It took me some time to fall in love with the geothermal lake region of Aotearoa New Zealand. The first time we visited I was put off by the price required to walk the Waimangu Geothermal Valley. Other than a few areas with railings and boardwalks, most of the walk felt like a traditional public trail through natural phenomena that people are generally invited to experience for free. Looking back, maybe I should have been more appreciative of the privilege to experience the power of this colorful landscape.
Other trips to Rotorua consisted of work conferences where I was stuck inside, running the Tarawera Ultra 103km in the muddiest of muds, or making a quick stop to hike Mount Tarawera (see post Eruptions of color, senses, and wonder – exploring Mount Tarawera and White Island). I highly recommend the mountain and on years where there isn’t a large tropical storm, the race is pretty spectacular and well supported. It did at least bring me past Tarawera Falls gushing through a cliff face, but then there was that bit of mud covering over 40 km.
My love for Rotorua didn’t really evolve until I moved to the Bay of Plenty. I personally think it is the gem of the region. A celebrated Māori culture and a landscape so dynamic, its energy surrounds you even in highly developed areas. You might park your car next to a steam vent or hop out on the side of the road for little soak in a hotspring. Rotorua really is a unique experience, a must see on any trip to Aotearoa NZ. You can stroll through a redwood forest, run lush bush trails, take a gondola ride over the city. Adventure awaits here and though I have never done the following people enjoy the many of the extreme offerings of the city such as, mountain bike tracks, white water rafting, and quirky thrills like zorb.
Rotorua is the Aotearoa NZ equivalent to Yellowstone in the US. There is no better place to see the vibrant colors of the geothermal landscape than Wai-O-Tapu.
If you are interested in forested tracks my two favorites are 1) southwest edge of Lake Tarawera and 2) the Redwoods to Blue Lake. Lake Okataniana also offers a variety of tracks, but the lack of sunshine on the lakeside section keeps this track muddy throughout the year.
This is the path less taken. I have run this track three times and I have only seen people (2 total) once. Likely you will run into more wallabies than people as you enjoy some of the most beautiful bush in the Bay of Plenty. The track climbs to scenic bluffs, through mossy ground cover and tree fern forests, terminating at Hot Water Beach. After a soak you can turn to experience it all over again or hire a watertaxi pick up back to the beginning. People say that tourists go to Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel and locals go to the Lake Tarawera version. I recommend both as they are completely different experiences and both special in their own right.
Redwoods and Beyond
I am generally one to stray away from exotically planted forests, especially monocrops planted to harvest, but I enjoy the small section of trail through the redwoods and they don’t aggressively threaten native vegetation. These giants can be seen for free on land or above the forest floor for a price. I imagine the tree walk is the closest thing to feeling like an Ewok, but I have only experienced the free version.
From here there is a loop track leading to Lake Tikitapu Blue Lake and Lake Rotokakahi Green Lake. However, if you aren’t interested in a 37 km hike/run, driving or mountain biking is suggested. There is a lot of Māori history associated with these lakes and since the legend is a lengthy story, it is best read here. Head to Blue for recreation and Green for tranquility and enjoy the bush tracks with stair climbs and Māori carvings between.
Fancy a soak in the mud? Head to Hells Gate, a very touristy and laughter-filled experience. According to Māori legend the geothermal activity here was started by two sisters who sent fire under the sea to their brother dying in the snow. During modern times, you can soak in the mud pools, rinse and then soak in the hot pool overlooking the vents. I unfortunately didn’t look any younger after my time here, but we enjoyed the novelty of it all.
Rainbow Mountain, Gondola, Kerosene Creek, and Polynesian Spa
The colorful cliffs of Rainbow Mountain is a path less traveled. This short, but steep track offer 360 degree views of the geothermal area south of Rotorua. Hardly anyone bothers with this hike, but they are missing out on some serious beauty. Just look at that roygbiv blanked in native bush.
If you are keen to enjoy some city time, take the gondola to get an overhead view of Lake Rotorua. There are heaps of things to explore at the top, take an astrology tour, enjoy a meal at the restaurant, or sample jelly bellies. There are multiple ways to make your way down, zipline, mountain bike, and the luge are popular amenities here. It is a bit hectic, but worth the trip up.
There are heaps of hot pools to explore in the city. The most popular is the Polynesian Spa, a developed facility that offer a series of alkaline and acidic pools, each having different health/healing benefits. This is another paid for experience, but relaxing and they offer a lot of variety. You could spend hours soaking in this large network of pools of varying temperatures. If you want to join the locals then head to the bush springs at Kerosene Creek. It can get quite busy here, but hanging under the trees near falls sure beats the concrete experience of spa in mind. Even when the crowds swell on the weekends, you can find quiet spaces to yourself.
If faster moving water is more your style, Okere Falls has excellent kayak and rafting opportunities. Plunge over the only class V waterfall where your raft appears to get lost in the falls for quick second. There are short hiking opportunities in the bush surrounding falls as well.
This is really just a sample of what you can do in Rotorua and I have so much left to explore. Maybe a Māori cultural show or roll in Zorbe next time?