New Zealand Road Trip: Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks

This post in part of our New Zealand North Island 9-Day Road Trip series.

We headed south from Rotorua, prepared for a long day of driving. We needed to make Whanganui National Park, at the southwest end of the island by nightfall.

We made a pit stop at Huka Falls:

The Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest river, moves gracefully north from Lake Taupo between banks 100 metres apart. Just before the Huka Falls it enters a shallow ravine of hard volcanic rock. The effect is nature’s large-scale equivalent of a fire hose feeding into a very fine nozzle.

The previously placid waters roar and rumble at great speed along the ravine before bursting into space out over Huka Falls to crash into the turbulent pool 11 metres below. A foot bridge right at the top of the falls puts you in a prime position to get up close and witness the frightening display of more than 220,000 litres of water blasting by every second.

 Huka Falls is a short walk from the highway and a nice place to stretch your legs or enjoy a picnic lunch. There isn’t much hiking in the area besides the paved path so don’t budget much time for this stop.

From there, it was past the charming town of Taupo, along the lake, and south to Tongariro National Park (Whakapapa Village). It’s hard to tell in this photo, but one of those cloud puffs is actually a smoking column rising from the top of the mountain. We are in volcano country!

 

If you have time, I’d budget an extra day for the town of Taupo. It has a nice selection of restaurants, outdoor activities, and shopping district. We’ll be adding a day in Taupo for our next New Zealand vacation.

We stopped at the visitor’s center to bone up on regional history and take a short tramp along the ridge.

The visitor’s center is above 3,500 feet in elevation and the vegetation is strikingly different than the lush forests at sea level.

 The hikes are well worth your time as the scenery is spectacular. The rangers in the visitor’s center can recommend hikes to suite your particular abilities.

Lord of the Rings Fans will recognize the non-CGI version of Mt. Doom (below):

From Tongariro, we continued south, eventually turning off the highway in Raethi and heading into the Whanganui National Park. This is a spectacular drive, which begins with very pretty pastures and a view of Tongariro in the distance.

We quickly left the sheep and cows behind for the wild NZ forest. Whanganui is also listed as one of the “Great Walks” although in this case it’s a paddle down the river, not a tramp through the countryside. Two or three day canoe trips can be arranged with overnights in Department of Conservation huts along the way.

 

We wanted to spring for a ride in one of the many jet boats to see the ‘Bridge to nowhere’ but this was nixed due to my pregnancy (too rough). Next time.

This is definitely a trip you’ll want to do during daylight hours, both for the view and driving as the road is twisty, narrow, and perched above the steep gorge. It’s also unpaved for approximately 20km, although that may change in the coming year.

At last! Our little cottage for the night. The only neighbors are the sheep next door.

Trip Details

Places to Stay

Kohu Cottage. Sleeping three people (one queen and one single), this tiny cottage in the equally tiny hamlet of Korintini is bare bones but comfy and equipped with a killer view. Full kitchen, linens, and tea supplies provided. Bring books and dvds because there aren’t many activities in the immediate vicinity. Also, the nearest store is 45 minutes away so stock up on groceries before heading out to the cabin. The owner, Lois, lives close by and is a charming host.

 Kohu Cottage is a good-jumping off point for those wishing to do a jet boat tour. Also check out the Maori pa across the street. The cabin is well-signed and located on the Whanganuai Road, approximately 45 minutes north of the town of Whanganuai. At the time of this writing, it was $100 NZ for the first night, $80 NZ for each additional night. We had one mishap with the cottage that I’m a bit hesitant to write about as I’m sure that it’ll be rectified immediately: a family of possums had moved into the attic and we had quite an exciting night as they were hosting a jolly party above our heads. They quieted down in the morning but it lead to a rather sleep-less night on our part. Contact: Lois Gilbert: kohu.cottage@xtra.co.nz. No website. Here is the google street view.

 Other options: 

Flying Fox Retreat. This place looks fantastic and is close by to Kohu Cottage. At the time of this writing it was closed; in the event that it reopens in the future, it might be worth checking out.

Things to Do

Pipiriki to Whanganuai – This drive is considered one of the most scenic in the country and it’ll be even better once it’s fully paved. It follows the Whanganuai River as it twists and turns it’s way to the ocean. There aren’t many view points so make the most of the ones you spot along the way. Currently portions are unpaved and it’s a rough two hour trip.

Huka Falls – a nice place to stretch your legs, use the (pay) toilet, and admire the view. Just north of the town of Taupo.

Ridge Walk at Tongariro National Park – Go for as little or as long you’d like; the views are amazing once you leave the bush. Trail entrance just above the visitor’s center in Whakapapa Village.

Additional Activities to Consider:

Jet Boat to the Bridge to Nowhere and Canoe Ride Back – Really wish we could have done this – but there are a number of rapids on the river and we ultimately decided that it wasn’t the best pregnant lady option

Tongariro Crossing: One of NZ’s 9 Great Walks, it’s an all-day, 17km tramp across stunningly barren scenery. http://www.newzealand.com/us/feature/tongariro-alpine-crossing/

Taranaki Falls: If a long alpine hike isn’t your thing, consider the 6km falls hike, leaving from the visitor’s center at Whakapapa Village.

Taupo: We were charmed by this little town by the lake. Wish we’d spent more than an hour exploring the shops and lake-based activities. As it was, we popped in to buy Ben an official All Blacks rugby ball and then continued south along the lake shore.

Up Next:

Part 8: Waitomo: Glow Worms Galore

All New Zealand Posts:

Part 1: New Zealand Travel Route: The North Island in 9 Days
Part 2: Auckland: the cosmopolitan heart of the North Island
Part 3: Waipoua Forest: giant trees and pretty views
Part 4: Bay of Islands: Swimming with Dolphins
Part 5: Karangahake Gorge: an abandoned gold mine in a stunningly beautiful valley
Part 6: Rotorua: The Yellowstone of New Zealand
Part 7: Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks
Part 8: Waitomo: Glow Worms Galore
Part 9: Planning Your New Zealand Driving Tour

Also: Fiji Babymoon

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