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Explore the North Island's Thermal Explorer Highway

Thermal Explorer Highway in New Zealand banner

Experience the hot springs, volcanoes and geysers that make up the famous Thermal Explorer Highway. Starting in Rotorua, follow the highway to the impressive Lake Taupo, and make a detour to the picturesque Tongariro National Park. The route will take you past some of the best scenery in the North Island, and the most diverse.


Day One - Start your Thermal Explorer road trip in Rotorua

You'll find plenty of unique attractions in Rotorua. The geothermal activity in the area is clear from the rising steam throughout the landscape to the smell of sulfur throughout the town. Visit the photogenic Rotorua Museum as an introduction to the area, and learn more about Rotorua and its people. The town also has its own geyser, which you will find in the Te Puia Park.

For a change of pace, visit the beautiful Whakarewarewa Forest, home to magnificent redwood trees and a scenic boardwalk for visitors. There are hikes of all distances here, including a few that will take you up into the heights of the forest. Anyone seeking adventure should take the Skyline Rotorua and enjoy some adrenaline-fuelled adventures at the top of the mountain.

Rotorua Redwood Forest acidic pool

Day Two - See the Lady Knox Geyser at Wai-o-Tapu

Follow the Thermal Explorer Highway south, keeping a lookout for the various pockets of steam rising from the surrounding landscape. Make a stop at Kerosene Creek, located just off the main road. The hot springs are a popular place to relax and enjoy the warm waters in the bush. There is even a waterfall located near the creek.

The main attraction of the Thermal Explorer Highway is the famous Wai-o-Tapu. This colourful park lets visitors get up close to the Champagne Pool, one of the most photographed sights. You'll need to be at the park at 10am in order to see the Lady Knox Geyser. Try to arrive early in order to get a good seat.

Lady Knox Geyser, Wai-O-Tapu

Day Three - Ride the rapids on the Waikato River

Anyone looking for an adrenaline rush will find it on the New Zealand River Jet. Speed along the Waikato River and get up close to the thundering Huka Falls. You can also visit Huka Falls by following the short walking trail to get a unique view. You won't believe the incredible volume of water that flows though the narrow gorge toward Huka Falls.

Another interesting stop along the road to Lake Taupo is the Craters of the Moon, an active geothermal field that shows the power of the volcanic landscape. Once you arrive in the town of Taupo, you'll be able to explore the beautiful waterfront and enjoy a meal at one of the many cafes and restaurants in the area.

Huka falls, Taupo

Day Four - Follow the highway around the lake

Leave the Thermal Explorer Highway to spend more time exploring the mighty Lake Taupo. You won't realize the scale of the lake until you start following the road that leads alongside the waterfront. You'll find interesting small villages along the way, and some great viewpoints of the lake.

One of the most popular swimming spots at Lake Taupo is the picturesque Bulli Point. The clear waters make it a perfect place to take a dip in the lake, and those after a bit of a rush can try jumping from the high ledges. Visitors should also stop in and see Tokaanu Wharf, built in the 1880s to transport goods across the lake.

Lake Taupo aerial view

Day Five - Drive the famous Desert Road

The scenery along the Desert Road is a stark contrast to the rest of the North Island. The barren landscape was created by the numerous volcanic eruptions in the area. From the highway, visitors will have a fantastic view of the volcanic peaks in Tongariro National Park.

Your next stop should be the town of Ohakune. The main attraction of the area is the scenic old Coach Road, which visitors can explore on foot. One of the best sections of the road to explore is the Hapuawhenua Viaduct. The original viaduct was built in 1908, and visitors can still cross the impressive structure today.

Desert road, North Island, NZ

Day Six - Explore Tongariro National Park

There is no better place on the North Island to see the volcanic landscape of the North Island than Tongariro National Park. Use the village of Whakapapa as your base for exploring the park. Get some photos at the lovely Chateau Tongariro and enjoy the surrounding views of the mountains, including Mt Ruapehu.

No matter what the season, Whakapapa is a popular place to visit. Mt Ruapehu is home to some of the best ski slopes in the country. If you'd prefer to explore the park on foot, you should set aside a full day to take on the popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which will take you up into the mountains and past some of the best sights in the park.

Tongariro landscape, New Zealand

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