Just a 30 minute drive from Auckland lie the Waitakere Ranges, a 16,000- hectare regional park featuring sub-tropical rainforest, dramatic coastal cliffs, and volcanic sand beaches. Being in such close proximity to the city offers the perfect opportunity for a day trip, and I’m about to share some of the highlights you can experience on a day in the Waitākere Ranges.
The city of Auckland lies on the Pacific Coast side of the North Island, and as the gateway to New Zealand, features plenty of attractions to keep visitors entertained during a visit. Think skyline views from some of Auckland’s 53 mostly dormant volcanoes, sailing on the Waitemata Harbour, enjoying views from above at Sky Tower, sipping wine on Waiheke Island, lazing on a golden sand beach, or immersing yourself in history and culture at the Auckland Museum.
After you’ve had your fill of the sights in central Auckland, why not get out of town and enjoy the wilder side of Auckland. A short drive 30=minute drive will find you on the wild west coast of Auckland, amid the stunning Waitakere Ranges. Here, the verdant sub-tropical forest is a national treasure in itself, home to the mighty Kauri tree, as well as plenty of other native flora and fauna. Dramatic landscapes abound. Coastal cliffs meet volcanic sand beaches, both being pounded by the crashing waves, while further inland, you’ll discover tranquil waterfalls tucked amongst the forest.
Sounds good huh? Wait until you see the vistas, you won’t want to delay your visit. Let’s dive in and see what there is to do on a day in the Waitakere Ranges. If you don’t have time to read on now, pin it here for later.
What to see in a day in the Waitakere Ranges:
Arataki Visitor Center
A great way to start your day in the Waitakere Ranges is with a visit to the Arataki Visitor Center. Here, you’ll enjoy panoramic vistas of the surrounding ranges – right across to Auckland. Inside the visitor center, you can view Maori carvings, learn about Kauri dieback and visit with a ranger if you need help to plan your visit to the region.
If you have time, there’s the Nature Trail – a 45 minute loop trail that features the best of the local flora, all signposted to get the most out of your walk. Be aware that there’s also an education center here at Arataki Visitor Center and you could well find yourself amongst masses of kids either on the trail or in the visitor center itself.
Large Kauri Tree
Just one spectacular example of the majestic Kauri tree – these trees are the second largest in the world, behind the Sequoia, and can grow on average up to 30-40 meters tall, and can survive 1000 years or more. This Kauri tree is accessible via a short (one minute) trail from the roadside. Marvel at the size and strength of this beautiful tree, and look out for views of Auckland’s skyline between the branches!
The Kauri tree, native to NZ, grows only in the sub-tropical rainforest around Auckland, Northland and the Coromandel Peninsula at elevations from sea level to 600 metres. The Kauri was heavily logged for it’s hard wood in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s distribution and habitat have significantly decreased since then.
Kauri dieback is a significant issue across the Kauri habitats at present. The tree root system is damaged by a water mould that can be spread by just a pinhead size piece of infected soil. It’s essential to use cleaning stations at any trailhead to prevent the spread of the disease which can remain active on footwear for up to 6 years apparently! For more information on Kauri dieback, visit the Keep Kauri Standing website.
Piha Beach, with its volcanic sand and the infamous Lion Rock is as iconic as it is beautiful. This beach has a reputation for it’s surf, which roars in across the Tasman – so much so that the World Surf League challenger series will host a comp here in March 2020!
If you’re not a championship surfer, you’re still in for a treat, and should definitely include Piha Beach as a stop during your day in the Waitakere Ranges. Due to the pounding surf, and strong rips and currents, swimmers should only enter the water when the beaches are being patrolled.
Regardless of whether you’re a swimmer, it’s still well worth stopping at Piha Beach. If you have the time, you could relax and sunbathe in the shadows of Lion Rock, which separates Piha from North Piha. If you’re more active, you might prefer to take a hike, and the Laird Thomson track might be just the right hike for you – including a stroll along North Piha beach before climbing up to the point to enjoy panoramic views along the coastline.
Kitekite Falls are located at the end of a gentle 40=minute one-way hike. The 40m high multi step falls are a beautiful little oasis in the forest.
On your hike to the falls, keep right at any of the trail junctions, and this will make your hike a lovely loop. Take care as you approach the falls. The rock steps you use to approach the falls can be slippery if wet. It’s the perfect location to relax and enjoy a swim in the pool below the falls, or for the more energetic, take the trail to the top of the falls.
On your return to the car, cross the stream and continue on in a loop. On the return walk, you will come across a grand old Rata tree, which survived logging in the area in the late 19th, and early 20th centuries.
Make sure to clean your shoes at the cleaning station at the trailhead both at the beginning and end of your hike. This will help to stop the spread of Kauri dieback, and protect those magnificent trees, only found on the North Island.
Wedged between the lush sub tropical rainforest, and the volcanic sand beach, you’ll find the tiny settlement of Karekare. Make your way down the narrow, winding Karekare Road to the main carpark, and follow the trails to the beach, famous due to scenes from the movie, The Piano. Surrounded by towering cliffs, this wild west coast beach has the trademark volcanic sand and crashing waves. A popular surf beach, Karekare has strong surf and currents. It’s safest to swim when the beach is being patrolled.
Karekare Falls are easily accessible via a short, gently sloping trail from the road. While you can see the top of the falls from the road, make sure to stroll down and enjoy the tranquility at the base of the falls. There’s some magnificent pohutukawa trees, and some lovely silver ferns to enjoy along the way. This 30m high horsetail waterfall is known as a filming location for the movie ‘The Piano’. These falls are much closer to the road, and more easily accessible than the Kitekite Falls, so if you’re not up for any type of hike, then these are the ones for you.
What else is there to see & do?
The above suggestions are just the highlights to check off on a single day visit to the Waitakere Ranges. If you have more time to spend in the area, then by all means do it. That might mean just relaxing on the beach, or if you’re more inclined to get out and explore, there’s more walks and sights to see throughout the area. Here’s just a few suggestions:
Mercer Bay Loop Walk – you can make this an out and back, or loop hike. You’ll stroll through the forest, and then along the cliff edge to reach a couple of spectacular viewpoints overlooking the coast. This is another easy hike, with very little elevation change.
Rose Hellaby House – Ms Hellaby was an explorer and philanthropist, whose house enjoys some spectacular vistas over Auckland. I believe the house itself is closed for renovations, but just make a quick stop up here for the views.
Te Henga Walkway – Part of the Hillary Trail, this cliff top walk from Bethells Beach to south of Muriwai Beach will offer all the views of the wild west coast.
Hillary Trail – the above walks are small sections of the Hillary Trail. The trail is closed right now to protect the area from Kauri dieback, but if you’re a keen backpacker, perhaps check the status of the trail, and consider four-day, 75 km trek through the region.
Muriwai Beach & Gannet Colony – another of the West Coast’s dramatic volcanic sand beaches, with the added bonus of a cliff top gannet colony.
Boutique wineries in the Kumeu region – the Chardonnay made in Kumeu has apparently achieved something of a cult status worldwide.
When to go?
The North Island of New Zealand is definitely a year round destination, with average high temperatures in the mid 20’s (C) / mid 70’s (F) during the summer, and lows in the mid teens (C) / mid 50’s (F) during the winter.
Peak tourist season is December through February, so if you want the place to yourself, then perhaps plan a visit in the shoulder season. While it might not be quite as warm, I always think that a bit of rain and wind never hurt anyone, and it certainly provides for some dramatic conditions along the coast.
Hit the road!
To get the most out of your visit to the Waitakere Ranges, hire a rental car so that you can take your time exploring all your favorite spots, and maybe even hang around for a spectacular sunset on Piha Beach.
If you’re not keen to drive, then there are many tour operators in Auckland offering tours to the West Coast. Check with your Auckland accommodation for their best recommendations and assistance with booking your tour.
Are there any highlights that I missed? I’m hoping to make it out that way again soon, so let me know in the comments