If there’s one thing New Zealand (NZ) does well, it’s road trips.
They can be an adventure, fun with friends, creating memories with the family, or time with a loved one. Because New Zealand’s diverse geography will spoil you with beautiful scenery, it encourages you to try new adventures and discover new walking paths or bike new trails.
Whether you hire a car or use your own, hire a campervan or borrow from a friend, a road trip is the best way to see New Zealand. But wherever you end up, the New Zealand road trip is a great choice, even for a long weekend break.
One of our favourites is to take a road trip from National Park to New Plymouth via Whanganui River Road.
We started our road trip from the picturesque town of Taupo.
Stunning Beauty of Lake Taupo to National Park
Depending on where you are travelling from, travellers often have Taupo as a stop on their road trip. It’s a popular town to visit for its thermal pools, lively town centre, and magnificent views of Lake Taupo and Mount Ruapehu in the distance.
Check out our recommendations below.
The drive from Taupo to National Park offers scenery of New Zealand native bush set amongst lakes. With plenty of places to pull in and stop for the views or photos, it is so inspiring.
You have a few options for your road trip from Taupo to National Park:
- via Kuratau on the west side of Lake Taupo, going inland via Lake Rotoaira
- via Turangi travelling the Desert Road across the volcanic plateau to Ohakune.
Ohakune is a ski resort town offering quick access to the Turoa ski fields. The town has a great vibe, with plenty of cafes and bars. The town is famous for growing carrots in winter and selling the biggest chocolate eclairs.
We also enjoy the local walks on the edge of the town for the fauna and flora.
You may want to break your stop at Waiouru to visit the Army Museum of New Zealand, which covers NZ’s war history. Kids will love climbing the tanks at the front of the building.
But what makes the National Park area unique is definitely the three volcanoes rising up above the clouds – Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe.
Stay at National Park on your New Zealand road trip
We love this area of New Zealand for the varying landscape of native bush and volcanic plateau. The area offers many hikes, from short walking trails to advanced tracks for the experienced hiker.
You can visit the iconic (now closed) beautiful brick Chateau Tongariro Hotel set with a backdrop of the volcanoes.
Or find a hiking trail to suit you by exploring national park walks at the Department of Conversation for conditions and bookings. Especially if you want to walk the famous Tongariro Crossing.
Walk the Tongariro Crossing
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park is a World Heritage site and is regarded among the top ten single-day treks in the world.
The 19.4km track takes you across the coarse rock of Mount Tongariro, an active volcano.
You need to allow a full day to enjoy stops, lunch at the crater, and time to enjoy the views.
Make sure to book a hot tub for your return to relax and ease the muscles.
Tips for Tongariro Crossing:
- Bring a sunhat, sunscreen and plenty of water
- Wear a sturdy pair of shoes
- Bring a jacket for any change in the weather
- Organise a shuttle for a return trip
Alternative walking tracks and activities
- Hapuawhenua Viaduct
- Taonui Viaduct
- Ohakune walks near the township
- Taranaki Falls
- Whakapapa village skifields
Where to stay at Tongariro National Park
We booked a room with access to a kitchen at Plateau Lodge as one of the many options around the settlement of the National Park.
Plateau Lodge is a family-owned business with accommodations for backpackers as well as guest rooms and apartments. They are able to assist with booking shuttles for the Tongariro Crossing or E-Bike hire.
A small Four Square supermarket, restaurants and cafes are available at National Park.
From the National Park, we took a road trip to Whanganui via the Whanganui River Road.
Drive the Whanganui River Road
This iconic road is very remote, stretches for 64 km, is narrow and an adventure.
Turning off from Raetihi, we travelled to the Pipiriki settlement to reach the Whanganui River, which flows from Mount Ngauruhoe to South Taranaki.
In the 1840s, Pipiriki was a busy river port for the paddle steamers travelling to and from Whanganui. Today, it provides access to jet boat rides to the Bridge to Nowhere which crosses the Manapurua Gorge.
Roads to the bridge were never built because of the terrain of the Whanganui National Park.
The Whanganui River Road has many historical landmarks, including Maraes (permission required to enter) and the Little Jerusalem settlement.
Along the route, there are loads of places to stop for bush walks and views of the river.
Our favourite stops were:
- Atene Viewpoint Walk
- Aramoana Summit.
The Atene Viewpoint Walk has a steep gradient up to the lookout, across farmland but worth it for the views across the valley.
Aramoana Summit is close to the Whanganui turn-off and has a spectacular view of the river.
And we found the best approach to travel the road, with easy stops for views and photos, was from Whanganui to Pipiriki. We also suggest driving the road early in the day to avoid local traffic.
Make a Stop at Whanganui
Sometimes it’s the smaller places away from the large cities where you can explore without the bustle.
Whanganui is worth visiting and has a lot to offer within the city and nearby:
- Whanganui Saturday Market
- River Cruise
- Durie Hill Elevator
- Shopping on Victoria Avenue
- Bushy Park Sanctuary
- Paloma Gardens
- Kai Iwi Beach and Bason Botanic Gardens
Two of our favourites were Bushy Park Sanctuary and Paloma Gardens.
Stay at Bushy Park Tarapuruhi
Bushy Park Sanctuary is off State Highway 3 on the road towards New Plymouth.
The old homestead offers accommodation, meals and high tea. But it is the abundance of native birds and fauna which makes it unique.
Bushy Park is surrounded by a perimeter fence designed to keep predators out, similar to the fence surrounding Zealandia in Wellington. Native wildlife is able to live without rats, weasels and possums killing their young.
As you walk the paths, robins will hop about near you. Tui and Riflemen will drink from the feeding stations, where you can sit and observe.
Bushy Park – 791 Rangitatau East Road, Kai Iwi.
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Stay at Paloma Gardens
Paloma Gardens is 23.4 km from Whanganui. Off the beaten track, the last part of the road, unsealed. The exotic gardens are landscaped with plants from all over the world, from the jungles of Asia to the deserts of Africa and the Americas.
An entrance fee of $10 per adult (2022) gives access to:
- See the terrifying variety of cactus
- Wander the hilly field of ponds and bridges
- Stroll a grove of flowers, bushes and pottery, even teapots
- Be inspired by the expansive lawn, ponds and bamboo grove
Paloma Gardens offers accommodation and is also an ideal setting for a family gathering.
Paloma Gardens -11 Pohutukawa Lane, Fordell 4577.
From Whanganui, the next stop is New Plymouth, Taranaki
Road Trip around New Plymouth in Taranaki
From Whanganui, the drive to New Plymouth is 159 km, just over two hours without stops.
The road trip scenery is lush green pastures with cows dotting the landscape. It’s probably why the first European settlers from England felt like they were at home.
Where did New Plymouth get its name?
The name comes from the port of Plymouth in Devon, England, as many of the first European settlers came from Devon and Cornwall.
And getting to the city of New Plymouth, you can drive directly, passing through towns with their own unique highlights:
- Patea, famous for Poi E, a song by the Pātea Māori Club and the distinctive Aotea Waka Memorial
- Hawera Tawhiti Museum will give you insightful early New Zealand history and has one of Fonterra’s dairy factories
- Stratford main street has the unusual Glockenspiel clock. It’s also the turn-off for a road trip along the Forgotten Highway through Whangamomana.
We turned off at Eltham to visit Dawson Falls at Mount Taranaki and to drive the Surf Highway 45.
Visit Dawson Falls, Mount Taranaki
Taking the time to visit Dawson Falls was well worth the drive.
The road up to the Dawson Falls Visitor Centre carpark is through beautiful native bush. The centre has limited opening hours where you can learn more about the surroundings.
From the carpark, you can take a walk to Wilkies Pool for a swim. We sat and watched some adventurous ones take a rock slide into the pools.
Returning to the carpark, we walked down the road to the entrance track to Dawson Falls. The path descends via steps to the base of the waterfall.
And if you are looking for a freedom camping spot for the night, it’s a short drive to Opunake Beach.
Take a Dip at Opunake Beach
A beautiful spot for a picnic is overlooking Opunake Beach, a camper-friendly beach. The black sands of this sheltered beach are great for swimming, exploring the rock pools, or taking a stroll.
And for a bite to eat, make sure you stop at Arty Tarts Cafe for the best pies and cakes.
From here, you can drive Surf Highway 45 to New Plymouth.
Drive Surf Highway 45 to New Plymouth
Travelling the coastal road to New Plymouth has picturesque scenery of the coast and Mount Taranaki.
To reach the coastal beaches or a close-up of Cape Egmont Lighthouse, you’ll need to take one of the side roads.
And if you’re using your campervan or motorhome, Cape Egmont Boat Club is a lovely overnight stop for a few nights.
Staying at Ahu Ahu Beach Villas
A wonderful gift from a friend had us enjoying a few nights at Ahu Ahu Beach Villas.
Set above the beach, we had views overlooking the coast and out to New Plymouth city, including Paritutu Rock.
And below us, we could spend our time walking along the beach, even finding an old shipwreck.
In the other direction, we walked to Oakura Beach for swimming and tasty fish n chips.
Ahu Ahu Beach Villas – 321 Ahu Ahu Road, Kaitake 4374
How many days do you need in New Plymouth?
You need at least 2-3 days (or a long weekend) to make the most of New Plymouth. But you can easily spend 5-7 days with the amount to do here.
The Freedom Camping site at Te Rewa Rewa Bridge for our second trip was better for our budget than the motor camps. And it was perfect for walking the New Plymouth coastal walkway.
You’ll also want to visit:
- Pukekura Park in the city
- Pukeiti Botanical Gardens
- Lake Mangamahoe Lookout
- Pouakai Tarns
- Walk the New Plymouth coastal walkway
Two of our favourites were:
- Lake Mangamahoe Lookout (15 minutes from New Plymouth) and
- Pukeiti Botanical Gardens (30 minutes from New Plymouth.)
Take great photos at Lake Mangamahoe Lookout
We found the best spot for photos was from the dam at Lake Mangamahoe.
Instead of parking near the entrance, take the road as far as it will go to a turning area and parking. If you look towards the lake, there is a short path up to the dam. And there is also another lookout path.
Both are great for views of Mount Taranaki and for memorable photos.
Wander the Pukeiti Botanical Gardens
On the lower slopes of Mount Taranaki are 360 hectares of predator-free rainforest and exotic gardens free of charge to visit.
Most of the walking tracks are manageable, with steps on a few of the trails.
The gardens are known for their spectacular blooms of Rhododendron, Camellias and Magnolias. A spectacular sight when in bloom from July.
There is a Rainforest Centre for the kids to learn about flora and fauna. And a tree-top skywalk and secret garden. Plus, there is an on-site cafe instead of bringing a picnic.
Pukeiti Botanical Gardens – 2290 Carrington Road, New Plymouth (open every day)
Leaving New Plymouth for Auckland or Wellington
When it’s time to leave New Plymouth, if you are heading north to Auckland, you can travel through the Awakino Gorge to Piopio.
Here you can visit the famous limestone formations, the Hobbit film location and nearby Waitomo Caves.
And if you decide to return to Taupo to complete the loop, here are our suggestions for things to do in Taupo.
7 Things to Do in Taupo
Stay at Baycrest Thermal Lodge, Taupo, with your own private mineral spa. Fill the tub with mineral water and enjoy a relaxing soak with a glass of bubbles. Perfect.
Take a Dip at Wairakei Terrace Pools in Taupo, just outside of Taupo, for a walk around the thermal area before relaxing in one of several pools. The setting is made more special, with surrounding bushes to absorb the tranquillity of nature.
Enjoy the View of Huka Falls, where you will be mesmerised by the water flowing from the river down the narrow gap is a wondrous spectacle.
Book an Adventure with a Taupo Bungy Jump or the exhilaration of the Huka Falls Jet Boat ride.
Explore the Thermal Activity of Taupo at:
- Craters of the Moon is a geothermal walkway of bubbling craters and steaming fissures.
- Orakei Korako is 30 minutes north of Taupo, with one of New Zealand’s largest areas of active geysers.
Shop at Taupo Outlet Stores for quality clothing and bargains at outlet stores, or choose New Zealand products and gifts. Relax at one of the many cafes and make a booking at Thai Delight Restaurant, 19 Tamamutu Street, Taupo.
Spend the Day in Rotorua, one hour from Taupo, a city, to immerse yourself in learning the culture of the Maori people. View the bubbling hot mud pools and geysers. Or do something completely different, climb 25 metres up into the Redwood Forest. Not for the faint-hearted but ideal as an adrenaline rush.