North Island New Zealand Road Trip: Perfect 2-Week Itinerary
With thermal hot springs, white sand beaches and enough volcanoes to make your head spin, New Zealand’s North Island is nothing short of spectacular.
There are so many things to do in the North Island, that it can be overwhelming knowing where to start planning your New Zealand road trip... But don’t worry, we’re here to help!
We’ve created a perfect North Island New Zealand itinerary that brings you to all the major highlights, like hiking the famous Tongariro alpine crossing, learning about Maori culture, seeing glowworm caves and visiting the Hobbiton movie set. And we’re also taking you off the typical tourist path to some hidden gems!
If you follow this road trip itinerary from Auckland to Wellington, you’ll have a nice mix of time exploring nature as well as some of New Zealand’s most exciting cities. We’re even sharing where to stay and what to eat in the North Island, so you have all the information you need right at your fingertips!
How many days in the North Island?
1 Week North Island
Go straight to the Coromandel Peninsula (Skip the Pinnacles), then Rotorua, Taupo and Tongariro Hike.
10 Days North Island
Follow this same itinerary but start on Day 4. Visit the spots around Auckland, but skip Waiheke Island and Piha Beach.
2 Weeks North Island
Perfect! Follow this itinerary to a “T” and you’ll be fine. You’ll get to see a good section of the North Island from Auckland to Wellington.
3 Weeks North Island
Lucky you; you’ve got options!
You could follow this same itinerary and add on more day hikes around Coromandel, Rotorua, Taupo or Tongariro (there is more to it than the famous “Crossing”!).
Spend a few days going up to Cape Reinga (the northern-most point of NZ), stopping at the Bay of Islands.
You could even spend a day or two sipping wine in Hawkes Bay and exploring the hilly landscape around Napier on the east coast.
And if you want to get off the beaten path, head to Te Arora which is the first place in the world to see sunrise! (Bonus: Stop at Rere Rockslide on the way!)
Day 1: Fly into Auckland
Day at a glance: Find your hotel/Airbnb and start exploring Auckland
Welcome to New Zealand! It is best to pick up a SIM card at the airport so you can have data during your trip.
GET A SIM CARD
As soon as you land, get a SIM card at one of the booths at the airport. (We got Spark and had good service.) If you land at night and the booths are closed, don’t worry — there are loads of places in any major city that can get you a SIM card.
We purchased a month-long Spark plan with 4GB of data and some calls and texts for $54 NZD ($36 USD). (We did have to top off a few more GB’s after our two weeks, but that’s only because we use our phones for work.)
Airport to Auckland
The best way from Auckland airport to the city is the SkyBus. It’s only $24 NZD one-way ($21 NZD if you book online) and it picks you up right at the airport curb. There are many stops along the route so be sure to know when to get off.
There are many Airbnb’s that are nice in Auckland with reasonable prices. Be sure to check them out and use our $40 USD off code if it’s your first time using Airbnb.
Things to Do in Auckland
We loved our time in Auckland. It’s a big city but it has many charming neighborhoods. Here are some of of our top things to do:
Visit Albert Park
See a Comedy Show (for $5!)
Eat your way through food alley
Take a free walking tour
We have a whole article on free and cheap things to do in Auckland giving details about the ones we just mentioned and some of our other favorites in the city
Note: If you’re returning to Auckland to drop off your campervan, you can save a few things to do when you return. If you are heading down to the South Island, make sure you get to do everything you want in Auckland before you head out because you’re not coming back through.
Day 2: Auckland and Waiheke Island
Day at a glance: Finish touring Auckland hop on the ferry to nearby Waiheke Island
Visit any sites you did not get a chance to see in Auckland on Day 1. Have lunch in the city (possibly on High Street) and then head down to the wharf. You’ll want to book the passenger Fullers Ferry and not the SeaLink car ferry (we made that mistake). There are no campervan campervan facilities on the island, so that’s why we recommend picking it up tomorrow or whenever you head back to Auckland.
Note: Being that Waiheke Island can is full of boujee beach houses and wineries, it tends to be a bit pricier than the mainland New Zealand. If you’re looking to travel New Zealand on a budget we have ton of tips on that. But if you can’t swing Waiheke, just continue on the rest of this North Island New Zealand Itinerary.
Fuller Ferries run about every half hour from the Auckland Downtown Ferry Wharf to Matiatia Wharf on Waiheke. The ferry takes about 40-50 minutes and costs $45 NZD for a return ticket.
Day Trip: If you’re not interested in staying overnight on Waiheke, you could always do a day tour from Auckland. This tour includes the round-trip ferry tickets, food, olive tasting and a winery tour. Check an example of a Waiheke tour here.
Once on Waiheke, you can take a taxi or the bus ($3.5 NZD one ride, $10 NZD all day pass) to your hotel. Either A or B routes will take you most places around the island.
Check into your hotel or Airbnb, and head straight to Onetangi Beach, the largest beach on Waiheke. Hang out at the beach to cure your jet lag for a bit. Work up some energy and walk up the hill to Casita Miro. They have delicious tapas with a little lawn area to sip sangrias. Call ahead to make a reservation.
If you get to the island early enough, you could go to Obsidian Winery Cellar Door and do a wine tasting before hiking up the hill to Casita Miro. Tastings are available from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (summer hours).
Ready for a night out? Charlie Farley’s on Onetangi Beach gets busy late into the night as they have a large selection of beers and wines.
Where we stayed: Our friends, Michelle and Neill, have a gorgeous cottage on Airbnb that’s decorated with touches of Bali. It’s a 5-minute walk from Palm Beach, and right on the bus line. We stayed there when we visited Waiheke and it’s very reasonably priced, around $121 USD per night. We dare you to take a peek on Airbnb and try not to fall in love.
Airbnb Coupon: Use this link and you’ll get $40 USD off your first booking on Airbnb, our treat!
If this is not your style, there are plenty of hotel options throughout Waiheke! We like to use Booking.com when booking in New Zealand.
Day 3: Leave Waiheke, ferry to Auckland and pick up Campervan
Day at a glance: Finish visiting Waiheke and ferry back to Auckland. Pick up your campervan, gather supplies for your North Island road trip and drive to Piha Beach just outside of the city.
Total drive time: 1 hour | Distance: 40 km (25 miles)
Wake up and explore Palm Beach or Oneroa Beach. Check out another winery or pick up oysters from the grocery store and have a picnic lunch.
I know it will be hard to leave the paradise of Waiheke (your wallet will thank you though), but little after noon you should had back to Auckland and pick up your campervan (YAY!).
Campervan Road Trip Begins!
You’re campervan company should give you an orientation of your vehicle, showing you all the bells and whistles. Make sure you know how to work the extra batteries, fold down your bed, and how to fill and dump the gray water tank.
Once you feel comfortable behind the wheel (remember to stay left!), head to the grocery store and stock up on food for the next day or so. Here are some place you can find supplies:
Pak’nSave: Discount supermarket (if you want the lowest prices on groceries, this is where you’ll find them)
Countdown: A nicer grocery store
The Warehouse: Cheap “big box" store with toiletries and clothes (like Walmart). - $10 for hoodie and flannel
If you didn’t get a SIM card at the airport, all 3 of the major network providers (Spark, Vodaphone & 2degrees) have branches in the Hornby mall. Here is a quick guide to the cell service options in New Zealand.
Ready to hit the road? We would recommend getting out of the big city as soon as you can, because there is so much to see on this North Island itinerary. First stop: Piha Beach. It’s about an hour drive away from Auckland.
Known for excellent surf and stunning sunsets, Piha is one of the best beaches on New Zealand’s North Island. Being that Piha is just a 45-minute drive from Auckland, we expected it to be pretty busy; but when we arrived in mid-December, we were pleased to find it wasn’t very crowded at all.
Try to get to Piha Beach a few hours before sunset so you can get settled in at the Piha Domain Motor campground (really the only camping option in town), and make it to sunset, Piha is of course!
Things to do near Piha Beach:
Pop into the Piha Café, which has one of the best salty caramel slices we’ve ever tasted for $5 NZD. They also have good coffee and the food looks amazing, if you didn’t already plan out your campervan meals for the night.
The West Coast Art Gallery is worth a pop in if you arrive into town before 5 p.m. They have a plethora of exhibits from local artists in constant rotation.
Head down to the beach around dusk and watch surfers ride waves as the sun sets turning the sky every shade of pink and red.
Where to Stay: Piha Domain Motor Camp, $20 NZD per person. They have a decent kitchen, clean bathrooms with fob key entry, and are within walking distance to the beach.
Day 4: Karekare Waterfall, Nikau Glow Worm Cave and (what?!) More Waterfalls
Day at a glance: Waterfall spot as you leave Piha and head to the Nikau Glow Worm Cave for a tour and lunch. Then head over to the Karangahake Gorge for more waterfalls and a historic hike.
Total driving time: 4.5 hours | Distance: 303 km (188 miles)
Leaving Piha Beach there’s a short detour that is worth going to. The road down to Karekare Waterfall is windy and narrow so be careful and go slowly. Park at the Zion Hill Track parking lot and walk up the road, turn left and follow the La Trobe Track hiking trail down to the waterfall (you can see the top of the waterfall from the road).
Once you’re done at the waterfall, to get back up the hill be sure to use your low gear, and head to the Nikau Cave.
If you’ve done a little bit of research about things to do in New Zealand, then you probably know that there are tons of spots to see the famous glow worms.
The most well known are the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, but we’ve heard mixed reviews about the tour. Some say it’s a factory with tour buses shipping people in and out all day long, while others said it was a magical experience.
If you really want to visit the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, we’d suggest not to do it today and instead squeeze it in on Day 9 of this North Island New Zealand Itinerary.
This little known cave boasts to have the best natural glow worm display in all of New Zealand. The tour takes about 1 hour and the guide shows off various stalactite and stalagmite formations in multiple caverns. After the tour, the cafe is meant to be really good spot for lunch.
Cost: $45 NZD for adults, $22.50 NZD for children still in school. Minimum of $100 for a tour to run, meaning if only two adults, the cost is $50 NZD per adult.
Personal Note: We actually did not visit the Nikau Cave while we were in New Zealand. We had such a great experience with the Underworld Adventures Cave Tour in the West Coast of the South Island, we decided to skip any glow worm tours in the North Island. However, if we were to only visit the North Island again, we would choose to do the Nikau Cave over the Waitomo Cave tour.
Karangahake Gorge Hike
After lunch drive 1.5 hours to the Karangahake Gorge. This narrow highway passage runs along side the Ohinemuri River until you reach the Karangahake carpark. Park here, walk across the bridge and head right toward the Hauraki Rail Trail. The 1-hour hike (3.5 km) will take you across the old bridge, through the train tunnel to a trail that safely hugs the gorge beside the river.
Drive a few minutes east of Karangaheke Gorge and you find this spectacular waterfall. If you’re lucky (like us), you’ll have the whole place to yourself.
Where to Stay: After the falls drive back up to Thames and find a campground for the night. There are plenty to choose from in the area, from holiday parks to freedom camping along the seaside. Use the Rankers App to browse campsites. There are a few DOC campsites up the Kauaeranga Valley Road, since you will be heading up that way tomorrow any way.
Where to Eat and Drink in Thames: If you want to eat out in Thames, we heard the Boilerhouse Brewery is a good place for a craft beer and a hearty meal. Or you can always cook dinner in your campervan.
Day 5: Hike to Pinnacles Hut
Day at a glance: Today is all about hiking up to the Pinnacles Hut, one of the largest mountain huts in New Zealand.
Total driving time: 45 minutes | Distance: 22 km (14 miles)
Stock up on groceries in Thames and head up the Kauaeranga Valley Road toward the Pinnacles Hut hike.
In order to stay at the Pinnacles Hut, you’ll have to book your bed ahead of time, specially if it’s a weekend during busy season. It costs $15 NZD per person per night and you can book on the DOC website.
Make sure to stop off at the DOC Office on the way up to get the current trail conditions. And if you extra time on the way up to the trail head, you could swing by the Hoffmans Pool for a quick dip into the crystal clear water (if you’re brave enough. The water was freezing cold in December).
Park at the Kauaeranga Valley Road End, hide your electronics and lock your car.
Hiking Tip: Carry your passport with you to the hut. It would be terrible if someone broke into your car and took your passport.
Pinnacles Hut Hike
Hiking Time: 2.5 - 3 hours one way to the hut, additional 40 minutes one way to the Pinnacles Rock Formations.
There are two ways to get to the hut, the Webb Creek Trail and the Billy Goat Track. We highly recommend to hike the Webb Creek Track to and from the hut and not the Billy Goat Track.
I repeat, DO NOT take the Billy Goat Track! It’s horrible.
Personal Story: We were told to go up Webb Creek and down Billy Goat and so we did. Webb Creek is cool because you get to cross over some 1-person suspension bridges with a few small waterfalls along the way, and you’re shaded by the forest.
There is one section that is pretty vertical with many switchbacks, but it only lasts for about 30 minutes. It took us about 2 - 2.5 hours to get up the Webb Creek Trail to the hut.
We took the Billy Goat Trail down the mountain, and completely regret it. Apparently it is supposed to have some historic significance, but all the display signs were weathered and the cobblestone sections were very uneven and hard to walk on.
Many parts of the track are fully exposed to the sun so it got really hot, even in December. And the trailhead is about a half mile away from the car park. So if you learn anything from this section, DO NOT go on the Billy Goat Track!
This 80-bunk hut is the Taj Mahal of mountain huts. Once you arrive at the Pinnacles Hut, you’ll be greeted by the Hut Warren who will check you in. The large kitchen has about 8 gas stoves with all the pots, pans, bowls and cutlery you could ever wish for that have been left up there by previous guests.
There’s indoor and outdoor picnic tables for eating and playing games. There are drop toilets, a toothbrushing station and a cold water shower (but try conserve the water).
Spend day at the pinnacles hut, and just about 1.5 hours before sunset, start heading up to the Pinnacles. It’s a 40-minute walk, but you could do it in 25 minutes if you hurry, just be careful on the metal ladder and steps. Don’t forget your headlamps (head torches). From the top, you’ll get 360 degree views of the surrounding valleys and you can see the coast on both sides of the Coromandel Peninsula.
Hangout up at the top until the sunset show is over (making sure to give yourself enough dusk light to get down the hard part), and climb down back to the hut. Cook dinner, share some wine with new friends, and get ready for the sunrise hike in the morning.
Day 6: Pinnacles Sunrise and Coromandel Peninsula
Day at a glance: Hike up to catch sunrise at the Pinnacles and then hike down to your campervan. Drive up to Coromandel and spend most of the day chilling in town or at the beach
Total driving time: 1.5 hours | Distance: 75 km (47 miles)
Pinnacles Sunrise Hike
Fight over that urge to sleep in and get yourself out of bed 1-1.5 hours before sunrise. Trust me, you’ll never regret the sunrises you see (embroider that on a pillow), and the Pinnacles is one of them. In fact, I (Ben) woke up for the sunrise and Katie stayed in bed and she has regretted it ever since. I guess we just have to go back.
It’s the same hike as the night before, but you’ll need your headlamp and possible warm clothes at the start. The sun will be on the other side (duh!) and highlights many more rock formations. If you want a prime spot, make sure to get up there early because I had a couple in my pictures the whole time, and while it was a great pic of them, it’s hard to not to get them in the shot.
Once the sun has fully risen, head back down the path and have breakfast. Pack up and hike back down the Webb Creek Trail (again, DO NOT take the Billy Goat Track). You should get back down to your campervan around noon.
Drive north on Hwy 25 up to Coromandel. There are many small parks along the seaside, some with rare bird breeding grounds, so feel free to make a stop. If not, continue on to Coromandel.
There are a few holiday parks in town, like Coromandel Top 10, since you’ll probably want to take a shower. But if you want to freedom camp one more night, there is a nice 6-van spot just north of town called Kapanga Road - Overnight Campervan Parking.
Note: You will begin driving further north into the Coromandel Peninsula and one of the main attractions is to visit Hot Water Beach, which you’ll do tomorrow (Day 7). However, visiting Hot Water Beach depends on the tides that day.
Look ahead at the tide times for Hot Water Beach for Day 7. If low tide is in the morning, go to New Chums on Day 6 so you can go straight to Hot Water Beach on Day 7. If low tide is in the afternoon, save New Chums for Day 7.
Day 7: Beach Day! New Chums Beach and Hot Water Beach
Day at a glance: Take a short hike to New Chums Beach and viewpoint. Then build a natural jacuzzi at hot water beach.
Total driving time: 2 hours | Distance: 100 km (62 miles)
Make the windy and slow drive from Coromandel to the small beach town of Whangapoua, where at the end of Mangakahia Drive you’ll find the parking for the New Chums Beach hike.
New Chums Beach
Getting to this beach requires a 30-minute walk along rocks and part of a forest. It’s a massive beach so it will seem a lot less crowded compared to other beaches in the North Island.
If you’re up for a challenge, about 20 minutes into the hike (right after you enter the forest) there will be a path going up to a viewpoint on your right. It’s a really steep and hard 10 minutes up. Make sure you are not wearing flip flops (“jandals” in Kiwi) and be careful at the top.
Once you’re done chilling at the beach, time to go to… another beach! However, this one is special and one of our top things to do in New Zealand.
Hot Water Beach
There is a hot spring that runs 2 miles beneath Hot Water Beach and at low tide the sand begins to get hot and you can make pools, like natural jacuzzis, on the beach. It’s best to visit within 2 hours of low tide (2 hours before up until 2 hours after). This means there is a 4-hour window that you’ll be able to dig a hole. Be sure to check the tides before you go.
Just to warn you, it doesn’t look like what you see on Instagram: one solo hot pool simmering with the sun glowing on it. The reality is there’s about a hundred people either searching and digging for a hot spot or people soaking in their hot pool trying to fend off the rising tide. It can get a little chaotic.
You can rent a shovel for $10 NZD at the shop near the car park, but you could probably get the job done with just your hands. There are outdoor showers to rinse off the sand near the car park.
Where should I dig my pool? We arrived at Hot Water Beach near the end of the 4-hour window so we were able to take over some abandoned hot pools made by others (lucky us!). But if you are the first person to start digging, there is a sign on the rocks that says “No campfires on the beach”. Have the sign at your back and walk straight toward the water, and start digging just above the tide line.
Photography Tip: Morning will have better lighting than the evening because the rocks start to shade over all the hot pools.
Where to Stay: After you’ve rinsed off, hop in your campervan and drive to Hahei Holiday Resort. It’s a lovely (and massive) campground with big kitchen and clean facilities. It’s bit on the expensive side, at $50 NZD per night, but it is right on the beach and walking distance to Cathedral Cove, which you’ll hike to on the morning of Day 8.
Where to Eat in Hahei: After the sunsets, head to Pour House for a craft beer, fries and a pizza. The Apple Crisp Cider and the Baltic Porter are delicious!
Day 8: Cathedral Cove, Sea Kayaking to Donut Island, Camp on Coast
Day at a glance: Hike to Cathedral Cove at the perfect time and go kayaking inside an island.
Total driving time: 2.5 hours | Distance: 135 km (84 miles)
An easy 45-minute walk brings you to a small beach where you’ll find a cave that opens up into another hidden beach that’s dotted beautifully with a picture-perfect sea stack. And the best part is, if you stayed at Hahei Holiday Resort, the trail starts right from the campsite on the beach.
Some people say to go to Cathedral Cove for sunrise, but for us we made it a little later and it was a magical experience.
We started the walk at 7 a.m. and passed by professional photographers who had actually been in the cove for sunrise (giant tripods and all!). But when we got there, all we could hear were the waves. No one was there! Crickets. That’s right, we had this enchanting cave entirely to ourselves for a good 20 minutes.
It was a good thing we left when we did, because on our walk back (around 9 a.m.), we passed by at least 20 different groups, including a school trip of 40+ middle schoolers. Yikes!
We would recommend to pack some snacks and a towel, as the nearby beaches are nice spots to spend a couple hours if you have the time.
Heading further south on Hwy 25, if you missed Hot Water Beach earlier in the North Island itinerary because the tides were not right, today you’ll drive by the beach around mid-morning. Be sure to check the tides tables.
Sea Kayaking to Donut Island
Whagamata is your next stop on this North Island road trip. Pop into Pedal and Paddle rental shop and rent a double kayak for 2 hours for $60 NZD. This will give you a chance to paddle out to Whenuakura Island, or locally known as “Donut Island”.
This island has a lagoon in the middle with sea access only by kayak. It’s a pretty cool experience being “inside” an island, but be careful not to get off onto land. This island is protect because it is a sacred site for the Maori people.
Be careful as the waves can be quite strong inside the donut, especially as the tides change. There is a nearby island with a nice beach where you can rest for remainder of the two hours. Head back to shore and Pedals and Paddle will pick you up and take you back to your campervan.
Where to Stay: Continue down Hwy 25 and head for Pahoia Domain. It’s a freedom camping spot so you should have a self-contained campervan, but there are toilets that are open overnight. Look it up on the Rankers App.
Day 9: Hobbiton Tour, Mount Maunganui Hike, & Hikes around Rotorua
Day at a glance: Hobbiton Movie Set Tour and then hikes around Rotorua
Total driving time: 2.5 hours | Distance: 135 km (84 miles)
Hobbiton Movie Set Tour
If you’re a big LotR (Lord of the Rings) fan, then this stop is already on your list. This 2-hour guided tour will bring you around the movie set of “The Shire” and allows you to take pictures next to one of the 37 hobbit homes. #doitforthegram.
The climax of the tour is visiting Bag End, the home of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. After that you head down the hill to the Green Dragon for a pint of beer.
We recommend the morning or noon tour because it will be less hot than the afternoon and you’ll have better lighting. Check out the different types of tours and make sure to book yours a few days in advance.
To be honest: Hobbiton is one of those places where if you asked us, “Are you happy you went?” “Yes”. But, “Would you go again?” “No”. But also, “Would you have been sad to skip it?” “Yes”.
The whole tour we felt rushed through everything, even the beer at the end (if we had more time, we probably would have paid for a second, maybe even a third). We were even told from a friend who is a big LotR fan, that all the information the guide provided was in the “Bonus DVD” that came along with the trilogy DVD’s.
Would we recommend it? If you’re a Lord of the Rings or Hobbit fan, then I would say yes. But if you are not, then I would skip it. With that being said, we heard good things about the Feast Dinner tour, so that might be something to check out.
Side Trip: Mount Maunganui (Mauao) Hike
If you have extra time today, or just in the mood for a hike, drive to the tip of Tauranga (don’t go during rush hour) to Mount Maunganui (Mauao). Find free street parking and walk towards the Mount Maunganui Beachside Holiday Park where the 30-minute one-way uphill path starts.
You’ll pass hillsides full of sheep which make for a pretty awesome photo op. From the top, you’ll get to see views of the Bay of Plenty and the skinny Tauranga peninsula.
Once you get back down, reward yourself with a big scoop of cinnamon donut ice cream from Copenhagen Cones. We dare you to just get one.
After Hobbiton and the hike, make your way down to Rotorua. We recommend taking Hwy 33 because it’s a pretty drive and it will take you past Okere Falls.
Warning: Watch out for Toll Roads when driving through Taruanga. Use Google Maps with the Avoid Tolls feature.
There are many things to do in Rotorua and you’ll get a chance to do many activities tomorrow (Day 10) but since you’ll have most of the afternoon, we recommend to visit:
Hike 30 minutes one-way on a 1.2 km path to a beautiful waterfall often taken by whitewater rafters.
The Redwoods – Whakarewarewa Forest
It’s completely free to visit is enormous forest full of giant, over 100-year-old redwood trees. There’s a variety of trails of different lengths you can take. We recommend at least walking on the 30-minute Redwood Memorial Grove Track.
Fun Fact: This forest is full of California Coast Redwood trees, same as the famous trees from Northern Cali. However, because of New Zealand’s climate they actually grow faster here.
You can walk up in the trees in a series of 28 suspension bridges on the Redwoods Treewalk. We ended up not doing the treewalk, because walking around from the bottom was enough for us, but the nighttime/twilight walk looks pretty cool. It’s $29 NZD for the 30-minute circuit.
Government Park near downtown
Stroll along the government gardens and smell the… sulfur? It’s a pretty park with a great view of the lake, but one of the points of interest is Sulfur Point where you can see the steam rising from the edge of the lake.
Nearby the Government Park is the Polynesian Spa. Pamper yourself after long days in the Coromandel Peninsula. Enjoy the 28 spring-fed hot pools, ranging from adult only to private to kids area. You could also splurge and get a massage or facial while you are there. Check out prices and reviews on TripAdvisor.
Where to stay: Cosy Cottage Thermal Holiday Park - Close to town and decently priced, we stayed here for two nights. The facilities were clean and kitchen is a good size. They have rooms available as well as powered and non-powered sites. Book for 2 nights.
Day 10: Activities around Rotorua
Day at a glance: Adventure activities in the morning, hikes in the afternoon, and cultural experience in the evening.
Total driving time: 1 hour | Distance: 40 km (84 miles)
Things to Do in Rotorua
Here is how today will go down. First, start the day with a bang (or a splash) and do an adventure activity. Second, you should get out in nature and explore the unique landscapes of Rotorua. And end the day with a Maori cultural experience.
The Squeeze Jet Boat
This tour takes you whipping around turns on a river jet boat through the Tutukau Gorge. After this epic ride, you hop off and “squeeze” through a canyon while wading in water. When you make it through to the other side you’ll be rewarded with a hot spring waterfall! Check out prices and reviews on TripAdvisor.
Want to know more? Our friends over at Exploring Kiwis documented their experience on The Squeeze and call it “Rotorua’s best tourist experience”!
Roll yourself down a hill inside an inflatable ball filled with water! You’ll feel like you’re in a washing machine. You can Zorb down one of 3 tracks, but we recommend to do all three. It’s a wet and wild ride, and you can’t just do it once. It’s also a great rainy day activity. Check out prices and reviews on TripAdvisor.
Have you ever wanted to be dropped from 40 meters in mid air? What about bungey jump? Or practice your form while skydiving? Well, you can do all these things at Velocity Valley. Located close to the ZORB, this adrenaline packed park has something for everyone and is great for families.
The Redwoods Whakarewarewa Forest: $29 NZD for Treewalk or free to walk on paths (1 hour)
Walk around Government Park near downtown (30 minutes)
Blue Lake Track: 1.5 hours loop track, around 5.5 km walk along Blue Lake also know as Tikitapui
Okere Falls: 30-minute hike one way, 1.2 km to a beautiful falls. The waterfall is often run by whitewater rafters.
Kuirau Park: Not so much of a hike, but this free park on the west side of town has foot bath mud pools. Great place for kids, just make sure you don’t put your head under water.
Rich in Maori history and geothermal activity, Lake Tarawera is a great place to explore for the day. There are waterfalls and hot pools scattered in the bush that only expert guides know the locations. Book a day tour or book a night at Hot Water Beach on Lake Tarawera. There are 30 campsites and the only way to access them is either via water taxi or hiking 5-6 hours on the Tarawera Trail.
Maori Cultural Experience
Maori people are the indigenous people of New Zealand and they make up about 15% of country’s population. The majority of them live in Rotorua and the surrounding areas. Most people know of the Maori because of the Haka, a ceremonial dance, that has grown in international popularity because of the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team.
There are two main Maori cultural experiences in Rotorua: Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village and the Tamaki Maori Village.
Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village - Take a guided tour through a Maori village that sits on a geothermal hot bed. The tour concludes with a performance of cultural dances and of course the Haka.
Tamaki Maori Village - This dinner show tour brings to the village where the guides walk you through stations to learn about different aspects of Maori culture like the significances of tattoos, Maori history and building structures. There is a cultural song and dance portion in an auditorium and then an all-you-can-eat Hangi (meals prepared using a pit oven) buffet.
We attended both tours and describe our experiences in more detail in our top things to do in New Zealand article.
Note: Be on the lookout out for 5% to 10% off either tour in the iSite or holiday parks lobby.
Where to stay: Cosy Cottage Thermal Holiday Park - same as Day 9.
Day 11: Rotorua to Lake Taupo
Day at a glance: Drive south down to Lake Taupo, with hikes, hot springs, and geothermals along the way.
Total driving time: 1 hour | Distance: 81 km (50 miles)
If you have more things on your list to do in Rotorua, this would be the day do that. If not, start making your way down to Lake Taupo, but don’t just fly down the highway. There are some nice stops along the way that will make it into a pretty epic day.
Rainbow Mountain Track
This 1 - 1.5 hour one-way tramping track will bring you to the summit of Rainbow Mountain rewarding you will 360 degree views of the surrounding valleys. When we were passing through we unfortunately did not have the time to hike all the way to the summit, but the views look really nice.
However, if you hike up the trail 5-10 minutes, you’ll get to glimpse down into a colorful crater. If you only have a little bit of time, this is worth the stop.
These series of hot waterfalls are fun to soak in for a while. The turnoff is on Old Walotapu Road (the first left after Rainbow Mountain Carpark) and you’ll continue down unpaved road for about 2 km to the car park.
Before you enter the creek, remove any jewelry. Katie hopped in the water and her rings and bracelet got tarnished. Luckily, it was easily cleaned with toothpaste and baking soda.
Warning: There are signs everywhere in the Kerosene Creek car park to lock up your valuables. We saw shattered window glass on the ground throughout the parking lot and there was even a couple who had their car broken into with their passports stolen. We didn’t have any issues, but please be careful.
Health Warning: Don’t dip your head under the water, because there is a bacteria in the water that can get into your system.
Less than a mile down the road from the Kerosene Creek turn off, is the Geothermal wonderland of Wai-O-Tapu. Walk along trails and boardwalks and witness the multi-colored hot pools and other volcanic activity like the Lady Knox Geyser which goes off every day around 10:15 a.m. Check out prices and review on TripAdvisor.
Once you get into Lake Taupo, be sure to head to the iSite (visitor center) and book the Tongariro shuttle for Day 13 (more on that later) or you can book a two-way shuttle online here.
Where to Eat in Lake Taupo: Surprise, surprise, we recommend a craft brewery! Grab a beer at the BierKAFE @ Crafty Trout Brewery. They serve a big selection of hearty meals and tasty beers to pair.
Where to Stay: Taupo All Seasons Holiday Park - It has good reviews and is in the city, but it is a bit expensive.
There is a free campsite with portable toilets near Huka Falls called Reid’s Farm Recreation Reserve. It can get a little muddy and has the reputation of as a party campsite, but we also saw children there. Be sure to get there early as it fills up fast.
Day 12: Taupo
Day at a glance: Explore things to do around Lake Taupo and then head down to the freedom camping spot near Tongariro.
Total driving time: 1.5 hour | Distance: 100 km (62 miles)
Things to Do in Lake Taupo
Lake Taupo, like Rotorua or Queenstown in the south island, is another city where you can do just about everything you can think of when it comes to adventure activities. Skydiving, bungy jumping, jet boats, mountain biking, or sailing all can be booked in or around Lake Taupo. If you have the money, be my guest and do all of the above. But for the rest of us and traveling New Zealand on a budget, you might want to pick one, maybe two.
Sailboat tour to the Maori Carvings
Ride in an yacht on Lake Taupo and get up close and personal with possibly the largest Maori rock carvings. Tour is available to run all year long. Check out prices and reviews here.
As the Waikato River drains Lake Taupo, the water funnels into a narrow canyon at some points only 15 meters wide. The rushing water turns bright blue and ends with heavy pressure waterfall. You can drive to the car park and walk around the park on either side of the river (car park closes and locks up at 5:30 p.m. SHARP and 6 p.m. in the summer)
If you want more action in your day, you could book the Huka Falls Jet Boat tour that will send you flying through the turns of the Waikato River up to the big Huka Falls waterfall. Tour prices and reviews here.
Over the same Waikato River, you can strap up, walk to the edge and bungey. If you want, they can even adjust the cord you so dip a bit in the water! Check out Taupo Bungy.
There are plenty of trails around Lake Taupo. You could take an easy out and back ride along the east side of the lake. If you want a harder challenge, you can trail bike from the city to Huka Falls. Or if you want to be out all day on the hills, go visit Craters of the Moon Bike Park.
After such an action packed day, the best way to wind down is to hit up a local hotspot, literally. Spa Park Hot Pools is a little stream that flows into the Waikato River just a little after Taupo Bungy. Park at Spa Thermal Park car park and walk down the path to the river. There are bathrooms and changing rooms on-site as well.
Health Warning: Do not put your head underwater, because there is a bacteria in the water that can get in your system.
Prepare for Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Tonight you will want to get as close to the Tongariro Mountain Crossing Parking Lot as you can to minimize your drive time in the morning. Before you leave Taupo, be sure to stock up on snack and water for the Tongariro hike tomorrow. There is a grocery store in Turangi, but you’ll have more choices in Taupo. Also, double check you have your shuttle tickets.
Where to Stay: There is a cluster of DOC Freedom campsites in the Kaimanawa Forest Park, just about 3 km off of Hwy 1. Try to get there about an hour or so before sunset so you can find a good spot. You’ll be able to see the campsite on the Rankers App. They are called:
They are all very similar: dirt parking lot, drop toilet, no lights. People will show up later in the night, so make sure you are not blocked in when you go to sleep.
Day 13: Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Day at a glance: Hike 6-8 hours across the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Total driving time: 1.5 hour | Distance: 100 km (62 miles)
What to know before you hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing:
This hike should only be attempted between the dates of New Zealand Labour Day weekend in October to April 30th. Other times of the year there is a serious risk of avalanche, sub-zero temps and snow and ice.
The hike is only a one-way trek, starting at Mangatepopo and ends at the Ketetahi Car park.
There is a 4-hour parking limit on the any vehicles at the Mangatepopo Starting Point car park. This is why people have to use a shuttle service.
With the shuttle service, like Tongariro Expeditions, park your campervan/car in the parking lot north of Hwy 46 near the finish line.
You will have to book this service a few days in advance, possibly a week ahead during the busy season.
There are two-way shuttles from Taraungi or Taupo and you can book online here.
One-way shuttles leave from the car park at 5:30, 6:30, 7:30, 8:30, 9:30am. Get to the car park at least 15 minutes early. (We took the 7:30 a.m. shuttle and it was nice) There are no signs for parking lot, but you’ll see a bunch of people and cars.
The toilet in the car park wasn’t working when we were there and the woods was clearly used by loads of people.
The shuttle bus was large. We drove 15 minutes on paved road and then another 15-20 on gravel.
Do not poop on the mountain (You might giggle at this, but you’ll see the toilet lines and you’ll understand). This area is considered a sacred area to the Maori and you should respect their culture. Please use the toilets on the trail.
No loud music
No flying drones - Ben was pretty bummed by this, but with amount of people we understand why.
New Zealand Emergency Number: 111
What to pack on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing:
3 liters of water per person, a CamelBak is helpful to store water
Waterproof rain jacket and layers
Bag for rubbish
Lunch and snacks
How busy is Tongariro?
This trek is SUPER busy. You will always have people ahead of you and people behind you. It’s just that popular of a trail.
At first I was getting annoyed by all the people around me, especially the ones in jeans and platform shoes (yeah, we saw that). But then after a while, I started thinking that it’s pretty amazing that all these people have the opportunity to be out in nature.
I do think the trail was a bit over capacity but it is inspiring to see people from all walks of life come together to tackle something together.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing Route
This is a long hike, folks, so get ready for a hard, but rewarding day. We’ve broken down each section of the trail into manageable sections.
Mangatepopo to Soda Springs - 1 hour easy walk
There are toilets at the start of Mangatepopo, but there is a second toilet about 2 km into the hike.
Soda Springs is a pretty neat waterfall that you can get close up to.
Soda Springs to South Crater - 1 hour hard ascent
Also known a Devil’s Staircase. It’s a series of steps up to the top of South Crater. Stay hydrated.
There are toilets at the top of the stairs.
South Crater to the base of Red Crater - 15 minutes easy flat walk
Mt. Ngauruhoe will be in full view to your south.
IF THERE IS BAD WEATHER: This is your turnaround point. Call your shuttle service to pick you up at the start.
Red Crater Base to Red Crater Ridge - 15-30 minutes hard ascent
Stay on the track and keep your distance from the edge. The wind gusts can be quite strong at the top.
View of Red Crater to you east.
Red Crater Summit to Emerald Lakes - 15 minutes medium hard descent
The scree is difficult to walk down on. Try your best not to accelerate erosion and walk lightly. For best balance, lead with you heal as you step forward.
Emerald Lakes is a great spot to have lunch. Make sure to reapply sunscreen before you sit down.
On a clear day, you can have coast to coast views.
Emerald Lakes to Blue Lake - 20 minutes easy descent
You’ll be walking in the flat part of the Central Crater, then a little uphill to Blue Lake.
There are toilets on the west side of Blue Lake
Blue Lake to Ketetahi Shelter - 1 hour easy descent
You should try to use the toilet because you’ll have a long 2 hours ahead of you.
Ketetahi Shelter to Tongariro Shuttle Car Park - 2 hours long descent
On a clear day, you’ll have great views of Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo.
Stay on the trail. DO NOT be the jerk who cuts corners on switchbacks (your momma taught you better than that). This will cause long-term damage to the local plant life.
Congratulations! You completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing! Make sure to stretch your legs and back before you hop back into your campervan.
If you’re heading back up north to Auckland, there is a nice campground to visit after Tongariro called Taumarunui Holiday Park run by a lovely couple.
Note: Return to Auckland if you need to drop off your campervan in Auckland. However if you are continuing on to the South Island, continue following this North Island itinerary down to Wellington, and try to get as far south as you can.
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Foxton Top 10 Holiday Park - only two hour away from Welly and a really nice holiday park with a beach nearby. But the town of Foxton is nothing to call home about, but they have nice showers which you’ll need after a long day hike.
Day 14: Wellington
Day at a glance: Drive to Welly and explore all the things to do in the capital city.
Total driving time: 1.5 hour | Distance: 120 km (75 miles)
“Don’t miss Wellington!”
We got a handful of messages with sentiments like this, and we ended up being really happy we added New Zealand’s capital city to our itinerary!
Wellington has a great selection of food, craft beer and green space, and it is one of the more affordable Kiwi cities. With just over 200,000 people, it is a small big city (or a big small city!), and has a vibe that is hard not to love.
Wellington is well worth a day (or a few) on your trip to New Zealand.
Things to do in Wellington:
Te Papa Museum
Mount Victoria Lookout
Wellington Botanical Gardens
But that’s not all! We’ve put together a long list of cheap and free things to do in Wellington that you won’t want to miss.
Going to the South Island:
Ferry to south island leaves from the Wharf Downtown, but the two main companies have separate ports so make sure you go to the correct one. The ferry ride itself is nice, but we thought it wasn’t anything special. The best part was drifting past the tiny islands close to Picton on the south island.
Interislander Cook Strait Ferry
Port address: Wellington Ferry Terminal 1 Aotea Quay, Pipitea, Wellington 6011, New Zealand
Ferries tend to fill up fast. Make sure to book a few days in advance and at least 1 week ahead of time during peak season (Dec-Feb). Book your tickets here.
Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferry
Equally as good ferry. They play movies and have “WiFi” you can connect to. Check out reviews here.
Port address: 50 Waterloo Quay, Pipitea, Wellington 6011, New Zealand
We want to hear from you!
What do you think about our 2-week North Island New Zealand Itinerary? What would you add? What were you surprised about? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll respond to your questions.