Explore Auckland’s Rugged Side
You may have seen the pretty white sand beaches stretching along Auckland’s east coast, but have you seen Auckland’s rugged side? By that, we mean the dramatic coastline, huge headlands, native forest and black sand beaches of the Waitakere Ranges. This regional park makes up more than 16,000 hectares (39,537 acres) of Auckland’s west coast.
With 250km (155 miles) of walking tracks along the coast and within the rainforests, there are heaps of reasons to make a day trip out of the Waitakere Ranges. If it isn’t for hiking to waterfalls, then backpackers and Aucklanders alike come to Waitakere for the pumping surf!
For more places to stay and camping spots, be sure to check out Accommodation Guide to Auckland Region and Where to Camp in Auckland.
Things You Can’t Miss the Waitakere Ranges
If you miss any of these, then you cannot call yourself a true backpacker. Sorry.
- The views from the Arataki Visitor Centre and the Golden Frame
- Hiking the many sections of the Fairy Falls
- Paddling in the cool pool of Kitekite Falls
- Getting that perfect picture of Kerekere Falls
- Jump off the jetty at Lake Wainamu
- Learn to surf on Piha Beach
- Refine your surfing skills at O’Neills Bay or walk on the headlands.
Arataki Visitor Centre
This is not just your old and dusty visitor centre. The Arataki Visitor Centre is more of a mini-museum set in a funky building covered in Maori carvings.
It’s a good place to start your trip into the Waitakere Ranges, whether you want to learn more from the interactive displays, go on the Arataki Nature Trail, or get a photo with the golden picture frame. You can also grab a coffee or ice cream here and take in view of the Waitakere coast from the viewing decks.
Arataki Nature Trail (1h15min return) has a number of loop-walks to varying lookouts, which can be started across the road from the visitor centre. There are information boards along the way explaining features of the forest, including kauri trees (some of the world’s largest trees).
To get to the visitor centre, take State Highway 16 from Downtown Auckland. Exit at Waterview and follow the signs to Titirangi. From Titirangi, take the Scenic Drive road to the Arataki Visitor Centre.
Fairy Falls Track (3 Hours Return)
About 5km from the Arataki Visitor Centre, along Scenic Drive, is the start of the Fairy Falls Track, where you can start hiking from the bottom of the falls and follow the cascading pools upwards.
The forest walk involves crossing shallow streams and following a partially maintained track until you reach the spectacular Fairy Falls. A steep climb on a boardwalk and stairs allows you to see every section of the falls until you reach the top. From here, you can continue the loop walk with a number of lookouts over to Auckland city and Rangitoto Island. To return to Scenic Drive and your starting point, take the Old Coach Road Track.
Kitekite Falls Track (45 Minutes Oneway)
is a local’s favourite! A short walk through the native forest brings you to this multiple-tiered falls. Make sure to get a glimpse of the waterfall through the trees on the way to the falls to appreciate the full size! The pool at the base is good for a freezing cold paddle or swim.
Kitekite Falls is a must-visit if going to Piha Beach, as the Kitekite car park is less than 10 minutes away. If you are staying at Piha overnight, take a torch and walk to the falls for the chance to see glowworms.
There is also the 15-minute detour to extend the walk called the Byers Walk.
Yet another waterfall! With Karekare Falls you can see different sections as they cascade down towards the beach. The beach itself is great for surfers, swimmers and beach explorers. You can climb the black sand dunes. The beach has lifeguard and surf patrol in summer.
To see the waterfall, drive down Karekare Road until you get to the second car park by the beach from the small footbridge you will see the sign for the waterfall track. You only need to walk about 5 minutes until you are faced the magnificence that is the Karekare Waterfall!
The more of the West Coast beaches you see the more impressive they seem to get. Most popular of all is Piha Beach, as it the most accessible from Auckland City, with its black sand, pumping waves, and the huge Lion Rock that divides Piha’s beaches.
All the beaches in the Waitakere Ranges share similarities but get more extreme the further north you go longer with larger headlands and rock features that make even Lion Rock seem like a little kitty. So if you get the chance, venture along the west coast to discover some amazing places for yourself. These are some beaches worth checking out.
- Piha Beach – With powerful waves, this is Auckland’s most popular surf beach. There are surf trips running from the city and a surf school at the beach, making this is the ideal place to learn.
- Karekare Beach – So you’ve seen the waterfall. Now you can surf the waves or take a stroll, hopping over the meandering streams and feeling the smooth sand between your toes.
- O’Neills Bay and Bethells Beach (Te Henga) – A super scenic location with dramatic headlands. You may need to cross a wide stream to get to certain parts of the beach, which gets deeper as the tide comes in. Be prepared to get your legs wet if crossing the stream. This is another great surf sport for people who know what they’re doing. You can also get excellent views of the beach from the clifftop walkway.
- Anawhata – The quietest beach in the Waitakere Ranges, Anawhata truly is a hidden gem. To get there take Piha Road off Scenic Drive until Anawhata Road. Follow Anawhata Road for approximately 7km (4 miles). Then you’ll need to walk the rest to the beach.
Don’t go to Bethells Beach without spending some time at Lake Wainamu. It’s a great way to cool off and get rid of the sand and salt from the beach. (A shower works great too but it’s not as fun). Just a few kilometres up the road from Bethells Beach, take a walk to the stunning lake via either black sand dunes or the shallow stream bedded with sand leading all the way to the lake. During summer, we suggest the stream way which is far more cooling on your feet than hot black sand!
Take in the views on the 30-35-minute walk to Lake Wainamu. Dunes tower on one side while lush green grass is on the other. If you have a bodyboard, take it with you, as you’ll want to sandboard down the dunes and into the lake! For more simple fun, there’s a jetty to get that obligatory jetty jump photo.
The Hillary Trail (3-4 Days)
Do you want to see it all in one trip? Then take The Hillary Trail! You don’t have to travel far from Auckland to find a New Zealand multi-day hike. The Hillary Trail can be either started from Muriwai or the Arataki Visitor Centre. It highlights the varying native rainforest, as well as the black sand beaches along the west coast. The hike is well sign-posted with an image of Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander who was among the first to climb Everest.
The Hillary Trail is not quite Everest but it can at least be your own personal Everest, as there are plenty of steep climbs to challenge yourself.
As for accommodation on your hike, there are three campsites that easily accessed from the trail: Karamatura, Pararaha and Craw. These must be booked in advance and there is a tiny fee to use them. There are very basic facilities with untreated water supplies. However, you can get supplies from Piha and Muriwai Beach. For more information about camping in the Waitakere Ranges, check out Where to Camp in Auckland.
The Bets of the Rest!
Did we mention there are 250km (155 miles) of walking tracks in the Waitakere Ranges? This is where you can find more of those tracks:
Auckland City Walk
In the Cascades Kauri Park, which is in the northern part of the Waitakere Ranges. The 1-hour walk displays huge kauri and has a detour to Cascade Falls. To get to the walk, take Te Henga Road off Scenic Drive, then take Falls Road to the car park at the end. Alternatively, go by the Cascade Kauri car park.
[Update: The tracks at Cascade Kauri are closed for Kauri tree protection. For more tracks that have been closed in the Waitakere Ranges, see the Auckland Council Website]. There are a number of walking tracks from the Cascade Kauri car park, which lead to the Waitakere Dam, including Auckland City Walk, Anderson, west Tunnel Mouth, Waitakere Tramline and Fenceline Tracks. The car park is on Scenic Drive, 7km (4 miles) north of the Piha Road/Scenic Drive intersection.
Cutty Grass, Ridge Road Tracks and Simla Track
From Scenic Road, Cutty Grass follows a ridge taking 1h15mins, then it connects with the Ridge Road track for another 1h30mins, finally connecting the Simla Track (1 hour) giving views of the Anawhata Valley.