After finishing up my visit in Rotorua, I decided to drive to Napier, a city on the east coast of the North Island known for its wines and art deco architecture, which was part of the city’s reconstruction after the devastating 1931 earthquake which almost completely leveled the city. I had considered doing the Tongarairo Alpine Crossing, but the weather forecast wasn’t great and I wasn’t too impressed with my stamina in climbing Rainbow Mountain. So I decided to spend a night in Napier before heading on to Wellington. Napier is a bit out of the way from Rotorua and Wellington, but the drive to Napier from Rotorua was spectacular and it was a beautiful day. I made a number of scenic stops along the way, including a short detour along the shores of Lake Taupo.
Before you reach Taupo, you’ll see lots of signs for Huka Falls, which is located in a national park. The falls are where the deep blue-green Waikato River squeezes through a narrow rocky ravine, flanked on either side by verdant forest. The result is a gushing white waterfall and raging rapids. The falls are not the highest I’ve been to, but the display of nature’s power is impressive. The falls are free to visit from the somewhat crowded observation areas. You can also take a jetboat ride on the river nearby. If you’re passing between Rotorua and Taupo, at the very least, definitely take a few minutes to stop at the falls and have a look. I wish I had time to explore some of the trails in the area, but after taking a few quick snaps of the falls, I moved along to my next spot, which was close by.
Craters of the Moon Thermal Park
I guess I hadn’t had my fill of geothermal activity in Rotorua, so I decided to visit another thermal park. Craters of the Moon, located within easy reach of Huka Falls, is an interesting place. It is a large, mostly barren, valley that somewhat resembles a lunar landscape. A wooden walkway leads you past steam vents and pools of bubbling mud. It takes about an hour and a half to complete the full circuit. The higher ground in the park offers some spectacular views of Lake Taupo and the surrounding countryside. Interestingly, this geothermal feature is actually man-made or at least man-caused. In the 1950s, a geothermal power station in the vicinity lowered the water pressure under the earth. The hot underground water rose to the surface and escaped where it could, resulting in the steam vents at the park.
Leaving the park, I made my way into Taupo for lunch. There were lots of bicyclists in town for an annual race around the lake, the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge. I had originally thought about staying in Taupo for a night but wasn’t able to find accommodation due to the race being in town. It is a charming, touristy, lakeside town, but I didn’t feel like I was missing all that much but not spending more time there. I bought a tasty takeaway lunch at Replete Food Company, a busy yet charming café, and drove my car a little further down Highway 1, to a scenic picnic area just a little south of town and enjoyed view of the lake while I had my lunch.
I wasn’t headed all the way to Tongarairo, but I wanted to spend some more time admiring Lake Taupo as well as the snowcapped Mount Ruapehu, which looms like a sleeping giant over the crystal blue lake. The lake itself is a caldera formed by the eruption of a supervolcano about 26,500 years ago. Taupo erupted again around 186 AD. Interestingly, Herodian, an historian during the reign of Emporer Commodus (yes Gladiator fans, there was a real Commodus), noted at this time that it was as dark as night for weeks. It’s amazing to think that such a violent events created such a beautiful place with the passage of time. There are several stunning places to stop and take photos along the way. I drove as far as Motouapa and turned back toward Taupo to link back up with Highway 5 (Thermal Explorer Highway).
The initial stretch of highway from Taupo to Napier goes through a beautiful relatively flat radiata pine forest, which somewhat resembles the place where Arwen rides her horse, carrying a sick Frodo with her to healing with the elves in the first Lord of the Rings installment. This is the Kaingaroa Plains or Kaingaroa Forest. The plains were formed from the ash of the Taupo eruption in 186 AD. Until 1955, nothing grew here except grass and scrubbrush. With the help of agricultural technology, people were eventually able to grow things here and the area is now one of the largest man-made forests in the Southern Hemisphere.
After passing through the forest, you’ll come across a sign along the highway saying “Scenic View,” but not telling you what the view is of. You drive up to a lookout and then realize that the scenery is a forty meter high, cascading waterfall split into several strands like bridal veils. You feel like you stumbled upon a nice surprise since the roadsign doesn’t actually tell you there’s a waterfall there.
Beyond the waterfall, the scenery along the highway to Napier becomes increasingly breathtaking. I kept thinking that I was in more filming locations from the Lord of the Rings series, passing by vistas of green mountains, dramatic hillsides, rushing streams and enchanted forests.
I made a few photo stops, but in a few places, while I desperately wanted to take a photo, I thought it too dangerous to stop the car on a winding mountain road. After miles and miles of forests, you eventually into the Esk Valley with its expansive orchards and vineyards. Eventually you come upon the turquoise-blue ocean and on into the charming town of Napier.
This was just one of many amazing road trips I took in New Zealand, sometimes behind the wheel, other times being able to watch from the window of a bus. What is your favorite road trip in New Zealand?
2 thoughts on “North Island NZ Road Trip: Rotorua to Napier”
Hi Jeff, just wanted to say thanks for this post about the drive to Napier from Rotorua. I am on a road trip with my mum and we loved the recommendations for the cafe and waterfall stops- really made it a great drive. This post really did help! Happy travels.
Thank you Josselin! I hope you are enjoying New Zealand. It is such an amazing place to explore!