New Zealand is an amazing place with every kind of environment imaginable. All crammed into a country whose landmass is equivalent to 60% of California. The South Island rises out of the deep cold Antarctic seas and rises through lush rainforest to snow-capped peaks. Conversely, the North Island climbs out of warm tropical waters with gorgeous white sandy beaches. Home to rolling green hills, forests capped by massive Kauri trees, and even sand dunes. However, the starkest feature found on the North Island is its iconic volcanoes. The warmth of the island can be seen steaming out of geysers and felt beneath the sand. Take on an epic road trip, driving the North Island of New Zealand and seeking out the best that this amazing country has to offer.
The South Island & Direction
This is the third part of a three-part series of road tripping the best of New Zealand. We started with some tips for traveling the island nation and then journeyed across the South Island. That journey ended by crossing the Cook Strait via a ferry from Picton. This is why we are starting this post in Wellington but you could just as easily start the trip in Auckland.
Driving the North Island of New Zealand
Recommended Time: 15 days minimum, 25 days ideal, 35 days for a more relaxing pace.
- Typical Visit: 1 -2 days
Pop Quiz! What is the capital of New Zealand? If you said Auckland you are in good company, but wrong. It is actually the town of Wellington and has been since 1865. Wellington is crammed into the southern tip of the North Island and is where the ferry from the South Island disembarks. It is also the start of our road-tripping journey across the North Island of New Zealand.
As you leave the ferry boat behind and venture into Wellington you will find an industrial city and a far cry from the small town of Picton on the other side of the Cook Strait. Wellington has a great deal to offer city dwellers and tourists alike. The city’s museum is excellent as well as the zoo, but for something uniquely New Zealand explore the Zealandia Ecosanctuary. Here you can search for protected species of birds and other wildlife including the illusive Kiwi bird.
Other Wellington highlights include taking a hike to the top of Mount Victoria for stunning views of the city perched on the bay or jumping on the historic cable car to the Botanic Garden. You can spend a few hours exploring the gorgeous gardens before hiking back down the hill or returning via the trolley. However, don’t spend too long in the city. There is so much more to be found while driving the North Island of New Zealand.
2) Putangirua Pinnacles
- Typical Visit: 2 – 3 hours
- Drive from Wellington: 2hrs, 118km (73 miles)
The otherworldy grey Putangiru Pinnacles rise up out of the often dry Putangiru streambed. Visitors are able to walk through the streambed and amongst the massive hoodoos. You can also climb to overlooks that provide a bird’s eyes view of the formations as well as the beautiful Palliser Bay.
Exploration of this unique landscape is enough reason for the Putangiru Pinnacles to make the list of the best stops on a road trip across New Zealand. However, for those who count themselves as true fans of the Lord of the Rings, the Pinnacles are a pilgrimage that must be taken. The hoodoos provided the backdrop for filming the Paths of the Dead scene from “The Return of the King.” This also has the advantage of not being a tourist stop like some of the other Lord of the Rings sites, which means you might have it all to yourself. Although if you come at night you might have to share with the dead.
3) Tongariro National Park – Driving the North Island of New Zealand
- Typical Visit: 2 – 5 days
- Drive from Putangirua Pinnacles: 5.5hrs, 378km (235 miles)
Rising to 9,177 feet, Mount Ruapehu is the highest peak on New Zealand’s North Island. The snowy terrain of this volcanic behemoth is joined by two other volcanic peaks to make up Tongariro National Park. The slopes of Mount Ruapehu and the surrounding park are covered in snow throughout the winter months making it a skiing mecca for those who call the North Island home. During the summer the terrain of the National Park is home to many great hikes, like the rugged 28-mile Great Walk known as the Tongariro Circuit.
While Ruapehu may reign supreme in elevation Mount Ngauruhoe is the star attraction. The imposing, treeless, red volcanic cone rises 7,516 feet into the air and is highlighted by red hues and colorful green pools of water. The land here literally breaths smoke. Look familiar? This intimidating mountain was featured in the Lord of the Rings movies as Mount Doom. Mount Tongariro (6,490′) completes the park’s trifecta of volcanic peaks but while the backpacking circuit bears its name, the path actually encircles Mount Ngauruhoe.
If a 28-mile backpacking trip over active volcanic terrain isn’t your cup of tea, we still highly recommend the 12-mile Tongariro Crossing to all who are physically able to take on the challenge. This is the most beautiful section of the circuit, albeit the most crowded. The landscape is arguably the most awe-inspiring and beautiful in a country that does not lack for either.
While exploring the park make sure to stop by Tawhai Falls which is a very easy 10-minute hike to a beautiful waterfall. This is also the shooting location for a scene in the Lord of the Rings with Gollum and is now often referred to as Gollum’s Pool.
4) Mount Taranaki
- Typical Visit: 1 day
- Drive from Tongariro Visitor Center: 4hrs, 247km (153 miles)
Mount Taranaki is a gorgeous stratovolcano that rises out of the nearly-flat terrain on the west side of the North Island of New Zealand. Japan’s Mount Fuji is perhaps the only volcano with a more perfectly conical shape than Mount Taranaki. While summiting the mountain is possible it is very challenging. That said, taking in its beauty is a must when driving the North Island of New Zealand. Our favorite viewpoint is found on a small rise along the north side of Lake Mangamahoe. On a calm day, the still waters reflect the often snow-capped peak adding even more beauty to the gorgeous landscape.
For those seeking a closer vantage point of the iconic volcano, there is a small reflective tarn perched on the shoulder of the adjacent peak. It is known as the Pouakai Circuit Tarn and it provides a stunning view of the volcano. Getting to the view requires a grueling climb of over 2,550 feet over 3.25 miles (one-way). The journey is a beautiful one although it has little scenic diversity. The majority of the climb is through the dense rainforest that surrounds the mountain and only emerges onto the exposed mountainside for the last mile.
5) New Plymouth
- Typical Visit: 1 day
- Drive from Taranaki Visitor Center: 1/2 hr, 28km (17.5 miles)
New Plymouth is a beautiful city wedged between Mount Taranaki and the Tasman Sea. Its laidback vibe makes it a favorite for many exploring New Zealand and a must-do when on the best road trip on the North Island. Stop here to explore the many beautiful and unique black sand beaches that line the coast. The rich black sand makes an interesting backdrop for colorful shells that wash ashore. Strolling or bike riding the 8-mile Coastal Walkway is a favorite activity for visitors and locals alike and should not be missed when visiting the city.
The entire length of the Coastal Walkway is gorgeous but make sure you seek out the Te Rewa Rewa Bridge. It is a work of art that perfectly combines function, framing the natural landscape of Mount Taranaki. For another adventure, climb to the top of the 512-foot Paritutu Rock. it provides stunning areal views of New Plymouth and the black sands of Back Beach.
6) Marokopa Falls & Natural Bridge
- Typical Visit: 1 – 2 hours
- Drive from New Plymouth: 3hrs, 163km (101 miles)
The 115-foot sheet of water that composes Marokopa Falls is beautiful as it careens over a cliffside surrounded by a dense, lush forest. It is a rewarding stop with a short and nearly flat hike to reach the waterfall’s viewpoint. However, the reason this is a part of the best road trip on the North Island is the drive itself. The most direct route from New Plymouth skirts the ocean on Highway 3 before leaving the wide lanes near the small town of Awakino. Coming from the south provides an off-the-beaten-path drive through New Zealand’s iconic rolling green pasture land.
After taking in the waterfall make a short drive east to the Natural Bridge. Here you can walk on a short 20-minute loop that leads through a natural 56-foot high stone archway.
7) Waitomo Caves– Driving the North Island of New Zealand
- Typical Visit: 2 – 4 hours
- Drive from Marokopa Falls Parking: 40 minutes, 30km (19 miles)
A worm makes for an odd tourist attraction, but trust me this will be one of your most memorable expeditions when road tripping across New Zealand. Imagine floating in a small boat across a placid river under a starry night sky. Now imagine that scene in a cave underground, only the stars are actually tiny bioluminescent creatures known as Glowworms. These tiny creatures hunt with bioluminescence and they create a star-like tapestry on the roof of an underwater river. This magical adventure awaits those who venture into the Waitomo Caves.
The only way to experience the Waitomo cave is on a Cave Tour. While we love the experience of floating under the strange creatures, the main cave is a very popular tourist attraction. It can feel over-commercialized and rushed. However, visitors to Waitomo can also do a tour of the drier Ruakuri Cave which is a beautiful system with stalagmites and stalactites as well as glowworms. Fewer people visit this cave and the pace is much slower. Cameras are encouraged and tripods are also allowed. They are prohibited in Waitomo Cave.
8) Bridal Veil Falls
- Typical Visit: 1 hour
- Drive from Waitomo Caves: 1.5hrs, 104km (65 miles)
With a 180′ plunge, Bridal Veil Falls is taller than Niagara Falls, but a far cry from the nearly 2,000′ waterfalls found on New Zealand’s South Island. Still, this waterfall plunges over the rim of a concaved cliff creating a beautiful column of water careening through the air free of the stone behind. It plunges into a large pool of water hidden amongst a lush forest. This waterfall feels more personal than most of the falls in New Zealand. The path leads to the top of the falls and then drops the 180′ to its base crossing over the pool of water via a bridge. The vantage points allow for complete immersion in the overwhelming crash of the falls.
9) Hobbiton Village
- Typical Visit: 2 – 4 hours
- Drive from Bridal Veil Falls: 1hr 45mins, 100km (62 miles)
For many Lord of the Rings fans, a stop in Hobbiton is the reason to travel to New Zealand. A visit to the Hobbiton Village is a journey to Middle-earth. The village was built for the movie on a quiet sheep farm in New Zealand’s iconic rolling pastures. This is not just a set but a full-fledged village that has been transformed into one of New Zealand’s most sought-after attractions. You can walk the roads that were strolled by Frodo and Bilbo. See the hobbit hole homes or even arrange to have a meal in the Green Dragon Inn. “The world is not in your books and maps, It is out there.” – Gandalf, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – J.R.R. Tolkien
10) Wairere Falls
- Typical Visit: 2 – 3 hours
- Drive from Hobbiton Village: 40 min, 32km (20 miles)
Dropping from a height of 502-feet, Wairer Falls is the tallest waterfall on the North Island of New Zealand. It is a wider column of water that has two tiers. Like so many of New Zealand’s waterfalls, this one is surrounded by a lush forest. It is the most challenging one on this list to take in. It requires a 3.5-mile hike that includes 1,350-feet of elevation gain. The trail is well-maintained but the footing is uneven and can be slippery. Be cautious and take it slow and anyone should be able to take in the massive waterfall.
11) Taupō Lake– Driving the North Island of New Zealand
- Typical Visit: Half – Full day
- Drive from Wairere Falls: 2hrs, 130km (81 miles)
Strolling along the shores of Taupō Lake is a tranquil experience that doesn’t feel much different than any other large lake. But this is a deceiving feeling. Taupo is the heart of the North Island of New Zealand. It is the country’s largest lake; also the country’s largest volcano. The massive 238-square-mile lake, similar to Lake Yellowstone in Wyoming, is the caldera of a supervolcano. While the lake today seems placid, it was born of a violent eruption where the mountain imploded and fell into the depths, creating a bowl that filled with water over time.
Pouring out of the north end ofTaupō Lake is the 36-foot high Huka Falls. What it lacks in size the relatively narrow waterfall (300′ wide) makes up for in volume with an astonishing 58,500 gallons per second. That is equivalent to an Olympic-size swimming pool flowing over the falls every 11 seconds. This is the violent birth of the longest river in New Zealand—the 264-mile Waikato River.
For an experience uniquely New Zealand, check out the Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings on Lake Taupō. The largest of the modern native art carvings towers 14 meters (46′) over the lake. The only way to see them is from the water having the added benefit of getting to venture onto the surface of this supervolcano.
12) Rere Falls & Rockslide
- Typical Visit: 1 – 3 hours
- Drive from Taupō City: 6hrs, 355km (220 miles)
The next stop on the best road trip, driving the North Island of New Zealand, is a natural waterpark. Rere Falls itself is a beautiful 16′ high and 65′ wide curtain of water on the Wharekopae River. However, located a short distance upriver is a giant natural stone slide known as the Rere Rockslide. This is a free attraction with no services available so bring your own tube, boogie-board, inflatable mattress, or anything else that floats and slides. It is an exhilarating ride down the 650-foot (200 meters) long slide into the large pool below.
13) Sunrise at the East Cape Lighthouse– Driving the North Island of New Zealand
- Typical Visit: 1 – 2 hours
- Drive from Rere Falls: 4hrs, 236km (147 miles)
As lighthouses go, the East Cape Lighthouse is common with its white tower rising only 49-feet (15 meters) into the air. However, this lighthouse stands guard over the waters on the easternmost point of New Zealand’s main islands. Not only that but it is the easternmost stationary man-made object in the entire world. Due to its relation to the international dateline, this tower and the land it sits on is the first inhabited place in the world to see the rising sun each new day.
14) Whakatane & White Island Volcano
- Typical Visit: 1 – 6 hours
- Drive from East Cape Lighthouse: 3hrs 45min, 223km (138 miles)
Whakatane is officially the sunniest town in New Zealand with more days of sunshine than any other in the archipelago. The city is perched on the shore of the giant Bay of Plenty. Whakatane is also the gateway to New Zealand’s most notorious marine volcano known as White Island. Until recently tour groups traveled across the bay to traipse across the island for an up-close encounter with the caldera. However, in late 2019 the volcano erupted killing 22 people and it is no longer open to touring (at least for now). On a clear day, White Island can be seen sitting in the bay from the Whakatāne Heads location on the north side of the city. A scenic flight over the island is also available to those who seek a better vantage point of this deadly place.
15)Hot Water Beach
- Typical Visit: 2 – 4 hours
- Drive from Whakatane: 3hrs 45min, 234km (145 miles)
Picture yourself relaxing in a natural hot spring directly on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Hot Water Beach is well-named with a thermal spring that lies just below the surface of the sand. It is so close to the ocean that it is underwater and inaccessible during high tide. Come within two hours of the low tide with a shovel in hand (or rent one locally) and dig out your own pool in the sand. You will immediately know if you are in the right spot as the temperature of the spring rises to a toasty 147°F. This is a unique and extremely relaxing stop on the best road trip on the North Island of New Zealand.
The main parking lot has a fee associated with it and requires wading across the creek to the thermal spring area. Instead, park at the free middle lot we have marked on our map. Head to the beach and walk to the south where undoubtedly there will be several other people digging out their lounging pool on the edge of the ocean.
16) Cathedral Cove– Driving the North Island of New Zealand
- Typical Visit: 3 – 5 hours
- Drive from Hot Water Beach (Middle Lot): 10 mins, 8.3km (5 miles)
As we’ve seen on this epic road trip, New Zealand has no shortage of gorgeous beaches and while Hot Water Beach is very unique there is a more beautiful beach found just up the road. Cathedral Cove has soft golden sand with a giant rock arch carved by the sea. With the exception of high tide, the arch is typically accessible allowing beachgoers to stroll through it where a massive sea stack rock is revealed on the other side. It is a beautiful scene that was capitalized on by The Chronicles of Narnia which chose this location to highlight the character’s entrance to the mythical land.
Cathedral Cove Beach is popular and it can get very busy. Watching the sunrise from the remote beach is an especially beautiful and tranquil way to start a day. You might even have it all to yourself if you arrive in the pre-dawn glow. While the drive to the Cathedral Cove parking area from Hot Water Beach is a short one, getting to the cove itself requires a 1.5-mile hike (3-mile return) to reach its sandy shoreline. Make sure you keep this journey in mind if you plan to watch the sunrise.
When you leave Cathedral Cove take the north and western route over the Coromandel Pennisula on road #25. It is a gorgeous drive, the western part of which hugs the ocean in a stunning way as it snakes around the coastline.
- Typical Visit: 1 – 4 days
- Drive from Cathedral Cove via Coromandel: 4hrs, 246km (153 miles)
Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand. In fact, nearly 1/3rd of the entire country’s population resides inside the metropolis. It is a beautiful city perched on a sliver of land with two large bays on either side. The crowded city offers all the amenities of any modern metropolis with several excellent museums, a world-class aquarium, and a zoo. For amazing areal views of the city check out the 328 meters (1,076′) high Sky Tower. This is not only the tallest building in Auckland but in all of New Zealand. The tower has a 192-meter (630′) high observation deck. But this is New Zealand so why settle for walking around the sky deck when you can jump off of it in a controlled base jump known as the SkyJump?
For a less urban option hop on a ferry to either the Great Barrier Island or the Waiheke Island. Both offer a lot of remote rugged hiking trails, mountain biking, and sea kayaking. Waiheke Island is even home to some subterranean World War II passages known as the Stony Batter Tunnels which can be toured.
When you are finished exploring Auckland, head north across the massive 8-lane Auckland Harbour Bridge and onto the Northland Peninsula for the last stretch of the best road trip, driving the North Island of New Zealand. Before you head to Russell you might also consider one more thrill and leap off the deck of the 142-foot high bridge in an epic bungee jump.
18) Russell and the Bay of Islands
- Typical Visit: 2 hours – 1 day
- Drive from Auckland via Parekura Bay: 4.5hrs, 253km (157 miles)
Today the small seaside town of Russell is a quiet place boasting a small population of about 750 full-time residents. However, this quaint port tucked safely in the Bay of Islands was New Zealand’s very first capital back in 1840. Visitors can stroll the old city streets lined with unique shops and eateries. The town is also home to the oldest church, Christ Church, which was built in 1835. If you want to see the oldest building in the country stop by the Kerikeri Mission House on your way north which dates back to 1822.
The town boasts more than just history with the beautiful Bay of Islands ripe for exploration by boat, cruise, or kayak. This is also a great launching point for a deep sea fishing adventure. There is no shortage of amazing activities to be had on the water in the Bay of Islands. Flag Staff Hill also provides a great vantage point of the bay and is easy to access with a road leading to the top.
Make sure to take the scenic route to Russell through Helena and Parekura Bays. The road is curvy but a gorgeous drive with many stunning overlooks of the Bay of Islands.
19) Whangaroa and Saint Paul’s Rock
- Typical Visit: 1 – 2 hours
- Drive from Russell: 1hr 45mins, 73km (45 miles)
Above the small seaside town of Whangaroa rises a pinnacle known as Saint Paul’s Rock. The hike to the top is a verticle one of 328-feet in less than half a mile. The views from the top are simply stunning as hikers are perched with a birdseye view of the small town’s marina sheltered in the narrow Whangaroa Bay. The jagged uneven terrain of the bay is lined with sub-tropical flora as it winds its way towards the open ocean on the horizon. This is a beautiful and fairly secluded area of the country.
20) Te Paki – Giant Sand Dunes
- Typical Visit: Half a day
- Drive from Whangaroa: 2hrs 15mins, 157km (98 miles)
Thus far on this epic road trip across New Zealand, we have explored nearly every environment imaginable from sandy beaches, glacial mountains, volcanic peaks, and lush rainforests. The one thing that could be said to be missing is desert sands. But here on the northern tip of the North Island, we find the country covered in massive dunes. The Te Paki, Giant Sand Dunes rise 490 feet (150 meters) into the air and they are an amazing place to stop and do some sand surfing while on the best road trip, driving the North Island of New Zealand.
21) Cape Reinga Lighthouse– Driving the North Island of New Zealand
- Typical Visit: 30min – 1 hour
- Drive from Giant Sand Dunes: 20 mins, 19km (12 miles)
Much of the best road trip across New Zealand finds its way on and off of Highway 1 which cuts across both Islands from the town of Bluff in the south to Cape Reinga in the North. This is literally the end of the road and the north and westernmost point on the North Island. There is a short trail that leads to a small but beautiful 33-foot (10 meters) tall lighthouse perched on a cliff overlooking the Tasman Seas. Similar to the town of Bluff, there is a directional sign indicating how far away major cities are located from this geographic spot. The lighthouse is no longer manned but controlled remotely and is off-limits to visitors. However, the grounds of the lighthouse make for an amazing spot to watch as the sun sets over the ocean with unobstructed views to the west.
22) Waipoua Forest & The Giant Kauri Trees
- Typical Visit: 3 – 6 hours
- Drive from Cape Reinga Lighthouse: 4hrs, 232km (144 miles)
The last stop when driving the North Island of New Zealand leads you deep into the Waipoua Forest sanctuary. While this journey across the island nation has seen many lush forests, this is the home of the giant Kauri Tree. The oldest of the Kauri trees has stood watch here for more than 2,000 years.
It is believed that the Maori people first arrived in New Zealand between 1200 & 1300AD. Captain James Cook discovered New Zealand in 1642 setting into motion the development of modern-day New Zealand. Think about all that these Kauri trees have lived through as you stroll in their shade. These trees were born in a world of absolute human silence. They thrived here when the noise of the forest was overwhelmingly that of birds and not modern machines. These giants were ancient when mankind came to these shores and have borne witness to all of human civilization on the islands. Thanks to the protection of this forest sanctuary they will stand for many generations more.
Tane Mahuta is the largest of the living Kauri Trees. It rises to a height of 169 feet (51.5m) and has a circumference of 45 feet (13.77m). It is an easy stroll through the woods to see the undisputed king of the New Zealand forest.
Driving the North Island of New Zealand
- Drive from Waipoua Forest to Auckland Airport: 3hrs 30mins, 253km (157 miles)
It’s now time to return to Auckland and say goodbye to these magical islands. New Zealand is a place of unparalleled beauty. From sea to summit and back, this relatively small country houses some of the most diverse landscapes on the planet. After taking on the best road trip across all of New Zealand you will return home with memories that will last a lifetime. However, even though you have seen much on this journey, you will undoubtedly be haunted with a desire to return one day. New Zealand has an allure to it that beckons to the heart of all who love adventure.
“Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.” – Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring –J.R.R. Tolkien