Discover the Geothermal Wonders of Rotorua & Lake Taupo

Get ready to dip your toes into the hot sands of Lake Taupo and see the geothermal wonders at Rotorua. Our insider Maike shares her top tips on things to do in central North Island.

Dipping my paddle slowly into the tranquil water, my legs were feeling uncomfortably warm inside my kayak.

On this drizzly day, it wasn’t the sun that was making my plastic kayak hot – it was coming from beneath, as the cooler waters of Lake Ohukari mixed with geothermal heat. It’s an equally intriguing and concerning experience, feeling the bottom of the kayak soften slightly – enough to pull up on a nearby sandy beach to let everything cool down a bit.

Thermal Wonders at Orakei Korako

I was with a local kayak group and we’d set ship to water at Orakei Korako, or Hidden Valley, between Taupo and Rotorua in the North Island.

Its stepped, steaming, colorful silica terraces and geysers were largely drowned by the hydro scheme that formed Lake Ohukari, but they remain a spectacular sight.

This whole area is riddled with fascinating volcanic and geothermal features, from huge active volcanoes to hot springs and boiling mud.

The infamous Champagne Pools, Wai-O-Tapu. Photo credit: iStock

Check out Wai-O-Tapu to see the most vibrant, colorful pools and craters, including the often-photographed, 900-year-old Champagne Pool. Visit Hell’s Gate Geothermal Park and Mud Spa, where you can indulge in a family mud bath. Be sure to check out Te Whakarewarewa, the living Maori village where geothermal field Te Puia boasts the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere, Pōhutu.

If you’re seeking a bit of thermal luxury, head to the famed Polynesian Spa in central Rotorua.

Pōhutu geyser, Rotorua. Photo credit: iStock

Hot Pools in Rotorua

During my time living in this area, I quickly discovered these natural wonders could easily be enjoyed while avoiding the popular tourist trail. Where else could I leave my central Rotorua office, stroll a couple of minutes to the city's public park, and indulge in a free, naturally heated, mineral foot bath during my lunch break? Or, of course, kayak a hot river on my day off?

You only need to drive into Rotorua and see the steam emitting from the drains – and breathe in the sulphur – to realize you’ve entered a live geothermal field with a city on top.

Steam and spouting hot water are a normal everyday presence, and Rotorua once pumped the hot water to use domestically. However, by the late 1980s, all bores were required to close, as the aquifers were being depleted. Occasionally, an old bore still erupts in central Rotorua – or a new geyser appears naturally on the outskirts. Such is life on an active volcano.

The hot foot bath is at Kuirau Park. At first glance, this ordinary looking public park is just that, but a quick investigation of the fenced areas demonstrates the activity happening just below your feet, with boiling mud and steaming vents.

Walk along the boardwalk at Kuirau Park. Photo credit: iStock

If immersing just your feet isn’t enough, drive south to Wai-O-Taupo and follow the locals (or do a quick internet search) to the hot waterfall just past Lady Knox Geyser.

Alternatively, turn off just before Wai-O-Tapu and follow the Kerosene Creek sign to two warm waterfalls. These are naturally heated, so exercise common sense and test the water temperature first.

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Taupo

While Rotorua is considered New Zealand’s geothermal capital, smaller Taupo is worth a visit. Situated on Lake Taupo – the crater of a super volcano – the whole town looks toward the snow-capped peaks of three active volcanoes, Tongariro, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe.

Just north of Taupo is another geothermal field called Craters of the Moon, where there’s also jet boating, trout fishing, and bungy jumping.

One of my favorite weekend spots was the hot waterfall of Otumuheke Stream at Spa Park, where locals would submerge themselves, with a cold beer in hand, and contemplate the swirling Waikato River. The stream mixes with cool river water, so there’s a temperature to suit everyone.

It surprised me to find that, digging my toes into the layers of volcanic pumice on Lake Taupo’s shoreline, startlingly hot water was seeping just below. A number of warm streams also flow into the main lake, bridged by the sealed, scenic track along the lakefront. All this makes for pleasant swimming temperatures year-round.

Maori rock carving in a cliff wall in Lake Taupo. Photo credit: iStock

Rotorua in Winter

Rotorua in winter is arguably more spectacular than in summer, not only because there are fewer crowds, but increased rainfall naturally enhances geothermal activity. On a cold, frosty morning, steam enveloping the town creates a unique, spooky atmosphere.

If you’re done soaking yourself in hot pools during the coldest months of the year (what could be better?) and a breath of fresh air from the sulphur is in order, the Redwoods, or Whakarewarewa Forest, is a complete contrast.

Escape into towering stands of Californian Coastal Redwoods, just minutes from the CBD to walk, mountain bike or run its 56mi (90km) of trails and enjoy the views.

The Big Red Woods forest in Te Mata Peak. Photo credit: iStock

Alternatively, head south for the ski fields of Whakapapa and Turoa on Mt Ruapehu. On your way, you’ll pass through Turangi (there are more hot pools here at Tokaanu, and world-class trout fishing) before passing Mt Tongariro’s steaming vents and a saddle draped in ancient forests.

Whakapapa is the more accessible and therefore busier of the two ski fields, with a sealed road leading to the base, while Turoa, near Ohakune, is generally quieter but has New Zealand’s highest chairlift.

Want to know more about New Zealand? Check out our podcast. We talk world-class diving, blood-pumping adrenalin, and road-tripping in a camper van.

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