The North Island’s Most Scenic Drives
So many different landscapes, so many reasons for photograph stops, and so many highways to take! It’s hard to make a decision on what would be the best roads to take on the North Island of New Zealand. An easy way to go would be to follow the official North Island scenic routes, also known as the North Island scenic state highways.
There are tempting beaches enticing you along the way on the Twin Coastal Discovery Highway, Pacific Coast Highway and Surf Highway 45. See spectacular volcanoes and geothermal activity on the Thermal Explorer Highway and Volcanic Loop. And delve into the rugged wilderness on the Forgotten World Highway. We go over all of these scenic routes in this guide to the most scenic drives on the North Island.
And for more things to do along the way, be sure to check out the 51 Best Things to Do on the North Island.
The 6 North Island Scenic Routes (Scenic State Highways)
Although there are tens of state highways in New Zealand, the ones you need to know about for the most scenic drives on the North Island are:
- Twin Coast Discovery Highway
- Thermal Explorer Highway
- Volcanic Loop Highway
- Pacific Coast Highway
- Surf Highway 45
- Forgotten World Highway
Let’s check them out in detail in the guide to the scenic drives on the North Island below!
Twin Coast Discovery Highway: What to See and Do
The Twin Coast Discovery Highway takes you along both coasts of the “Winterless North”. Sea, sun and sand await in Northland along this 800 km (500-mile) circular route of the region.
The North Island scenic drive incorporates State Highway 1 from Whangarei, through Kawakawa and then onto State Highway 10 through Kerikeri, before reconnecting with State Highway 1 right up to Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island. On the west coast, the Twin Coast Discovery Highway continues on State Highway 12.
How Long is the Twin Coast Discovery Highway?
The Twin Coast Discovery Highway is approximately 800 km (500 miles) including the drive to Auckland where most people start. The road trip usually takes around 5 to 7 days, depending on how much you want to see and do.
Auckland to Whangarei
Drive from Auckland to Whangarei, stop by a winery in Warkworth or take a detour to Leigh to go snorkelling at the Goat Island Marine Reserve. The highway loops to Orewa, avoiding the toll road and its fee! Once you reach Whangarei check out Whangerei Falls and the rocky outcrops of Abbey Caves. Find out more about these attractions in the 15 Best Things to Do in Whangarei.
Bay of Islands
Then carry on to the Bay of Islands, with beaches, boats and dolphins. Kerikeri is another township along the way, where you can walk to Rainbow Falls and taste wine and chocolate! Get more Bay of Islands inspiration from the 14 Best Things to Do in the Bay of Islands.
State Highway 1 takes you to the northern tip of New Zealand, Cape Reinga. Where you can see the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet. Also, get a photo of the lighthouse and catch a bus along Ninety Mile Beach. For a rest stop, check out what there is to do in Kaitaia.
Down the west coast, the Twin Coast Discovery Highway takes you on State Highway 12 through Opononi, Omapere and the Waipoua Forest to see the gargantuan kauri trees. This stretch of coast is known as the Kauri Coast. Stop at the Kai Iwi Lakes, near Dargaville, for sailing, waterskiing or swimming or take a short walk around the Trounson Kauri Park on an evening for a chance of spotting kiwi birds.
Back to Auckland
Finally, State Highway 12 connects back to State Highway 1 and to Auckland. Take a detour on State Highway 16 through the scenic Waitakere Ranges and Piha for some epic surf, black-sand beaches and waterfalls.
For more information on what to do in Northland, feast your eyes on our Northland category.
Thermal Explorer Highway: What to See and Do
Aptly named for the geothermal areas the highway passes through, the Thermal Explorer Highway is one of the North Island scenic drives going south from Auckland. It initially runs through the Auckland and Waikato region on State Highway 1 before venturing to the geothermal hub of Rotorua and Taupo on State Highway 5 and then concludes of the mountains and into the Art Deco seaside town of Napier.
How Long is the Thermal Explorer Highway?
The Thermal Explorer Highway is approximately 455 km (283 miles) between Auckland and Napier. The road trip usually takes around 4 or 5 days.
Auckland to Hamilton
Starting in Auckland, a city dotted with around 50 volcanic cones, the Thermal Explorer Highway goes into the green countryside on the way to Hamilton. There are plenty of attractions to take a detour along the way, such as Hobbiton and the Waitomo Caves. Reaching Hamilton, you can walk around the pretty and free-entry Hamilton Gardens or do one of the other 16 Best Things to Do in Hamilton.
Hamilton to Cambridge
From Hamilton, the highway takes you through more of New Zealand’s countryside with glowworm kayaking on Lake Karapiro in Cambridge and the quirky town of Tirau with its giant sheep and dog buildings. Visit Mount Maungatautari Sanctuary Mountain which is a protected area for native New Zealand birds. For more inspiration, check out the 10 Best Things to Do in Cambridge.
The closer you approach Rotorua, the more you will notice the land change into a volcanic landscape. You might smell the distinct aroma of sulphur before you see anything. You’ll then notice steam rising from the ground as you enter the city. Several geothermal parks allow you to see these natural wonders of bubbling mud pools and colourful volcanic pools. Check them out, as well as the town’s Maori and adventure experiences, in the 25 Best Things to Do in Rotorua.
Rotorua to Taupo
More geothermal wonders can be enjoyed on the highway to Taupo. Stop at Orakei Korako (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor) and Craters of the Moon to see geysers, bubbling mud and silica terraces. Stop off to get a quick photo of Huka Falls, for intense rapids! Lake Taupo itself is a huge volcanic crater. The lake is used for recreational activities like sailing and kayaking – see the 5 Ways to Experience Lake Taupo. Go to Spa Park to relax in the natural hot spring and more as listed in the 20 Best Things to Do in Taupo.
Taupo to Napier
The final leg of the journey is between Taupo and Napier in Hawke’s Bay. Look out for the viewpoint over Waipunga Falls (usually marked on GPS maps) and be sure to walk around the Art Deco city of Napier and visit the nearby gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers. More on Hawke’s Bay can be found in the 15 Best Things to Do in Napier and the 10 Hawke’s Bay Must-Dos.
And there you have it; the end of your Thermal Explorer Highway road trip. For tips on how to break up the long drive, check out the 10 Ways to Handle the Long Drives in New Zealand.
Volcanic Loop Highway: What to See and Do
As an added bonus to the Thermal Explorer Highway, extend your touring route to the Volcanic Loop Highway. The shorter of the scenic highways, the Volcanic Loop gives awesome views of three volcanoes, Mt Ruapehu, Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe.
Start this scenic drive from Taupo on State Highway 1 to Turangi, then State Highway 41 and 47 to National Park Village. From there, take State Highway 4 south then State Highway 49 to Ohakune. Return north on State Highway 1 to complete the Volcanic Loop.
How Long is the Volcanic Loop Highway?
The Volcanic Loop Highway is approximately 260 km (162 miles) starting and finishing in Taupo. The road trip usually takes around 2 to 4 days depending on how much you want to do and see.
Taupo to National Park Village
The loop can be completed starting at Taupo. Get any supplies you need for the road trip ahead then head south to Turangi where you can stop for white water rafting or mountain biking on the Tongariro River Trail. From Turangi, follow State Highway 47, stopping at Lake Rotopoumanu for a scenic 2-hour lakeside forest walk.
Continue onwards down State Highway 47 where the Central North Island volcanoes should come into view on a clear day. We recommend a detour to Whakapapa Village (State Highway 48) for its short walks to waterfalls and volcano views. See 13 Best Walks Around National Park Village & Whakapapa for ideas.
At National Park Village, which is the northern gateway to the Tongariro National Park, you could spend the night then the next day doing the famed Tongariro Crossing. Otherwise, check out the 10 Best Things to Do in National Park Village.
Head south on State Highway 49 to Ohakune, the ski town with the giant carrot structure. Do the Ohakune Old Coach Road cycle trail or drive up the Ohakune Mountain Road to check out waterfall walks and more. See the 16 Best Things to Do in Ohakune for inspiration.
Waiouru to Turangi or Taupo
At the end of State Highway 49 is Waiouru, the base of army operations in New Zealand and where you can check out the New Zealand Army Museum. You can then head back to Turangi down State Highway 1 with more excellent mountain views on a clear day. Avid hikers can take a detour down Kaimanawa Road where you’ll find excellent mountain hikes, like Mt Umakerikeri and Mt Urchin. Beware, these are down gravel roads of mixed quality. Find out more in the 12 Best Walks in Turangi.
Pacific Coast Highway: What to See and Do
Following the east coast of the North Island, the Pacific Coast Highway takes you to remote coastal areas and real hidden gems. This one is perfect for a summer road trip starting from Auckland.
The Pacific Coast Highway incorporates a few state highways, starting with State Highway 1 for a short while starting from Auckland. The scenic route takes a detour to the Coromandel on State Highway 25 to Thames then around the Coromandel Peninsula, meeting up with State Highway 2 in the Bay of Plenty. Continue on State Highway 2 until Opotiki where you’ll take State Highway 35 around the East Cape. You’ll meet back up with State Highway 2 in Gisborne where you’ll follow it south to Napier.
For awesome walks to do on this road trip, check out the 9 Pacific Coast Highway Walks You Can’t Miss.
How Long is the Pacific Coast Highway in New Zealand?
The Pacific Coast Highway is approximately 1,110 km (690 miles) starting in Auckland and finishing in Napier. The road trip usually takes around 7 to 9 days depending on how much you want to do and see.
Auckland to the Coromandel
The drive from Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula takes you past a series of tree-lined beaches. Stop in the towns of Thames with its mining history, Coromandel Town with its art and culture and Whitianga best for boat tours, sand and seafood.
Before leaving the Coromandel region, get a token tourist photo of Cathedral Cove with its rock arch and stacks and visit Hot Water Beach within two hours of low tide to dig yourself a natural thermal pool. Get more inspiration for things to do in the region from the 22 Best Things to Do in The Coromandel.
Bay of Plenty
Drive further down the Pacific Coast Highway to reach the Bay of Plenty region. Towns you will come across are the surf town of Whangamata, the gold-mining town of Waihi, the mural art town of Katikati and Tauranga, the harbour city with beaches and a lonely volcano to climb.
The next leg of the journey is an easy drive to Whakatane. Visitors come here to get a boat out to the wildlife sanctuary of Moutohora Island or lap up the beaches of Ohope. Find out more in the 15 Best Things to Do in Whakatane.
The East Cape and Gisborne
The East Cape is the next location on the itinerary, following State Highway 35 and passing small seaside towns with fishing, swimming and surfing opportunities. Tolaga Bay has the longest wharf in NZ at 660m (2,165ft) long. At Gisborne, you have reached the most eastern city in the world, meaning it’s the first city to see the sunrise. In fact, we love this section of road so much that we have a whole article dedicated to it in the Eastland Road Trip Itinerary: Gisborne to Opotiki.
Wairoa and Napier
Between Gisborne and Napier, definitely stop by Morere to soak in the natural hot springs and enjoy gorgeous nikau palm forest walks. You can take a detour to the charming Mahia Peninsula before reaching the town of Wairoa with its art galleries, museum and lighthouse in the town centre. All of these stops and more are listed in the 10 Must-Do Stops Between Gisborne & Wairoa.
Finally, the Pacific Coast Highway and Thermal Explorer Highway meet up in Napier. See the “Thermal Explorer Highway” section above for highlights in Napier.
Surf Highway 45: What to See and Do
Pretty self-explanatory, Surf Highway 45 is a road trip to capture the best surf spots in the Taranaki region. But that’s not all! The 105 km scenic drive also soaks up sweeping beaches, artsy towns and cultural and historical places of interest. It sticks to State Highway 45 for the entire route between New Plymouth and Hawera so this is one of the easier scenic drives on the North Island to follow.
There’s a lot to unpack on this scenic drive, so be sure to also take a look at the 18 Places to Stop on Taranaki’s Surf Highway 45.
How Long is the Surf Highway 45?
Surf Highway 45 is approximately 105 km (65 miles) starting in New Plymouth and finishing in Hawera. The road trip usually takes around 2 to 4 days depending on how much you want to do and see.
Starting from New Plymouth, Fitzroy Beach and Back Beach have good swells and hollow waves. There’s also the opportunity to walk the Coastal Walkway to see kinetic artwork on display and walk across the bridge designed as a breaking wave, the Te Rewa Rewa Bridge. Learn more about what New Plymouth has to offer in the 15 Best Things to Do in New Plymouth.
Next on the itinerary is Oakura, a well-known surf town. Not only is Oakura Beach itself great for surfing and easy to access, but Ahu Ahu, Weld Road and Komene Beach are worth checking out too. There’s also a shipwreck, the SS Gairloch, poking out of the beach down Timaru Road.
Continue to Opunake where you can stop at Stent Road for right-hand waves. Also on the way is the picturesque Cape Egmont Lighthouse. Nearby the town are the surf beaches of Arawhata Road and Green Meadows. We also recommend doing the Opunake Walkway along the coast.
Your final stop on Surf Highway 45 is Hawera. Along the way, Manaia‘s Kaupokanui Beach and then Ohawe Beach will give you your final surf waves on this road trip. But, most importantly, pop into the Yarrow’s Factory Outlet store here for yummy baked goods in the “Bread Capital of New Zealand”.
For more stops to check out, see the 18 Places to Stop on Taranaki’s Surf Highway 45.
Forgotten World Highway: What to See and Do
The mystical Forgotten World Highway starts in Taumarunui, which is a good place to start canoe or kayaking adventures into the Whanganui National Park. The scenic highway connects with Stratford in the Taranaki region, making this journey a good one to combine with Surf Highway 45 (see above).
This is another scenic drive in the North Island that stick to just one highway, State Highway 43. Note that there are no fuel stations along this 155 km (96-mile) so be sure to fuel up before you go.
Again, we have so much to say on this road trip that you can find a whole list of experiences in the 15 Places You Can’t Miss on the Forgotten World Highway.
How Long is the Forgotten World Highway?
The Forgotten World Highway is approximately 150 km (96 miles) starting in Taumarunui and finishing in Stratford. The road trip usually takes around 1 to 2 days depending on how much you want to do and see.
Tauramanui to Whangamomona
Enjoy the scenery of remote sheep and cattle stations before delving into the towering walls of Tangarakau Gorge. Take a detour when leaving the gorge to the 85 m (279 ft) waterfall, Mt Damper Falls, which spills over into pristine waters.
Back on the Forgotten World Highway, pass through the 180 m (591 ft) Moki Tunnel. Soon enough, you’ll hit Whangamomona, which actually is its own republic complete with presidents – only one has been human – and its own passport, which you can pick up at the hotel. Check out the whole story here: The Republic of Whangamomona.
Whangamomona to Stratford
You have epic scenery and viewpoints to stop at as you cross the Whangamomona Saddle. If you have time, take a detour to the “Bridge to Somewhere” the less famous cousin of the “Bridge to Nowhere” which can be found along the Upper Mangaehu Road and Whangamomona Road.
Enjoy epic views of Mt Taranaki as you end your Forgotten World journey and venture into Stratford, the Shakespeare-mad town! The glockenspiel has a Romeo and Juliet performance several times a day. See what there is to do there in the 10 Best Things to Do in Stratford.
Don’t forget to check out the 15 Places You Can’t Miss on the Forgotten World Highway for more details about each stop and more.
More About Scenic Drives in the North Island
That’s it for our guide to the most scenic drives on the North Island. For more scenic routes to follow, check out these:
- 10 Most Beautiful Roads in New Zealand
- Driving in New Zealand: Everything You NEED to Know
- Travel By Car: How to Plan a Road Trip in New Zealand
- How to Plan a Campervan Trip in New Zealand
Plus, have you planned your entire route yet? Check out the following itineraries for the best North Island road trip routes!
- North Island in One Week: Road Trip Itinerary
- North Island in Two Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary
- New Zealand in Three Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary
- New Zealand in a Month: Road Trip Itinerary
Road Tripping on the South Island?
Make sure to check out New Zealand Scenic Drives: The Best South Island Scenic Routes!