After hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we continued our New Zealand road trip to Taupo, situated on the other side of Lake Taupo. Its lakeside location, with both Tongariro National Park and Rotorua within a 2 hour drive, makes this town an increasingly popular tourist destination. In a way you could call it a mini Queenstown. It’s a lakeside town too, surrounded by amazing nature, offering a bunch of adventure activities, with a ski field within driving distance. The biggest difference is that Taupo is located in a region with geothermal activity. This makes for a bunch of fascinating landscape features and unique things to do in Taupo.
Here’s a summary of the 4 best things to do in Taupo. It’s all about nature here!
Be amazed by the power of the Huka Falls
The Waikato River is New Zealand’s longest river. Starting at Lake Taupo, it flows for 425 km till it mouths in the Tasman Sea just south of Auckland. Right before the Huka Falls the Waikato River suddenly narrows from 100 metres across to only 15 metres across. This causes the beautiful light blue water to blast over the edge into the Huka Falls, dropping 11 metres down in a bath of foam. That’s where the name of the falls came from: Huka is the Maori word for foam.
To give you an idea of the sheer volume of water coming down the Huka Falls: it can fill 5 Olympic pools every minute. If that doesn’t really mean anything to you: that’s over 12.5 million litres of water per minute. Say what?!
A footbridge is strategically located on top of the Huka Falls so visitors can witness the thundering power of the Waikato River from a unique perspective. There are 2 ways to reach this prime photo spot. If you’re in for a decent hike, you can walk over there from the Spa Park. This track follows the Waikato River for 3 km, taking about 1.5 hours one way. If you’re feeling kind of lazy or are short on time, you can park at the Huka Falls car park, only 167 m or a 5 min stroll from the Huka Falls Lookout. No matter how or when you go, expect to join a ton of other visitors. Don’t let that scare you away though, it doesn’t affect the beauty of these gorgeously blue falls. It’s not a coincidence this is the top thing to do in Taupo.
At the Huka Falls car park there’s an information kiosk where you can buy souvenirs and refreshments. If you need to use the toilet, it will cost you 50 cents. Note that the car park is locked overnight. Check out the Department of Conservation website for more information.
Take a relaxing dip in the Spa Park Natural Hot Spring
Although we didn’t hike to the Huka Falls from the Spa Park, we did pay it a short visit. The Otumuheke Stream in the Spa Park is a (free) hot spot for both locals and tourists. Literally a hot spot. Because of the geothermal activity in this area, there are geothermal hot springs in the stream. You can’t miss them, it’s that spot where a bunch of people are sitting in shallow pools near a small waterfall.
There are no changing rooms or other facilities, so bring your own towel and take your rubbish with you when you leave. Note that this spot is about a 5 minute walk from the car park, which closes overnight.
Prefer a more private natural hot pool? Check out the hot pools at Kerosine Creek in Rotorua.
Watch the Aratiatia Rapids come to life
Further downstream from the Huka Falls, the power of the Waikato River is abruptly stopped by the Aratiatia Dam. Then how the hell can there be rapids, I hear you think. Well, 3 times a day (4 times a day from 1 October to 31 March) the gates magically raise for 30 minutes, bringing the Aratiatia Rapids temporarily back to life. This happens at 10:00, 12:00, 14:00 and in summer at 16:00 as well.
There are a couple of viewpoints from where you can witness this short rebirth of the raging Waikato River. The most popular one is the walkway atop the Aratiatia Dam. At the car park there’s even a timer counting down to the next release. Across the street from this car park, the Aratiatia Rapids Lookout Walk starts, leading to two other viewpoints. You can find more information on the Department of Conservation website.
A less popular spot to watch the Aratiatia Rapids is at the Aratiatia Power Station. When we arrived, there were just a couple of other people on the bridge. This isn’t the spot from where we watched the action though, this is where we left our campervan. Thanks to the NZ Frenzy Guidebook we found a more private viewpoint.
To get to this exceptional Aratiatia Rapids viewpoint, leave your car on the side of the road and cross the bridge to the Aratiatia Power Station. Take the gravel path on your righthand side down along the fence. When the fence ends, continue down on a small dirt path. Watch out, because this can be slippery. Keep going to where the Waikato River and the water that went through the turbine come together again. Find yourself a nice spot on the rocks to watch the Aratiatia Rapids swell to their normal flow. The dam is a couple of 100 metres upstream the Waikato River, so allow for about 15 minutes after the dam gates open before you see the water getting wilder, until it finally reaches its full capacity.
When you’re patient, you’ll notice that gradually there’s coming less and less water down the rapids. Slowly the rocks on the bottom of the river are showing again. We spent about an hour at that private viewpoint, no one else was there, before we had enough. Now we regret not taking a time lapse of this awesome rebirth (and unfortunately slow death) of the Aratiatia Rapids. If you make one, we would love to see it!
Did you know the Aratiatia Rapids were a filming location when shooting The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug? You see the rapids when the dwarves are escaping from captivity of the Elves in barrels. Check out this scene here. Fast forward 40 seconds to see 3 minutes and 29 seconds of fights and rapids.
This is a really great spot to watch the Aratiatia Rapids, but keep in mind you could get a little wet (just a drizzle). Probably not suitable to take your kids either. The path and rocks can be slippery and you probably won’t survive a fall in the Waikato River. Especially not when it’s running its normal course without the slowing effect of the dam.
Walk between the steaming Craters of the Moon
Craters of the Moon is part of Wairakei, the largest geothermal field in New Zealand. The Craters of the Moon Geothermal Walk takes you through a unique landscape of bubbling craters and steaming vents. While walking the wooden boardwalks and fine gravel paths, you can see the mud boil, hear the steam escape, and feel the humid warmth.
The main track is an easy 40 minute loop walk. If you’re up for a short climb, it’s definitely worth the effort to do the detour to the lookout as well. Allow another 15 minutes for that. You’ll not only have an overview over the Craters of the Moon (it looks like there are little fires everywhere), but see the surroundings as well. It was a pretty clear day when we visited, so we could see Lake Taupo, Taupo, Mount Tongariro, and Mount Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom).
Craters of the Moon is open daily from 8:30 to 17:00 (18:00 from 1 October to 31 March). Last entry is 1 hour before closing time. The entry fee is NZ$8 per person (adult), to be paid upon entering the souvenir shop.
For more information you can check the Craters of the Moon website.
You can choose to spend the night in Taupo, or visit this lakeside town on a day trip from Rotorua. Either way, it’s definitely worth a visit, even if you just stop to see the Haku Falls. However, our favourite thing to do in Taupo was watching the Aratiatia Rapids come to life from our private viewpoint. Don’t miss out!
Tip: You can find all these activities and more in the NZ Frenzy Guidebook, our favourite guidebook to New Zealand.
During our visit to Taupo we spent the night in our campervan at Taupo DeBretts Spa Resort
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