Travel can be expensive. But we've picked 13 Kiwi Gems around the North Island that you can discover on your next road trip – for free!
1. Kai Iwi Lakes, Northland
Just north of Dargaville, the three lakes at Kai Iwi – Taharoa, Waikere and Lake Kai Iwi – are some of New Zealand’s largest dune lakes, formed by the accumulation of rainwater in the white sand.
At up 37 metres deep, Lakes Taharoa and Waikere are also the deepest dune lakes in the country. But with warm, shallow edges, the Kai Iwi Lakes are ideal for kayaking, water sports and for kids to play.
They’re also great for fishing and gathering, with abundant rainbow trout, kōura, and freshwater mussels.
2. Lake Wainamu, Auckland
Hidden behind the towering black sand dunes near Auckland’s Te Henga / Bethells Beach is a freshwater lake, ideal for safe summer swimming.
Lake Wainamu can be reached on an easy stroll up a shallow stream bed, which keeps your feet off the scorching iron sand.
If it’s not too hot, the vast, desert-like dune system makes for an exhilarating walk through an otherworldly landscape, scrambling up and down the shifting slopes.
Although there is no real lakeside beach, plunging down the steep dunes to leap into Lake Wainamu is all part of the experience. Boogie boards are recommended.
3. Waiau Falls and 309 Kauri Grove, Coromandel
A short walk from The Coromandel’s inland 309 Road will take you to a majestic grove of kauri trees and the nearby Waiau Falls are a popular summer swimming spot.
The trees that make up the 309 Kauri Grove are the most mature stand of kauri in The Coromandel – a tiny remnant of the forest that once covered the whole peninsula.
Protected by well-formed walking tracks and boardwalks, you can get up close to these majestic giants without damaging their fragile roots.
Then, about a kilometre along the winding gravel road, you’ll find the picturesque Waiau Falls, set amongst dense Coromandel bush. The deep swimming hole at the base of the falls is a great spot for a refreshing dip.
4. McLaren Falls Park, Bay of Plenty
McLaren Falls Park is a 190-hectare swathe of lakeside parkland on the outskirts of Tauranga, that’s brimming with activities.
Take the popular waterfall track to spot glowworms in the evening, pack a picnic to enjoy by the tranquil water, try a game of disc golf on the 18-hole course, or fish for trout year-round in Lake McLaren and in the Ruahihi Canal if you have a licence.
There are campsites if you want to linger in the park longer, with free barbecues and even a designated area to bring horses for the equine-inclined.
Plus, inside McLaren Falls Park you’ll also find the charming Marshalls Animal Park, with a collection of unusual farm animals that kids can feed and play with – from emus and ostriches to Texas Longhorns, Clydesdales and kunekune pigs.
5. Waiorongomai Valley, Waikato
Explore the remnants of gold-mining history on the outskirts of Waikato’s Te Aroha.
In the Waiorongomai Valley, you’ll find New Zealand’s oldest bush tramway, built between 1882-1883, with its original rail still in place, alongside mining machinery, the remains of gold mines and historic miners’ houses.
Although prospector Hone Werahiko found gold in the Waiorongomai Valley in 1881, the mines here were never very successful due to the unexpectedly hard rock.
Today, you can choose from one of several relic-filled walking tracks that range from short bush loops suitable for children to advanced overnight tramping tracks.
6. Te Ara Ahi Cycle Trail, Rotorua
In Rotorua, you can have the unique experience of cycling through active geothermal fields.
The Te Ara Ahi cycle trail is one of the 22 Great Rides that make up Ngā Haerenga, the New Zealand Cycle Trail. A leisurely 47km, easy to intermediate trail that can be tackled over one or two days, Te Ara Ahi takes in the best of Rotorua.
Beginning in the central city and skirting past the Sulphur Flats of Lake Rotorua, the trail passes by many of the region’s most famous geothermal highlights, including Whakarewarewa and Te Puia.
Take a detour into the Whakarewarewa Forest or stop in at one of the many natural hot pools or sites with bubbling mud.
Other trail highlights include the pretty section along Puarenga Stream, the wetlands at Lake Okaro, or for experienced riders, the technical trails up and back down Rainbow Mountain.
7. Taranaki Falls, Ruapehu
Taranaki Falls are one of the Tongariro National Park’s most impressive and accessible waterfalls.
The walking trail that takes you to the falls begins right in Whakapapa Village and, depending on which end of the 6km, two-hour loop you begin at, meanders through open alpine tussock or beautiful beech forest.
Walk alongside the Wairere Stream with its cascading waterfalls skimming over smooth, ice-worn rocks and spot grey warblers, rifleman and whiteheads fluttering amongst the tall mountain beech trees.
The dramatic Taranaki Falls is a soaring 20-metre-high waterfall plunging over the edge of an ancient lava flow – the remnants of one of Mount Ruapehu’s eruptions 15,000 years ago.
8. Spa Thermal Park, Taupō
Where the Waikato River meets Otumuheke Stream in Taupō you’ll find free outdoor hot pools.
Rich with historical significance for local Iwi, Otumuheke Stream was once a landing point for waka where people gathered to cleanse and heal themselves in the waters.
Today, Spa Thermal Park at Otumukehe Stream is still a popular spot with local bathers enjoying the warm geothermal waterfalls and relaxing in natural rock pools.
The water temperature changes depending on where you sit in the stream, so you can find a comfortable spot to suit everyone.
Changing rooms, toilets, stream-side lounging areas, seating and a coffee kiosk have recently been added to enhance your bathing experience.
A great outing for the whole family, Spa Thermal Park is literally one of Taupō’s best hot spots.
9. Boundary Stream, Hawke's Bay
Find Hawke’s Bay’s highest waterfall, rare birdlife and intriguing geology at the ‘mainland island’ of Boundary Stream.
The conservation area in northern Hawke’s Bay was established in 1996 to restore the natural habitat of threatened species, including North Island robins, kōkako, kākāriki and the New Zealand falcon.
Today, thanks to predator eradication, the Boundary Stream birdlife is flourishing.
Also at Boundary Stream, you’ll find the impressive 58-metre-high Shine Falls, Hawke’s Bay’s highest, and a towering 800-year-old mataī tree.
Many family-friendly walks wind through the native forest, or for a more challenging hike, take the three-hour loop to the distinctive limestone outcrops of Bell Rock.
10. Cooks Cove Walkway, Eastland
Gisborne’s Tolaga Bay Wharf is the second-longest in New Zealand.
While often touted as the country’s longest pier, that title is actually held by Tiwai Point wharf near Bluff – which at 1.2km, is nearly twice as long as the 660-metre wharf at Tolaga Bay.
Opening in 1929, the Tolaga Bay wharf was once a critical point for coastal trading ships visiting the Eastland region.
Today, you can walk to the end of the wharf, jutting out into the deep waters of Tolaga Bay.
While you’re here, take a stroll on the nearby Cook's Cove Walkway. The six-kilometre track is an easy walk that takes in views over Cook's Cove and descends to the coastline where you’ll find Te-Kotere-o-te-Whenua, ‘the hole in the wall’ – an impressive natural sea archway formed in the rock.
11. Tongapōrutu Beach, Taranaki
Tongapōrutu Beach in northern Taranaki is one of New Zealand’s most rapidly evolving pieces of coastline.
Once renowned for the famous formations of the Three Sisters and Elephant Rock, today just two sisters and a trunkless elephant remain, thanks to the relentless west coast waves.
At Tongapōrutu, the towering papa and sandstone cliffs are carved by the sea into pillars, caves, tunnels and stacks emerging from the shimmering black sand.
Keep an eye out inside the caves for Māori rock drawings scratched into the surface.
Visit Tongapōrutu at low tide to explore the beach. At high tide or in stormy conditions the waves reach all the way to the cliffs.
12. Deliverance Cove Track, Wairarapa
Take a short, family-friendly walk to discover some of the most interesting coastline in the Wairarapa region.
On the Deliverance Cove Track, an easy 1.5-hour walk, you can choose between two different, but equally stunning routes.
Option one passes through pine forest above the lagoon at Castlepoint Scenic Reserve and follows the boundary to the base of Castle Rock. Alternatively, head south and follow the track through the dunes to meet the boundary track at the saddle.
Either way will reward you with spectacular views of the reef, lagoon and the famous Castle Rock – known as Matira in Māori.
This is also the only place in the world where you can find the rare Castlepoint daisy which grows on the limestone of the reef and Castle Rock.
13. Turakirae Head Seal Colony, Wellington
Wellington’s Turakirae Head at the southern end of the Remutaka Range is a unique habitat for native birds, reptiles and most notably kekeno, or New Zealand fur seals.
The colony here first began in 1950 and has increased to become the largest kekeno haul-out on the South Wellington coast.
Up to 500 seals can be found here during the peak winter months, but they can be spotted on the rocks year-round.
Take a wind-buffeted walk along the wild southern shores to explore this rugged promontory.
The craggy coastline here is also internationally significant for its five separate earthquake-raised beaches which show the continuous record of geological upheaval over the last 7,000 years.