Hamakua Coast

The Big Island

My first stop on my six week adventure of island hopping was to the Big Island of Hawaii. I only allotted a week of time, and I quickly learned this was not enough. Each side of the island, Kona on the west coast and Hilo on the east coast each deserve a week with all the optional side trips and a few days of relaxation.

During my time in Kona, I spent a day exploring the Hamakua Coast. While I saw many places, each stop was very brief and it was a very full day of driving. If I had to do it over again, I’d limit my stops to about three places at which to spend more time rather than feeling like I was always in the car. Anyway, these are the places I visited.

Waipi’o Valley Overlook

After about a 1.5 hour drive I made my first stop at Waipi’o Valley Overlook. I didn’t run into a drop of rain the whole time until the last four miles of my drive. A large black cloud hovered over the area and the view was enveloped in fog.

I suppose I could have still hiked down to the valley to see the black sand beach and waterfall as my guide book suggested hiking, but upon my arrival, I discovered signs explaining the land is sacred and visitors shouldn’t hike down to the valley unless necessary. I certainly didn’t want to find myself in an unwelcoming situation.

In addition, much of the hike was down a steep, winding road with 25% grade that is shared with four-wheel drive vehicles…a somewhat unappealing option, especially in the rain. As such, I ditched my early morning hiking plan and considered returning later in the day hopefully for a nicer view.

Waipi’o valley overlook on the Hamakua coast
View in the morning
Waipi’o valley overlook on the Hamakua coast
View later in the day

Honoka’a

In the meantime, I returned to the nearby historic town, Honoka’a. Honoka’a was a plantation community whose economy relied primarily on sugar production by the Hamakua Sugar Company from 1873-1994. With the closing of the sugar production in the area, the town’s waning population has had to redefine itself. The coast is still zoned for agriculture so new crops like coffee, pineapple, papaya, macadamia nuts, and tea are now being produced, but also the historic downtown, about two blocks long, features local shops and a few cafes.

Honoka’a on the Hamakua coast

Tex Drive-In

Around the corner from downtown, just past the community school is Tex Drive-In. It is famous for its malasadas, polish donuts with a filling, as they are one of the few places who serve them warm. I was very excited to try a chocolate filled donut, though it was rather anti-climatic when the girl at the counter was far from thrilled to help a tourist. Regardless, I enjoyed the tasty treat before continuing along the Hamakua Coast to the northeast of the island on Highway 19.

Chocolate filled malasada

Laupahoehoe Harbor

About 19 miles from Honoka’a is Laupahoehoe Harbor. It wasn’t even listed in my visitor’s guide book, but I stopped because I quickly learned there weren’t many signs to the places I was trying to find and my cell reception was spotty at best. This camping and picnic area with crashing waves, gave me a place to rest and time to review my book, map and mileage to figure out where to turn. I felt silly that I didn’t download offline google maps! Mistake FIXED.

Laupahoehoe Harbor was authorized in 1960 and construction of the breakwater, wave absorber and channel was completed in 1988. Though nothing too exciting, I relaxed while watching the waves crash nearby as a local fisherman fished for small crabs.

Laupahoehoe Harbor on the Hamakua coast

Akaka Falls State Park

From Laupahoehoe, I drove another 19 miles to Akaka Falls State Park named after the 442 foot Akaka Falls. Non-residents pay a $5 fee to park in the lot or $1 to park along the street outside the gate and walk in. The paved trail to Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls just under a half-mile in length.

I joined countless other visitors at this park who had unloaded from a tour bus! If I didn’t like waterfalls so much, I might have skipped this visit with so many people, but the chance to see a beautiful waterfall lured me in.

A sign recommended following the loop counter clockwise for the best views. I promptly walked clockwise to avoid the slow flow of traffic. Good choice! While Akaka Falls is pretty, Kahuna Falls is mostly obstructed by the lush foliage. I ended up liking the flowers and huge trees that lined the path the best!

Pretty flower at Akaka Falls State ParkAkaka falls on Hamakua coast

Honomu

Upon returning to Highway 19, I passed through Honomu, another town with a two block downtown. My visitors guide suggested a stop at Mr. Ed’s Bakery, but since I was still full from the malasada, I stopped in the shop next door, Glass From the Past. I’m not much of a shopper, but did enjoy looking at all the old bottles, and ultimately chatting with the owner, Peaches, who was about to provide some local tips until a couple of families strolled in…glass and kids required her attention!

Glass bottles

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens

Continuing along the Hamakua Coast toward Hilo, I stopped in the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens. The $20 admission fee seemed a bit pricey, but my stroll through the shaded garden that featured a pond, Onomea waterfall, countless flowers including amazing orchids, as well as coastal views was quite nice. I may have stayed longer here than at any other stop I made on the Hamakua Coast.

Orchids at the Hawaii botanical garden Hawaii botanical garden on the Hamakua coast

Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive

The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens are tucked between the new highway and the old Mamalahoa Highway on what is known as the Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive. This four mile stretch is worth the drive. The winding and narrow road passes through lush vegetation and has a peaceful, quaint feel. Along the way, park on the side of the road and take a short walk along Onomea Bay Trail.

Not far from Hilo now, I turned around as I would be spending three days in that area later. While I could have cut across the center highway by Maunakea, there were a few places I had missed with the limited signage, so I followed the Hamakua Coast back toward Waipi’o Valley.

Umauma Falls

With enough cell service to figure out how to get to Umauma Falls, I took another detour on to a different portion of the old Mamalahoa Highway. I really enjoyed this road for sight seeing. I’m certain if I were trying to drive around the island on the narrow strip, I would have tired of it, but it’s scenic feel was lovely.

Umauma Falls is located at a private adventure park which offered several tourist attractions such as zip lining, riding ATVs and horses, and much more. I suppose I could have joined an activity, but as a lover of waterfalls, I really just wanted to see the three tiered cascade. In fact, the long the long list of waterfalls on the Hamakua Coast, is what attracted me to the area in the first place.

I paid the $5 fee which provided me access to both the path to the falls and the peaceful nature path to their small botanic gardens. Along the way, I was allowed to pick any fruit I saw (no luck). It was a surprisingly quiet spot despite zip lines overhead. Fortunately, no one was gliding from tree to tree above, so I sat in the shade with a view of the falls and snacked on a late lunch.

Umauma falls on the Hamakua coast

Honohina Cemetery

Just down the street from Umauma Falls is the Honohina Cemetery. The old Japanese cemetery was for residents of the Honohina who were mostly sugar plantation works. The town died with the demise of sugar, and now the cemetery is cared for by a nearby Buddhist temple. Some of the people buried here lived in the late 1800’s.

Cemetery on the Hamakua coast

Laupahoehoe Train Museum

Back on the main highway, also known at the Hawaii Belt Road, I made a quick stop at Laupahoehoe Train Museum. The station, now a museum, remains from the times of the sugar plantation era. It wasn’t open, but the location features a few train cars as well, so it is nice to take a short stroll around the small area.

Before returning to Kona, I gave Waipi’o Valley another chance with hopes of better weather. I almost got skunked again as drizzle fell just a few miles away, but once at the overlook, sunny skies prevailed, and I took in a nice view before leaving the Hamakua Coast for Kona.

Train station on Hamakua coast

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Published by

Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.