Some of New Zealand’s top natural wonders can be found between the two towns, so why not make a day of it and turn your relatively short journey into an epic and beautiful road trip?!
The two towns are connected by State Highway 5, which forms part of the larger Thermal Explorer Highway. This road follows lake edges and meanders through some of the most incredible landscapes this country has to offer, which makes for a pretty amazing journey.
Taupo and Rotorua are scenic, vibrant towns in their own right, but the trip between the two is just as noteworthy.
Of course, as is the case with any road trip, it sure does help if you actually know where to go. We’ve put together a guide to the 17 best stops from Taupo to Rotorua (or Rotorua to Taupo) to help you plan an amazing drive that you’ll never forget.
About the Drive from Taupo to Rotorua
Often, super scenic drives come at the price of many hours behind the wheel and poorly maintained roads. Fortunately, that’s not the case here! The drive from Taupo to Rotorua is short, pleasant, and easy, with only about an hour of drive time.
Rotorua is around 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Taupo, and the drive is mostly straight. The road also tends to be pretty quiet, with relatively few other cars around. The speed limit along the highway is 100 kph (62 mph), except for when you pass through villages when the limit is usually 50 kph (30 mph).
I strongly advise sticking to this because traffic police often park along this route to catch speeders.
Most of the attractions along the way are of the natural variety, from breathtaking lookouts to amazing hot springs. With that being said, there are also a few interesting and quirky cultural sites along the way – prawn-themed adventure park, anyone?
If you’re traveling from Taupo to Rotorua, or Rotorua to Taupo, you can really make a day of the journey and explore some of the best attractions that this part of New Zealand has to offer.
Taupo to Rotorua FAQs
17 BEST Stops Between Taupo and Rotorua
1. Huka Falls
The magnificent Huka Falls is located only 7 kms (4.3 miles) north of Taupo or about a 5-minute drive. It’s so close, this has to be the first stop on your Taupo to Rotorua road trip!
The Waikato River is the longest river in the country, and right before Huka Falls, it narrows into a volcanic rock ravine. This narrowing increases the water pressure that creates the dramatic waterfall as the water bursts over Huka Falls at a rate of 220,000 liters per second. This could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in less than 11 seconds!
The foamy appearance of the water as it cascades down 11 meters (36 feet) is reflected in its name. The name comes from the Maori language where ‘Huka’ means ‘foam’.
The parking lot for Huka Falls is easy to get to. Once you’re here, there are multiple lookout points including a bridge right at the top of the falls where you can get close to this incredible waterfall.
If you fancy getting even closer to this powerful waterfall, hop on a thrilling jet boat tour for a front-row seat to this incredible natural wonder. You’ll need to hold on tight as you do 360-degree spins and speed past rugged cliffs before arriving at the thundering waterfall. Roundtrip transportation is included for the $108 NZD price per person.
2. Craters of the Moon
Craters of the Moon is a geothermal trail through bubbling craters, steaming earth, and mud pools.
Located less than 10 minutes outside of Taupo, stopping to trek through here definitely feels like you’re on a different planet (or moon!).
I spent about an hour here wandering around the wooden pathways and raised viewing platforms. It’s really neat and a bit eerie to see the natural geothermal activity up close. It’s constantly changing too, so you might see the steam clouds from afar one minute, and then the steam will be fogging up your glasses and enveloping you the next!
This is a unique spot for photos, so bring your camera along. There are also well-placed signs around the trail telling you about what you’re seeing and how this place was formed. Basically, a geothermal power station nearby lowered the water pressure underground in the 1950s. It caused superheated water to bubble up to the surface – creating boiling mud, steam vents, and the area you see today.
The cost of admission is $5 NZD for kids and $10 NZD for adults. It’s open from 10 am to 4 pm daily with the last entry at 3 p.m.
Related read: If you’re up for more epic trips in New Zealand, check out a few of the best hikes on the North Island!
3. Huka Honey Hive
A sweet spot buzzing with activity, Huka Honey Hive is a honey farm you can visit for free on a trip between Taupo and Rotorua. It’s located just outside Taupo, so it’s good if craving something sweet at the start of your drive.
There’s pure New Zealand honey, mead, and liqueur (with free tastings!) or you can see live beehives and other interactive displays. There are lots of areas just for kids too with books and toys.
Stop by Café Hive@65 for some yummy gourmet ice cream, drinks, and sweet treats – many made with honey of course! Or grab something unique from the gift shop, including skin care products, jewelry, and more.
Of course, you’ll need to leave with a jar of honey or two! There are dozens of varieties including pieces of honeycomb you can buy.
Huka Honey Hive is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm on weekends and 10 am to 5 pm on weekdays.
4. Huka Prawn Park
First and foremost, the park is a prawn farm, home to hatcheries and prawn pens, where they breed and farm prawns. You can feed the prawns, see the babies and sometimes even catch some prawns for yourself.
Of course, this means you need a restaurant to try these delicious prawns. Nestled along the Waikato River is Taupo’s only riverside restaurant serving up deliciously fresh prawns and other fantastic meals. Personally, though, nothing hits the spot better than a kilo of prawns in garlic butter!
Lastly, to get the whole family excited, they also added a fun park complete with a pond for pedal boats and SUPs. There is also trout feeding, water cannons, and more. It’s a really fun place for families to check out while in Taupo.
The adventure park is only open on weekends and some school holiday days from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm. The restaurant is open from Friday to Tuesday from 9 am to 3 pm or 3:30 pm on weekends. The entire park is closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Entry to the park is $27.50 NZD, but they also have family tickets available.
Related read: Another awesome activity for families is exploring some of New Zealand’s incredible glow worm caves!
5. Aratiatia Rapids
This next thing to do on the drive is both a natural and manmade attraction. The Aratiatia Rapids is a narrow area of the Waikato River that drops 28 meters (91 feet) over a 1-kilometer (.6 mile) narrow channel.
Above the rapids is the Aratiatia Dam, which is used to control the flow of water in order to produce reliable hydroelectric power for the town of Taupo.
When the dam is released, the rapids come to life, putting on an epic show for visitors. You can watch the incredible flow of water from three different lookout points on the rock bluffs near the river.
The dam releases water multiple times a day – although it can release at any time, making this area too dangerous for swimming. During the winter (April-September), the dam releases water at 10 am, 12 pm, 2 pm. During the summer (October-March), the dam releases water at those same times as well as an additional time at 4 pm.
Be sure to arrive early to get a parking spot at the designated parking lot before walking down the short trail to the rapids.
6. Orakei Korako Geothermal Park & Cave
With geysers, hot springs, silica terraces, and bubbling mud pools, Orakei Korako is the perfect place to witness natural geothermal activity up close. In fact, Lonely Planet declared it one of the best thermal areas in the world!
Orakei Korako is located just off the highway, roughly 25 minutes from Taupo and 45 minutes from Rotorua.
To access the site, you take a quick ferry trip across Lake Ohakuri. Once you make it over, there’s a 2.5-kilometer (1.5-mile) boardwalk that runs around the park, and you can walk along this track to see the park’s stunning geothermal features.
What’s really cool about this area is that it’s home to the Ruatapu Cave, which is one of only two known geothermal caves in the world, so visiting this place is a super unique and rare experience.
The park is open from 8 am to 5 pm each day, and you can take a self-guided tour for $45 NZD per adult, or $17 NZD per child. See how many geysers you can spot – this area has the most active geysers of any geothermal park in New Zealand! Your tour cost also includes the ferry ride there and back, which runs on-demand as you need it.
7. Hot ‘n’ Cold River
Rotorua is known for its hot springs, but the Hot ‘n’ Cold River is a lesser-known spot that makes an excellent stop on your Taupo to Rotorua road trip.
It’s called the Hot ‘n’ Cold River because it’s the point where a hot thermal stream meets a cold freshwater stream, resulting in a unique blend of hot and cold water.
The Hot ‘n’ Cold River is totally free to visit! To find its location here, follow the sign for Waiotapu Thermal Park. Then, 500 meters further down the road, there’s another entrance that takes you down a twisting path to a bridge, and that’s how you know you have arrived!
This is a popular spot with locals, so join in and take a dip here for a great break from your drive. Just make sure you have a bathing suit along!
You will probably leave the water with some grit or silt on your skin, but that’s all part of the fun. If you can, remember to bring a towel and maybe a big bottle of water to rinse off with. And just a heads up – there are no changing rooms. If you want privacy, it’s a strictly behind-a-bush-or-towel situation.
And one more thing to note: remember that it’s not safe to put your head underwater when bathing in hot springs.
8. Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Another must-stop on your way from Taupo to Rotorua is Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. This park is considered New Zealand’s most diverse geothermal area, and its intriguing colors and patterns have been formed over thousands of years.
Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Park is located 40 minutes from Taupo, and 24 minutes from Rotorua, so it’s a good halfway point to stop. To get here, turn off of State Highway 5 opposite the Waiotapu Tavern and then follow the road for another 2 kilometers (1.2 miles).
The area is home to the unique Champagne Pool, which is so-named because of the way it bubbles like a glass of champagne! Its temperature ranges between 73°C (163°F) to 75°C (167°F) and its vibrant orange and green hues make it the perfect spot for a photo-op.
The park also boasts the spectacular Lady Knox Geyser, but I’ll talk more about that in a second. There’s also a Visitor Center to help you plan your visit properly, plus a cafe and gift shop on site.
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is only open 4 days per week: Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays from 8:30 am until 4:30 pm. Last entry to the park is at 3 pm.
Tickets cost $32.50 NZD for adults, $11 NZD for children aged 5-15, or $85 NZD for a family ticket for 2 adults and 2-3 children. Tickets are valid on any available day for up to 3 months after you purchase them.
9. Lady Knox Geyser
The Lady Knox Geyser is one of the main attractions at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. This geyser erupts every day at 10:15 am – yes, like clockwork! – and you can watch it from the viewing benches nearby.
I should point out that the geyser doesn’t naturally erupt at the same time every day. Instead, an eruption is caused by dropping a chemical compound into the water, causing eruptions up to 20 meters (65 feet) high. The eruption can last for up to an hour, depending on the weather conditions.
The geyser is named after Constance Knox, who was the second – and probably favorite, let’s be honest – daughter of Ucher Knox, the 15th governor of New Zealand. It doesn’t have a Maori name because it wasn’t discovered until the 20th century, so it’s a pretty recent find.
10. Waiotapu Mud Pool
The Waitopatu Mud Pool is another natural attraction located inside Waiotapu Geothermal Park. It’s the largest mud pool in New Zealand!
It formed as a result of a mud volcano that eroded away. Now, it’s a boiling, bubbling pool of hot mud with steam rising from the surface – it feels like a sight from a movie!
Sadly, you can’t go swimming in the Waitopatu Mud Pool, but it sure is a lot of fun to observe.
Related read: For more amazing natural attractions, don’t miss seeing New Zealand’s best waterfalls!
11. Kerosene Creek
Ok, so its name might not be the most appealing, but I promise you don’t want to miss out on swimming in Kerosene Creek! Plus, this activity is totally free.
Kerosene Creek is very close to Waiotapu Geothermal Park, so it’s the next logical step on your road trip from Taupo to Rotorua.
To get there, drive down Old Waitopatu Road until you reach a grass area on the right-hand side where you can park. From there, you should be able to spot a dirt track that will lead you to Kerosene Creek.
Once you reach the creek, you can enjoy swimming in the natural hot springs. There’s a small waterfall and some man-made pools where you can bathe in water that naturally averages 30°C (86°F), which is pretty much like bathwater!
I will be honest with you, though, Kerosene Creek does have an… Ahem… funky smell due to the rotting vegetation around the edges of the creek and, of course, the sulfur in the water. But that’s all part of the experience, and to be honest, it’s a small price to pay for such an awesome experience.
12. Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve
Next up on our epic road trip from Taupo to Rotorua, we have Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve, which is located just a 7-minute drive from Kerosene Creek, and 25 minutes south of Rotorua. It’s a geothermal mountain that looks like something out of a postcard with its vibrant orange and green hues.
Rainbow Mountain is also known for the unusual rounded shape of its top, and the fact that it overlooks Lake Ngahewa, a wetland area that’s home to a range of unique wildlife.
What’s unique about Rainbow Mountain is that despite its volcanic past, it has cooled down more recently and so the area’s vegetation has begun to recover, including some rare plants that are specific to geothermal areas.
The Crater Lake Walk is the best way to explore Rainbow Mountain, and it’s only a 1-kilometer (0.6-mile) round trip, so it’s fairly quick and easy to complete. It takes you to a viewpoint above – you guessed it – the Crater Lakes, which are absolutely beautiful to gaze down upon, as well as the surrounding landscape.
If you decide to spend longer at the reserve and summit Rainbow Mountain after Crater Lakes, it’s an extra 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) each way that should take you around 3 hours in total. You’ll enjoy amazing views of Rotorua and its diverse landscapes, as well as Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park in the distance.
The reserve is free to enter and is open all year round, so it’s a great option in any season.
13. Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Waimangu Volcanic Valley is the youngest geothermal system in the world, and it’s located just 20 minutes south of Rotorua. It’s also located just 5 minutes away from Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve, so it’s the logical next step on your road trip from Taupo to Rotorua. Just turn right out of the reserve and follow Okaru Road north, and you’ll be there in no time.
The valley is home to a vivid blue crater lake, as well as hot springs, rare plant and bird life, and it’s the former site of the Waigmangu geyser, which used to erupt to heights rivaling the Empire State Building (although this was in 1900-1904 before it had even been built!).
The famous Pink and White Terraces, which were once the 8th Wonder of the World, are also located in Waimangu Volcanic Valley – but sadly they were buried by a volcanic eruption in 1886. Now, the terraces are covered by Lake Rotomahana, but you can still take a boat tour of the lake to explore this area and learn more about its fascinating history.
There’s an array of activities on offer in Waimangu, whether you want to do the full “Waimangu experience” or just spend a few hours exploring the area. There are boat tours available, as well as self-guided tours that vary in length from 1.5-4.5 kilometers (0.9-2.8 miles).
If you opt for the full experience, which includes a walk to fully explore the park and a boat cruise on Lake Rotomahana, it takes around 3 hours and costs $89 NZD per adult, or $30 NZD for children aged 6-15.
You can also choose to book the self-guided walking tour here for $44 NZD. You’ll have the freedom to wander around this amazing area at your own pace and explore all the different trails.
Or, if you prefer, you can always opt for a more adventurous way to explore Lake Rotomahana by kayak. You’ll have 90 minutes of guided kayaking, where you’ll learn all about the Pink and White Terraces and the eruption that destroyed them, and then enjoy 2.5 hours of independent kayaking. This experience costs $130 NZD.
14. Te Pā Tū Maori Village
Previously known as Tamaki Māori Village, Te Pā Tū is a truly unique experience that allows you to immerse yourself in Māori culture. The village is set up like an authentic pre-European era village, and the experience includes a traditional Māori feast and hangi, as well as cultural performance, war dances, and storytelling.
Te Pā Tū is 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) south of Rotorua, so it only takes around 15 minutes to drive between the two. In the evenings, Te Pā Tū offers guests an authentic cultural experience that usually lasts around 4 hours.
You’ll start with a powhiri, which is a welcome ceremony, and then explore the traditional village while you watch re-enactments of traditional daily activities. You’ll also watch a haka performance before you tuck into a tasty feast of slow-cooked meat and vegetables.
The village is open all year round, and the experience you get varies according to the time of year since celebrations and ceremonies differ according to the lunar calendar.
For a full experience including transportation from Rotorua, this tour will take you from Rotorua to Te Pā Tū for an unforgettable evening. You’ll learn all about the Māori culture and gain insight into New Zealand’s history. Prices start at $250 NZD.
15. Secret Spot Hot Tubs Rotorua
Just on the outskirts of Rotorua itself, we have the secret hot tubs. What better way to end your adventure-filled road trip from Taupo to Rotorua than with a relaxing soak?
Tickets can be purchased here and include a 45-minute soak in a private hot tub for your group of 2-6 people. You’ll get complimentary parking and lockers and you can rent a robe, towel, or even a swimsuit for an additional fee.
This experience costs $39 NZD per adult and must be booked for a minimum of two people.
Related read: Don’t miss a visit to some of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand!
16. Te Puia
Te Puia is the last stop on our epic road trip. It’s a geothermal park that’s full of natural wonders, located just on the edge of Rotorua. It also places a lot of emphasis on Maori arts and crafts, so a visit is a great chance to learn more about this culture.
Te Puia is home to the Pohutu geyser, which erupts up to 30 meters (100 feet) every hour. It’s the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere, and it’s definitely worth a visit. There are also mud pools and hot springs to explore.
At Te Puia, you’ll also find Kiwi national bone carving, weaving, and wood carving schools, where you can watch artists at work and learn more about the traditional craftsmanship of the Māori. This is a really fascinating experience and a chance to immerse yourself in the culture.
There are several different guided experiences available at Te Puia. The typical guided experience costs $75 NZD for adults or $37.50 NZD for children, although there are family packages available. It includes a tour of Te Puia’s most interesting geothermal features, as well as a visit to the NZ Māori Arts and Crafts Institute to watch master carvers and weavers at work.
For a unique experience, you can also go at night to see the geysers under the stars! Tickets are the same price during the day or the evening.
You can also opt for the “Indigenous Experience” package which includes a Māori buffet feast and cultural performance for $144 NZD, or $93.90 NZD for children.
And there we have it – the end of this epic road trip!
Rotorua may be a fairly small place, but there’s certainly no shortage of things to do here. There’s a super friendly vibe and I also think that it’s one of the best places in New Zealand to learn about Maori culture, although there’s a ton of natural beauty on offer, too.
From white water rafting on the Kaituna River (which has a stomach-flipping 7-meter (23-foot) drop!) and taking a paddle boarding tour of the glow worm-illuminated caves by night to climbing Mount Tarawera or going wine-tasting, I promise you won’t be bored for a single second here!
Of course, for more ideas check out my blog on Rotorua. It’s got everything you need to plan an epic trip!
Related read: Another great road trip is the drive from Auckland to Paihia!
Where to Stay in Rotorua
Now that you’ve made it to Rotorua, you’ll want to stay a while! This a fantastic area of New Zealand to explore, so all you need is a great place to stay.
Luckily there are tons of choices for accommodations – whether you are backpacking on a budget or looking for a luxurious place to call home for a few nights. These are my top picks for every budget!
This is one of the budget-friendly hotels centrally located in the city within walking distance of many Rotorua attractions like Government Gardens and the Polynesian Spa. It is a perfect fit for travelers with a tight budget where rooms in a shared dorm of four to eight people start at only $27 NZD per night. If you don’t want to share, there are private rooms available as well around the $100 NZD mark.
You can save money on meals by using the communal kitchen complete with cooking facilities and there’s a spacious guest lounge where you can hang out. If you’re in the mood for a more challenging activity, head to the 20-meter (65-foot) rock-climbing wall next door which offers guests staying here a discounted rate.
Another convenience at the hostel is the on-site tour desk. There you can inquire and ask for help as you organize your Rotorua activities for the day.
$$ – Thermal Oak Motel
If more room and spacious accommodations are what you’re looking for, you’ll find them here. The motel offers modern suites and high-quality units with free parking and Wi-Fi. The choices range from deluxe studios to a three-bedroom flat house, with rates from $180 NZD up to $600 NZD per night.
All accommodations are complete with air conditioning, a flat-screen TV, a fully equipped kitchenette, and a large modern bathroom with a walk-in shower. There’s also a dining area available in most of the rooms, including the executive two-bedroom unit (which also has a private outdoor spa pool).
Besides the rooms, you can go for a dip in one of the two public mineral spa pools. Another advantage is the convenient access to the city center, which is only a 10-minute walk away. This means you can enjoy the activities and sights of Rotorua downtown anytime you please. Book your stay online here.
$$$ – Rydges Rotorua
For a more luxurious stay in Rotorua, this hotel offers a scenic view and a relaxing atmosphere located on the edge of Redwoods Forest and overlooking the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Reserve and Historical Village.
Choose between a superior or deluxe room, which each features air conditioning, comfy beds, and cable TV with free movies. If you’re looking for something a little extra, you can book a private suite instead. Accommodation rates start from $242 NZD per night.
Start your morning with a visit to the on-site gym or a swim in the heated outdoor swimming pool. You can also drop by the hotel’s award-winning restaurant and bar that offers modern New Zealand cuisine. Then, spend the day exploring the mountains by bike. If you brought your own mountain bike, they have secure storage for it inside the hotel and a bike washing station.
Anything for the little ones? Yes! Rydges Rotorua houses a Play Zone with various games for children of all ages, including table tennis, foosball, Nintendo Switch, air hockey, and more. Easily book a room at Rydges Rotorua here!
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to book a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
A road trip from Taupo to Rotorua is one of those easy drives with SO much to see! It’s totally worth adding to your New Zealand itinerary. Whether you stop at every spot in this guide or just a few, it’s sure to be a memorable trip.
I hope my blog has helped you get ready for the trip from Taupo to Rotorua (or vice versa!). I have tons of other great NZ road trips if you’re planning to drive around the country. Make sure you also browse around my other guides on the North Island to help plan your trip.