The Big Island’s Onomea Bay Donkey Trail Hike is a time and budget-friendly way to enjoy the incredible beauty of East Hawaii.

When I first moved to the Big Island of Hawaii, I lived briefly in a small cottage on a large estate overlooking Onomea Bay. While I was there, the owner of the property introduced me to the Donkey Trail Hike, a short but beautiful walk from the Old Mamalahoa Highway down to the bay. We spent a long afternoon by the water collecting beach glass.

A few months ago, I learned that a co-worker of mine is also an avid sea glass collector. I asked her if she had ever been down this particular trail where I’d collected my first two jars of Big Island beach glass over five years ago. Since she knows about more Hamakua coast “secret spots” than I do, I was surprised that she wasn’t familiar with the Donkey Trail. We made a date and went looking for beach glass a few weeks later.

The Donkey Trail is located just a few hundred yards from the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, a popular tourist attraction on the “4 Mile Scenic Drive.” The Botanical Garden gets great reviews, but not everyone wants to spend the money to do the garden tour. In that case, the Donkey Trail Hike is a free alternative that puts you right at the water’s edge in just a matter of minutes.

Parking is just past the bridge beside the Botanical Garden. From the trailhead, expect a possibly muddy, slippery walk down—this hike is best on a sunny day that has been preceded by a sunny day! Expect mosquitoes too, so go prepared with repellant and, of course, sunscreen. But don’t be discouraged by the warnings. Even before you reach the bay and the beach, you’ll know you’re in a special place.

This trail is part of Na Ala Hele—“trails to go on”—the State of Hawaii Trail and Access Program, which was established in 1988 in response to public concern about the loss of access to certain trails and the threat to historic trails from development pressure. Donkey Trail descends directly to the point between Kenenue and Kahalii Bays, so there are plenty of photo opportunities (including a small waterfall). And, if you like history, plenty of research you can do about the fishing village and sugar mill that existed here in the past.

One word of caution: Before you go in the water at the back of the bay (or into any Hawaii freshwater stream), you’ll want to read up on Leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that can be passed from animals to humans. Learn more at:


  1. Awesome Cynthia!  Onomea was one of the first places Matt and I hiked when we moved to the Big Island.
    We were hoping to see some monk seals, but no.  Beautiful hike though!

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