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Heading to North Island of beautiful New Zealand and a little short on time? Get ahead, and let’s plan the ultimate 7 day North Island road trip itinerary. New Zealand’s North Island is stunning, incredibly varied, and a little more developed than its southern counterpart – you’re going to love it! This North Island road trip can be completed in either direction, depending on whether you’re arriving from South Island via the ferry, or flying into Auckland to pick up your vehicle. We adventured around the amazing South Island first, then headed to North Island for our final week, so this route guide follows all our best tips from Wellington to Auckland. If you’re visiting in winter, don’t forget to read these winter campervan tips!
7 Day North Island Road Trip
- 1 7 Day North Island Road Trip
- 1.1 Day 1: Wellington to Fielding
- 1.2 Day 2: Fielding to Tongariro National Park
- 1.3 Day 3: Tongariro Alpine Crossing or alternative hikes
- 1.4 Day 4: Tongariro National Park to Rotorua
- 1.5 Day 5: Rotorua to Waitomo
- 1.6 Day 6: Waitomo to Coromandel
- 1.7 Day 7: Coromandel to Auckland
Day 1: Wellington to Fielding
If your 7 day North Island road trip is beginning after making the journey across from Picton, you’ll find yourself arriving into the awesome city of Wellington. New Zealand’s cultural capital, sprawling with independent bars, restaurants and creative institutions, Wellington is guaranteed to give anyone a good time. I’d recommend spending a night or two here before starting your road trip North.
Once you’re ready to leave the city lights, begin your journey North to Tongariro National Park. The drive from Wellington to Tongariro is fairly long, at just over four hours, and it’s unlikely you’ll want to do it all in one go. Split it up with an overnight stop at Fielding Recreation Ground Timona Park freedom camping spot, which is the only freedom camping site we found with both public toilets AND showers (they’re cold, so you might not fancy it in winter!). There’s a dump station with clean drinking water here too.
Day 2: Fielding to Tongariro National Park
Boasting one of the world’s best one day hikes, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is what brings thousands of tourists to the region every year. This 19.4km hike around the active volcanoes of Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro will give you some of the best mountain views in the whole of New Zealand. Head over to the region early and get straight to one of the i-Site information centres in either Turangi or Whakapapa to discuss the conditions for your hike the following day. You can use any of these small towns as a base for the crossing the next day, but our favourite was Whakapapa as it allowed us to explore some of the alternative hikes too.
Day 3: Tongariro Alpine Crossing or alternative hikes
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The best time of year for the Crossing is undoubtedly the summer months. During this time, it’s possible to arrange a shuttle bus to take you to the start/end points of the trail. If you’ve got a car or campervan, drive it to the finish point (Katehehi) and take a shuttle to the start (Mangatepopo). Tongariro Expeditions are regarded to be a great company for this.
If you’re visiting in winter, it’s possible that you won’t be able to undertake the crossing. We unfortunately weren’t able to due to a big snowfall a few days before. However, it is often still possible to hike, as long as you take a guide, who will provide crampons and all the necessary equipment for ice climbing – although no prior experience is needed, you will need an adequate fitness level. Guided hikes start at around NZS$195 including gear and transfers.
Alternative hikes in Tongariro National Park
If poor weather prevents you from being able to hike the alpine crossing, there are several great alternative hiking options in the area. For a shorter tramp, check out the 2 hour Taranaki Falls route, or for a longer, 5-6 hour walk, try out the Tama Lakes track. Both depart from the centre of Whakapapa, within the Tongariro National Park.
Day 4: Tongariro National Park to Rotorua
With tired legs, hop in the van for a day of driving between key sightseeing points – you’ll be glad of the slight rest! First, drive to Taupo for a hearty breakfast in one of the many cafes in town. If you’ve got more time, Taupo is known to be the adventure capital of North Island, so linger longer for an extra day to try a skydive!
After a morning coffee and recharge, continue on to Huka Falls, just outside of Taupo township. You’ll only need an hour maximum to check out the bright blue gushing water, before you continue your journey towards Rotorua.
Rotorua lies in New Zealand’s geothermal heartland, with sulphur spitting out of the Earth almost everywhere – the main reason to visit this other-worldly area. It’s also renowned to be a key spot for learning more about Maori culture, with several experiences offered to do so. Peronally, I’m not such a fan of these ‘cultural shows’ that are designed for tourists. It’s incredibly important to learn about Maori culture, but this is very possible by taking the time to read up and talk to local people. That said, I spoke to tons of other backpackers that did attend a cultural experience show and loved it – each to their own.
There’s several geothermal sites in Rotorua area, so it’s hard to figure out which one to go to! They all have their own amazing geothermal activity, but there’s no need to visit all of them – the two best are Kuirau Park and Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Kuirau is a free park just outside the town, and whilst it’s worth a brief visit, the paid entry (NZD$32.50) Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is more impressive. You’ll find oozing pits of bubbling mud, acid yellow pools and steaming ‘champagne pools’ – how could you not go?!
Tip: Head to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland about 2 hours before they close (check the opening hours here for the time of year) and you’ll feel like you have it almost entirely to yourself. Most people go at 9am for the Lady Knox Geyser timed eruption, and although this is awesome to see, there’s so much more in the park that’s worth experiencing when it’s quieter later on in the day.
Day 5: Rotorua to Waitomo
After your hiking recovery day yesterday, it’s time to put the walking boots back on this morning and head to the Rotorua Redwood Forest. Although these giants have nothing on the Californian Redwoods, they’re still super impressive. There’s either a ‘Go Ape’ style suspended tree top track (NZD$30) or tons of free walking tracks through the forest. Drive to the i-Site visitor centre (where there’s convenient parking too) just outside of Rotorua, and ask for recommendations of the day’s best hikes. We did the ‘yellow route’ which takes you to a viewing point where there’s a geyser in the distance that erupts about once an hour – you might be lucky!
After a morning tramp through the trees, get up close to Rotorua’s geothermal beauty at the Polynesian Spa, either hiring a private pool for thirty minutes (NZD$30 per person, minimum of two), or slide into the communal family area (NZD$20 per person). There’s showers and towels here too, so not a bad shout if you’ve been freedom camping for a couple of days!
In the afternoon, you’ll need to get yourselves over to Waitomo for the infamous gloworm caves, on the Western side of North Island. It feels a little as if you’re going back on yourself to do this, but trust me it’s so worth it! Only a short detour on this drive is the Hobbiton movie set tour too. I’m no Lord of the Rings fan, so this wasn’t for me, but hey I’ve got to still mention it!
Day 6: Waitomo to Coromandel
Waitomo is home to North Island’s famous glowworm population – it really is something out of a fairy tale. Still owned by a Maori family, the Glowworm Cave Visitor Centre runs 45 minute long walking/boat tours every half an hour. At NZD$53 per adult, it’s really good value for what you get to see – a very easy but stunning walking caving experience through the ginormous ‘cathedral’, before a perfectly tranquil boat ride through the cave whilst you stare up at the tens of thousands of glowing blue dots. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, but give it a google and you’ll see what I mean! There are quite a few activities offered in this area for seeing the glowworms, including rafting or tubing, but these tend to be quite a lot more expensive.
After you emerge from the cave, you’ve got the final long drive ahead of you up to the Coromandel Peninsular. Get to the beach! Whilst this area is heaving with young Aucklandites in summer, it’s incredibly quiet during the other times of the year. If you’re short on time, the two main sites to see are Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove. Aim to hit Hot Water Beach today, and Cathedral Cove for sunrise tomorrow, before the bus tours arrive from the city (at around 10am).
Hot Water Beach is unlike any beach experience I’ve ever had. At a first glance, it looks like a lovely spot for sunbathing, maybe some sports, maybe a dip in the sea… and then you notice people digging holes?! Hire a spade from the beachside café, walk onto the beach and head left. You’ll see some rocks in the waves, go to the area of beach immediately in front of these and to the left, and start digging! Once you’ve dug yourself a nice Jacuzzi sized hole, you’ll notice incredibly warm water (heated by underground geothermal activity) seeping through the sand to fill your hole – the DREAM. Take a bottle of wine, some snacks and enjoy!
Day 7: Coromandel to Auckland
Start the day early by heading over to Cathedral Cove – one of New Zealand’s most famous beaches due to its stunning archway rock formation. Note, this is only possible at low tide – you can’t see anything beyond a small stretch of beach and flooded archway at high tide. Drive to the Cathedral Cove Parking area (note, parking here is NZD$15 per vehicle for four hours, and gets very busy by 9am) as early as possible, and wander down the undulating track towards the beach – it takes around 40 minutes from the car park.
Make sure to venture over to the right handside of the beach, where you’ll find a stunning waterfall (as long as there’s been rain recently!)
After this morning’s beach wanders, it’s time to head to Auckland where your epic 7 day North Island road trip comes to a sad end. If you’re wanting to extend your trip and explore a little further, try copying one of the routes offered by Kiwi Experience – I found this so helpful when planning my New Zealand campervan trip.