Mountain walks Rotorua and Taupō

The best mountain walks in Rotorua and Taupō

Nestled in the heart of Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island, the Rotorua and Taupō regions are a haven for avid walkers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Shannon Williams gets her legs and lungs pumping on some of the area’s best mountain walks, with the ultimate payoffs at the top.

Rotorua

Mt Kakaramea (Rainbow Mountain) Summit Track

Mountain walks Rotorua and Taupō
The views are worth the hike up the mountain

Mt Kakaramea starts with a pretty easy track up to two stunning crater lakes, taking about 15 minutes. From there, it’s all uphill, but don’t fret – it’s not horrendously difficult. You’ll continue uphill through regenerating native bush and past bare, colourful, steaming ridges, with frequent opportunities for a rest and to check out the great views of the countryside. It takes about an hour and a half to walk the 2.5km track and reach the summit – and it’s worth every step. From here, you can see Mt Tarawera; Lakes Tarawera, Rotomahana and Rerewhakaaitu to the north; Paeroa Range to the west; the Te Urewera Ranges and Kaimanawa Forest to the east; and Mt Tauhara, Lake Taupō, and the volcanic peaks of Tongariro National Park to the south.

Tarawera Trail

Mountain walks Rotorua and Taupō
Left: The Tarawera Trail takes you through lush New Zealand bush
Right: The shores of Lake Tarawera

If you’ve got some time up your sleeve, head to Lake Tarawera for the Tarawera Trail – one of the best day walks around, because at the end of the track, you get to dump all your belongings on the sand and have a relaxing geothermal soak at Hot Water Beach.

The trail runs mainly along the lake edge with some pretty climbs along the way. As you walk, you’ll be able to enjoy ever-changing glimpses of the lake, crossing streams, and walking under rata and pōhutukawa trees. There are also some amazing groves that will make you feel like you’re lost in a magical fairyland.

It took us around four to five hours to get to the end of the 15km trail, including stopping for some lunch at the lookout point and a swim in the lake. We camped overnight at the DOC campground at Hot Water Beach and enjoyed a lovely morning swim before catching the water taxi back to the beginning of the trail.

Quarry lookout track

If you’re looking for a shorter walk that’s closer to town, the Quarry Lookout Track is a great choice. The 4.8km track takes you through the thick forest of the Redwoods, with a short climb through mature Douglas fir, European larch, walnut, and various species of eucalypts. The lookout point above the old rhyolite quarry provides a wonderful view over the Redwood Grove, out to Lake Rotorua and the city centre.

Taupō

Mt Tauhara

Mountain walks Rotorua and Taupō
Mt Tauhara at sunrise or sunset is hard to beat

A favourite with locals and visitors alike, the 2.5km Mt Tauhara trail climbs to the summit at 1088 metres, offering panoramic views over Lake Taupō and the surrounding area. The trail begins with a walk across farmland, before entering the forest, followed by a steep climb that’s worth it for the views at the top, especially if you go for sunrise or sunset. The hike up to the summit doesn’t take long, around 1.5 to two hours, but it can be a slog. It’s uphill the entire way, so make sure your knees are in good working order and take your time. The track can be narrow in places with lots of roots to navigate, so make sure you have good footwear, and bring your walking poles if you have them. The summit can be windy and cold so pack your jacket, along with plenty of water.

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Mt Urchin

Mountain walks Rotorua and Taupō
Mt Urchin offers splendid views and is just an hour’s drive from Taupō

For a longer hike, head to Mt Urchin, about an hour’s drive from Taupō city centre. The 6.6km out-and-back trail near Turangi takes about three hours to complete depending on your fitness. The track climbs steadily up through beech forest and above the bush line to the Urchin Trig at 1391 metres. The upper section of the track has an interesting array of alpine plants and a wide vista of Lake Taupō. There are some steep sections but from the summit, you’re rewarded with some stunning views, and it’s possible to see both Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngāuruhoe. You can also take dogs on a lead.

Walking tips for the cooler months

Hiking during the cooler months can be invigorating, but it’s essential to take some precautions to stay comfortable and safe. Here are some top tips for walking during cooler weather.

Stay hydrated
Even in cooler weather, it’s essential to stay hydrated. Bring a water bottle and take sips during your walk.

Appropriate footwear
Tracks might have been exposed to more rain, which means they can be muddy and slippery. Choose your footwear wisely.

Layer up
Layers are essential during autumn so you can adapt to our changing climate, where it might rain one minute and then be sunny and warm the next. A raincoat or windbreaker is a must.

Stay visible
Days are shorter and it gets dark earlier, so plan your route accordingly and start your walk earlier in the day. Wear reflective clothing or accessories to enhance visibility and carry a flashlight or headlamp.

Listen to your body
Pay attention to how your body feels during the walk. If you start to feel too cold, it’s okay to cut your walk short or find a warmer place to take a break.

Where to stay

Mountain walks Rotorua and Taupō
It doesn’t get better than the ever-changing views of Aotearoa’s tracks and trails

Exploring the Rotorua and Taupō regions by campervan or motorhome is a fantastic and cost-effective way to explore the region and its many natural highlights.

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Rotorua

Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park


My personal favourite of the holiday parks in Rotorua, the Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park is a laidback camping spot on lovely park-like grounds. It’s also the closest holiday park to the Whakarewarewa Forest and within walking distance of the geothermal attraction Te Puia. Offers campsites, cabins, backpacker dorms, and units.

Blue Lake TOP 10 Holiday Park

Located right on the stunning Lake Tikitapu, the TOP 10 offers powered and non-powered camping sites as well as some units. The walk around the lake is one of my favourites in Rotorua, and it’s a great place to swim.

Lake Ōkāreka Campsite

Only 15 minutes from Rotorua, this lakeside DOC site provides 12 non-powered campervan sites with plenty of room for tents. There are toilets and a cooking shelter.

Boyes Beach Campsite

Boyes Beach offers a designated overnight parking area for motorhomes and campervans. There’s a new walkway connecting Boyes Beach to Lake Ōkāreka Campsite that passes two local jumping rocks.

Taupō

Reid’s Farm

My favourite spot in Taupō, Hipapatua Recreational Reserve (Reid’s Farm) is a free campsite on Huka Falls Road adjacent to the Waikato River. Boasting views over the clear blue waters of the Waikato River and upper Huka Falls, Hipapatua Reserve is hard to beat. Best of all, dogs are welcome.

Huka-Aratiatia Dam Car Park

The Huka-Aratiatia Dam Car Park is a good option for walks along the Waikato River and watching the dam release. Overnight camping is for certified self-contained vehicles only and for a maximum of four nights.

Whakaipo Campsite

The perfect place to camp next to Lake Taupō. The site is set in a beautiful park with native bush surrounds. Make the most of the walking and mountain biking tracks nearby. This campsite is for certified self-contained campers only, and it’s first-come first-served.

Motutere Bay TOP 10 Holiday Park

Sitting about halfway between Taupō and Turangi, Motutere Bay TOP 10 Holiday Park is both family-friendly and dog-friendly, located right on the edge of Lake Taupō. There are plenty of bush and river walks within close proximity. Facilities include a playground, TV/recreation room, laundry, dump station, barbecue area, and free WiFi.

Golden rules for freedom camping

To keep New Zealand’s campsites extra special and not ruin them for everyone else, follow these golden rules of freedom camping:

  • Know your place: do not camp where it’s clearly not permitted
  • Be a tidy camper: keep it clean jellybean
  • Don’t be a party pooper: the bush is not it
  • Keep it down: people want to hear the birds, not you
  • Pay up: go online and pay for your stay or use the honesty boxes provided at DOC sites that have fees
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