One of the huge advantages of traveling anywhere in New Zealand is that it’s not far to travel from one amazing scenic wonder to another totally contrasting one. For example in early spring one can ski on Mount Taranaki in the morning and surf at Fitzroy Beach in the afternoon.
We asked the Travel Experts to share their best North Island road trip experiences and here they are.
In this post:
- Forgotten Highway – Stratford to Taumarunui
- Kerikeri to Cape Reinga
- Kaitaia to Auckland
- Auckland to Hobbiton and Waitomo
- Auckland to Coromandel
- Auckland to Cathedral Cove
- Auckland to Raglan
- Hamilton to Tongariro National Park
- Hawkes Bay to Auckland
- Napier to Taupo
- Hawkes Bay to Wellington
- Wellington to Castle Point
- Wellington to Auckland
Forgotten Highway – Stratford to Taumarunui
Via Toko, Whangamomona, Moki Tunnel, Tangarakau Gorge, & Mt Damper Falls
The Forgotten World Highway stretches 148 km from Stratford to Taumarunui through the backcountry that the modern world forgot. I spent two memorable days here a few Christmases ago.
As you’re driving uphill from Toko, stop and look behind you. That’s an amazing view of Taranaki right there! You shouldn’t take long to reach the postcard village of the Forgotten World: The Republic of Whangamomona, a tiny town that separated from New Zealand in 1989. It truly is a town that time forgot, so don’t expect to use your cell phone!
The pub is the heart of the nation. It acts as the Capitol Building and a place where you can learn about Whangamomona’s quirky and controversial past. Get your passport stamped or buy a local passport at the pub (proceeds go to charity) while you wet your whistle on a Whangamomona Ale (which is actually ‘imported’ from New Zealand).
Leaving Whangamomona, you will pass through the 180m Moki Tunnel, carved by pickaxes in the pioneer days. You will be greeted with the majestic Tangarakau Gorge, an area you want to explore. Fossils can be found in the Tangarakau river canyon (please don’t take!). Tangarakau is also abundant in Manuka Trees, so if you see any roadside honesty boxes, make sure you stock up on some delicious and healthy honey.
For your hiking, check out Mt Damper Falls. About half an hour off the main road, the 74m drop is worth the detour. Keep an eye out for lookouts while you drive as there are lots of short hikes just off the road. If you plan for a day hike, try the Kiwi Road to My Messenger trail. If you’re an experienced tramper looking for an overnight hike, there’s the 7-hour hike from Mt Damper Falls to the stunning Te Rerepahupahu waterfall.
Accommodation is available at the Whangamomona pub, and there are campgrounds around, including in Whangamomona and the Tangarakau. The roads are narrow, winding, and not always sealed, so drive carefully. Make sure you (ahem campervans) pull over to let people pass. Always keep an eye out for cyclists, livestock and horse riders.
By Luke from www.cultureshock-adventure.com
Kerikeri to Cape Reinga
Via 90 Mile Beach & Te Paki Sand Dunes
If you’re looking for the perfect New Zealand road trip idea, you can’t go past the iconic journey to the countries northern-most point – Cape Reinga. Many people think of Auckland as being the north of the country, but there is an entire region stretching past Auckland, bursting with natural beauty, year-round sunshine, and epic road-tripping options.
Cape Reinga is a spiritually significant place for Māori who believe this is the place where spirits leave Aotearoa (New Zealand) to return to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki. The area also boasts amazing landscapes, hiking trails, and the famous Cape Reinga lighthouse.
We made the road trip from Kerikeri, where we were based, to the far north and all the way to Cape Reinga in our camper car. This meant we could camp right near the Cape instead of having to drive back to the nearest hotel (about 50km).
The drive from Kerikeri takes about three hours without stops. We took the trip in winter which meant daylight hours were short, but even in winter Northland boasts some of the country’s warmest temperatures and it was a pleasant 18°C during the day.
Along the way you can stop at 90-Mile Beach, a huge stretch of beach which is also a legal road. Or hire a board and go dune boarding on the impressive Te Paki sand dunes. We recommend spending at least one night at one of the campgrounds near Cape Reinga to enjoy a sunset and a sunrise in this magical place.
By Rohan from Travels of a Bookpacker
Kaitaia to Auckland
Via Ahipara, Shipwreck Bay, Waipoua Forest (Largest Kauri Tree) & Dargaville
Our family of four started south from Kaitaia, a little town at the south end of 90-Mile Beach, on a two-day road trip down to Auckland. Like so many other areas of the North Island, there are an infinite number of gorgeous views to take in and hikes to explore, so this road trip could easily be spread out over three to four days.
Our family took on the North Island in a rented minivan, and a pair of tents in the middle of the New Zealand summer. Thankfully Northland is mild and enjoyable even in winter, but you will likely be avoiding tents in the offseason.
From Kaitaia, head southwest to the charming surf town of Ahipara, nestled into Shipwreck Bay. Take the time to learn about the history of Kauri gum digging in this area, and if your trip coincides with low tide, you might even see parts of the shipwrecks littering this coast. There are a few yummy cafes to grab coffee and a snack before continuing south.
Continue south, leaving the coastal views for the jungles of the Waipoua Forest. Here you will find the most awesome examples of living Kauri trees, and hopefully, learn about the current threats and efforts to preserve these incredible giants. The largest known Kauri lives in this forest, named Tane Mahuta, or The Lord of the Forest. With a short walk to Tane Mahuta’s base, you are sure to be absolutely amazed by its breathtaking presence.
From the Waipoua Forest, finish up the day in Dargaville to enjoy the restaurants, or zip over to the coast and stay at Baylys Beach. Baylys Beach Holiday Park offers a combination of small cabins or campervan spots and is a short walk to an incredible sunset along the seemingly endless beach.
Take the time for a beach walk the next morning before piling back into the car. Baylys Beach is just the tip of the 100 km long Ripiro Beach, where the wide sand flat meets steep dune cliffs for as far as the eyes can see. Watch the waves, and be amazed as cars zip down the flat beach as if it was a highway.
Navigate south to Muriwai Beach, and make sure to leave half the day for exploration. The cliffs above the beach are home to the very entertaining Gannet sea birds. The Gannets nest along these cliffs, and viewing platforms put you very close to the nesting areas. Observe tiny chicks, and watch the hysterical greeting antics when mates return to the nest from ocean foraging.
Consider staying at the Muriwai Beach Campground for the night, leaving the 45-minute drive into Auckland for the next day. The west-facing Muriwai Beach will offer another amazing sunset, complete with Gannets flying overhead! The campground has both tent and campervan sites, and a large, modern communal cooking area.
By Meredith from Chasing Abandon
Auckland to Hobbiton and Waitomo
PHOTO: THANKS JEANNINE RAPP
This is one of the most popular road trips on the North Island. The trip to Hobbiton and Waitomo Caves can be done in one day but is much more relaxing if you can take two or three days and maybe include Rotorua in your itinerary as well.
It’s 176 km from Auckland to Hobbiton and it is a couple of hours’ drive. Leave Auckland early in the morning and head out through the rolling green farmland to Hamilton. If you are on a 2-day-plus trip stop at the beautiful Hamilton Gardens and then drive on through the treelined streets of sedate Cambridge towards Matamata.
A working farm near Matamata was totally transformed into the Hobbiton movie set for the Lord of the Rings and around 600,000 people visit each year. The tour of the set takes about two hours and it is best to book in advance. A guided tour usually begins with a drive through the sheep farm and has great views across to the Kaimai Ranges and of the farm animals. You will get to see Bag End, where Frodo and Bilbo’s adventures began. You can wander among the 44 hobbit holes and visit the Green Dragon Inn, the Mill, and the Party Tree.
Lunch is available onsite at the Green Dragon Inn or the Shire’s Rest or off-site at one of the cafes in Matamata town. Waitomo is about an hour’s drive from Hobbiton. If you’ve got time the quirky town of Tirau is a 20-minute drive from Hobbiton. Tirau is home to the Instagram famous corrugated iron Big Sheep, Big Dog and Big Ram buildings. The Bugger Cafe is an interesting place for a coffee and there are some interesting antique and craft stores along the main street.
Next stop is Waitomo. It has a network of underground tunnels and caves made from amazing limestone formations and is home to hundreds of glittering glowworms. There are several caves in the area and several tours to choose from. The most popular tour involves a section of a boat ride through the caves.
Blackwater rafting is another more adrenaline-pumping activity. It takes you 80-meters below ground, where you raft in tubes through underground rapids, jump off waterfalls and float under a sky of glow worms. An unforgettable experience and a great road trip.
Auckland to Coromandel
PHOTO: Thanks Steve & Jem Copley- Wikimedia
The round trip from Auckland to Coromandel is certainly one of our favourite road trips! Allow three days to a week if you can. Leave Auckland and head off to the scenic Shore Bird Coast and enjoy some fish ‘n’ chips and check out the pottery and crafts in Kaiaua. Have a soak in the hot springs at Miranda. There’s also fishing if you’ve got time and world-renowned bird watching with views across the water to the Firth of Thames and the Coromandel Ranges.
Drive across the flat, fertile farmland of the Hauraki Plains to the historical town of Thames. Thames has an interesting Museum and School of Mines and a great street market if you’re there on a Saturday morning. Head over the twisting hilly Kopu Hikuai road to the east coast. There are a choice of great beaches here if you have time to stop- Whangamata, Pauanui and Tairua to mention a few. Don’t miss Hot Water Beach where you can dig your own hot water spa in the sand at low tide. A little further north is the very beautiful Cathedral Cove. It’s only accessible by an hours walk or kayak or boat ride. but well worth the trip.
Whitianga is the largest town on this side of the Coromandel and a good base for exploring many more stunning beaches and bush walks. New Chums Beach has been declared one of the world’s top ten beaches so well worth a visit to check it out for yourself.
Head on back over the Coromandel Ranges to the historic old gold mining town of Coromandel. Do visit the Driving Creek Railway and enjoy some fresh mussels while you’re in town. Finally follow the winding scenic coastal road back to Thames and your return to Auckland.
Auckland to Cathedral Cove
Via Cathedral Cove & The Pinnacles
A road trip from Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand to the Coromandel Peninsula, is one of the best road trips on the North Island. While visitors can get to Coromandel by ferry or bus, there’s nothing like a 2-hour road trip through the countryside where you will be able to see the rugged mountains, and waterfalls amid lush hills.
Coromandel Town is a perfect place to start your adventure. Here you can find plenty of accommodation and eateries before you venture to explore the Coromandel Peninsula. I visited this magical place in late February which is the end of the summer season in the Southern Hemisphere, and the weather was perfect for outdoor activities!
The peninsula stretches for 85 kilometers and boasts lush rainforests, pristine beaches, and small historical towns. Whether you want to relax on the beach, hop on your surfboard and catch a wave, hike scenic trails, or cruise along the coastline on your bike – the Coromandel Peninsula has it all!
Here you can also find many natural wonders such as Cathedral Cove – a giant rock in the middle of the sea that often appears in photos framed by the nearby cove. However, it’s not just the rock that makes this place worth a visit. The entire Cathedral Cove beach is gorgeous and worth your time! If you want to enjoy it before other beachgoers arrive, get here early in the morning.
Want to try a cool hike? Make the trek to The Pinnacles in Coromandel for incredible views and great exercise. Allow 8 hours for a round trip or it can also be done as an overnight staying at the Pinnacles Hut. It is an approx three-hour walk to the Pinnacles Hut and a two-hour return trip to the Pinnacles from the hut.
By Daria from the Discovery Nut
Auckland to Raglan
Via Hamilton, Kariori Volcano, Bridal Veil Falls, Whatawhata, & Ngaruawahia
One of my favourite road trips in the North Island of New Zealand would have to be the quintessential weekend hop from Auckland to Raglan, via Hamilton of course! It is only around 2 -3 hours depending on traffic (170 kilometers), but you get to leave the big smoke of Auckland and explore the mighty Waikato, see lush farms, and explore bohemian Raglan. The trip used to be longer, but the new Huntly by-pass has now made it shorter.
When I do it, I am travelling by car and make stops in Hamilton for three things: ice cream at Duck Island, a whip around the fabulous Hamilton Gardens, and a cafe brunch. Seriously, Hamilton has such fantastic cafes.
You might also want to grab any supplies here as Raglan only has a small supermarket, and if you are staying in an Airbnb like we were, you can find yourself quite far from supplies. There are a few restaurants and small motels, but your accommodation choice is far more limited than Queen St in Auckland.
Once you get to Raglan (passing gorgeous windmills on the way and plenty of green farmland) you have plenty more to do. You can drive around the coastline and Karioi volcano. The views are amazing, You can take a short hike to the amazing Bridal Veil Falls. There are plenty of interesting beaches to explore like the bizarre black-sand Ngarunui, which is suitable for both surfers and swimming.
Raglan is excellent in all seasons, but beautiful weather and the warmth of summer help. You could go there and back in one day, but I recommend to stay overnight and drive around Karioi volcano on the second day before heading back to Auckland.
On your return, its fast to take the ‘backroads’ of State Highway 23 to Whatawhata, then State highway 39 to Ngaruawahia where you’ll meet back up with State Highway 1. This also gives you a more varied trip and a look at a bit of ‘old world’ New Zealand.
By Jordan Adkins from “This Is Auckland.”
Hamilton to Tongariro National Park
Via Taupo, Huka Falls, Waikato River, Chateau Tongariro
If you are looking for the perfect winter road trip in New Zealand, look no further than the epic drive from Hamilton to Tongariro National Park! This journey is the ultimate roadie with your mates. Pack the car with your winter woollies, favourite snacks and road trip tunes!
There are a few different routes you can take to reach Tongariro National Park from Hamilton, but the most scenic is via Taupo. The drive will take around three hours, making this trip ideal for a long weekend away or you could extend your getaway with a couple of extra nights exploring Taupo.
You will find one of the highlights stops along the way located just outside of Taupo. Huka Falls is a group of stunning waterfalls rushing along the Waikato River – the force of the water here is incredible and popular with locals and tourists alike. Make a quick photo stop or stay longer and enjoy a leisurely walk.
The Waikato River also flows through Hamilton, with the city being built up around it! Before leaving Hamilton make sure you take a walk along one of the peaceful river tracks or grab a bite to eat at one of the trendy eateries at Victoria on the River.
Once you reach Tongariro National Park there are plenty of activities to keep you busy! One of the most popular is the Tongariro Crossing – not for the faint-hearted, this 19.4km track takes around eight hours to complete and requires a good level of fitness. It’s definitely a bucket-list item for many hikers visiting New Zealand and for good reason – you will feel like you are on another planet!
If you feel like doing something a little less extreme, nearby you will find the much easier Taranaki Falls Track, which only takes two hour or 6km to complete. With equally stunning views you won’t want to miss this one.
After all that driving and walking, the perfect place to rest is the elegant Chateau Tongariro. Stop in for a delicious High Tea or book one of the cosy rooms and enjoy the rest of your stay by the fireplace.
By Emma from Daydream Believer
Hawkes Bay to Auckland
Via Rotorua, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland & Hobbiton
New Zealand is the perfect place for a road trip, especially on the North Island. One of the best road trips to take on the North Island is from Hawke’s Bay to Auckland. There are seriously, a ton of places to stop along the way. I recommend taking a car and staying at hotels or Airbnbs. Although it could be done in a day, plan to spend at least 4 days completing this road trip, and more if you have the time. This trip could be done with families or by yourself, but it is best completed as a couple.
Start your road trip in Hawke’s Bay and plan to spend at least one night here. This town is located on the eastern side of the North Island and is a popular wine tasting spot with amazing coastline views. I recommend stopping at Linden Estate and Te Awa Winery to try some of the best wines in New Zealand.
From Hawkes Bay, head to Rotorua. Along the way, grab some lunch at the world’s coolest McDonald’s, where you can eat in a full-size airplane. After that, head to the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland to see some cool formations in an active geothermal area. Then, spend the afternoon relaxing at a hot spring such as Waikite Thermal Pools or the Polynesian Spa. =
Rotorua offers a ton of cool things to do as well. Grab dinner at Atticus Finch at the food alley and then head to the Redwoods Tree Walk by night. The Skyline Rotorua is also fun.
Depart Rotorua for Auckland. On the way, stop at Hobbiton, the site of some of the filming of the Hobbit movies. Once in Auckland, plan to spend at least two days exploring the largest city in New Zealand. Highlights include the Auckland Zoo, Auckland War Memorial and Museum, Domain Wintergardens, and Mount Eden.
By Francesca from Homeroom Travel
Napier to Taupo
Via Aratiatia Rapids & Huka Falls
When traveling New Zealand in a campervan, one of our favourite road trips on the North Island was the scenic route between Napier and Taupo. Located on the coast, Napier is a picturesque town famed for its Art Deco buildings. Taupo on the other hand is located inland and is home to New Zealand’s largest lake.
It takes just 2 hours along the Thermal Explorer Highway to reach Taupo. The thermal explorer highway earns its name from the epic scenery that this route passes through, including geothermal landscape, natural springs, and snowy capped volcanoes.
During the drive from Napier to Taupo, there are two popular stops that we recommend in particular- Aratiatia Rapids and Huka Falls. Aratiatia Rapids are located 13km from Taupo and are a free attraction that all ages can enjoy. Visitors can admire the epic dam gates open from the Aratiatia Bridge as 80,000 liters of water is released PER SECOND.
You will need to time your road trip accordingly in order to witness the rapids as the dam gates are only opened at select times of day, depending on the season. Between October to March this is 10:00am, 12:00pm, 2:00pm and 4:00pm, whereas in Winter (between April and September) this is 10:00am, 12:00pm, 2:00pm.
If you find that impressive, head just 10 minutes drive along the road to Huka Falls, where you will likely hear the roar of the falls as soon as you park up. Here, you can witness up to 220,000 liters of water per second plummet 11 meters down into the Waikato River. Although our road trip was in summer, the falls were spectacular, as the area had just experienced particularly heavy rain.
Many people stick to the coast or only visit the major tourist attractions when travelling in New Zealand, but we really feel this detour inland is worthwhile, as nothing can prepare you for the mind-blowing natural phenomenons you will find on route.
By Darren & Lauren from Team Faramagan
Hawkes Bay to Wellington
Via Te Mata Peak & Castle Point
One of my favourite road trips in the North Island was along the east coast from Hawkes Bay to Wellington. I was travelling by van (my converted Nissan Vanette) and had many opportunities to park up at beachside campsites and experience million-dollar views without the price tag. My partner and I were travelling for 6 weeks around the North Island in summer and this leg was the last part of the journey. Safe to say it didn’t disappoint!
Exploring Hawkes Bay in and of itself is an awesome thing to do. We really enjoyed parking up and camping out on the beach in Clifton, just a short drive from numerous wineries. As well as driving into Napier City to enjoy the art deco buildings and vintage op shops. Climbing Te Mata peak is also another highlight where you get to see a panoramic vista of the whole Hawkes Bay region.
We spent 2 nights in Napier/Hastings and then drove South to Castle Point (one of the highlights of the trip). Along the way, we stopped at the Pukaha National Wildlife Centre and visited a white kiwi! We also saw a bunch of cheeky keas and watched an eel feeding. We spent a lazy two nights at Castle Point before driving south to Wellington. I highly recommend staying at Castlepoint Holiday Park and Motels for an epic ocean view and to enjoy waking up to the sounds of the waves. A total of 5 nights were spent exploring the East Coast and we could have slowed the trip down.
My tip for you to find campsites and everything you need while on a road trip is to use the app Campermate. We found everything we needed with it! Including toilets, water, dump station, accommodation and even activities! It is a lifesaver and a perfect travel companion. Enjoy your trip!
Wellington to Castle Point
Via Lake Wairarapa, Putangirua Pinnacles (Lord of The Rings) Cape Palliser, & Castle Lighthouse
A road trip from Wellington to Castlepoint is generally not one that gets advertised much in New Zealand, but if we think it is one of the best road trips you can do. Why? Because you only need one or two days for this road trip, and the scenery is nothing short of incredible!
Driving directly from Wellington to Castlepoint takes you 2.5 hours, but a road trip wouldn’t be a road trip if there weren’t any stops along the way. So instead of driving straight to Castlepoint, there is a bit of a detour to take.
Start driving in the early morning and make your first stop on the northern shore of Lake Wairarapa. This peaceful lake is the third biggest on the North Island, and it is a great spot to sit by the water and have a snack. The most remarkable thing about this lake isn’t its big size, but the fact that at its deepest point, it is only 2.5 meters deep.
From Lake Wairarapa, drive further down to the Putangirua Pinnacles. These awesome and otherwordly looking gravel rock formations are millions of years old, and you can walk in between them. A two-hour loop track takes you up to a platform overlooking the valley with the pinnacles rising up on both sides and then takes you down to explore the narrow crevices in between these massive rock formations. If you’re a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies, you’ll easily recognise that this is where the Dimholt Road was filmed.
Since you’re already down here, you might as well check out Cape Palliser, the North Island’s southernmost point. Here a lighthouse silently watches over the cape, gazing towards the South Island, and there is a super cute seal colony between the rocks by the water.
Now it is time to make your way to Castlepoint, the cherry on today’s cake. As soon as you reach the coast here, the picturesque Castle Lighthouse standing on its rocky outcrop immediately draws your attention. Don’t get too distracted by the lighthouse though, because there is more to see. Follow the wide sandy beach to the other side of the lagoon and climb Castle Rock. This 162-meter high cliff overlooks the whole area and is the perfect spot for sunset.
We recommend doing this trip with a campervan because there is a freedom campsite in Castlepoint, just a stone’s throw away from the lighthouse. This gives you the chance to walk up to the lighthouse for sunrise, which is one of the most incredible sunrise spots we’ve ever seen.
By Tom & Zi from Craving Adventure
Wellington to Auckland
Via Tongariro Crossing, Rotorua, Coromandel Peninsula, & Hobbiton
A Wellington to Auckland road trip is a great way to see some of the best sights on the North Island. This road trip can be completed in either 5 or 7 days and is full of brilliant things to do. Starting in Wellington, it’s a good idea to check out New Zealand’s capital before you set off. The Beehive and the amazing Te Papa museum are places you can’t miss while you’re in the city!
From Wellington, you can head to the Tongariro Crossing, an all-day hike that will take you across an active volcanic field. It’s a tough hike, but its worth it for the epic views. The next stop should be Taupo, which is a beautiful town. The giant lake is a great place to relax and go swimming. If you fancy something more hardcore, you can go skydiving in the area!
Stopping in Rotorua and the Coromandel Peninsula is also highly recommended. Rotorua is the Queenstown of the North Island, with lots of fun activities to do. I particularly enjoyed the luge while I was there. Coromandel is simply a stunning location. The beaches and scenery are out of this world. My recommendation is to check out the quirky hot water beach and Cathedral Cove, which is just beautiful.
The last stop before Auckland should be Hobbiton, to see where the Lord of the rings was filmed. It’s a picturesque location and you get a free beer at the end of the tour too! I did this trip during the summer and it was fantastic, with sunny weather throughout. Doing it in winter will be colder, but still enjoyable. This road trip can be completed in either a car or campervan depending on your circumstances.
This route isn’t the longest but it pays to be prepared. Stock up on food and water and if you’re doing the trip in a campervan, make sure you have lots of blankets and a good duvet. It can get cold at night in New Zealand, especially during the winter!
By Tom Stevenson from The Travelling Tom