Visiting the Coromandel Peninsula has been on my bucket list of weekend trips since I arrived in Auckland. It’s taken a while to get down there, but I managed to pull together a four-day trip with my friend Nina, and it was well worth the time. We set ourselves a pretty ambitious itinerary, and while we didn’t reach nearly half the spots on our list, we still managed to fit in some of the genuine tourist, as well as off the beaten path highlights of the Coromandel Peninsula, Bay of Plenty and Waikato regions on our little trip.
I don’t know about you, but I always go overboard in planning my road trip itineraries. I’ve always got a million little hidden waterfalls, rock pools, quiet beaches and other spectacular sights pinned on my maps, and I’ll list them all off onto my itinerary when I’m heading to the area. This trip was no different, and as mentioned, of course there was as many locations on the list that we didn’t make it to visit, as the ones that we did. We ended up with some tough decisions, and a few other that were made for us by the fate of the car tire!!
Regardless of the locations we didn’t make it to, we had a great trip, and we made sure to check off our absolute bucket list locations while we were on the road – hiking, beaches, murals, hot pools and glowworms! It was a fun weekend away, and I’d highly recommend a similar road trip to anyone thinking of heading out on a road trip of the North Island.
Read on for my road trip itinerary and highlights, or pin this for later if you don’t have time to follow along now.
Day One – Tiki touring from Auckland to Coromandel Forest Park
We decided to take a little bit of a tiki tour on the way to the Coromandel Forest Park, where we were hiking to the Pinnacles hut for our first night on the road.
Our first stop out of Auckland was Mangere Mountain – located in the suburbs of Mangere, close to the airport, this is one of the largest natural volcanic cones in the Auckland field, and as it was ‘on the way’ to the Coromandel, we decided to take a quick walk on the mountain. We pulled up in a random side street and hiked up the steep side of the mountain.
Turns out there’s a much easier way to make this walk! From the rim, we immediately caught sight of the much easier access from the official parking lot which I hadn’t even searched for on the map, just blindly followed google! Lesson learned for the day.
After catching our breath from the climb, we continued to walk the rim of the mountain, circumnavigating the explosion craters and taking in the fabulous panoramic views across all of Auckland and the Manukau Harbor.
Mangere Mountain is definitely worth the stop if you’re in the area – my hot tip is just to make sure you find the official parking lot before setting off on your hike!!
Departing Mangere Mountain, we made our next stop at the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple in South Auckland. This place had been recommended to us for it’s on site café – Water Drop Café. Beyond the café, the temple grounds were a divine, peaceful retreat, and if you’re in the area, are worth stopping by to zen out a little. I can’t move on without mentioning the Water Drop Café, which serves a huge menu of vegetarian like Asian style foods. The café was bursting at the seams and was pumping out amazing looking Asian style foods – we ordered laksa and noodles, and the relatively cheap food was plentiful and tasty. If this place wasn’t located so far from me, I’d be back in a heartbeat!
Continuing our little tiki tour, we headed south through the Hunua Ranges Regional Park, making a quick stop at the Hunua Falls for a leg stretcher walk to the waterfall. From the parking lot, there’s a really short 5-minute walk to the waterfall. The bridal veil style falls have, a large pool at the base, which would be nice for swimming on a hot day. Keep your eyes peeled as you cross the bridge from the parking lot, as there’s nice view of the waterfall right from there. There are several more options to take lengthier trails in the area which I think would be well worth while if you had a full day to explore the area.
From Hunua Falls, we continued to Thames on the Coromandel Peninsula where we made a quick stop to pick up some extra water and supplies before heading into the Coromandel Forest Park. The drive up to the trailhead on Kauaeranga Valley Road End was quite spectacular on it’s own, and again, if you had plenty of time to explore in the park for the day, there are quite a few different spots along the way that you could stop for a walk, or even stay and camp in the area for a few nights.
At the trailhead, feeling wildly unprepared, we gathered our gear and hit the trail After some initial meandering along the river, the trail crossed a wonky swing bridge before starting its ascent. The slopes were gentle at first, crossing another couple of bridges along the way before any real challenge started – the steps! Don’t get me wrong, apart from the increase in elevation, this wasn’t a difficult hike, but there were a lot of steps cut into the natural rock, and part way up, a light drizzle set in across the ranges, making the trail over the rocky steps a little more slick than normal. As you get towards the higher reaches of the trail, there’s some epic views across the valley, and we were lucky to see some really nice light in the late afternoon.
We made it to the hut in around 2 ½ hours, an average kind of time for the unprepared, I think! After checking in with the ranger, we selected our bunks, and settled into the common area for dinner and to kill some time before bed. The rain and clouds stuck around, so unfortunately there was no stars for the night, and we headed to bed early to try and get some rest before our 5am wake up to hike up to the Pinnacles for sunrise.
Day Two – Coromandel Forest Park to Hot Water Beach
Noisy 40 bed dorms don’t really afford much opportunity for sleep (note to self: don’t forget the earplugs next time!), so it wasn’t too difficult to get up at 5am the next morning. We were heartily rewarded for the previous days’ efforts by a blanket of stars cloaking us from above in the crystal-clear morning sky. We popped on our head torches, and hit the trail, which was up, up, up again. Looking up towards the summit, it was easy to see the trail of hikers who had set out before us, as their headlamps illuminated the trail as they hiked towards the summit. My legs weren’t loving the steps, but we were doing well on time to get up to the Pinnacles Summit. Around 20 to 30 minutes into the walk we came across the 1st of two ladders, which took the trail up over a rocky outcrop. From this point on, the trail became a lot more of a rock scramble than a trail, and it wasn’t long before we came across the first sections of iron rung ladders cemented into the rock.
It was right at this time that I decided to call it quits, sent Nina on her way alone. I sat at the bottom of that first rung ladder procrastinating for a while. A few kind hikers offered their assistance as they came along, and after declining their help, but still pondering how close I was to the top, I eventually decided to get on with it – be brave and have a go at the ladder. I managed to continue up the rocky scramble for another 10 minutes or so before I came across the next set of rung letters which were vertical into the rock, and that’s when I decided I’d really reached my limit for the morning. I mean, I’d already been having a conversation with myself about how stupid I was after climbing the first set of rung ladders, so these next ones were really the final sign that I was done!
I slowly made my way back down to a point just below the first rung ladder and found a spot where there was quite a nice view across the valley. I waited it out there for the sunrise and then headed back to the hut to wait for Nina to return from the summit.
After packing our gear and having a quick snack, we started the hike back down to the car. There had been rain overnight which made the rocks slippery, and I’m generally just not good at downhill hiking, especially over the steps so it turned out to be a more difficult hike for me going down that it was on the way up. I was probably the only person on the trail that took as long to get down as I did to get up to the hut! I made it though, and even though my legs were feeling a little worse for wear by the time we reached the car, it was well worth the effort.
If you’re thinking of doing the hike:
This trail can be done as a day hike. I’d recommend setting out as early as possible, so that you reach the summit before it gets too hot. Take plenty of snacks and water with you for the hike, making sure to check the DOC website. There was no drinking water available at the hut when we visited. If you do have the time, then hiking up to the hut to stay overnight is a great option, with wonderful views across the Coromandel Peninsula from the trail up to the summit at sunrise.
Back in Thames, we paid a visit to McDonalds for a treat, and the store for some more water and supplies before we hit the road and drove north along the coast from Thames. The road hugged the west coast of the Peninsula for quite some time, offering constantly spectacular views across the rocky coves and beaches along the way. We took a little detour to this magnificent square Kauri Tree.
The road eventually departs the coast and begins to head around towards the East Coast of the Peninsula, but don’t despair, you’ll still be treated to some spectacular views along the way as the road still travels within sight of the coastline.
After the Square Kauri Tree which is just a short 10km detour from the main road, there are a few hilltop viewpoints along the way – make sure to stop and enjoy the views of the boats bobbing in the azure waters below.
As we neared the east coast, we turned left and took a detour up to New Chums Beach on the eastern coast of the Peninsula.
New Chums Beach is a gorgeous golden sand bay. The 15-20-minute hike into the beach travels from the parking lot, across the nearby bay, before cutting across the forested headland and dropping down onto the beach that is fringed with glorious pohutukawa trees. We had a swim in the icy water and then a little bit of time to relax under the pohutukawa trees before heading back to the car to head south in the hope of catching the very end of the low tide window at Hot Water Beach.
Upon getting back to the car, all our best laid plans went to s*** when we found we had a flat tire! After finally getting back on the road, we had a reasonably long drive, and arrived into Hot Water Beach in the dark, hours after low tide, so all we could manage was to head straight to our campground, and set up in the dark. Being quite remote there on the coast, there wasn’t a lot of ambient light, and the night sky was spectacular that evening – I need to learn to take night sky photos!
Day 3 – Hot Water Beach to Mount Maunganui
After a nice warm shower and quick breakfast, we packed up the tent and headed out for the day. The low tide at Hot Water Beach had been at 3am, so we had missed that again. I’ve convinced myself that it would have just been a muddy pool of hot water, and I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it anyway. Going to keep telling myself that so I’m not disappointed if I don’t make it back there!
Hitting the road on day three, we headed out to the Gateway Trail for access to Cathedral Cove. This is an alternative to the main DOC trail to the cove. The (fee based) trailhead starts on farmland, crossing between rolling green paddocks, complete with cows, before ascending a small hill, and eventually meeting up with the paved DOC trail down to Cathedral Cove.
Cathedral Cove was all that I imagined – we dropped down onto the golden sands of Mare’s Leg Cove, where we looked left immediately into Cathedral Cove. The iconic archway that you’ve probably all seen in the photos was as spectacular as I’d expected, and I’m just going to let the pictures do the talking. It was a gorgeous sunny day, with a light breeze blowing, and the tide was in, so that it wasn’t possible to walk right through the archway to the other beach (that was a good thing – less people in our photos!). There was a lot of activity on the beach and the water – scenic boat trips cruising by, kayakers negotiating the swells coming into shore, and plenty of visitors just stopping for some beach time while they were there. Having said that, it wasn’t too busy, and if you wanted to hang out on the beach, you’d still have space to yourself – in fact, if you really wanted the remote experience, you could always head through the archway at low tide, and strand yourself on the other beach until the tide went down again!
We had well and truly missed the tides for Hot Water Beach, so from Hahei, we just headed straight down the coast towards our next overnight stop in Mount Maunganui. We tootled along at 80k’s on our temporary tire, making the most of the scenery and a few little stops along the way. Lunch was in Kati Kati, which turns out to be known for its murals. We enjoyed a little stroll along the main street checking out the murals before grabbing a pie for a lunch and getting back on the road.
We had a late afternoon arrival into Mount Maunganui, and after finding some parking along the busy Marine Parade, we set out to walk the base of the mountain (there were too many steps to the summit for our liking!!). The base trail around Mount Maunganui is quite wide and well-established and was the perfect easy walk for our tired legs. The views from the base trail out to the Pacific, as well as around into the Tauranga Harbor were awesome, so we didn’t feel like we missed out on much. Any other time, I’d definitely head up to the summit, but for this day, the base trail was the right decision.
After circumnavigating the mountain, we headed towards town, indulged in an ice cream as a treat and then wandered down the main street to check out some of the murals that were tucked away on the side streets around town.
Before heading back to camp, we made our way to the beach so that Nina could have a swim. I’d had my one cold water swim for the weekend so instead, sat on the beach watching the surf patrol guys doing some training and just enjoying the tranquility as the sun set over the mountain for the evening.
Day 4 – Mount Maunganui to Auckland (via Waitomo)
Up early on our final day, we packed up camp to hit the road so that we could make a couple of planned stops along the way before checking in for our Black Water Rafting tour in Waitomo that afternoon. We’d read about a somewhat hidden waterfall just outside of Tauranga that was closed to the public (but was supposedly still accessible by the original trail so long as you just ignored the signage), and decided to risk it and see what we could find. The trailhead remained successfully hidden from us, so we called off our search and made a quick stop at the nearby McLaren Falls before hitting the road again and heading towards the Putaruru Blue Springs.
At the Blue Springs, we took a break from driving and wandered down the trail to the spring, for a stroll along the waterline that offers some of the cleanest water in New Zealand (it supplies about 60% of New Zealand’s bottled water). There’s two options here – a short 15-20 minute walk along the springs, or a the longer Te Waihou Walkway – I think you can probably see all you need to on the shorter walk, accessible from Leslie Road, but the entire walkway would likely take you further from the crowds, which would be nice! All depends on how much time you have.
The clarity of the water was amazing, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by the location – perhaps my expectations were just off. Onwards, we continued – making a stop in Arapuni to walk to onto the suspension bridge overlooking the hydro station and have a little natter to the horses grazing nearby. After a tasty lunch at the Rhubarb Café in Arapuni, we hit the road again for Waitomo.
At the Black Water Rafting base, we suited up into the ever-attractive wetsuits, and headed off underground. The Black Labyrinth tour takes the small group through the Ruakuri Cave, walking and wading through ankle to knee deep water through the narrow walls of the cave before launching off an underground waterfall (optional – no surprise that I didn’t do this), and then floating on the tubes beneath a galaxy of glowworms!
The guides form the group into a convoy and paddle you beneath some of the caverns so that you can lay back and enjoy the views of the glowworms above. Towards the end of the cave, we switched off our headlights and paddled through the dark passage towards a speck of light at the exit of the cave. This was a great soft adventure – suitable for just about anyone – the guides made everyone feel comfortable, and the cave didn’t feel claustrophobic (to me) at any time. If you’re a little more- intrepid than me, then there’s the Black Abyss tour which includes rappelling through the cave as well.
From Waitomo we had a straight 3-hour drive back into Auckland and somehow managed to miss most of the afternoon traffic which was a happy way to end a great trip.
Of course there was way more on our bucket list for this trip than we managed to achieve just due to the time factor, but I would definitely like to get back down to the area to check out the Hot Water Beach, do some more walks around the Coromandel Peninsula and the Karangahake Gorge area.
I’d also like to spend some more time around Mount Maunganui and Tauranga to walk to the peak of the mountain and check out all the street art in those two towns. If you’re road tripping around the North Island, and have even more time, then you could definitely detour via Rotorua to take in some of the cultural and geothermal activities on offer (there’s plenty of them!). I was just in Rotorua on a quick weekend getaway, so visit my post on what there is to see and do in Rotorua in a weekend.