One of Hawaii’s most scenic drives follows the Hawaii Belt Road (Hwy. 19) from Hilo to the Waipio Valley Lookout along the Hamakua Coast which traverses the wet, windward slopes of Mauna Kea volcano.
Known as the Hamakua Heritage Corridor Drive, the road extends for 45 miles (72 km) through charming old plantation towns and past thundering waterfalls while taking in expansive views of the Big Island’s northeast coast.
Along the route the highway passes over several large cantilevered bridges spanning deep ravines. There are numerous places to stop and take in the stunning ocean views. The route also includes both major and minor waterfalls, botanical gardens, and an array of interesting shops and hospitable restaurants.
At the beginning of the drive just north of Hilo is an interesting detour off Route 19 along the four-mile Onomea Scenic Drive. The area’s lush growth includes mossy bridges and great views of Onomea Bay. This is also the location of the renowned Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden which features thousands of tropical plant species from around the globe.
Also along the route is Akaka Falls, one of Hawaii’s most spectacular waterfalls cascading 442-feet down the mountain into a huge gorge. Nearby is the 100-foot Kahuna Falls.
The Hamakua Coast region receives about eighty-four inches of rain annually keeping everything lush and green. Another spectacular botanical garden along the route is found in Hakalau at the World Botanical Gardens. This is Hawaii’s largest botanical garden with more than 5,000 species of tropical flora.
Another detour off Route 19 leads out to the point at Laupahoehoe where you can enjoy views of the rocky coastline including interesting tidepools and scenic seacliffs. Visit the Laupahoehoe Train Museum and then later stop by the Kalopa State Recreation Area where you can hike through the forest.
Beyond Laupahoehoe is the small and charming town of Honokaa where plenty of restaurants make it a great place to stop for lunch. Finally you will reach the Waipio Valley Lookout where you can gaze thousands of feet down into this “Valley of the Kings” which was home to chiefs and royalty in ancient times.
While the Hamakua Coast region was once carpeted in sugarcane plantations today the agricultural products are more diversified and include macadamia nut trees and a wide variety of other agricultural products.
Beginning in Hilo, the Hamakua Heritage Corridor Drive follows along the scenic Hamakua Coast through many charming, small towns including Papaikou, Honomu, Hakalau, Ninole, Papaaloa, Laupahoehoe, Ookala, Paauilo, Paauhou, Honokaa, and Kukuihaele before finally reaching Waipio Valley.