Spread across the middle of the North Island, the Taupo Volcanic Zone is a geologically exciting area of bubbling mud pools, steaming vents, shooting geysers, strange rock forms and even volcanoes. Three active ones cluster together in Tongariro National Park – Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.
Remarkable scenes unfold among their rugged territory, which contrasts dramatically with the blue jewel of Lake Taupo lying at their feet. This road trip around the Central Volcanic Plateau takes in these eye-popping extremes, and more.
Taupo to Taupo
Best Time of the Year
All year round
- Tongariro River Trail
- Alpine Crossing
- Whakapapa Village
Big, blue and beautiful, it’s hard to believe that New Zealand’s largest lake fills the caldera of an ancient volcano. Today it is a magnet for boaties and other outdoor enthusiasts, most of whom base themselves in the smart resort town in the lake’s northeastern corner. Taupo treats visitors well, with excellent shopping and dining, as well as walkways, cycle trails and star attractions such as Huka Falls and the geothermally heated pools at Wairakei Terraces and Debrett’s Spa Resort (just one of many great holiday parks in the area). Taupo Museum is an excellent place to learn about local history, culture and art.
Taupo to Turangi
The peaks of Tongariro National Park draw tantalizingly closer along SH1 as it skirts Lake Taupo’s eastern shore. At the southern end of the lake, Turangi is a trout-fishing mecca that lures in anglers from all over the world. Learn about the fish at the park-like National Trout Centre, five minutes’ drive south of town, or spin the visit into a half-day adventure by walking or cycling there along the gently graded Tongariro River Trail. Bike hire is available from Tongariro River Rafting, within walking distance of Turangi Holiday Park.
Side Trip - Tokaanu & Waihi
Although it’s possible to circumnavigate Lake Taupo via SH32, attractions are thin on the ground on this long, western highway, which is why most folk travel along SH1. As you head towards Tongariro National Park, however, it’s worth detouring just 3km beyond the SH47 junction to Tokaanu Thermal Pools, a family-friendly facility with public and private pools. A few kilometres further east is Waihi, where Lakeland House restaurant offers enjoyable meals in a pretty waterside location.
Turangi to Whakapapa
Distance 47km - Driving Time 45 mins
From Turangi, take SH41 to meet SH47, which climbs through a forested parcel of Tongariro National Park. Stop at the lookout, Rotopounamu Walkway and Rotoaira Scenic Reserve if you have time to dawdle. Beyond the saddle the highway heads into tussock-covered landscape typical of the volcanic plateau, and passes Mangetepopo Road leading to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (see below).
Take the turn off to Whakapapa Village, and expect your ears to pop on the way up Ruapehu’s lowers slopes to an altitude of 1140m above sea level. Across the road from the informative National Park Visitor Centre is Whakapapa Holiday Park, which has powered sites sheltered in the bush. It makes a great base for the Alpine Crossing and various hikes starting from the village. Be sure to take high tea, happy hour or dinner in the grand Chateau – an historic hotel and the hub of the village, particularly in the ski season when the population snowballs. Whakapapa ski-field is one of two on Mt Ruapehu; the other, Turoa, is accessed from Ohakune.
Side Trip - Tongariro Alpine Crossing
If you’re moderately fit and the forecast is good, this famous day hike is a must. A 7-8-hour mission betwixt Ngauruhoe and Tongariro volcanoes, its highlights include shapely craters and scree slopes; steaming vents; rocky alpine gardens of remarkable form and hue; and panoramas stretching as far as Mt Taranaki, Lake Taupo and beyond. Note that this is challenging hike requiring proper equipment, care and commonsense, and that the best way to get to and from the trailheads is with a local shuttle operator.
Whakapapa to National Park
Distance 17km - Driving Time 15 mins
Return to SH47 and follow it west to National Park, another plateau town that swells considerably when the snow’s on. It is also the most popular base for the Alpine Crossing, and handy to mountain bike trails including the 17km downhill Fishers Track; Rick at Kiwi Mountain Bikes offers advice and bike hire. Roll in to the Station Cafe for delicious coffee and cake, or a refined meal at lunch or dinnertime.
National Park to Ohakune
Distance 37km - Driving Time 30 mins
Follow SH4 and SH49 to reach Ohakune, New Zealand’s Carrot Capital. The town is also closest to Turoa ski field, at the top of the spectacular 17km-long Ohakune Mountain Road on the southern slopes of Ruapehu. Numerous walks start from the road including the 4km Waitonga Falls track. The Turoa ski field car park is also the start point of the epic Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail, easily ridden (or walked) in stages. The Old Coach Road section from Ohakune to Horopito is scenic and historically fascinating, but ask the helpful crew at Mountain Bike Station which ride is best for you. As well as a Top 10 Holiday Park and DOC campsite, Ohakune has a supermarket and several places to eat.
Ohakune to Waiouru
Distance 27km - Driving Time 25 mins
SH49 continues east through the rolling, green foothills surrounding Mt Ruapehu. Lake Rotokura walkway is a short but rewarding detour for fans of virgin forest and pretty lake views. This highway meets SH1 at Waiouru, an Army town complete with the National Army Museum that will be enjoyed by civilians of any age. Food and fuel outlets offer traveller essentials.
Waiouru to Turangi
Distance 62km - Driving Time 50 mins
The stretch of SH1 heading north to Turangi is known as the Desert Road, although this is actually a misnomer. The rocky, tussock-covered landscape known as Rangipo Desert is in fact the result of successive volcanic eruptions, the discharge of which suppresses substantial plant life. This barren land, framed by the snowy peaks of Tongariro National Park and the Kaimanawas to the east, is strangely beautiful and seriously distracting. Keep the camera handy, pulling over to admire the views from the safety of numerous roadside reserves.
Turangi to Taupo
Distance 51km - Driving Time 45 mins
This loop around the Central Volcanic Plateau is closed at Turangi, from where SH1 should be retraced north along the lake edge. If you’re looking for something totally over-the-top to cap off your volcanic adventure, call in to Taupo Airport for a skydive – many jumpers argue that this is the best place in New Zealand to take the leap.