When we set off from Auckland for our big 5 week road trip around the North Island, we had the intention of completing as many North Island hikes as possible, while freedom camping whenever we could. Many would choose to do both Islands within this time but we wanted to explore every corner of the North. It didn’t disappoint. The North Island hikes vary so much that no matter your skill or fitness level you’re guaranteed to find something you’ll enjoy.
While we didn’t get chance to do some of the most famous North Island hikes – Like the Tongariro Crossing – we still racked up a huge list of favourites. So here are what we considered to be the best hikes on New Zealand’s North Island.
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– 2 hour return – easy with a few steep sections – coastal –
We didn’t get far from Auckland before reaching our first North Island hike of the trip. Just two hours from Auckland is the Coromandel Peninsula, and ‘hidden’ there we found Cathedral Cove; perhaps the North Island’s most famous beach. Almost every tourist will have it on their itinerary but not everyone will know about the looonngg walk required to reach it, we certainly didn’t!
The road leading to the Cathedral Cove area was absolutely STUN-ING, with dramatically changing landscapes around every corner. It was easy to see why The Coromandel adopted the phrase ‘good for the soul’, because thanks to the beautiful drive we weren’t even mad about having to park an extra 45 minutes away from the tracks start!
(Parking is restricted for larger vehicles like our Britz Motorhome. In winter you can pay to park at the track or park slightly out of town and walk in – which is what we did. In summer, the only option is the out of town parking but during peak season they run a shuttle bus too)
The Cathedral Cove walking track is mostly a leisurely 45 minutes walk along well-formed footpaths, but don’t be fooled by the easy bits – there are times where the track gets pretty steep and remember, going down on the way there means going up on the way back! That was the killer for me.
We had prepared ourselves for a pretty busy beach, given how often Cathedral Cove crops up in North Island itineraries but it was actually pretty quiet, even at sunset! Of course, it helps that it was the middle of winter, so not exactly sunbathing, but that sure has its bonuses.
Cathedral Cove – The most family-friendly of the North Island hikes
Top tips for enjoying Cathedral Cove – Spend a bit of time on the beach exploring!! We saw plenty of tourists rock up, take their photos then leave… it’s a pretty long walk just for a quick snap!! Each to their own but if you walk through the famous archway and carry on up the beach, you’ll find the views looking back are pretty cool too. Also, walk right along the beach before the arch. On this side are a couple of caves as well as an old hut and a few unique rock formations.
Also don’t miss the two additional bays you can go to along the way, just follow the signs! Each one will add another 5-10 minutes onto your trip and will include a lot of steps but they’re definitely worth the detour! We particularly liked Gemstone Bay, mainly because nobody else seemed to bother with them so we had it to ourselves!
2 hour return – Steep with Steps – Volcanic + Coastal
One thing we weren’t short of during our 5 weeks travelling the North Island was volcanoes to climb. Of all the ones we did, Mount Maunganui was one of our favourites – yep, sorry Mt. Eden! Mount Maunganui is 232m tall (761ft), about 3 hours away from Auckland and offers some amazing city and coastal views! It was here we had our first rainy day walk so this was the birthplace of our Britz Vista toilet/dry room ‘hack’… something we would end up using quite often!
Despite the weather being pretty stormy all morning, we caught a break between showers and headed from our camp to tackle the summit track. There are 2 routes that will get you to the top of Mount Maunganui, both take roughly 50 minutes but wind up alternative sides; One gives great views over the harbour and the city while the other gives scenic views of the coast. They also both include a lot of steep steps but the new pushchair/wheelchair friendly route is currently being built so Mount Maunganui will eventually be accessible for everyone.
After 50 minutes of walking through the tropical jungle-like environment and being surrounded by huge ferns, the vistas open up to panoramic views over the town below and out across the ocean, including Moturiki Island. We were occasionally joined by cheeky little fan-tails, curious to know what we were doing but also making sure we weren’t getting too comfy on their home turf. If you’re lucky, you might see dolphins or whales passing through the area too!
Mount Maunganui – One of the most family-friendly of the North Island hikes
Top tips for enjoying Mount Maunganui – Take your time. This wasn’t the hardest of the North Island hikes on this list and while we have a good level of fitness (Dec found it easy) there were parts that really took my breath away. There are plenty of viewpoint options and benches along the way that makes great excuses to stop, so why not use them? Also, explore a bit more of the summit beyond the standard lookout, you can walk around the top to experience an almost 360’ view.
Camping near Mount Maunganui – There are several freedom camping options near Mount Maunganui for self-contained campers – the only problem was finding an empty spot, even in winter!! So we opted to try out our very first ever campsite at Beachside Holiday Park, conveniently located at the start of the walking track! If the weather had been nicer it would have been the ideal spot to unfold the awning and get out the camp chairs for a spot of outside dining.
Te Mata Peaks
– 1.5 hour return – easy with optional steep sections – rural –
Our detour to Te Mata Peaks was very last minute – we saw a sign and simply followed our noses. It changed our plans by about 3 hours, but that’s one of the main reasons we love road tripping so much – the freedom of living on the road, having everything with you and not having to worry about anything… it’s a feeling a ‘normal’ holiday can’t give you!
This is one of the easiest on this list of North Island hikes. Located 30 minutes south of Napier and is in the heart of some really unique landscapes, from open farmlands to rolling hills and even a redwood forest, Te Mata has it all! We hadn’t planned a stop here so we had 0 expectations but now I can say wholeheartedly that it is worth a visit.
The path to the top begins at the final parking spot for larger vehicles. From here we already had a pretty decent view but we’d made a detour to these hills for the gems that lie waiting at the top, so first, we had to tackle the steep face of Te Mata.
Like mountain goats, we started to zig-zag through the long grass following the worn path. It wasn’t as bad as it looked once we were on our way up and the chains put in place by the DOC helped with the sections that required scrambling up rocks. The runners who passed us made it look easy but we made the most of the viewpoints, using them to stop and catch our breath – or at least, I did, Dec finds uphill walks like this a lot easier than me!
At about the halfway point we stopped on a rocky outcrop to admire the view back towards Napier. From here we could see the ridgeline tracing the top of the valley with the golden light of the late afternoon sun bouncing off it, giving the whole area a magical feel… it was hard to tear ourselves away.
After about 40/45 minutes of zig-zagging and stopping to take photos, we reached the top just in time to watch the sunset with a 360’ view around us – a reason in itself to walk up Te Mata Peak!
We chose to take the more challenging route to the top but for anyone who fancies a more relaxed walk, there is the option to follow the narrow bendy road. It takes about 30 minutes this way and is a fairly gradual incline.
Te Mata Peaks – The best of the North Island hikes for sunset
Top tips for enjoying Te Mata Peaks – There are several other tracks that spiderweb across the Te Mata ranges, including one that goes through an old redwood forest. Our mini detour didn’t quite allow enough time for us to do these but we hope to make it back especially for them! It’s also a great place for mountain biking so don’t be afraid to pack to explore a little on the wheels instead!
Camping at Te Mata Peaks – Camping, even in a self-contained, is strictly prohibited in the Te Mata Peaks park but we did find a really nice free camp in Porangahau, just 1.5 hours away, we even saw whales really close to land from here! Another great thing about being with Britz during winter is all the free camps are pretty much empty but when you do want to pay for a campsite you don’t have to book in advance! Making last-minute plans like these really easy.
Mahia Peninsula Reserve
– 4 hours return – Fairly easy with steep sections – coastal forest –
Another one of our detours led us to the white cliffs of Mahia Peninsula on the North Island’s East Coast, between Gisborne and Napier. At a glance, there isn’t a lot to do around here. It’s just a small fishing town with not much else. However, if you follow the gravel road far enough you’ll find the Mahia Peninsula coastal reserve and this is where we found a proper hidden gem.
While there is a car park near the start of the Mahia Reserve, our hefty 7m motorhome wasn’t going to make it up the winding gravel track so we left it at the free campsite and add another 8km onto our walk… deciding another hour or two either side wouldn’t kill us.
The walkthrough town was peaceful, with nobody else around except a few tiny fishing boats on the water, it was like a beautiful ghost town. As the track began to zig-zag up through the hilly fields, the coastal vistas opened up to us, the white gifts reflecting the sun in contrast to the lush green pastures. It took us roughly 1.5 hours to get to the start of the reserve track and with very little in the way of shade, we were happy to reach the start of the tree line.
The Mahia Reserve is 4.5km loop track through 935 acres of a rich coastal forest full of native trees + ferns with a refreshing stream winding through it. It’s one of the last of the large lowland forest areas on the North Island so it really is worth a visit. While steep in places, this walk is perhaps one of the easiest on our list of favourite walks in the North Island, even with its 9+ stream crossings.
We saw our first Tui bird at the Mahia Reserve, along with the New Zealand Pigeon and ample curious wagtails. This is the New Zealand I expected to experience while on our North Island Road Trip – lush forests and plenty of birdlife. So while this track was far from ‘well-trodden’, it is one that we highly recommend and one we would re-do if we’re ever in the area again.
North Island hikes take you through all kinds of landscapes
Tips for enjoying the Mahia Peninsula Reserve – Take comfortable waterproof shoes or at the very least, a fresh pair of socks. The Stream crossings were mostly easy but there was the odd one where my foot almost slipped in. They’re not deep but it’s no fun doing a big walk with soggy feet. There’s also a picnic area halfway around, so pack plenty of snacks and enjoy your lunch in the peacefulness of the clearing.
Don’t miss the Mokotahi Lookout while you’re there too! This hill on the edge of the water gives amazing views over the town and across to the reserve. We did this as a separate walk to the reserve track, it’s only 20 minutes up so it would be easy enough to add on to the same walk.
Also, be aware that German Wasps nest at the reserve during the summer. If you have an allergy to stings + bites, it’s best to avoid this area in the summer.
Camping near Mahia Peninsula Reserve – For those needing a powered site, there are a couple of holiday parks in Mahia but they appeared closed in winter. We camped at a really beautiful freedom site at the Osaka Reserve. This site is for self-contained vehicles only and there are designated spaces on the opposite side to the toilets. This is also where we left the camper while we completed the walk.
In a rush? Save these North Island Hikes for later
Mangorei Track to Poukai Hut – Mount Taranaki
– 4 hours return – hard with lots + lots + lots of steps – volcanic –
Egmont National Park is on the North Island’s West Coast, 1.5 hours from Wellington. It’s famous for the almost perfect cone-shaped volcano; Mount Taranaki. We only planned to be in the area briefly to do one of the walks and get some snaps of Mount Taranaki but those plans soon changed when the volcano stayed hidden behind thick clouds for three days. Yep. THREE. WHOLE. DAYS. Once you start road tripping, you soon realise how important it is to be flexible.
The weather hit us hard when we reached the Taranaki region so while we waited for the rain and hail to clear, we made the most of the North Island hikes on offer throughout Egmont National Park, our favourite being the Mangorei track that leads to Poukai Hut.
This track was hands down the hardest of the North Island hikes we did on this entire trip and I’m saying that after completing the Tongariro Tama Lakes walk, but more on that next. What made this walk so challenging was the thousand’s of steps, literally, thousands. Almost the entire walk to the top, some 1188m above sea level, is made up of stairs, with the exception of a few sections that are replaced with rock hopping or root climbing. However, the bird watching along the way made for some really good entertainment.
So why is it one of the best walks? Quite simply, for the views at the top and the sense of achievement when you reach the hut. This walk actually goes up a neighbouring peak of Mount Taranaki, not Taranaki itself, so on a clear day, you can look out straight across the valley at it. Not only that, just past the Poukai Hut is where the famous mirror lake is. You know, the one that shows a perfect reflection of Mt. Taranaki.
We weren’t fortunate enough to get these views on our hike but we already knew that would be the case when we set off. We managed to see a teeny tiny sliver of the town below us, but it didn’t last long enough to get a photo.
With the weather being so dismal though, it meant we got to see the mountainscape in a whole new light. You don’t see many moody photos from this walk, just those of the famous reflection, but when we looked around there’s actually a lot going on up there. So many different shades of grass against the backdrop of thick fog, it felt like a whole new world, I’m not disappointed that we couldn’t see beyond a few metres.
The walk down was perhaps even harder than the walk-up. The first part as you leave the hut wasn’t very sheltered so we were open to the elements… which decided to hammer us with hail. Yay. Thankfully the Britz Vista had enough space for us to clean ourselves up without lingering out in the rain for even longer – something we often had to do in our own smaller van!
North Island hikes will give you incredible views
Tips for enjoying Mangorei Track – Don’t think about the time. Like I said before, this is possibly the hardest of these North Island hikes. As soon as I started counting down the time before we got to the top, the steps got harder. It isn’t the most enjoyable walk of our entire trip but it does have some of the best views, so stick with it!
Also, take the short walk from the hut to the Tarns (or ponds), they’re easily signposted and vary from an additional 15 minutes to another hour. OH and don’t forget to leave a note in the DOC book!
If you want an easier walk with views of Mount Taranaki, the Wilkies Pool track on the opposite side is beautiful too and suitable for all fitness levels.
Camping near Mangorei Track – There are quite a few free camps around the base of Mount Taranaki, including the Pukeiti Garden car park which is just a short drive away from the start of Mangorei Track. If you’re looking for a powered site, the closest to Taranaki is in Stratford. We found this site to have amazing facilities (hot showers!) and while it isn’t close enough to park up and do some works, it’s close enough to feel in the middle of it all still.
Tama Lake (Tongariro National Park)
– 8 hours return – Moderate with steps and steep sections – alpine –
This is the national park we’d been waiting for; The Tongariro National Park, world-famous for its 8 hour Alpine Crossing track. These snow-capped mountain ranges tower over volcanic landscapes and had us in awe of them the moment they appeared on the horizon. Luckily the road to the camp in Whakapapa Village was clear when we arrived, the thought of having to use our snow chains made me a little anxious!
With our 5-week road trip being in the middle of winter, we knew the Alpine Crossing wasn’t going to be possible for us. We weren’t equipped or experienced enough to handle the amount of snow on the track, plus the avalanche risks were high. That didn’t put us off wanting to see the area though and after speaking to the staff in the information centre we soon had an alternative day walk planned; The Tama Lakes Track.
We hadn’t head about this track before we arrived but after completing it I can assure you it is a fantastic alternative to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, it’s easily our favourite of these North Island Hikes!
You need to make sure there are no weather warnings for the day you want to do it but other than that, it’s accessible year-round.
The Tama Lakes track, for us, was roughly an 8-hour return walk including stops for lots of photos and the weather stayed fairly nice for most of it – except for one lashing of heavy rain once we reached the upper lakes.
Starting by the Chalet, the track eased us into the walk nicely. With a mix of boardwalk and well-defined path, we were able to admire our woodland surroundings without worrying about getting lost and we soon found ourselves at the first stop – Taranaki Falls! This waterfall marked the change in scenery and track difficulty as from here we began to climb up out of the valley and into open alpine fields, snow even started to appear on the track!
The increase in altitude made things slightly harder but there was never a dull moment. The track was constantly up then down as we weaved through the golden red fields and hoped across snow-fed rivers whose rocks were just close enough together for me to reach, I was amazed to see families bringing small kids along and found myself wishing I was that brave and energetic as a kid!
The lower lake was as beautiful as I imagined it would be. Sitting in an old crater and fed by melting snow, the vivid blue of the lake and the snow on the slopes are a stark contrast to the earthy browns, blacks and reds of the volcanic field surrounding it. If it wasn’t so cold, I’d have sat there longer. Just watching.
But the question was this; Stay at the lower lake, admire its beauty and bask in the satisfying feeling of reaching it or do we tackle the path to the upper lakes?
It only took us 30 minutes to reach the top but it was by far the most challenging part of the walk, made easier with hiking poles. The path disappeared completely, leaving us to scale the side of the volcanic cone, lead only by poles sticking up out of the loose rock. It was steep, the rocks would shift beneath our feet and the wind howled passed us, all serving to slow down our progress. From the top, it felt like we were on top of the world, even though we were by no means near the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe.
We didn’t hang around on the walk back. It might have been a clear day for most of the walk but as soon as we started heading back to camp the clouds rolled in and rain threatened above us. Getting back into the motorhome we were pleased to have the electric heater, thawing out my icy hands would have been a tough job without it!
After doing the Tama Lakes track, I almost feel like the Alpine Crossing won’t be able to ‘beat it’. We definitely want to go back and do it, but the sheer peacefulness of the Tama Lakes walk made it really special, although I’m sure even this lesser-known walk is busier in the summer!
Tama Lakes – our favourite of these North Island hikes
Tips for enjoying the Tama Lakes track – This is the most challenging of these North Island hikes. Don’t underestimate it. Take layers! Even in the summer. The wind seems to tunnel through the valley, especially once you get to the top of the upper lakes path. Also don’t be afraid to turn back, if the visibility had dropped on the way to the lakes, in the same way that it did on the way back, there’s no way we’d have been able to complete it. Don’t push through bad weather, it might look like it’ll only be a short burst but it could also last for hours.
Camping near the Tama Lakes track – We camped at Whakapapa Holiday Park which is right in the heart of town. We were lucky enough to get in last minute but that isn’t always the case. The facilities here really good – they even have baths!! If you know the dates you’ll be in the Tongariro National Park, I would definitely book ahead. Whakapapa Holiday Park is central to most of the walks in the area, and if you’re wanting to do the Tongariro Crossing – which was closed while we were there – they run their own shuttle too!
– 2 to 4 hours return – easy – prehistoric –
We walked amongst giants and TV legends during the Putangirua Pinnacles riverbed track. This iconic walk has been made popular due to its appearance in New Zealand’s most famous film – Lord of the Rings. If you’re touring the North Island wanting to see as many of these famous locations as possible, this track will no doubt already be on your list. If you’re not a fan of the trilogy, it’s still a worthwhile walk.
There are a couple of different routes to the Putangirua Pinnacles varying from 2-4 hours; via the riverbed to walk around the base of them or up the cliffs to view them from above. Depending on the route you choose will depend on how long it will take. We chose the riverbed option which as roughly 2 hours return.
From the car park, the route is mostly well signposted, there were a couple of places where the signs disappear but as it’s ‘the riverbed’ route, it was fairly obvious which way we should be heading. Once again we were joined by curious wagtails but this time, that was the only wildlife we saw on this track – but there was plenty to come from the rest of Cape Palliser.
I was surprised at how quiet this track felt. While there were others on it with us, the groups were few and far between and it certainly didn’t feel crowded once we reached the base of the Pinnacles after an hour of walking up the riverbed.
The Putangirua Pinnacles have been formed over millions of years by the dropping water levels and erosion of the sandstone found in the cliffs. As the rock drops away in sections, tall pillars are formed and that’s what we can walk around today.
If you want to go for an extended walk and get a Birdseye view of the Pinnacles, follow the signs for ‘the lookout’. This will make your walk closer to 4 hours return (if you also do the riverbed walk), but the views you get from the top are magical. We chose not to do the top route, preferring to get up close to the stone but if you have the time it’s certainly more of an adventure.
The most famous of these North Island hikes
Tips for enjoying the Putangirua Pinnacles – Stay out of the mud! When the river levels drop, it leaves sludgy mud behind – obviously. Watch your footing when conditions are like this as we saw one unfortunate soul lose his shoe to a section of sinking mud. The majority of the track was dry, so just avoid the sticky looking sections!
Camping near the Putangirua Pinnacles – If you’ve travelled this far down Cape Palliser you may as well stay the evening and continue to the lighthouse and seal colony. We stayed at the free Ngawi Camping Area but you can also camp right by the car park to the Pinnacles. This camp is run by the DOC so we recommend checking their website for the current prices.