Hi everyone! I recently visited Taupo on a weekend away from where I currently live and work in New Zealand. I am not gonna lie… I came back to Auckland totally exhausted. There is simply TOO MUCH to do in Taupo! (But in a good way, of course.) It’s now the following Saturday morning and I’m sitting in my flat, chugging espressos, and recovering from a very overtired week at work! But my gosh was it worth it.
To help you decide what to see and do on a weekend away (or road trip stop) in Taupo, I’m putting this list together. But admittedly, it may be another month or too until I have time to really sort through my photos and really prepare you with an in-depth travel guide to Taupo!
Still, I’m so keen to share the fantastic things I did in this unique and beautiful location:
Craters of the Moon
I gotta admit, I loved the Craters of the Moon thermal walkway! The $8 genuinely seemed good value, especially if you’re from outside New Zealand and geothermal activity is still a unique thing for you. (Though saying that, my Aucklander travel buddies really enjoyed this Taupo activity too.)
Since New Zealand sits on two colliding tectonic plates – the Australian plate and the Pacific plate – earthquakes and volcanoes are common here. The friction between the two plates also creates immense heat and molten rock (which the signs below helpfully remind us is named ‘magma’) which reach temperatures up to 1200 degrees Celsius.
On the bright side, this geothermal energy has been harnessed to create electricity. The signs here informed us 20% of New Zealand’s electricity is generated using geothermal energy – with much of that coming from the Taupo Volcanic Zone!
While walking around the park on the beautifully maintained boardwalk, you’ll witness a great amount of thermal activity such as steaming mounts, thermal pools, and while listening to bubbling underground mud.
Don’t step off the path for your own safety and conservation effort too! There is great signage and maps provided, and you can’t get lost around the circular walkway. The friendly staff were more than happy to answer any questions at the visitor kiosk at the entrance too.
The full activity takes around one hour.
Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings
Cost: around $35 – price dependent on season/specific tour/etc
Don’t be deceived by this ‘ancient-looking’ Maori art! Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell was a master carver who set to work on this lakeside masterpiece in the late 70s… after 10 years training with Māori elders. Ancient or not, you won’t be underwhelmed.
At 10 metres high, this artwork represents a Māori navigator who once guided tribes to this area, over a thousand years ago. Smaller designs on the rocks surrounding the main artwork are equally mesmerising, representing the southern winds.
Explore this lakeside semi-natural gallery by a kayak or boat tour – there are many different options available. While a kayak may be the most fun way to explore the carvings, I enjoyed my ‘steamboat tour’ and even enjoyed a surprisingly cheap glass of rose on the way back to shore while snuggling under a blanket provided by the crew!
Huka Falls to Otumuheke Hot Springs Walk
Huka Falls and Otumuheke Hot Springs can be visited separately or together on this easy, 2.7km walk. The walk will take around 2-3 hours to complete and follows the natural beauty of the riverbank.
Huka Falls: this small but turbulent waterfall blasts almost a quarter of a million litres of water PER SECOND into the Waikato River below. At only 11m tall, this waterfall isn’t the biggest you’ll witness in New Zealand, but its definitely one of the mightiest! The thunder of Huka Falls isn’t a sound you’ll forget in a hurry.
The Otumuheke Hot Springs – part of the free Spa Thermal Park – can also be reached by the car park. Climb into the Outumuheke Stream after your walk to soak your muscles and relax.
Aratiatia Rapids and Dam Release
Cost of Dam Release: FREE
The Aratiatia dam release takes place 10am, 12pm, 2pm and 4pm daily, nearby to Huka Falls.
I actually really loved watching the dam release and seeing the HUGE expanse of water spill out from between the dam gates and fill up the gorge below at a stunningly fast pace. You can watch this from the dam bridge which overlooks the actual gates (right next to the car park) or walk along to one of the viewing platforms.
Cost of Rapids: tour dependant
Do not swim here! It is not safe! If you want to take on the river, you’ll need to go with a local professional on one of the famous Aratiatia Rapids tours. You might recognise them as also being a set of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug.
This hike takes you 2.5km uphill to the summit of Mount Tauhara, which overlooks the beautiful Taupo scenery. That makes it a 5km walk that takes up to 3 hours. (I believe it took me 2 hours to complete!)
Honestly… it felt pretty steep to me. But that may be because I was tired from completing the Tongariro Crossing hike the day before – more on that below!
If you’re after a more accessible hike and don’t feel like climbing to the 1088 meter summit, I’d actually really recommend walking just the first 15 minutes on to the grassy hill very close to the car park. If you’re into countryside views, you can still see Taupo from here. Once you reach the woodland, the rest of the hike is tree dense without the same quality of views till you reach the peak.
That said, the view from the top is pretty awesome, as you can see below.
Tauhara is a baby in volcano standards, having last erupted 60000 years ago.
Exploring Lake Taupo
Lake Taupo was initially a SUPERVOLCANO which began erupting 300000 years ago and last erupted 1800 years ago. Today, it’s volcano superpower is ‘being a big lake’.
There are many signposted mini-lookouts around Taupo over the lake, and honestly, you can’t miss this 616 square kilometre lake – it’s massive! This water-filled volcanic crater is so huge that once water arrives in the lake, it stays there for approximately 10.5 years before spilling out again into another river.
The Great Lake Pathway is a wonderful way to explore the lake, with its pretty boardwalks and waterside views. You can also cycle it for a chance to see even more angles of Mt Tongariro and Mt Ruapehu looming over you. The full path is 10km but pretty easy due to the stable walkway, and many visitors can take on a short section to enjoy this gorgeous perspective of the lake.
Waipahihi Botanic Gardens
This volunteer protected reserve now covers 35 hectares. Floral displays make Spring the best time for visiting, but the short or long trails, picnic tables, and fabulous displays of fauna and flora make the gardens a wonderful place to visit all year round… and a must for locals after a little tranqulity.
‘The World’s Coolest McDonalds’
Cost: FREE unless you’re making a detour for cheap espresso and Happy Meals
Yeaaah I mean McDonalds is an awful corporation and all but like… Woohoo it’s a PLANE.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this ‘attraction’… but you certainly won’t miss it!
Wairakei Tourist Park & Thermal Valley
With mountain bike paths around craters, native bird spotting and a cute cafe boasting ‘home-baking’, the tourist park appears to be quite a varied and family-friendly attraction. I didn’t have a chance to visit, but I’m sold by the photos of llamas on the website. Or are they alpacas? What IS the difference between a llama and an alpaca anyway? Answers below, please.
The Wairakei Thermal Valley is 1.8km of pathway, and there is also an onsite campsite if you don’t mind sharing it with peacocks. (Honestly, the more I read about this attraction, the more intrigued I become…)
Taupo Museum and Ora Garden
With local art exhibited and an introduction to the area via scientific samples and artist interpretations, this small museum seems to give a unique perspective on what it means to be a regional museum.
The neighbouring Ora Garden is a tranquil setting to enjoy more native woodland, flowers, and of course geothermal steam coming from below.
Cost: FREE plus shuttle cost (sometimes included in accommodation cost) – FULL GUIDE COMING SOON!?
I am thinking of giving Tongariro Crossing its own, dedicated blog post because I remember so much about this hike, including the different stages (and hardest versus easiest sections)!
Overall, this 19.5km hike – often noted as one of THE best day hikes in the world – was easier than I expected. The views I got in return were absolutely magnificent and, after working full-time in Auckland for a while – it was the first time I got CLOSE to seeing a side of New Zealand that didn’t remind me of a working city in my birth country of England. (Although my favourite part of the hike just reminded me of Wales… which made me VERY HAPPY)!