White water rafting in New Zealand: 13 spots to suit all abilities

Are you on the hunt for the best places to go white water rafting in New Zealand? Join us as we run through the best rapids in the country, for beginners through to experienced adventurers.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re visiting New Zealand for the first time or are a true-blue local – rafting is an awesome way to enjoy the nature that we’re so well known for.

And that’s where we come in!

We’ve narrowed down the 9 best spots for white water rafting in New Zealand, designed to suit a wide range of abilities and experience levels.

From scenic floats to intense Grade 5 stretches that’ll send your adrenaline levels through the roof, we’ve got it all.

Here, we’ve organised your options by difficulty, and in order of north to south.

Tourists with their arm in the air while rafting in the challenging river of Kaituna.

New Zealand River Rafting to suit families and first-timers

Rotorua

Heading to Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty this year?

Fortunately, there are a few different beginner-friendly river rafting experiences in the area.

Which will you choose?

1. Rangitaiki River

The Rangitaiki Grade 2 scenic trip is fun for the whole family (ages 5 and up) and for first-time rafters looking to enjoy beautiful scenery.

Start at the base of the Aniwhenua Falls in the lower Rangitaiki River and spend 1.5 hours on the water.

You’ll enjoy some fun (but gentle) rapids, so you get the fun without the technical difficulty – it’s the best of both worlds!

This tour includes a picnic lunch, transport and gear…. everything you could possibly need for a fun day on the river.

2. Kaituna River (after the waterfall)

The Kaituna River offers some of the best whitewater rafting in New Zealand.

Although this option is excellent for younger children, there’s a catch – they’ll need to get on after the big waterfall.

While you’re on the river, keep an eye out for the subtropical rainforests, canyons and crystal-clear water.

Trust us, they’re all hard to miss. This is a stunning river to raft!

One of the reasons we love this river is the ability to split your group. People with a good level of fitness (and more importantly, nerves of steel) can raft the full river, including Grade 4 rapids and the Tutea Falls – the tallest commercially rafted waterfall in the world at 7 meters! Then, younger kids can jump in after the falls.

People smiling while riding on a raft in white water. A child sits on the front of the raft.

3. Tongariro River, Tongariro National Park

The Tongariro River is another great beginner-friendly rafting spot.

The river proudly flows through the Central Plateau in the North Island, starting its journey from Tongariro National Park’s towering mountains.

As it’s home to rapids that range from Grade 1 to Grade 4, it’s suitable for all levels of fitness, experience and confidence.

We reckon Grade 3 rapids are the sweet spot if you’re new to rafting but you can choose any experience that suits you.

When it comes to providers, Tongariro River Rafting is a well-established company that gets consistently great reviews.

4. Rangitīkei River, Pukeokahu (near Taihape)

With over 30 Grade 2 rapids, a small hike to a spectacular waterfall and a delicious riverside lunch, the 13 km section of the Rangitīkei River is perfect for all ages and skill levels.

We love that this river can be made more challenging or easier too…

For something more exciting (perfect for teens), they’ll pop more adventurous members of your group in inflatable kayaks.

And for older and less active travellers? Oared rafts are the perfect solution, allowing for a relaxed river float.

5. Te Awa Kairangi/Hutt River, Upper Hutt (near Wellington)

The Hutt River flies under the radar, but it provides great family-friendly and beginner-friendly rafting close to Wellington.

On a 10.5-kilometre stretch of Te Awa Kairangi, you’ll have Grade 2 and 3 rapids available to you, along with optional rock jumps.

As you float past waterfalls and ancient forests, you’ll be under the watchful eye of your trained guide, ensuring your safety and enjoyment… even if you’re not particularly confident around water.

Wellington Rafting is the company to contact if you’re looking for a memorable experience on this river.

You can either choose an exclusive Grade 3 section, a combination, or a scenic Grade 2 stretch along the lower part of the river.

For a shorter trip, the 2-hour Waiohine Gorge is a scenic float that showcases the area’s natural beauty.

6. Waiau River, Hanmer Springs

Hanmer Springs has a Grade 2 stretch of rapids along the Waiau River that’s ideal for beginners and families.

The waters here are calm and gentle, but you’ll encounter a couple of sections of slightly rougher rapids to spice things up along the way.

Oh, and don’t forget the incredible marble rock formations and forestry that line the cliff sides.

The soft rapids are ideal for families, and you’ll even get a jet boat ride back up to the base that lets you take in your surroundings more easily.

Hanmer Springs Adventures offers a 2-hour guided adventure down the rapids, as does our favourite option – family-owned and operated Amuri Jet Adventures.

Group of tourists paddling on a red raft while navigating along the river.

7. Kawarau River, Queenstown

Because of the minimum age requirement (13+) the Kawarau River isn’t great for young families, but it is a fantastic option for first-timers over that age.

The river includes four rapids, giving rafters a taste of the action. It includes an optional cliff jump and rapid swim – all while surrounded by stunning scenery.

Check out the historic Kawarau Bungy Bridge from below, see the Gibbston Valley wine region and spot locations used in filming Lord of the Rings.

With beautiful scenery and a fun river, the Kawarau is a great place to build your rafting confidence.

Two blue inflatable rafts full of people rafting on the Kawarau River.

Moderately challenging white water rafting

8. Buller River, Murchison

Wild Rivers Rafting offers an awesome half-day tour down the enormous Buller River which is generally a Grade 3 site, though, the section through the Buller Gorge can include rapids up to a Grade 4 level.

It’s worth noting that, as with all rivers on this list, the grades vary with rainfall.

So, you should prepare yourself for a more exciting ride if this part of the country has seen a recent downpour!

Although we wouldn’t recommend this site for absolute beginners (and no one under 8), the safety precautions are great.

Expert guides will give everyone a rundown of how to navigate through the rapids.

Plus, you’ll even get access to photographs and videos from your GoPro helmets after the trip (for free!)

9. Rangitata Gorge, Canterbury

The Ragitata Gorge is a bit of a hidden gem when it comes to white water rafting, but it’s amazing!

This is partially because it’s up there with the most varied stretches of river in the country (you’ll get Grade 2-5 rapids) but also because you’re guaranteed impressive Grade 5 rapids between October and May – and that’s exciting news if you’re an adrenaline junkie.

The more extreme rapids span about 800 metres out of 11 kilometres, and you’ll practise on the more sedate parts of the river first, making this a great option for those that are keen to push themselves without going too far.

Hidden Valleys Rafting (previously known as Rangitata Rafts) is the company to go with here as it offers exclusive access to the rapids around the gorge.

Just be warned that there’s an age restriction attached – so, no kids under 13 will be allowed on this experience.

Did you know? Hidden Valleys Rafting also has a Grade 2 option on the Lower Rangitata that is suitable for families.

10. Shotover River, Queenstown

Although the Shotover River is a tough ride, it’s worth it for anyone with moderate to high levels of fitness.

You’ll find rapids between Grade 3 and 5 here, and the whole experience starts at Skippers Canyon.

The rapids themselves are totally exciting, but the scenic views and cliff edges are part of the appeal here.

From the impressive canyons to the amazing Oxenbridge Tunnel, there’s so much to see before heading back to Queenstown.

The average rafting experience takes you on 6 Grade 3-5 rapids (including the Aftershock and Squeeze) with a set of guides.

However, you’ll only be able to head on the rapids if you’re above 13 years old and tip the scales at 40 kg or more.

Otherwise, you simply won’t be able to participate for safety reasons.

I LOVED rafting the Shotover! I had never rafted before and the team were so professional and supportive, it made it even better! The drive on the way there was just as breathtaking as the rafting experience!

Lucy Collingridge
People riding large rapids on the Shotover River in a blue inflatable raft.

11. Mohaka River, Hawke’s Bay

The Mohaka River is the perfect option for white water rafting for virtually anyone in Hawke’s Bay.

And that’s because it boasts everything from relaxed Grade 2 rapids to challenging gorges and stretches involving amazing Grade 5 rapids!

You can either go on a longer tour that exclusively covers the Grade 2 sections or head on the technical rapids (which is our pick for you).

These sections are typically at Grade 4 or 5, meaning you need prior rafting experience to give them a try.

If you’re looking for an experienced crew to guide you through, Mohaka Rafting are a perfect choice.

Their base is just 40 minutes from Napier and each tour is fully guided for a safe and expert experience.

New Zealand white water rafting for adrenaline junkies

12. Kaituna River, Rotorua

We’ve already introduced the Kaituna River but only from the waterfall on… and it’s before this point that the river is at its best!

Though we’ve included the Kaituna River in the ‘challenging rafting’ section, it is actually possible for first-time rafters. NZTT founders, Sarah and Nathan Chant, each rode the Kaituna for the first time (and they had a blast!).

It’s important though that you’re confident around water and that you understand what you’re getting yourself in for. The big waterfall is a wild ride!

That’s because it’s the tallest commercially rafted waterfall in the world – measuring an impressive 7m tall.

The river is about much more than the big waterfall though.

It’s itself is fun with a number of large rapids. Each time though, you’ll have the chance to gather yourself and reset before heading into the next one.

You’ll want time to look around too – the forest around the Kaituna River is beautiful.

Did you know? The Okere River is part of the Kaituna River. And though the Tutea Falls are the tallest waterfalls, they’re often mistakenly called the Okere Falls. If you see any of those names though, you’ll know you’re in the right place.

White water rafting in Kaituna River.

13. Wairoa River, Tauranga

To round off our list of the best places to go white water rafting in New Zealand, we have the Wairoa River.

Now, these rapids are not for the inexperienced as they’re very difficult Grade 5 rapids.

The average trip down the Wairoa River takes down several back-to-back rapids. So, you’ll need to be confident enough to navigate steep drops and powerful currents.

These trips run once a week during the season. This is because you’ll need to fit in with the dam release.

Just be warned that the experience is strictly for travellers 13 and up – so, don’t rock up with little ones.

As the most intense river on this list, it really is suited for adults and the most confident of kids, anyway.

Red raft going over a rapid on the Wairoa River.

There you have it: the ultimate guide to white water rafting in New Zealand

If you have any further questions about hitting the rapids in New Zealand, then we’d love to help…

Just get in touch with us via our Facebook group.

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