Hot spots - New Zealand’s amazing volcanic attractions

New Zealand's volcanic or geothermal landmarks offer a unique setting for some amazing experiences.

New Zealand forms part of a chain of countries and islands on the edge of the Pacific Ocean that make up the ‘Ring of Fire’ - an area of significant volcanic activity.  

Some of New Zealand’s most visited tourism attractions are volcanic or geothermal landmarks, offering a unique setting for some amazing experiences. Not the least of those is Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city and urban area which spreads across 48 volcanic cones – many of these ancient volcanic hotspots are now tranquil parks and picnic spots. 

AUCKLAND: Rangitoto Island /  Te Rangi-i-totongia-a-Tama-te-kapua

Rangitoto Island is Auckland’s iconic natural landmark and, with its distinctive symmetrical cone and proximity to the city, it’s no wonder that a trip to Rangitoto is one of the city’s most popular activities.

Explore by foot or, for the complete experience, hop on the Fullers Volcanic Explorer tour, for a scenic ferry ride across the harbour and a guided tour on a 4WD tractor train to the top. Walk through the pohutukawa forest, see lava caves and panoramic city and harbour views from the summit at 260m above sea level.

Rangitoto is Auckland's most recently formed volcano, dating back about 600 years. Amazingly, although the island’s lava field contains no soil in the usual sense of the word, 200-plus species of native trees and flowering plants, 40 fern and several orchid species grow on the island. An artificial causeway connects Rangitoto island to the island sanctuary of Motutapu which was one of the earliest places inhabited by Māori in the Auckland region. 

Travel Tips

Rangitoto Island is in the Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour and is easily accessed by ferry from downtown Auckland. If you want to do it under your own power, rent a kayak from Mission Bay. 

AUCKLAND: Mt Eden / Maungawhau

At 196 metres, Mt Eden - or Maungawhau in the original Māori - is the highest volcano on the Auckland isthmus but also one of the most accessible because of its central location overlooking Auckland’s busy downtown. 

Formed some 20 - 30,000 years ago, Mt Eden has three main craters in a row, creating an oval-shaped bowl of lush green pasture. 

You can enjoy a guided walk with members of the Ngati Whatua tribe - guardians of the mountain. The Tamaki Hikoi  explores the mountain, unlocking the history of a place that is of deep cultural significance to them.  

The Heaven To Earth walk begins near the dormant crater which was once the site of a majestic pā or Māori village. The remains of occupation terraces, storage pits and housing sites are a glimpse into early Māori settlement as the guides bring Auckland’s unique landscape alive through storytelling, song and customs. 

Travel Tips

Mt Eden is a five minute drive from downtown Auckland and is on bus routes operating from the city.

TAURANGA: Tuhua / Mayor Island

Tuhua (Mayor Island) – off the seaside city of Tauranga – is a dormant shield volcano with a large caldera. It emerged from the sea about 7000 years ago and has several hot springs. Opuahau, the highest peak, reaches 354 metres and the volcanic crater contains two lakes, both near sea level. Lake Aroarotamahine is green and Lake Te Paritu is almost black.

A wildlife refuge since 1953, the island is home to many native birds – nectar-feeding bellbirds and tui, wood pigeons, morepork, fantail, kaka (brown parrot), grey warbler, waxeye, kingfisher and the harrier hawk. Well marked walking tracks lead to the lakes and through the impressively tall forest. Visitors are welcome on the island but they must report to the caretaker on arrival. 

Aerius Helicopters land on the sandy shores of South East Bay or on their cliff-top heli pad. From here the pilot will take you on a leisurely walk through pohutakawa forest to an isolated beach flanked by towering cliff faces. The idyllic location is perfect for a scenic picnic. The island is also home to some resident seals who often make an appearance for lucky visitors.

Tuhua is considered special by Māori because its geological make-up includes black obsidian, a volcanic glass created by the rapid cooling of silica-rich lava. Obsidian was prized as a cutting tool. Pieces of this natural black glass can often be found on Bay of Plenty beaches.  

Tuhua Marine Reserve lies off the northern end of the island, and is an excellent spot for boating, swimming, diving and snorkelling. 

Travel Tips

Tauranga is a 3-hour drive from Auckland city. Air New Zealand operates daily flights from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch airports.

WHAKATANE: White Island / Whakaari – active marine volcano

White Island / Whakaari - New Zealand’s only active marine volcano - is an incredible other-worldly experience in a barren multi-coloured moonscape of iron oxide reds, vivid sulphur whites and yellows.

The island lies 50km off-shore from the North Island’s Bay of Plenty but its distinctive white smoke plumes are usually visible from the closest mainland town of Whakatane – which is within 100km of Rotorua and Tauranga. 

There are several options to visit White Island. From Whakatane, take a flight-seeing tour with White Island Flights or land on the volcano with Frontier Helicopters. 

For a longer experience, the White Island Tour includes a 90-minute boat cruise – often accompanied by dolphins and occasionally whales. The two-hour guided walking tour navigates steaming vents, bubbling pools, roaring gas fumeroles and a crater lake of sulphuric-acid rich water. 

Travel Tips

Whakatane is a 90-minute drive from Rotorua and Tauranga, and a 4-hour drive from Auckland city.

ROTORUA: Mt Tarawera

When Mt Tarawera, in the Rotorua region, erupted in 1886, the landscape was dramatically changed, devastating the village of Te Wairoa, burying the amazing Pink and White Terraces which had been recognised as the eighth wonder of the world, and reconfiguring Lake Rotomahana.  

The Buried Village is an award-winning museum housing precious objects recovered from the ruins. Guides in period dress escort groups though the excavated sites and a short walk to the base of one of New Zealand’s most impressive waterfalls. 

Visitors can take guided tours on Mt Tarawera or scenic flights over Lake Tarawera and the massive rift created in the ancient explosion. 

Kaitiaki Adventures take a four-hour guided tour of Mt Tarawera, showcasing the landscapes and history of the mountain. Each journey begins with an off-road 4x4 experience through native New Zealand bush, transporting visitors to the crater’s edge. From there, on foot, your Māori guide will take you to the top for spectacular panoramic views and down the thrilling scree slopes into the heart of the volcanic crater. 

From Rotorua city lakefront, Volcanic Air Safaris operates helicopter and floatplane scenic flights. Lake Tarawera Water Taxis offer drop-off / pick-up options, eco tours to a lakeside hot water beach and a secluded natural bush hot pool for a relaxing soak, and an exclusive guided cultural tour that takes in Lake Tarawera and Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Thermal Village. 

Clearwater Cruises luxury launch operating on Lake Tarawera offers trout fishing, scenic cruising on pristine waters, thermal bathing, and sumptuous dining which could include rainbow trout from the day’s catch.

For the adventurous, Mt Tarawera is the backdrop for the annual Tarawera Ultra Marathon. The spectacular course takes runners around four lakes, through forests, past waterfalls and  into places of cultural significance to the Māori people.

Geothermal experiences

Rotorua, on the fringe of New Zealand’s volcanic Central Plateau, is world-renowned for its geothermal experiences which have been attracting tourists since the early 19th century.

Colourful Wai-o-Tapu or Sacred Waters – one of the most other-worldly places on the planet – sits on one of New Zealand’s most extensive geothermal fields.  Māori consider this place sacred and a visit to the famed Champagne Pool and the Lady Knox Geyser is a must for any traveller keen for some volcanic action. Follow clearly defined tracks throughout to see and hear the forces from beneath from bubbling mud pools to vibrantly coloured mineral deposits. The park is a 20-minute drive south of Rotorua and 40 minutes north of LakeTaupo. 

Waimangu Volcanic Valley was created as a direct result of the Tarawera eruption of 10 June 1886. The valley is the only geothermal system in the world that can be pin-pointed to an exact time and event. It is home to the world’s largest hot water spring and a self-guided walk into the valley is a unique experience. 

Finish the journey with a boat cruise on Lake Rotomahana which now covers the famous Pink and White Terraces destroyed in the Tarawera eruption. It wasn’t until 2011 that scientists rediscovered the lower tiers of the former eighth wonder of the world, 60 metres below the lake’s surface.

Orakei Korako Cave and Thermal Park is a mix of hot springs, geysers and clear blue pools. Water ascends to the earth’s surface from deep reservoirs where the temperature is hotter than 175°C. Also known as the Hidden Valley, Orakei Korako is 45 minutes by road from Rotorua and 25 minutes north of Taupo. The self-guided walk around the geothermal area is mostly across boardwalk track.  It takes 1 - 2 hours to complete, treating visitors to one of New Zealand’s most incredible natural attractions.  

Travel Tips

Rotorua is a three-hour drive or a 40-minute flight from Auckland. The hub of Maori tourism in New Zealand, Rotorua offers a complete cultural immersion.

RUAPEHU: Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park encircles a trio of volcanoes - Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu - and some of New Zealand’s most contrasting landscapes. Covering almost 80,000 hectares, the national park was gifted to the nation by Māori chief Te Heuheu Tukino IV in 1887 and holds precious dual World Heritage Site status.

All three volcanoes are active, which makes it even more interesting for anyone wanting to ski down the slopes or hike to the craters. And, safety first, there is a monitoring system to provide early warning of any impending extra volcanic activity. 

At 2797m, 2291m and 1968-metres respectively, Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro are sizeable volcanoes. Tongariro's huge massif extends over 18 kilometres in length; classic, cone-shaped Ngauruhoe is actually one of Tongariro's vents. These mountains helped inspire the cinematic landscapes of Mt Doom, Mordor and the Emyn Muil in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

For the local Māori tribes, these mountains are the subject of deep spiritual significance. One legend tells how the ancient high priest Ngatoroirangi was frozen in a snowstorm while exploring Tongariro and called for fire. His prayer was answered, and the mountain erupted.

The lower slopes of the mountains are blanketed with forest where alpine herbs, tussocks, flax and low-growing shrubs provide a habitat for many native birds. New Zealand's only native mammals, short and long tailed bats, also live in the park.

The park's most celebrated attraction is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a one-day journey featuring phenomenal volcanic scenery - steaming craters, old lava flows, and brilliantly hued thermal lakes - and fine views of Lake Taupo and Mt Taranaki. Each year around 70,000 hikers complete the track. Adrift guided outdoor adventures take hikers over the Crossing (year-round according to conditions) and on half-day highlight tours including sunrise and sunset experiences. 

Longer challenges include the four-day Northern Circuit, one of New Zealand's Great Walks, and the six-day Round the Mountain track. There are also many shorter walks to waterfalls and fascinating volcanic features, including the crater of Ruapehu. 

Travel Tips

Tongariro National Park is en route between Auckland and Wellington - four-and-a-half hours by road from Auckland or three-and-a-half hours from Wellington. Nearby Taupo is 90-minutes away.

TARANAKI: Mt Taranaki / Egmont National Park

Mt Taranaki – in Egmont National Park - is New Zealand’s most perfectly formed volcano. It last erupted in 1775, and volcanologists consider that the mountain is dormant rather than extinct.  Apart from one small bump - a subsidiary vent called Fantham's Peak - the mountain's cone is symmetrical. 

Egmont National Park has 13 entrances making it one of New Zealand's most accessible wilderness areas. The park lures visitors who appreciate geological phenomena and, for botanists, a progression of plantlife from surf to summit that begins with lowland rainforest of ancient native trees and completes with sub-alpine shrubs and herb fields. The 'Goblin Forest', on the middle slopes, takes its name from the gnarled shape of the trees and the thick swathes of trailing moss. 

The snow-capped cone of New Zealand’s most-climbed mountain represents an achievable summit challenge for experienced mountaineers and fit hikers, although mountain weather conditions can change quickly so it is best done with a guide during the warmer months. 

The extensive walking track network includes many shorter walks starting from the Egmont National Park Visitor Centre. Walks range from a 15-minute stroll along the Kamahi Track to the three-day Pouakai Circuit which traverses centuries of volcanic activity on a two to three-day 24km circuit. There are two huts for overnight stays, and highlights include the towering columns of the Dieffenbach Cliffs, the red waters of Kokowai Stream and the impressive Ahukawakawa Swamp. 

Travel Tips

Air New Zealand flies daily to New Plymouth, Taranaki’s largest city, from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

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