New Zealand is the perfect road trip destination offering up volcanoes, black sand beaches, moody forests, thermal pools, picturesque tarns, rugged ridgelines, turquoise lakes, clay cliffs and glaciers.
Together with a couple of newfound road trip buddies, I ventured across the North and South Islands in search of some of the best and unique landscapes New Zealand has to offer. Here’s a look at my 3-week itinerary to help you plan your own island road trip.
Recommended time: 2-3 days
If you start your road trip on the North Island, you’ll most likely start in Auckland. From here, you can head east to the Coromandel Coast or south to Rotorua. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to get to the Coromandel Coast so started my road trip by heading down to Rotorua.
Rotorua smells like rotten eggs but that’s because it’s surrounded by a very active geothermal area. There’s a range of geothermal areas you can pay to visit or if you just want to get a quick look for free, you can roam through the Kairua Thermal Park near Lake Rotorua.
I only went to a couple of geothermal areas and I would recommend seeing both. Not far from Rotorua is the Waimangu Volcanic Valley geothermal area. Entry is $44 per person. You can do a self-guided walk passing crater lakes and hot springs. The return walk takes about 2 hours.
Further afield, Craters of the Moon geothermal area is located between Rotorua and Lake Taupo and is a five minute drive from Haka Falls, which is also worth a look. Entry to Craters of the Moon is $10 per person. Haka Falls is free.
You can also do the Redwood Treewalk in Rotorua ($37 per person), or the Kerosene Creek natural hot spring located off Old Waiotapu Road, located about a 30 minute drive from Rotorua.
Turangi & Tongariro National Park
Recommended time: 3 days
Turangi is the perfect base to explore the Tongariro National Park, which is home to volcanoes, lakes and waterfalls.
There’s a number of hikes in the park but the most famous one is the 20-kilometre Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This hike was the most memorable hike of my trip to New Zealand – partly due to the landscapes, but also because my hiking buddies and I walked through some very bad weather to complete the hike!
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing takes you across volcanic terrain, but you need to be prepared for wild weather. Despite a fairly favourable forecast at the start of the day, my hiking buddies and I ended up being hit by stinging rain, wind and little to zero visibility. The hike itself wasn’t too hard but the conditions made it difficult and uncomfortable. We barely stopped walking the whole hike as it was too cold, exposed and wet to stop – we just wanted to get out of the elements as fast as possible. Luckily we did get to see some views at the start of the hike before the rain set in but never saw the Red Crater and only got a hazy glimpse of the lakes through the fog and rain. You win some, you lose some! But it was still worth doing.
If you get luckier than me and get good weather, then you’re sure to enjoy the volcanic landscapes.
No matter the weather forecast, you need to be prepared for poor conditions as the weather can change quickly. Essentials include a rainjacket, warm clothing, gloves and good hiking boots.
The hike takes about 6-8 hours to complete depending on experience, fitness and weather conditions.
Another hike in the park is the hike to Taranaki Falls and the Lower and Upper Tama Lakes. The hike to the waterfall takes about two hours return, or you can then continue onto the Tama Lakes. The return hike to the lakes takes about six hours return.
Recommended time: 3 days
From Turangi, head over to the New Plymouth region to check out Mt Taranaki. Mt Taranaki dominates the landscape as you near New Plymouth, which serves as a good base to explore the region and Egmont National Park.
There are multiple hiking trails at the base of Mt Taranaki and even to the summit of the volcano in the summer months, with hikes starting from various points. Mt Taranaki consists of several sections, spread across the base of the volcano.
The North Egmont section of Egmont National Park is closest to New Plymouth. From the Visitor Centre, you can hike up a number of small trails, head for Holly Hut or reach the summit (only for the very experienced hiker). A beautiful trail is the Veronica Loop track, which offers some good viewpoints as well as an enchanting forest.
You can also choose to hike to the Pouakai Reflective Tarn from the carpark at the end of Mangorei Road. The Mangorei Track takes you up to Pouakai Hut and then onto the tarn. On a clear day, you can get a great reflection in the tarn of Mt Taranaki looming above. The hike itself up to the tarn was actually my favourite part as it weaves up through a moody, mossy forest. Be warned though – there’s hundreds of steps to reach the tarn. The return hike takes about 4-5 hours.
On the other side of Mt Taranaki is the Dawson Falls section. Again, there’s multiple trails to choose from at this starting point. My friends and I opted for the hike to Dawson Falls and to explore the so-called Goblin Forest on the Wilkies Pool and Kapuni Loop trails. It’s called the Goblin Forest because of the many moss-covered twisted trees, which are particularly moody and enchanted on a cloudy day.
Recommended time: 1 day
From New Plymouth, your next stop should be in Waitomo. It’s a very pretty drive up to Waitomo and you can opt to pay and visit the famous Waitomo Caves, or do a free version with smaller caves on the Ruakuri Bushwalk Trail. We stopped at Waitomo overnight, did the Ruakari Bushwalk Trail first up in the morning, then made our way to Raglan.
Recommended time: 2-3 days
Raglan is a favourite among surfers in New Zealand as well as anyone wanting a place to relax. From Waitomo, it’s about a 90-minute drive to the charming town of Raglan and it’s worth a short detour to Bridal Veil Falls on the way.
While in Raglan, you can just chill with a coffee or a beer, browse the second-hand bookshop, or head down for a surf at the black sand Ngarunui Beach. You can also hire a kayak or paddleboard and float in the bay, but don’t forget it’s a tidal bay that runs from the ocean so you’ll need to be aware of the tide times. Experienced kayakers can also head over to Pancake Rocks.
Recommended time: 3-4 days
The second part of my road trip itinerary took me to the South Island. I opted to fly to Queenstown from Auckland and start my journey there.
Queenstown is home to dozens of adventure activities, so you’ll never get bored. Options include skydiving, bungee jumping and white-water rafting. You can also hike up to Ben Lomond or Queenstown Hill from the town centre – or just relax by the lake with a delicious Fergburger. If you have time, day trips are also possible to Milford Sound – or you can opt to add some time in the Fjordland area to your itinerary. On the way to Milford Sound, you can visit Te Anau and its glowworm caves, as well as do some hikes located off Milford Road, such as Lake Marian and Key Summit, and photo stops at Humboldt Falls and the Mirror Lakes viewpoint.
For a relaxing and picturesque half day trip from Queenstown, one option is to head over to Glenorchy. Glenorchy is located about an hour’s drive from Queenstown, but it might take you longer to drive over there with all the photo stops. One photogenic spot is Bennetts Bluff, which takes you on a short walk to a viewpoint over Lake Wakatipu. Glenorchy itself also has postcard views, and you can take a stroll around the Glenorchy Lagoon or check out the views from the jetty.
Recommended time: 3 days
Wanaka is heaven for landscape lovers in its setting beside a beautiful lake surrounded by rugged peaks and snow-capped mountains as far as the eye can see.
Popular trails include the hikes up to Rob Roy Peak and Isthmus Peak. Rob Roy Peak was closed at the time of my visit, so I opted for the hike up to Isthmus Peak, which offers up superb views over Hawea and Wanaka lakes.
Both hikes take about 4 to 6 hours to complete. The trail itself is basically a fire trail, so it’s quite boring and exposed, but the views of the calm lake below and the snow-capped mountain beyond are worth the trek.
Haast & Franz Josef Glacier
Recommended time: 2 days
From Wanaka, head up the Haast Pass to Haast, Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier. The Haast Pass offers up several small hikes to waterfalls, such as Fantail Falls and Thunder Creek Falls. The waterfalls are signposted along the way.
It’s also worth a stop to the Blue Pools – a beautiful turquoise pool. The hike takes about an hour return from the carpark.
Heading from Haast towards Franz Josef Glacier, you can stop in at Lake Matheson and walk around the lake for panoramic views of Mt Cook.
There are also several hikes starting near the Franz Josef Glacier viewpoint. Before you enter the township, turn right onto the Franz Josef Glacier Access Road and head to the carpark at the end of the road to find the trailheads to the smaller hikes. There are also trailheads to longer hikes along this road.
Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
Recommended time: 3 days
Another must do stop on your New Zealand road trip is Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. If you’re short on time, the best bang for buck hike is the Hooker Valley trail. Hooker Valley is an out and back trail which will take about three hours return. The trail takes you into the Hooker Valley via
a series of suspension bridges, and offering up incredible views of Mt Cook and the surrounding mountains on a clear day. The hike ends at the glacial Hooker Lake.
If you’ve got more time, I recommend you head up to the Sealy Tarns. This hike takes about two to three hours return and involves hundreds of stairs, but the views are well worth the effort. In clear conditions, you will get to see the Hooker Valley from a different perspective to the Hooker Valley hike.
More adventurous and experienced hikers can head up to the photogenic Mueller Hut from Sealy Tarns if weather conditions are good. This hike is not for the faint hearted – and even in late spring, the second half of the trail can be completely covered in snow so it’s a slog to get to the hut. But the views are well worth the slog! At the time of my visit, the trail was so steep in the snow that the best way to get down was to sit down and slide!
If you plan to attempt the hike to Mueller Hut, check the weather conditions before you go and bring enough food and water as well as waterproof and warm clothing. The weather can change quickly in the mountains so be prepared for all conditions. Expect the return hike to take around six hours from the Hooker Valley carpark via Sealy Tarns, depending on weather conditions.
If you’re heading back to Queenstown after your trip to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, you can make a stop at the Omarama Clay Cliffs. Entry is $5 per car, payable by an honesty box system. It’s then a short walk to the clay cliffs.