New Zealand Road Trip: 2-Week North Island Itinerary

by | Mar 31, 2020 | 0 comments

Man at New Zealand Lookout

There are so many things to see and do in New Zealand that it can be challenging to decide where to go on your vacation. After spending a month traveling around the country, we’ve put together our ultimate 2-week North Island road trip itinerary. Get off-the-beaten-path, into nature and have fun with these budget-friendly activities!

Note: Prices are listed in NZD and USD. As of February 2020, $1.00 NZD = $0.65 USD.

Coromandel Peninsula (3 Days)

Day 1 – Rental Pickup and Blast Off

The start of a 2 week north island road trip in New Zealand

As soon as you land at the airport, make your way to the rental company to pick up your vehicle. We went with Eurocampers and had a great experience, but there are plenty of other options out there.

ProTip: Many of the rental companies offer free pickup from the airport if your rental starts on the day you arrive. Check with them in advance so you can provide your flight details and make arrangements accordingly.

Once you have your vehicle, you’ll need to get everything situated. This includes swinging by a supermarket to stock up on groceries and unpacking your belongings. It’s then time to hit the road!

We recommend not being overly ambitious on how far you drive that day; especially since you may be jet-lagged after a long flight. For our road trip you’ll head south, out of Auckland and down to Thames on the Coromandel Peninsula. It’s about 2 hours away.

Where to Stay

Danby Field Park is a site located in the center of Thames town on the west side of the Cormandel Peninsula. Although not more than a pullout off the main road, the site is still pretty quite throughout the evening.

  • Address: Queen Street, Thames
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for Certified Self-Contained (CSC) vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: 15
  • Amenities: Public bathroom open 24 hours and drinking water.
  • Notes:
    • Maximum of 2 nights consecutive stay.
    • Overnight campers must vacate by 9:00 AM each morning.

Day 2 – Karangahake Gorge Windows Walk

After finishing breakfast, start your North Island road trip with a hike along the Karangahake Gorge Windows Walk. This trail follows the Karangahake Gorge and showcases the mining heritage of the area.

The hike was recommended to us by a DOC (Department of Conservation) park ranger, so we honestly didn’t know what to expect when heading into it. By the end though we were super impressed! Not only do you learn interesting facts about the region’s mining history, but you get to wander through some of their old tunnels. It’s a bit spooky, but we enjoyed it.

Where to Stay

Head back to Danby Field Park for another night. It’s perfectly situated for hiking in Coromandel Forest Park tomorrow.

Make sure you know all the ins and outs of freedom camping before picking up your campervan.

Day 3 – The Pinnacles Walk

Woman looking out at the Pinnacles Forest Park. Location Coromandel Peninsual New Zealand.

For day 3 you’ll want to wake up early and make your way to Coromandel Forest Park. After driving all the way to the end of the road, you’ll find a gravel parking lot. This is where you’ll be starting The Pinnacles Walk. It’s a challenging, but beautiful hike. Read our full guide.

Where to Stay

The walk will take most of the day (we completed it in 8 hours, round trip) and the last thing you’ll want to do is drive a long distance afterwards while tired. Instead spend the night at one of the DOC campgrounds inside the national park. We recommend Totara Flat Campsite. It was less crowded than some of the others.

Or, if you plan ahead, you can stay overnight up in the Coromandel mountains at their forest hut. You’ll need to make reservations in advance though as it’s a popular destination.

  • Address: Coromandel Forest Park
  • Cost: $8.00 NZD ($5.37 USD) per person, per night.
  • Number of Sites: 30
  • Amenities: All but one of the campsites has outhouses for the restrooms. There’s also garbage and recycling bins available.
  • Notes:
    • You’ll need to pay for camping at the DOC ranger station on your way into the park and get a ticket that you then display in your windshield.
    • Dogs are allowed at some of the campgrounds in the park, but not all, so check with the ranger if you bring a canine.
    • Do not plan for drinking water to be available in the campsites. There is, however, a drinking water spigot at the DOC center where you can refill.

Bay of Plenty (2 Days)

Day 4 – Bay of Plenty

Rotary freedom camping North Island of New Zealand.

After a nice overnight rest from your hike, it’s time to move on to Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty. This area is known for its orchards and gardens, producing many different types of fruit (including the kiwifruit!), as well as long beaches that are prefect for swimming and surfing.

If you get an early enough start, you can drive up the east side of Coromandel Peninsula to visit Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach before heading south to Tauranga. They’re very popular sites and sound awesome. We had some errands to run that morning though (such as learning how to empty our grey water tank) and sadly didn’t have enough time for this detour before nightfall.

Sunset at Rotary Beach Tauranga, New Zealand's North Island.
Where to Stay

Rotary Park is a great campsite in town, located in a public park that butts up to the beach. Parking is limited, so get there early if you want to guarantee a slot for the evening. This, however, means it’s very peaceful at night and in the morning. The site also rewards early risers with a gorgeous sunrise.

  • Address: Te Hono St, Maungatapu, Tauranga
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: 3
  • Amenities: Bathroom open 24 hours, drinking water and public electric BBQ.
  • Notes:
    • The gates to the park are locked overnight between 9:00 pm to 7:00 am.
    • To make the BBQ work you’ll need to push a button on the front every 5 minutes or so.

Day 5 – Mount Maunganui

Bay of Plenty from top of Mount Maunganui, New Zealand.

Mount Maunganui is an extinct volcano on the North Island that towers 232 meters (761 feet) over the city. As such, no visit to Tauranga is complete without a day hike to the top. It only takes an hour or so (depending on how quickly you walk) and provides great areal views across the city and Bay of Plenty.

Once you’re done on the mountain, head to the waterfront and walk the boardwalk. There’s tons of cute shops, delicious restaurants, and of course a very sandy beach. After you get your fill, it’s then time to drive south to Rotorua.

Crashing waves at Bay of Plenty Mount Maunganui, New Zealand.
Where to Stay

Rotorua is perhaps one of the hardest places to camp at, especially if you’re looking to freedom camp. Head there early to ensure you get a spot for the evening.

Of the two freedom camping sites, Lakeside Rotorua is the best. It’s close to a public restroom and has a lakefront view. It’s also within walking distance of the city center, which is a major plus.

  • Address: No exact address provided but the coordinates are -38.129802, 176.250116. It’s right between Saint Michael’s Catholic Church and Lakeside Cafe.
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: 3
  • Amenities: Flushing toilet open 24 hours.
  • Notes: There is no drinking water or garbage bins available. You’ll have to pack everything in and out.

Don’t forget to get travel insurance in case of emergencies while on the road. We use World Nomads and highly recommend them to all our friends and family. Get a quote today!

Rotorua (3 Days)

Day 6 – Rainbow Mountain

Rainbow Mountain Hike Rotorua. North Island New Zealand.

Start your day with a trip to Rainbow Mountain. It’s a day hike just outside of Rotorua and has a little bit of everything: acid lakes, steam vents and a wonderful view from the top. And best of all, it’s free!

If the weather holds out, you can next head to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland for some more insane geothermal attractions spanning over 18 square km. Just note that this particular park is a paid activity, costing $32.50 NZD ($21.20 USD) per adult and $11.00 NZD ($7.17 USD) per child.

Note: Wai-O-Tapu is now a cashless site. If you plan to purchase tickets upon arrival, you’ll need to do so either by credit card or EFTPOS.

Rolling clouds across Rainbow Mountain North island
Where to Stay

Head back to Lakeside Rotorua for another free night of camping. However, if for some reason the site is full, then you can try Hinemoa Street Carpark, the second freedom site in town. It’s only a few minutes away.

  • Address: Hinemoa Street, Rotorua
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: 15
  • Amenities: This is just a parking spot for overnight use. No public facilities provided.
  • Notes: There’s apparently a toilet close by, but many reports say that it’s often closed overnight. Otherwise, the next nearest public toilet is a 15+ minute walk away.

Day 7 – Rotorua City

Lavender Bridge Rotorua Park New Zealand.

After a week on the road you’re likely in need of groceries and doing some laundry. Spend the day in town taking care of these chores and enjoying the sights.

When you’re ready for a break, head to Kuirau Park. It’s located in the center of town and showcases hot pools and mud pools. Rotorua is the only city in the world built on top of geothermal vents. Because of this, you’ll find steam coming out from the sewers and hot pools bubbling up in the park. There’s even some foot baths in the park where you can kick off your shoes and give your feet a good mineral soak.

If time allows, you can also check out the redwood forest. In 1901 New Zealand planted a small patch of Californian Redwoods in Rotorua as an attempt to find a new sustainable wood source. Although they abandoned this species for another type of tree, today the forest still remains. It’s since been declared a memorial to commemorate the New Zealand Forest Service members who died in WWI.

There are tons of trails you can hike or bike throughout the forest. Or, if you want to gain a new perspective, book a treetop walk. They offer both day and nighttime tours. Cost is $30.00 NZD ($19.94 USD) for adults and $20.00 NZD ($13.30 USD) for children.

Woman walking dogs in Rotorua Red Wood Forest New Zealand north island.
Walking dogs in some redwoods during our pet sit in Rotorua.
Where to Stay

For your final night in town you can try one of the freedom sites again, or opt for more creature comforts. Cosy Cottage Thermal Holiday Park has received good reviews for the area, and offers some unique amenities that you won’t find in a typical holiday park, such as a hangi steam oven (cook your food the traditional Maori way), a hot water beach (where you can dig your own hot pool), and a trout stream (where you can fish seasonally).

We had a pet sit lined up in Rotorua after finishing the North Island portion of our road trip and our hosts were gracious enough to let us park overnight in their driveway. Because of this, we never stayed at the holiday park and cannot speak to how nice the facilities are.

  • Address: 67 Whittaker Road, Rotorua
  • Cost: $42.00-$48.00 NZD ($27.58-$31.52 USD) per night.
  • Number of Sites: 30 powered, 35 non-powered.
  • Amenities: Hot showers, communal camp kitchen, laundry facilities and dump station on site.
  • Notes:
    • Some reviews state the kitchen is sparsely equipped, so be prepared to use your own supplies.
    • No pets allowed in high season. By special arrangement in low-season.

Day 8 – Kerosene Creek Hot Springs

Steam Vents Rotorua. New Zealand North Island.
Note: This is not Karosene Creek.

For your final day in town, take a soak in the natural hot springs that the geothermal activity around Rotorua provides. There are multiple hot spring parks you can pay to attend, such as Polynesian Spa or Hells Gate Geothermal Park, with costs starting around $25.00 NZD ($16.42 USD) per person. Or do as the locals do and head to Kerosene Creek where it’s free to soak. The creek has both hot and cold flowing water, so you can find the perfect temperature.

Once your finished soaking, it’s time to hit the road again and make your way to the next stop on your New Zealand road trip: Lake Taupo. As a volcanic lake, there are tons of pumice stones surrounding the shore. We were shocked to find them so lightweight!

Depending on the weather you can go for a swim in the lake. Otherwise just admire the nice views. On clear days, you can even see Mount Ngauruhoe (a.k.a. Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings) in the distance.

Sunset Lake Taupo New Zealand.
Where to Stay

Stay on the coast of the lake at Five Mile Bay Amenity Area.

  • Address: Wharewaka, Taupo
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: 30+. There is just a gravel parking lot and no designated parking spaces, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: There is only one outhouse available for the entire campsite.
  • Notes:
    • Make sure to bring your own drinking water and toilet paper as the facilities are very sparse.
    • You can stay a maximum of 4 nights in a single calendar month.

Don’t forget to download these top free travel apps for New Zealand. They’ll help make your trip a breeze.

Lake Taupo (1 Day)

Day 9 – Huka Falls

Huka Falls near Lake Taupo in New Zealand.

The next day enjoy a leisurely morning at the lake. This is the largest freshwater late in all of Australasia, so soak up the views while you can!

When you’re finally ready to head out though, drive over to Huka Falls. Located on the Waikato river, every second Huka Falls (pronounced hoo-ka) gushes 220,000 liters of water through the gorge, creating a beautiful blue-green pool at the other end. With all the churning water and bubbles, it’s no wonder the Maori named it Huka, which means “foam”.

If you finish with the falls early, but aren’t ready to head to your campsite, then there’s plenty of other activities you can do in the area:

Huka falls view from bridge. New Zealand North Island.
Where to Stay

Spend the night again at Reids Farm – Hipapatua Recreational Reserve. It’s another freedom campsite located on the edge of the Waikato River, just off of Huka Falls Road.

  • Address: Huka Falls Road, Taupo
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC and NSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: 30+. There’s just a grass lot and no designated parking spaces, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: Dish washing facility and basic toilet facilities.
  • Notes:
    • Campers can stay a maximum of 3 nights and/or 4 days in any 14 night period.
    • There is no water spigot, but you can drink from the river. Just make sure to boil the water before consumption.
    • There are no garbage cans on site. You must pack out all your trash.
    • The campsite is typically closed between May 1 and October 1 for maintenance. If you’re camping during this period, we recommend spending another night at Five Mile Bay Amenity Area.

Matamata and Hamilton (1 Day)

Day 10 – Hobbits and Rocky Horror

Woman at Matamata Hobbit House I-Site Office. New Zealand's North Island.

With just under 5 days left on your trip it’s time to head north, past Auckland. On the way you’ll pass through Matamata and Hamilton.

Matamata is the pickup point for tours of Hobbiton from Lord of the Rings. You can only visit this site with a guided tour, so make sure to book online in advance.

We personally decided the cost was too expensive ($84.00 NZD or $55.13 USD per person) just to see the entrances to a few hobbit homes, so skipped this activity. We did, however, swing by the I-site in Matamata which is decorated like a hobbit hole and snapped the pic you see above.

After Matamata you’ll pass through Hamilton. This is the birthplace of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a movie about a naive couple who gets stranded at the mansion of a transvestite alien from another planet. Needless to say, what ensues is a wild night of terror, drama and seduction. A statue of Richard O’Brien (the creator) as Riff Raff stands outside the now demolished Embassy Theater, where he used to work.

Besides taking a photo with the statue, make sure to do the Time Warp (there are directions in the square if you need a reminder of the steps). What makes this such a fun activity is there’s a live camera watching the square day and night. If you go to www.riffraffstatue.org/riffraffcam you may get lucky and see others showing off their moves.

Where to Stay

Tomorrow you’ll have a long day of driving, so stop for the evening at the Hamilton Classics Museum. There’s even a diner on site if you’re tired of cooking and want an easy meal. Just make sure to arrive before they close at 3:00 PM.

  • Address: 11 Railside Place, Hamilton
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: ~20. There’s just a gravel lot with no designated parking spaces, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: None, so you’ll need to pack everything in and out.
  • Note:
    • This is the parking lot of a museum, so campers are allowed after hours. The museum is open 7 days a week from 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM.
    • The Jukebox Diner is located in the museum, and holds the same hours.
    • Maximum of 3 nights consecutive stay, or 6 nights total in any 4 week period.

Whangarei (2 Days)

Day 11 – Glow Worm Caves

Glow Worms at Waipu Cave in New Zealand
Laura standing in the glow worm caves. You can just make out her hand and legs standing on a rock.

Seeing glow worms is one of the top activities to do in New Zealand. What are glow worms you might ask? Well, you may be surprised to learn that they aren’t in fact worms. Instead they’re the larvae of a carnivorous fungus gnat, which use glowing lights to attract their prey.

There are plenty of tours across New Zealand that allow you to see glow worms. If you’re up for a bit of adventure though, you can see them for free in the wilderness. Just head to Waipu Caves on the North Island. Unlike most of the guided tours, here there’s no time restrictions and you can take as many photos as you like.

Euro Camper at Waipu Caves on the North Island
Where to Stay

The parking lot for Waipu Caves doubles as an overnight campsite, so tuck in for the evening and enjoy sleeping in the woods.

  • Address: Waipu Caves Road
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC and NSC vehicles
  • Number of Sites: ~10. There is a designated area for freedom campers, but no parking spots, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: Flush toilets and a cold water shower.
  • Notes:
    • There is no drinking water on site, so come prepared with a surplus before spending the night.
    • Maximum of 1 night stay in any calendar month.
    • It’s requested that CSC vehicles spend the night elsewhere, as this is one of a few places that NSC vehicles can park overnight. It’s possible you’ll be allowed to stay “off-the-beaten-track” in this area, but you should check with the local DOC office before camping in a non-designated spot.

Day 12 – Whangarei Falls

Now at this point of your New Zealand road trip you’ll have a tough decision to make: either continue up to the Bay of Islands (which we hear is gorgeous, but further away), or stay in Whangarei (providing more time to explore and less time on the road). We, of course, recommend the latter by staying in Whangarei and saving The Bay of Islands for your next trip.

One of the top attractions in Whangarei (pronounced fawn-gar-ay) is their falls. It’s a huge waterfall that you can walk around. And, if the weather is nice, you may even be able to take a dip in the plunge pool below.

Also, don’t forget to take a stroll along the river trail. It’s very relaxing and perfect for all fitness levels. About midway down the trail you’ll even find a local swimming hole, with rope swing included. On hot days this looks like the perfect place to while away the afternoon.

Where to Stay

Spend the night at the local Tarewa I-Site in town. They have coin op showers, which will be a nice to wash off the river water. Free WiFi is also available throughout the night, assuming you park close enough to pick up the signal.

  • Address: 92 Otaika Road, Tarewa Park, Whangarei
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC and NSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: ~8 designated parking spots.
  • Amenities: 24 hour bathroom, coin-op shower and garbage cans.
  • Note:
    • The showers are only accessible during I-Site hours, which closes at 5PM.
    • You’ll need to buy a token in the office to use the showers. Cost is $2 NZD ($1.31 USD) for 5 min of hot water.
    • Couples can shower together which is a time and money saver.

Auckland (2 Days)

Day 13 – Auckland

Auckland city Skyline North Island New Zealand

For your final full day on New Zealand’s North Island, you’ll need to head back to Auckland. If you pull into town early enough you can wander the city and see some of sights (such as the Sky Tower, Auckland Domain city park and the Auckland War Memorial Museum). Otherwise we recommend heading to your campsite early, where you can relax on the park grounds and begin packing for the next day.

Where to Stay

There are no freedom campsites in Auckland, so you’ll either need to stay way outside of the city or pay for a campground. We recommend going to Ambury Campground, a DOC site on local farmland. There’s plenty of park to wander and hot showers if you want a final wash to remove the road dust before hopping on a plane.

  • Address: 43 Ambury Road, Mangere Bridge, Auckland
  • Cost: $16.00 NZD ($10.50 USD) per person, per night.
  • Number of Sites: 10 hard-standing pitches available on a first come, first served basis. The rest is an open grass lot, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: Garbage and recycling bins, drinking water and hot showers.
  • Notes:
    • The park gates are locked at night from 9:00 PM – 6:00 AM in the summer and 7:00 PM – 6:00 AM in the winter.
    • You cannot pay at the campground. Registration only occurs online via the Auckland Regional Council.
    • Once you pay online they’ll send you confirmation and the gate access codes to your email.
    • This site is suitable for CSC, NSC and tent campers.
    • Maximum of 7 nights consecutive stay.

Day 14 – Return Your Vehicle

Final sunset of our 2 week itinerary for North Island New Zealand

Day 14 is completely dedicated to returning your vehicle. Most companies require you to do a basic cleaning of the cabin, empty the grey water and refill the gas tanks. This can take a bit to accomplish since you’ll need to drive to both a dump site and gas station with LPG refill capabilities.

If your campervan company offered airport pickup, then it’s likely they’ll also offer drop-off once your trip is done. Take advantage of this so you don’t need to pay for a taxi. Just make sure to confirm when their shuttle service runs as some companies only offer rides every couple hours.

Planning a trip to New Zealand? Save this itinerary for later!

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