Rotorua is not only known for its lake by the same name, but also for the high volcanic activity in the area, the imported California Redwood trees, and the nearby blue spring – the source of roughly 70% of all bottled water in New Zealand. We started off by visiting one of the most popular areas to see the amazing geothermal activity, a thermal park named Wai-O-Tapu.
The thermal park is a 20 minute drive from Rotorua and has various colored thermal pools and an active geyser. The admission of $32 NZD is about average for a thermal park in the Rotorua area, of which there are more than a few. It’s ideal to visit Wai-O-Tapu in the morning, as the Lady Knox Geyser is made to erupt at 10:15 every morning. If the scheduled time seems a bit odd, the geyser doesn’t erupt on its own very often anymore, so it gets some help doing so. We were intrigued with how you could get a geyser to erupt at a specific time. Our most recent geyser experience was with the famous Geysir (which all other geysers are named after) in Iceland, which erupts on its own every few minutes. At 10am we drove four minutes from the entrance of Wai-O-Tapu to the Lady Knox Geyser, which is just back up the road the way we came a short distance.
The area around the geyser was much built to address a lot of tourists, with a semi-circle seating area around the geyser and it was crowded even in low season. A little after 10:15 a guide showed up and explained that a long time ago when workers went to wash their clothes in the warm water from the geyser, they quickly learned that soap reacts with the hot water and causes it to erupt, throwing their clothes in every direction. He was going to make the geyser erupt by throwing soap into the top just like they accidentally did back then. After he threw the soap into the geyser it slowly started to erupt for a few minutes, looking very much like a science experiment volcano you may have made in school at first and then moving into a full eruption. Even with it not being a natural eruption, it was still pretty cool to watch.
We headed back to the entrance of Wai-O-Tapu to explore the park. There a three different walkways leading through the thermal park, we decided to do them all which took us a little over an hour. There are a lot of different things to explore in the park: hot pools, colored pools, holes in the ground with yellow colored walls, and hot steam coming from all over. Our favorite sights were the boiling hot, orange and turquoise Champagne Pool and the neon green Devil’s bath. Both thermal pools have incredibly vibrant colors.
Wai-O-Tapu thermal park is worth a visit if you’re interested in seeing colorful thermal pools and don’t expect too much of the Lady Knox Geyser.
The mud pools are just a few hundred meters from Wai-o-Tapu (20 min from Rotorua) and free to visit. The strange field of boiling mud greeted us with the typical rotten egg smell of sulfur. The field of mud is about 45 meters long and the heat and activity of the boiling mud seemed to vary from spot to spot. A short walk led us around one side of the mud pools and up to a viewing point. The mud pools are definitely worth a visit and the best part is that they are free.
After wandering around in Wai-o-Tapu for an hour and a half we headed down to Kerosene Creek, a hot water stream just a 10 minute drive away. Although the stream requires a drive over a pothole filled gravel road to get there, Kerosene Creek is popular with locals and backpackers alike. From the parking lot a small path leads down to the stream. There is a small waterfall near the start of the walkway, which makes a good spot for having a first dip. If you head downstream for another minute or two you’ll reach a bigger, beautiful waterfall with a pool underneath it that you can swim or relax in. When we were there the water wasn’t as hot as we had heard, and a local that was there told us it cooled off due to the heavy rainfall from the days before. Although the setting of the stream in the forest is amazing, the water in the stream is quite murky and it smells a bit like sulfur, so our favorite free hot stream is still Otumuheke in Taupo.
After our bath in the Kerosene Creek hot stream, we drove the 15 minutes back to Rotorua to visit the Kuirau Park in the town center. The public park is quite big and has lots of thermal activity. There are tons of hot pools and mud pools scattered around the park. It’s free to visit and stroll around. There is not a proper walkway or much explanation about any of the thermal pools, but it’s definitely worth a visit. Paid thermal parks, such as Wai-O-Tapu are definitely more impressive, but also charge entry fees. To get a free glance at the thermal activities in Rotorua, Kuirau Park is nice.
A 10 minute drive from the Rotorua town center, the beautiful Whakarewarewa Redwood forest is a great place to explore. California Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world and were brought to New Zealand roughly a hundred years ago. In California these trees are known to grow up to 112 meters high and 7 meters wide. Although the Redwoods in Rotorua aren’t nearly as high (the highest is 50 meters) as the ones in California, they are still stunning. The Whakarewarewa Redwood forest is popular with hikers and mountain bikers and has tons of trails of different lengths and difficulties. The forest here is beautiful and unique due to mix of California Redwoods and native New Zealand trees such as the silver fern growing everywhere.
Te Waihou / Blue springs
North of Rotorua lays a river with the clearest water we’ve ever seen, the Waihou River which leads to the Blue Spring. The water is so clear and perfect that seventy percent of New Zealand’s bottled water come from there. The river can be accessed through a short walk (30 min return) from the parking at Leslie Road or through a longer walk (3 hours return) from Whites Road. We were a bit short on time, so we parked at Leslie Road and walked to the Waihou River from there. After a short and easy walk we got a first glimpse of the river as we crossed a bridge over it.
We could see the bottom of the river and the seaweed as though we were looking through glass. We followed the path for a little longer until we reached a wooden platform with a picnic area and a stairway to access the river for a swim. The water is a chilly 11 degrees Celsius all year around, but it looks so beautiful that even now in winter a few people were enjoying a swim. The Blue Spring could be seen just across the river and it should definitely be on your list of things to do in the Rotorua area. It is free to visit and absolutely gorgeous.
We found basic and very cheap camping (NZD $6 per person) near Rotorua via the DOC website. The Brett Road Campsite is a 20 min drive from Rotorua and right on the shores of Lake Rerewhakaaitu. The campsite isn’t very big and has only a basic long drop toilet, but the location right next to the lake is stunning and more then worth the small fee. There is no office, so the money has to be dropped into an honesty box onsite, and a ranger comes by in the mornings to check (he caught a couple of girls that didn’t pay and fined them that morning).
If you have time, definitely drive south to visit Taupo, about an hour drive from Rotorua. Taupo and the surroundings are worth a visit, with New Zealand’s biggest lake, a free hot stream, and adrenaline activities like Taupo Bungy to enjoy. There’s still loads more to see in Rotorua, and we plan to visit again soon!