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Taupō to Wellington: Plan your road trip south

We get a lot of questions in our Facebook community, and one of the most common ones right now relates to the stops between Taupō and Wellington.

There’s a common misconception that there’s not much to see and do as you travel south along this route, but nothing could be further from the truth.

This road trip provides opportunities for sightseeing, delicious food, adventure activities and much more.

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Driving from Taupō to Wellington

Choose from the most direct route (which includes the Desert Road), detour to Tongariro National Park or head for Napier… the choice is yours.

Whatever sounds best to you, we suggest you pick and choose from the options on this list. Most people won’t have time to do it all.

The most direct route: Taupō to Wellington on the Desert Road (State Highway 1)

Covering 373km, the most direct road trip between Taupō and Wellington takes approximately 4 hours and 45 minutes without any stops.

However, we recommend you read through this article to choose the stops that appeal most to you and amend your drive time accordingly…

Tūrangi

Tūrangi is a relatively large town (by local standards). It’s a 50-minute drive south of Taupō, skirting along the shore of Lake Taupō.

Popular stops and activities there include the Tongariro National Trout Centre, mountain biking, white water rafting and fly fishing.

It’s also a great place to refuel your car, to visit the supermarket or to grab lunch. The pies are particularly good at the Tūrangi Bakery & Café, or there’s a Burger King, if that’s more to your taste.

The Desert Road

The Desert Road is one of our favourite drives in the North Island. Connecting Rangipo and Waiouru, gentle sweeping corners and undulation make this road a pleasure to drive.

With tussock, raoulia, rocky plains and snow-capped mountains, this is also a uniquely beautiful part of New Zealand.

We suggest you take your time, pulling over (when it’s safe to do so) to take some photos of Mount Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, along with the area’s stunning scenery.

A car driving on a road in New Zealand, past a kiwi road sign.

Waiouru Army Museum

The Waiouru Army Museum is one of the most popular stops on the direct route from Taupō to Wellington.

This engaging museum shares historic stories of courage and sacrifice. It includes moving exhibitions, detailing real-life stories and meaningful reflections.

Of particular interest are the pounamu (greenstone) memorial wall and extensive collections including military vehicles, weapons and medals.

You’ll also find a cafe, kids area and gift shop on site. Plus, campervans are welcome to park overnight – perfect if you’d like to break your journey here.

State Highway One & Hassett Drive, Waiouru 4861

Taihape

Taihape is a relatively small town that mostly services travellers passing through and the local rural community.

As you drive through, you’ll notice an odd corrugated iron sculpture – of a massive gumboot!

That’s because Taihape is known as the gumboot capital of New Zealand.

Each year, on the first Tuesday following Easter, the town celebrates the humble gumboot, culminating in the gumboot throwing contest.

If you’re passing through the region then, be sure to stop for a look – it’s quite the event.

The Wool Company, Utiku

The Wool Company is just a 10-minute drive from Taihape, in Utiku.

There, you’ll find merino and possum knitwear and yarn – all made right here, in Aotearoa New Zealand.

It’s a great place to stop for a high-quality souvenir or to purchase something warm and snuggly if the weather’s caught you out.

65 Torea Street, Utiku 4794

Awastone, Mangaweka – Rafting & kayaking

If you enjoy the outdoors, and you have a bit of time on your road trip, why not head out on the Rangitikei River?

Offering grade 2 rafting (ideal for families), whitewater kayaking, and even a grade 5 whitewater rafting option, Awastone has something for everyone.

Whatever you choose, you’ll enjoy views of the Rangitikei River gorge, including 200-metre-high cliffs. It really is a beautiful spot!

Optional detour: If you turn off at Mangaweka, along Ruahine Road, you’ll find the beautiful Cross Hills Gardens & Nursery. From there, the most direct route to Wellington is via Levin. If you take this route, you’ll miss most of the following stops.

Whitecliffs Boulders

If you’re familiar with unique geological features in New Zealand, you’ve probably heard of Moeraki Boulders… but how about Whitecliffs Boulders?

These large spherical balls are made of mudstone. They’re located on a private farm, requiring a walk of between 4km and 8.5km return (depending on your preference). 4WD transport can be arranged in advance too.

Though there is a cost to complete this walk, it’s an absolute bargain.

Drive to the end of Peka Road (a gravel road). Follow the road up the large hill. At the top is a gate with a sign on it “Whitecliffs Boulders”. Drive through this gate and down to the car park. Stick to the track at all times.

Did you know? Whitecliffs Boulders can also arrange rafting, jet boating and mountain biking for you.

Flat Hills Cafe, Ōhingaiti

Flat Hills Cafe is just down the road from Whitecliffs Boulders. It’s also halfway between Taupō and Wellington, making it the perfect spot to stop and refuel.

It’s a favourite among families, as they have cute farm animals, a playground and plenty of grass to run around on.

They also serve the most amazing custard squares (in a range of creative flavour combinations). Yum!

5733 State Highway 1, Ōhingaiti 4774

White Choc Snickers Custard Squares on a plate with a playground and grassy area behind them.
White chocolate Snickers custard squares. Photo: Flat Hills Cafe.

Bulls

Bulls is a moderately sized town, complete with a number of shops and cafes.

However, it is best known for its punny signs.

Looking for the police station? It’s the Consta-bull you’ll want.

Found yourself outside the Read-a-bull? That’s the local library.

How many ‘bulls’ locations can you spot as you pass through town?

Biggin Hill Historic Aircraft Centre, RNZAF Base Ohakea

RNZAF Base Ohakea is one of only three military air bases in New Zealand.

Though the public is not generally able to visit Ohakea, it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled as you drive past.

And, if you’re particularly interested in military aviation, it’s possible to request a visit to Biggin Hill Historic Aircraft Centre. Bookings are essential.

1 Pukenui Road, Ohakea 4479

Sanson

Sanson is home to a couple of worthwhile stops.

Viv’s Kitchen

Viv’s Kitchen serves up cream horns in all sorts of flavours, and a wide range of cafe items, all with a fun 1960’s theme.

This is a popular stop on the route and a great place to grab a bite to eat.

9 Dundas Road, Sanson 4817

The Woolshed Cafe & Heritage Walk

The Heritage Walk is an easy amble, covering 400m.

Under the instruction of an audio guide, you’ll explore 7 relocated homes, each from a different point in time. The first is from the 1860s, and the last, is from the 1960s.

Each house reflects its original time period and is furnished appropriately.

If you love history, this is a worthwhile stop as you travel through the central North Island.

2861 State Highway 1, Sanson

Foxton

Foxton is another relatively large town on this route – and there’s a surprising amount to do there.

All-things Dutch

Tour the De Molen Windmill (a full-size 17th-century replica Dutch flour mill), purchase some Dutch groceries and treats from The Dutch Market (located on the ground floor of the windmill), or grab a bite to eat from Cafe de Molen next door.

96a Main Street, Foxton 4814.

Flax Gift Gallery

Check out Flax Gift Gallery for beautiful (and surprisingly affordable) gifts, artworks and mementos.

41 Main Street, Foxton 4814.

Try a Foxton Fizz

While you’re in Foxton, you really should try a Foxton Fizz.

Made in New Zealand since 1918, this locally produced fizzy drink (pop/soda) is a bit of kiwi history.

But don’t worry, if you’ve left it too late when passing through Foxton, you’ll find it in other parts of New Zealand too.

Waitārere Forest

Waitārere Forest is home to the Waitārere Fairy Garden & Middle Earth Adventure Park. There, you’ll find several walking and cycling tracks, along with a spot perfect for kids (big and small).

This quirky playground has been built by a local man over the years – it even has a swinging jetski!

Did you know? The Waitārere Forest was a Lord of the Rings filming location. It was used for some woods near Osgiliath, where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum visited after leaving Faramir.

While in the area, we also suggest heading along to the beach.

The sand is wide enough to drive your car along the beach (and yep, it’s legal to do so – just make sure you have a 4WD).

It’s also safe for swimming, surfing and fishing, making it a favourite beach among locals.

Levin

As you get closer to Wellington, you’ll pass through Levin – and if you have kids, that’s great news.

Levin Adventure Park

Families enjoy stopping off at Levin Adventure Park. This awesome fully-fenced playground has a miniature train, rope courses, a climbing wall, a fitness trail, and multiple mini-sports courts.

93 Oxford Street, Levin 5510

RJ’s Confectionery

If you have a sweet tooth, a visit to RJ’s in Levin is a must-do.

The factory shop here carries a wide range of lollies (sweets/candies), all available at discounted prices. Yahoo!

5 Tiro Tiro Road, Levin 5510

>>> See what else there is to do in Levin.

Otaki Outlet Shopping, Ōtaki

Just an hour’s drive north of Wellington, you’ll find a little town called Ōtaki… it might seem like a strange place to find discount shops, but that’s exactly what you can expect.

With stores like Kathmandu (outdoor/adventure gear), Icebreaker (quality merino clothing) and Bendon (lingerie), along with many, many others, this is the best (and most unexpected) shopping destination between Taupō and Wellington.

Bus Stop Cafe, Te Horo Beach

If you’re looking for a quirky stop near Wellington, Bus Stop Cafe should be on your list.

This 1964 retro-cool Bedford bus is the perfect place to enjoy a barista-made coffee, delicious cakes and snacks or something more substantial.

It’s best to visit earlier in the day if possible. That’ll be your best chance to grab a delicious doughnut (or two).

55 Sims Road, Te Horo Beach 5581

Southward Car Museum, Paraparaumu

Petrol heads will love the Southward Car Museum in Paraparaumu (which is only a 45-minute drive from Wellington).

Located on the beautiful Kāpiti Coast, this is the largest private car collection in Australasia

Showcasing a collection that began in the 1950s, you’ll see more than 450 rare cars, motorbikes, carriages, tuk-tuks and more.

Otaihanga Road, Otaihanga, Paraparaumu 5036

Paekākāriki Escarpment Track

Though the Paekākāriki Escarpment Track is a bit of a detour on the trip to Wellington, it’s such a beautiful walk that we couldn’t leave it off this road trip list.

At 9.1km one way, it takes most people 3 to 4 hours to complete.

The trail is made up of a number of exciting swing bridges and stairs. In fact, it has approximately 1,200 steps, climbing to the highest point of 217m above sea level.

Aside from stunning coastal views and fun bridges, we love this walk because it’s connected at either end by a train station (Paekākāriki and Pukerua Bay)… that means you can park at one station, walk along the trail, and then return via train back to your car.

Pro tip: As this walk is fairly close to Wellington, you might prefer to keep driving into the city, with plans to return to complete this walk in the days that follow.

Travelling to Wellington via National Park (State Highway 47, 4 & 49)

This route adds a detour to the most direct route between Taupō and Wellington.

It takes approximately 5.5 hours to drive (without stops), covering 424km.

Instead of driving from Tūrangi on the Desert Road (State Highway 1), you’ll head for National Park (where you’ll find some beautiful walks and skiing) before continuing to Ohakune.

You’ll then find yourself back on State Highway 1 at Waiouru, where the rest of your journey matches the one above.

So, let’s get onto it..

Depart Taupō for Tūrangi, as above.

Tokaanu Thermal Pools & walk

The Tokaanu Thermal Pools and thermal walk are just a 5-minute drive from Tūrangi, and if you enjoy a warm soak, they’re a worthwhile little detour.

Though the pools aren’t fancy, they’re affordable, warm and a nice place to relax.

There, you’ll find freshwater and mineral-fed communal pools, small private pools and a nature walk past the natural hot spring.

Tourist swimming in the private Tokaanau Thermal Pools in front of a structure surrounded by wooden fence, trees beyond them, and a glimpse of a beautiful sunset sky.

Mangaroa Street, Tokaanu 3381

Lake Rotopounamu Track

Lake Rotopounamu is a favourite among locals.

If you have 2 hours to spare, we recommend completing the 5km loop walk.

Or, if you’re short on time, head for Ten Minute Beach. The walk takes approximately 20 minutes in each direction and will take you to the lake where you’ll be able to swim and enjoy the beautiful bush.

Te Porere Redoubt

If you’re interested in New Zealand history, you might like to visit Te Porere Redoubt.

Considered one of our most historically significant sites, this is where the last major fixed battle of the New Zealand Wars, led by Te Kooti, happened on 4 October 1869.

Today, you’ll see the unique fortifications built into the land, along with information boards to read.

Walks in National Park

Tongariro National Park is home to a number of incredible talks and hikes.

From short, family-friendly strolls to multi-day tramps (which is what we call a hike in New Zealand), this region has it all.

From shortest to longest, you might like to consider the following trails…

Tawhai Falls (Gollums Pool)

A nice easy walk, Gollums Pool is an in-and-out track that takes no more than 20 minutes return.

You’ll find a little viewing platform at the top, but we recommend following the steps down to the bottom of the waterfall – this is, in our opinion, where the best view is.

It’s a beautiful little walk and almost reason alone for taking the longer route between Wellington and Taupō.

Water cascading down a small waterfall, tumbling over rocks, with trees on the side.
Taranaki Falls

If you have 2 hours to spare, why not check out Taranaki Falls?

This 6km loop walk passes through tussock and alpine shrublands and beech forest. You’ll also see streams and waterfalls, including Taranaki Falls at 20m high.

Silica Rapids Walk

At 7km long, this loop walk takes most people 2.5 hours to complete.

This is a fairly easy walk through a diverse landscape, including beech trees, waterfalls, silica rapids, lava formations and views of Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the most famous tramp/hike in the area, if not in the whole North Island.

At 19.4 km (12 miles), this one-way walk takes most people between 6 and 8 hours.

It’s a fairly challenging track that rewards walkers with amazing views of the Emerald and Blue Lakes, moon-like scenery and the surrounding mountains (including Ngauruhoe, which LOTR fans will know as Mt Doom).

However, if you plan on walking the Tongariro Crossing, you’ll need to plan well in advance. It takes a full day and shuttle transfers are generally required, so it’s only possible if you plan to spend a night or two in the area.

Tongariro Northern Circuit

Keen for an even bigger challenge? The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a 3 or 4-day loop walk, covering 44.9 km.

It includes the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, connecting up with several huts, where you’ll spend the night.

This is one of only two Great Walks in the North Island.

Whakapapa, Mt Ruapehu

Mt Ruapehu is the largest commercial ski field in New Zealand – and it’s split between Whakapapa and Turoa.

Whakapapa is the first skifield you’ll come across if travelling from Tūrangi south.

This is our favourite of the region’s two largest ski fields and it’s also where you’ll find the Sky Waka (a scenic gondola).

Skiing, snowboarding and tobogganing are only available at Whakapapa in the winter season, but come summer, the Sky Waka opens up to show off the national park’s beautiful scenery.

National Park

Indoor rock climbing

If you’re looking to entertain the kids on a rainy day or need a good stretch during your road trip, head to the rock climbing wall at National Park Backpackers.

With an 8m-high wall, more than 50 different climbing routes and instructors close to hand, it’s a fun way to spend an hour or two.

4 Findlay Street, National Park 3989

Schnapps Bar & mini golf

Schnapps Bar is a favourite spot to relax after a big day on the mountain.

There, you can enjoy hearty food and beautiful views of the central plateau while warming yourself by the fire.

They’ve even got a fun 18-hole mini golf course!

State Highway 4, National Park 3948

Quad biking

If you’d like a little adventure on your road trip, Ruapehu Adventure Rides might be just the ticket.

They offer guided buggy and quad bike tours across beautiful farmland, providing all the gear and training you need.

This is a fun (and often wet) way to enjoy National Park’s scenery!

Mountain Heights Lodge, 4576 SH4, National Park 3989

Makatote Viaduct

The Makatote Viaduct was finished in 1908, helping to complete the North Island Main Trunk railway line.

A real feat of engineering at the time, it’s still pretty impressive these days. And it’s also an interesting photo opportunity given its red colour.

Though many won’t stop at the Makatote Viaduct, it’s worth being aware of as you drive past.

Did you know? After National Park, it’s also possible to continue along State Highway 4 to Whanganui, where we recommend you visit the only underground elevator in the Southern Hemisphere, the war memorial lookout, Waimarie (a coal-fired paddle steamer), the Whanganui River and Kowhai Park (if you have kids). Then drive SH3 and SH1 to Wellington.

Ohakune

Ohakune is one of the most popular regional towns, particularly during the ski season when the population swells massively.

>>> Our favourite things to do in Ohakune.

Turoa, Mt Ruapehu

Turoa is the other main skifield in the Central Plateau.

It is accessed through Ohakune and is open during the winter season for skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing and general snow fun for families.

Get something to eat

Ohakune has a couple of good food options… we recommend Toastie for delicious grilled-cheese creations (or toasted sandwiches, as we call them in NZ), Powderkeg Restaurant & Bar if you’d like something more substantial, and Johnny Nation’s Chocolate Eclair Shop for iconic chocolate eclairs and bakery treats.

Ohakune Carrot Adventure Park

If you’re travelling with kids, a stop at the Ohakune Carrot Adventure Park is a must.

This award-winning park has all of the playground equipment a kid could ever hope for!

Plus, while you’re there, be sure to snap a photo with the giant carrot.

Tangiwai Memorial

The Tangiwai Memorial is the last stop before you connect up in Waiouru to continue your journey south.

This is the site of the Tangiwai disaster – New Zealand’s worst rail disaster.

There, you’ll find two memorials. One is dedicated to the 151 people who lost their lives on Christmas Eve in 1953.

And another to remember the bravery of the driver, Charles Parker, and the fireman, Lance Redman.

At this stage, you’ll connect back up with the route south, travelling from Waiouru to Wellington.

The least direct route: Taupō via Napier, to Wellington (State Highway 5 & 2)

Stopping at Napier as you travel between Taupō and Wellington is far from the most direct route, but if you have enough time to spend a night or two, it becomes our favourite way to travel.

Waipunga Falls

The Waipunga Falls are easily seen from the road, just less than half way between Taupō and Napier.

With a 40m three-segment drop, this is one of the best waterfalls in the North Island.

White water rafting & trout fishing, Mohaka

Continue along State Highway 5 and you’ll find yourself at Mohaka Rafting.

There, you’ll have a wide range of white water rafting options at your fingers. From Grade 2 and 3 river floats (which are perfect for families and first-timers) to Grade 5 rapids, guaranteed to get the adrenaline flowing, there’s something for everyone.

Or, if you’d prefer, the team can take you on a guided trout fishing trip.

Whatever you choose, the Mohaka River runs through beautiful natural scenery, so be sure to take your camera

3408 State Highway 5, Napier 4182.

Trelinnoe Park

Garden lovers will want to include a visit to Trelinnoe Park as they travel between Taupō and Napier.

There you’ll find an extensive collection of trees, perennials and shrubs.

580 Old Taupo Coach Road, Te Pōhue 4182

Hawke’s Bay

Napier

Napier is a favourite North Island destination for many, and one of the main reasons for taking this longer route.

Check out the region’s amazing wineries, entertain the kids, visit an orchard for fresh fruit, enjoy a cycle trail or explore the city’s art deco architecture.

If you have the time, we recommend a night or two in this area.

>>> Our favourite things to do in Napier.

Hastings

Though continuing on to Hastings is not the most direct route south, it’s only a very small detour and one we recommend you take.

While in Hastings, you’ll want to head up Te Mata Peak for 360° views.

A wander through the Pekapeka Wetlands is also a great choice, as is joining a [discounted] gannet tour at nearby Cape Kidnappers.

Horse riding, Ballance

You’ll find Timeless Horse Treks halfway between Hastings and Wellington.

They have Clydesdale horse-drawn wagons and normal horse treks, catering to all ages and stages.

You can also opt for an overnight trek, but our favourite option is a day ride that includes swimming your horse in the Manawatu River.

Middleton Model Railway & Model Shop, Eketāhuna

Eketāhuna has one of New Zealand’s largest model railways.

Entry is super affordable, and you can even take a souvenir home from the accompanying shop if you’d like.

36 Morgans Road, Eketāhuna 4994

Mount Bruce

Pukaha National Wildlife Centre

Not far down the road, you’ll come across one of the highlights on this particular itinerary – the Pukaha National Wildlife Centre.

Enjoy wandering through the forest, spotting (and listening to) a wide range of New Zealand native birds.

We love that so many of these trails are wheelchair and stroller-friendly, ensuring this activity is accessible to everyone.

While you’re there, you’ll be able to spot a precious kōkako and takahē, see the kiwi nursery and enjoy the free-flight aviary.

This wildlife centre really is a must-visit for animal lovers.

85379 State Highway 2, Mount Bruce 5881

Mount Bruce Pioneer Museum

Another great choice for history buffs and curious families, the Mount Bruce Pioneer Museum hosts a range of unique bits and bobs.

It’s a great low-cost choice on a rainy day.

Le Grá Vineyard and Winery, Masterton

If you love wine but you’re not keen to detour to Martinborough (the next stop on this route), why not consider stopping off at Le Grá?

Sample a range of wines from the cellar door and enjoy a bite to eat in this peaceful setting.

Bookings are recommended.

42 Loopline, Ōpaki, Masterton 5881

Martinborough (detour)

By now, you’ve probably visited wineries in Napier and/or paid a visit to Le Grá, but if you’re not done yet, you can make the slight detour east to Martinborough.

Doing this will add approximately 20 minutes to your trip, which is nothing if you’re after a good tipple.

You’ll find a number of quality wineries and vineyards in this cute little town.

Kaitoke Regional Park & house of Elrond, Rivendell

Lord of the Rings fans need no introduction to Rivendell!

You’ll find this famous filming location in Kaitoke Regional Park, which is nice and close to Wellington… by this stage, you’re only 45 minutes out from your destination.

Though the regional park is beautiful in its own right, it’s the park’s LOTR status that draws most people in.

Unfortunately, the buildings and structures are long-gone but a half-size replica of the Elvish Archway remains and it sure is beautiful.

Tanes Track

Lucky last on this route is Tanes Waterfall & Track.

By this point, you’ll probably want to head straight for Wellington, but just in case…

This easy walk is practically flat, covering 2.3km. We suggest allowing 1 hour to complete it though most won’t need that long.

Pass historic Remutaka railway sites (including a beautiful old stone tunnel), walk over wooden boardwalks, enjoy the peace of the forest and check out Tanes Waterfall.


And there you have it, three different routes to help you make the most of the sights between Taupō and Wellington.

Which will you choose for your next road trip?

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