Thinking about flying into Auckland near the top of New Zealand’s North Island? Only have a short amount of time to spend traveling New Zealand? Maybe you’re flying out of Wellington or from somewhere on the South Island and need to plan out your itinerary to get you there from Auckland.
You deserve to see awesome things no matter how much or how little time you have!
Luckily, my best friend and I did all of the following (and more!) on a road trip from Auckland to Wellington in just 10 days. It’s perfect for someone looking to get a good taste of New Zealand on a time budget. Included are some tourist favorites as well as some spots requiring a bit of deviation.
Karangahake mining and railway tunnel hike
First of all, get out of Auckland pronto. New Zealand’s most populated city diverges from the rest of the country. To see the real New Zealand, start by heading southeast.
After couple hours’ drive from Auckland along Rte. 2, stop at Karangahake for a unique hike along the Ohinemuri River to discover the remains of New Zealand’s old gold mining industry.
One trail option leads back to Victoria Battery—an old gold-extraction site. We had fun exploring the rusty materials and concrete remains spread across a field of wild flowers.
On the way back, cross the river to head down the railway tunnel loop—the 1100 meters through the tunnel feels like forever and is a bit creepy! A flashlight or headlamp is definitely useful here!
Rafting down waterfalls in Rotorua
Rotorua Rafting company took us on a stomach dropping ride down the Kaituna River over Okere Falls—the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. The river is known to offer some of the best rapids for kayaking and rafting on Earth.
Here we are (at the front!) going down the the river:
To calm our nerves, we drove just down the road to a viewpoint where we could climb out and picnic on the rocks next to the river.
There, we caught other rafters and kayakers making their way down the rapids. We were lucky enough to catch a kayaking relay while visiting. I can’t believe some of these kayakers—they were crazy and incredibly skilled!
Kerosene creek free hot springs
South of Rotorua, head toward Taupo on Rte. 5 and come to Old Waiutapo Rd on the left shortly after the Rte. 38 turnoff. Follow the very rough gravel road in until you come to a clearing with a DOC sign on the right, a toilet on the left, and a gate ahead blocking you from going further.
Walk down the path next to the sign and follow the steaming creek about 500m to a large waterfall and shallow pool perfect for sitting. There are carved steps leading down into the pool and the bottom is full of loose sand. Natural exfoliation!
Apparently you can free camp here. It’s a little smelly but worth it for an early dip before the morning rush (people start arriving by 9AM).
Tongariro National Park crossing
The views from the walk in Tongariro National Park are some of the most spectacular on the entire north island. But do not underestimate the challenge of this walk especially if you are not used to hiking or regular physical fitness. My best advice is to come prepared with broken-in hiking boots and hiking poles or a hiking stick. Also, do not do the hike unless the weather report is clear, sunny, and low winds. Check the weather at metservice.co.nz to plan ahead.
The 19.6 km walk will take you the whole day, so start early. You’ll walk next to Mt. Ngauruhoe to the summit of the Red Crater and down the other side to view the gorgeous Emerald Lakes.
Different from when I did the Tongariro Northern Circuit, the crossing took us across the park over to the Blue Lake—an unbelievably large crater filled with crystal blue water.
We then followed a cliff ledge and walked down into the valley on the other side where we could see the highly active Te Maari crater.
The walk seemed to go forever from here down many stairs and then through native bush and finally out to the parking lot on the other side. There you can catch or book a ride back to your car (at the Mangetepopo car park) or hitch a ride with a fellow hiker!
East coast camping
First, find out more about renting a car and/or getting your hands on some camping gear from my previous post. Camping allows you to see and experience New Zealand first-hand and the way many locals like to spend their holidays, too! Although I write about how to do it on a budget, camping can be as luxurious and expensive or as simple and inexpensive as you want it to be.
Two of my favorite camping spots on the North Island are located on the East Coast just North of Napier and South of Hastings. North of Napier is the Waikare River Mouth campsite where many locals and travelers go to swim, hike, and fish. The part I loved best, however, was the hike up the hills along the river out to the ocean. The views are stunning.
South of Hastings in the small town of Porangahau is the Te Paerahi Beach camp. There is a small, quiet plot of land with simple bathrooms and sinks on site. Access to the sandy beach is steps away making for an amazing sunrise view just before breakfast!
And it does not disappoint on the sunset view either…
Erin and I were lucky enough to catch a sunset rainbow at the beach on the night we stayed. I visited on two separate occasions—the place was consistently gorgeous!
Gravity Canyon giant swing
If white water rafting wasn't enough, just south of Taihape is the perfect outlet for your adrenaline-seeking needs: Gravity Canyon. This gorgeous spot hidden away on a side road near farmland is where you can experience the feel of Queenstown (known for its activities for adventurous types) without making the trip there all the way on the South Island.
We went with the giant swing so we could go together and because their bungee jump was down for maintenance. Instead, we were dropped on a 50m free fall and then swung out across the canyon over the river and back. Just awesome!
Farm animals and real fruit ice cream
On your way down Rte. 2 along the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail sits the “Wee Red Barn" near Opaki. We stopped for a visit with some farm animals and for some real fruit ice cream. Nom!
Real fruit ice cream is a treat you’ll see advertised on road sides all over New Zealand. But what made our visit extra special was asking the owner if we could meet the pigs out back. He was nice enough to show us through the gates to get up close and personal with these enormous, smart, and stinky animals!
Glow worm caves off the beaten path
The Ruakokoputuna Cave is probably not the one you’ve heard of in New Zealand when inquiring about glow worms. Far from the costly and famous Waitoma caves, Ruakokoputuna’s glow worm’s are south of Martinborough on the McAvoy family farm.
Grab a headlamp and some water shoes and call the McAvoy family at 06306979 to request permission to drive across their land to the cave entrance. Meet the family at their house and they will give you directions through the farm gates out to where the caves are located. You will not be disappointed. These are full on glow worm caves and all you have to do is give a small donation to the family thanking them for sharing the caves with travelers.
The McAvoy house off the gravel Ruakokoputuna Road is decorated with beautiful gardens and Buddha statues at the front—you can’t miss it!
You will gain permission to open and close two gates as you drive through pastures across their farm out to the caves. After passing the second gate (and many sheep), you’ll come to a small valley with a sign pointing down toward a stream, “Glow Worm Caves.” Walk down the hill and enter on the left. The deepest part of the cave is at the start of it.
Here are some photos just barely grasping the magic of the cave once you turn off your headlamp and your eyes adjust to the darkness. Look up and you'll seen pinpoints of bioluminescence dotting the crevices of the cave above.
The cave has a neat Maori wood carving inside – a surprise about ¾ of the way through.
On the other side of the cave, emerge into a narrow canyon covered in beautiful green moss. This was an unexpected treat after the already exciting glow worm show.
Totally worth the adventure getting to this off the beaten path location!
Kaitoke Regional Park jungle walk
Head to Kaitoke Regional Park on your way to Wellington so you can check out a short, informative native bush walk. Follow signs for “Rivendell.” Yes, nearby is also the location of the filming for the Elf city, but take a moment to walk from the parking lot across a wire bridge to a different part of the park.
On the other side is a 15 minute loop walk with native bush and a bit of education about the trees and plants growing in this protected tropical forest.
With all the vines hanging about, I had to try my best impression of Tarzan here! Not sure if I succeeded...
Mt Victoria lookout in Wellington
Once in Wellington, make sure you’ve left enough time to wander out of the city center up the hill to the East. You’ll walk up Mt. Victoria through a forested park. Lord of the Rings fans will be surprised to know many scenes were filmed in this small park so close to the city. Try to spot them on the way up (or just follow the signs!).
The real treat, however, is the lookout at the top. Up there, I could gaze out at the bay, watch planes make their wind-shaken landing into the airport, and admire all of the surrounding hills dotted with colorful houses. The capitol city itself is surprisingly small but bright with its predominantly white buildings. It’s a beautiful sight at any time of day, but go at sunset to watch the city light up!
I really loved making this trip with my best friend down to Wellington. It was great having her visit me here for a whirlwind 10 days of awesome sights and activities and, of course, bonding between friends.
If there is one final piece of advice I could give for those on a similar trip, it would be this: Be sure to leave early and allow enough time between destinations because farm animals on New Zealand roads are a very common experience!