The best day hikes in North Island, New Zealand

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By Nicki Dent

9 minute read

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Looking for New Zealand day hikes in the North Island?

The North Island of New Zealand is known to the local Māori people as Te Ika a Maui, ‘Maui’s fish’. Legend tells of the Demigod Maui pulling up the island from the depths of the ocean with a fish hook made from an ancestral jawbone. Mount Hikurangi on the East Coast was thought to be the first peak to rise from the sea and is the first place in the world to see the sunrise.

The North Island is often overlooked in favour of the mountains and fjords of the South Island, but there are some things the North Island does better than its southern counterpart, like unreal geothermal attractions, dramatic volcanic landscapes, picture-perfect white sandy beaches, and it’s the only place in the world you’ll find the impressive Kauri tree.

The South Island is renowned for vast options for hiking, but some of the best North Island day hikes are much less well known, so we thought we’d give you some tips on the best day hikes in North Island, New Zealand.

waiomu kauri grove track

Getting to the North Island

Most people arrive in the North Island from international flights to Auckland Airport, and Auckland is a quick 90-minute flight from Christchurch Airport in the South Island. There is also a ferry between the North and South Islands of New Zealand between Wellington in the North Island and Picton, at the top of the South Island. This journey takes around 3 hours.

Tongariro Crossing - Ruapehu, New Zealand

If you’re looking for the best day hikes in New Zealand’s North Island, look no further than the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – arguably one of the best day walks in the world, taking you deep into the volcanic centre of the North Island.

The hike starts gently as you travel through Mangatepopo Valley, with the imposing Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings) ever-present. Then the hard work starts with a climb up the ‘Devil’s Staircase’ to the Southern Crater. There’s plenty of opportunities to stop, catch your breath, and soak up the incredible views. On a clear day, you can see right out to Mount Taranaki on the West coast from here.

Then a period of reprieve as you walk through the Southern Crater. This environment feels like you could be walking on the moon. Then it’s another climb, this time slightly more challenging underfoot (you’ll appreciate your hiking poles for this section), up to the summit at Red Crater. Here you’ll be rewarded with breath-taking views of the volcanic landscape.

The highlight of the hike is undoubtedly the Emerald Crater Lakes that come into view from the Red Crater.  As you descend, you’ll come across brightly coloured lakes of green and blue water, coloured by minerals leaching from the surrounding rock. This is a great place to stop for a well-deserved lunch before continuing to Blue Lake.

From there you wind gradually down the other side of the mountain with views north to Lake Taupo until you reach the treeline. Lastly descend through the bush to the car park at the end.

How hard is the Tongariro Crossing?

The hike is not to be underestimated, at 19km (12 miles) from one end to the other, you can expect to be walking for around 8 hours. Along the way you will have plenty of time to stop to take photos, take a rest, and enjoy the other-worldly scenery that surrounds you.

Join us on our Sweet North Tour and we’ll sort all the logistics for you. We will join a knowledgeable local guide at the start of the trail, and have our van waiting when you finish the walk, a welcome sight after a long day on your feet. Check out our Sweet North Fitness Guide for more information on the hiking trails this tour includes. 

Footprints of Toi - Bay of Plenty, New Zealand

Tois Track

Next up is a stunning coastal walk in the Bay of Plenty, on the east coast of the North Island. Ngā Tapuwae o Toi, or the 'Footprints of Toi' visits significant historical sites between the town of Whakatane and the white sandy beaches of Ōhope. There are beautiful lookouts like Kohi Point where you can see out to the volcanic Whakaari White Island, and around the coast to the East Cape.

You’ll need to plan your hike around the tide times, as Ōtarawairere Beach, a beautiful, secluded bay and an ideal snack stop, is impassable at high tide.

Once you reach Ōhope, head into the forest at Ōhope Scenic Reserve, home to over 300 kiwi birds. You’ll climb up through beautiful native forest before looping back over to Whakatane through the Mokorua Scenic Reserve. 

Nearby - Mount Maunganui Summit

Another very popular day hike in the North Island is found slightly further up the coast, at Mount Maunganui or Mauao. Reaching the summit of Mauao takes around 40 minutes and requires a good level of fitness. You’re in the sun for most of the climb, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve got some good sun protection. The Mount sits out at sea on a peninsular, so when you get to the top you can see fantastic views of the Main Beach and Leisure Island on one side, and Pilot Bay on the other. The view stretches out along the coast and back behind Tauranga to the Kaimai Ranges.

Pinnacles Hike – Coromandel, New Zealand

The Pinnacles Hike in the Coromandel area is one of the most popular overnight hikes “tramps” in New Zealand. An overnight stay at the Pinnacles Hut, a huge 80 bunk Department of Conservation hut, is a popular choice for families or those looking to get to the summit for a sunrise or a sunset.

But as a return trip, the Pinnacles hike is a fantastic day hike, and up there with the best day hikes in the North Island of New Zealand.

Following an original packhorse track, the trail climbs up to an impressive rocky summit with panoramic views out to both the east and west coasts of the Coromandel Peninsular. The hike is an honest workout, gaining nearly 760m over 10km (2500ft over 6 miles), and needs good walking shoes or boots.

The hut is a great place to stop and regroup before pushing on to the Pinnacles summit. A short walk down to the Dancing Camp Campsite is worth a look before you continue, you’ll find the remains of the Dancing Camp Dam, one of the largest in the valley.

The last section from the hut to the Pinnacles themselves includes lots of steps, some steep sections and some ladders, but the effort is well worth the reward of the views from the platform at the top. Take some time to soak in the views before returning the same way, or create a loop with the slightly more challenging Billygoat Track.

Also in the area – the Kauri Grove Track

The New Zealand Kauri trees are among the world’s mightiest, and hold a very special place in the hearts of us Kiwis. Our Sweet North Tour takes in this precious opportunity to walk among these giants, on the Kauri Grove Track in Kauaeranga Valley.

Kauri were logged here extensively until 1970 when the surviving Kauri forest became protected as part of the Coromandel Forest Park. Today these ancient trees are battling another challenge, Kauri dieback disease, so you’ll see shoe cleaning stations at the entry of many trails in the region to prevent the disease from spreading.

The start of the walk meanders alongside a stream, lined with Nikau palms and regenerating native bush. It then climbs into lush diverse forest to a stand of giant mature kauri trees. One of the largest trees is sat on a ridgeline at the top before the trail turns into a more advanced tramping route up into the hills. Take a moment here to appreciate these gentle giants, and return the same way. You’ll get some beautiful views out to the coast on the way down.

We begin our Sweet North Tour with a walk through these impressive giants, some of the most ancient trees in the world. Your expert guides will teach you some of the history of these special forests, and identify species that surround them.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley – Rotorua, New Zealand

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

Rotorua in the centre of the North Island is known for its otherworldly geothermal landscapes and the pungent smell that come with them!

The Waimangu Volcanic Valley was created by a huge volcanic eruption in 1886 of Mount Tarawera. The eruption devastated the surrounded area, killing hundreds of people, burying villages and destroying the famous Pink and White Terraces, widely regarded as the eighth natural wonder of the world.

The eruption ripped a 17km rift in the earth, uncovering spectacular geothermal features and hot springs and creating colourful crater lakes. The trail winds down the valley from the visitor centre at the top of the hill, to Lake Rotomahana. You’ll pass the steaming Frying Pan Lake, the world’s largest hot spring, and follow the boiling stream down through the valley. A short side trip up some steps takes you to Inferno Crater, a bright blue crater lake which is actually an underwater geyser feature creating an eery cycle of lake levels rising and falling and overflowing down into the valley.

An optional hike from Inferno Crater takes you up and over Mount Hazard for a great view through the valley to Lake Rotomahana and Mount Tarawera Volcano. Then you reach a picnic area by a silica terrace called Warbrick Terrace, named after one of the early tourism guides in the area. The trail then continues to flow down the valley through the wetlands. This area is a great spot for bird watching, as the mineral-rich and warm waters provide a host of food for our feathered friends.

Once you reach the lakefront, you can take a leisurely 45-minute boat cruise around Lake Rotomahana and see lakeside geothermal features like the steaming cliffs, or take the shuttle bus back to the top of the valley and the visitor centre. 

In the area – Māori Culture

Rotorua has the highest population of Māori people in New Zealand and is home to some of the best Māori cultural experiences in the country. The people of Rotorua have been welcoming visitors since before the Tarawera eruption when early tourists would travel to see the Pink and White Terraces and bathe in the geothermal waters. This is a great place to learn about Māori culture and enjoy a traditional Hangi meal and performance.

In addition to exploring many of the North Island’s best day hikes, the Sweet North Tour takes you for an enlightening visit to the Whakarewarewa Maori Village – New Zealand’s only living Maori Village. The local Tuhourangi Ngati Wahiao people have been passionately sharing their unique way of life with visitors for over two hundred years.

Whirinaki Waterfall Loop Track

Whirinaki Waterfall Loop

The Whirinaki Waterfall Loop Track makes the list of best North Island New Zealand day hikes for two reasons. The first is the epic Jurassic Park-like forest. New Zealand is known for movie locations, and while Whirinaki hasn’t hosted any famous film crews that we know about, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d strolled onto the set of a Jurassic Park and expecting to see a velociraptor jump out from the ferns. Much of New Zealand’s native forest was logged, so remnants like this are especially precious and now protected as a conservation area.

The second reason is the New Zealand Blue Duck, or Whio. These gorgeous little creatures are one of our rarest birds, needing clean fast-flowing streams in the upper catchments of forested rivers with good canopy cover overhead. This environment is becoming more and more rare, and with predators added into the mix, the species is now classed as Nationally Vulnerable. They can be difficult to spot as their slate grey body blends into the river surroundings, but they have a distinctive wheezy or raspy whistle call.

The health of the native podocarp forest in Whirinaki Forest, teamed with extensive predator control work has seen healthy numbers of Whio return to the area, and they can often be spotted along the Waterfall Loop.

The Whirinaki Loop track is a 10km (6 mile) loop following the Whirinaki River. Giant podocarp trees tower above, with a diverse variety of kahikatea, totara, matai, rimu, miro and tawa trees. You’ll hear the waterfall long before you see it, with its appearance marking the halfway point of the hike and a perfect spot for lunch before continuing on the opposite bank of the river.

Our Sweet North Trip

If you like the look of these North Island day hikes in New Zealand, you might be interested in joining us on our Sweet North Trip. Sweet North gives a great taste of the best bits of the North Island in 5 days. It works as a standalone tour or can be combined with a South Island Itinerary to make sure you get the most out of your experience here in New Zealand with New Zealand Trails. If you’ve made it this far to New Zealand, you have to see what the North Island has to offer too.

Request a free copy of our brochure here to find out more about our trips!

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