Planning on road tripping around the North Island? Check out these great scenic drives for some excellent places to stop. The perfect way to break up your drive en route to your ultimate destination.
Forgotten World Highway (State Highway 43) - Taumarunui to Stratford, 150km
The Forgotten World Highway or State highway 43 took 50 years to complete from the day its constuction begun till the day it was opened in 1945. The road has some extraordinary features and passes through a series of rural towns. The scenery along the drive is simply remarkable, showcasing kilometres of untouched land and bush, which many describe as a trip back in time.
Passing through the Tarangakau Gorge presents a drive through dense forest on a gravel road. The walls of the gorge rise some 500m high either side of you as you drive. If you keep an eye out you may even get a glimpse of the peaks of Taranaki, Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro in the distance.
As you continue towards Stratford, you will come across The Moki Tunnel, a single laned tunnel stretching 180m. Soon after the tunnel is the Tangarakau Ghost Town, abandoned in the early 1900s, was originally built to accommodate the railway workers in the area. However, upon completion of the railway, the town was left deserted, but now acts as a good place to stop and take a look at what used to be.
The Moki Tunnel, Image credit: New Zealand Geographic
Further on, just past the halfway mark, you will arrive at Whangamōmona. A town which has hardly changed since the 1920s, its residents having made a vow to use only the necessities in life. It is one of the most remote towns in the country, in fact, the residents of Whangamōmona self-declared it as a republic in 1989. You can even get your passport stamped at the local tavern!
There are a couple of final stops to consider on the roughly hour long drive from Whangamōmona to Stratford. The first is the Pohokura Saddle. An opportunity to glance into an opening of completely unspoiled land, the Pohokura Saddle is a valley between the surrounding hills named after a Maori chief. The final stop to consider is the Strathmore Saddle. With spectacular views of the distant volcanoes including Mt Taranaki, it's definitely one to stop off at on a good day.
The Forgotten World Highway presents one of the most interesting and remote drives in the North Island. A territory often left unexplored, it offers the perfect opportunity to see an untouched part of the world.
Strathmore Saddle, Image credit: NZ Pocket Guide
Surf Highway 45 (State Highway 45) - New Plymouth to Hawera, 105km
Although only 105km long, Surf Highway 45 offers many great spots to stop off at and enjoy. Running south from New Plymouth to Hawera, the highway passes by several small towns, including Oakura and Opunake, offering a range of scenic features, great beaches, and bush walks.
Before you hit the road, Fitzroy Beach in New Plymouth is a great place to a city-based surf beach. Just under a 5km from the centre New Plymouth is Paritutu Rock. You can climb the 156m high rock and gaze out to sea or admire the Taranaki coastline.
Further south, the small township of Oakura is home to one of New Plymouth's most popular beaches. Oakura Beach is great for swimming, surfing or even picnics. The township is also the site of Koru Pa, believed to be one of the first Māori settlements in Taranaki. It's a fantastic cultural experience for travellers to see the workings of a pā and gain some insight into the Māori Musket Wars.
Inbetween Oakura and Okato is the Kaitake Range. A view you can enjoy either from the car or, if you're game, up close by setting off on one of its many walking tracks.
Oakura Beach Surfer, Image credit: Stuff NZ
As you continue down the Surf Highway between Okato and Warea, you have the opportunity to turn off onto one of the coastal roads and check out Kumara Patch. Yet another great surf beach along the highway, known for its fast left-handed point break, you're sure to find some great waves here! If you prefer a right-handed break, don't worry, just wait until you arrive at Warea. Take the Stent Road turnoff and you'll arrive at another surf beach.
Close to the end of the drive is New Zealand's Bread Capital, Manaia. The town smells like freshly baked bread and even has a giant statue of a loaf of bread. Be sure to stop here and grab yourself something from the bakery! Just 10 minutes outside of Manaia is Ohawe Beach. A scenic beach which is also great for swimming, fishing and, of course, surfing.
Surf Highway 45 is a great drive for those who love the beach! There are so many opportunities to stop, swim, surf, learn and admire the Taranaki!
Surf Highway Road Sign, Image credit: Sweeney
The Desert Road – Turangi to Waiouru, 63km
The Desert Road is a segment of SH1 running down the eastern side of the three peaks, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe & Ruapehu, in the Tongariro National Park. The area may be familiar to Lord of the Rings fans, as the Black Gate of Mordor (Ngauruhoe) scenes were shot in the Rangipo Desert.
The area resembles a barren desert-like environment with the majority of the desert lying close to 600m above sea level whilst some areas of the plateau sit over 1000m high. The Desert Road gives you a fantastic opportunity to take in the sites of the Tongariro National Park, admiring the unique environment of the World Heritage Site.
The Desert Road, Image credit: Flickr
Although the area is called the Rangipo Desert, it technically doesn't meet the requirements to be a desert. The 'desert' sees up to 2,500mm of rainfall annually which is within the level to classify it as a rain forest. Even with heavy rainfall, the area has low vegetation growth, mostly consisting of native tussock and snow grasses. Previous volcanic eruptions have left the plateau with poor soil conditions, and with the addition of high winds, the environment offers little opportunity for substantial vegetation to grow.
Please note, the road can be closed in the winter due to extreme weather conditions. Be sure to check ahead that the road is open and safe.
Rangipo Desert, Image credit: Flickr
Kaitaia to Cape Reinga via 90 Mile Beach, Aprox. 110km
The drive from Kaitaia to Cape Reinga can be driven via State Highway 1, however, there is a far more scenic way to get there. Nearby 90 Mile Beach, which is actually only 55 miles long, is an official highway! Yes, you can actually drive on the beach!
Driving along the beach is relatively safe, though you should express some caution. Only embark on this drive with a 4x4 as the sand will present challenges for less powerful or 2WD vehicles. Ensure to plan your journey around low tide, or your vehicle will get stuck! 3 hours after peak tide is the recommended time to enter the beach. This will ensure you have plenty of time to get to Cape Reinga and back!
Follow the tracks created by the off-road tour buses through the packed sand in the centre of the beach, avoiding wet sand and the loose sand on the dunes as this is where most people get stuck. Don't drive in the rain either as the sand will be sodden! Make sure you have a full tank of petrol as there aren't many opportunities to fill up. It's recommended to take tow ropes in case you do get stuck, that way a passing vehicle can help you out or you could help out someone else, as emergency services are far away so help isn't instant!
Ninety Mile Beach
Although the speed limit is 100kmh, it's recommended to be cautious of your speed at times, especially driving past people on the beach and beach access points.
At the end of the beach is Cape Reinga, which is the northernmost driveable point of the country. It's the meeting point of the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea, a curious sight that must be seen to be believed! The Cape is a sacred place in Maori culture as it is where the souls of the deceased leave Aotearoa (New Zealand) to the spiritual beyond. The iconic lighthouse and meeting of the seas provides a spectacular view from one of the northernmost points of the country.
Cape Reinga Lighthouse