It’s no secret that New Zealand was made to be photographed.
A stunning world full of pristine mountains, colorful lakes, heaps of sheep and not so many people, I reckon it’s hard to take a bad photo here, though somehow some people still manage to.
Even though I live on the South Island, I frequently find myself drawn back to Rotorua up north, again and again, and I truly believe it’s one of my favorite places to both explore and photograph.
Here is a place that has the best of everything.
Rotorua is surrounded by stunning lakes and has heaps of local culture and activities to suit everyone, but what makes it really unique is the geothermal activity there.
The town is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, an area of 350 kilometers of volcanic activity which includes lots of unique features like bright crater lakes, geysers, boiling mud pools, natural hot pools and of course, volcanoes.
I have traveled to a lot of places, but I have never been anywhere quite like Rotorua. Here you can literally see houses next to steaming vents, and of course, the occasional whiff of sulphur drifting through the wind.
I recently just returned to help launch the brand new Rotorua Instagram Trail Map, which you can pick up from the iSITE information center in town, which is a clever guide to some of the most photogenic (and awesome) spots in the area, all of which are FREE! Since I’m the kind of person who often plans my stops according to “picturesque”ness, this was made for me!
Rotorua Instagram Trail Map here
Here are some of my favorite “Instagrammy” spots in town, enjoy!
1. Wander up to the Te Puia lookout
Of all the things listed on the new Instagram map for Rotorua, this perhaps was what I most excited for.
Te Puia is an iconic geothermal park in town, home to the Pōhutu Geyser and many local Māori experiences. I often bring friends here as activities but it is a paid experience.
The map marked out a new trail in town in the Redwoods Forest that I hadn’t considered before, the Pohaturoa Track (which is marked in yellow) and you can access from the Redwoods iSITE or Waipa Mountain Bike Car Park – which is what I did. You just walk into the forest and take the first left and follow up along the yellow markers.
It’s a beautiful walk through Rotorua’s iconic redwood forest, but along trails that probably only locals use.
There are all sorts of deviations and lookouts along the way up and down but as you descend down from the top you’ll be offered what might be my favorite view in Rotorua: looking out towards the town and lake over Te Puia.
It’s really cool to see these geothermal wonders from above, and the steam is just mesmerizing.
2. Get lost in the the Whakarewarewa Forest (Redwoods)
Right outside central Rotorua is the iconic Redwoods Forest aka Whakarewarewa Forest in Māori. Honestly, it took me years to be able to say this outloud like a pro, but my best tip is to break the words down when pronouncing it “whaka” “rewa” “rewa” – and remember that “wh” in Māori is pronounced as an “f.”
Now that you’re a bit more educated, let me explain.
This forest is an ICONIC part of Rotorua, it’s almost the epicenter of activity in town. Here tourists mix with locals and everyone centers here to enjoy the dozens of incredible tracks for hiking, running, walking, horseback riding, and especially mountain biking. Rotorua is famous for its mountain biking trails, and the Redwoods are home to some of the best.
Most of my favorite trails leave from around the iSITE in the forest, beneath the Treewalk.
3. Go stargazing at the Blue Lake
What I love about Rotorua is that its surrounded by beautiful, easily-accessed lakes, many of which are warm and pleasant swimming holes, and have cute little baches and holiday houses you can squirrel away in.
The Blue Lake is one of my faves, only a few minutes out of town, but it feels like you’re far away in the countryside. With an awesome track that winds its way around the lake, it’s one of my go-to quiet spots to sit and chill, and go for a swim in summer.
And the holiday park across the road is one of my favorite camp sites on the North Island, even though the wifi is crap, there is a coffee truck!
4. Twirl around in a dress on the Landing Jetty
The jetty across from the Landing Cafe on Lake Tarawera was made for Instagrammers.
The perfect place to set up your tripod at sunrise for a long exposure, the leading lines of the jetty face out towards Mount Tarawera, which famously blew its top (well, 3 tops) in 1886, completely changing the surrounding landscape, burying whole villages, killing hundreds and even creating some lakes.
Quietly ominous now, the volcano looms ever large in the distance.
5. Relax and soak your bones at Kerosene Creek
The first time I visited Kerosene Creek was over five years ago, when I was living in Wellington. It was once a local secret, and yours truly never shared anything about it, but others weren’t so quiet.
Nowadays it’s a free popular hot pool spot for backpackers and tourists 30 minutes out of town, and you rarely will spot a local here. Don’t be deterred, it’s a great spot and a must-do for visiting Rotorua, and if you time it right, like in the early morning, you’ll have it all to yourself.
A few kilometers down the gravel Old Waiotapu Rd, you’ll find the car park which is next to the river; follow it along and you’ll find a two meter waterfall and rock pools where you can soak in the steaming water. Just don’t stick your head under!
6. Hike up Rainbow Mountain
Combine your stop with Kerosene Creek with a hike up Rainbow Mountain nearby.
A bit of a slog uphill for an hour and half, there are nice views from the top. Or if you’re feeling lazy like me, just walk for a little bit and you’ll come across some steaming crater blue lakes bubbling up from below.
Seriously, how does the earth generate such bright blue lakes? Magic?
7. Marvel at the rafters going over Okere Falls
On the northern side of Lake Rotorua, the little Okere community is a thriving hot spot for white water kayakers.
The Okere Falls Track is a lovely short walk with viewpoints over different waterfalls on the Kaituna River. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can join in on one of the white water rafting tours that leads guests over the falls.
In fact, it’s the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world, with seven meter drop!
8. Explore Kuirau Park in downtown Rotorua
Some cities have parks with duck ponds and big willow trees. Rotorua has parks with boiling lakes and steaming mud pits. Talk about next level!
You will definitely smell Kuirau Park before you get there. A bustling hive of geothermal activity, this local park in downtown Rotorua is the perfect introduction to the city.
To be honest, I’ve driven past it dozens of times before I ever stopped to have a look around. I never hear about it online but I reckon it’s one of Rotorua’s best-kept secrets, and worth wandering around on a visit to town. It was pouring rain and windy when I stopped there at sunset, making it mysterious (and a little creepy) but a true wonder to photograph!
9. Watch the sunrise at the Lakefront Jetty
True story – I am not a morning person. I wish I was!
This does not jive with my role as a photographer; always on the hunt for the best light, that means our days usually revolve around sunrises and sunsets when we are hopefully treated with nice colors, soft light and even tones.
My first day in Rotorua I did manage to drag myself out of bed at 5:30am (I repeat, 5:30am, guys!!) and walk a few minutes to the lakefront where the local jetty overlooks Mokoia Island, and just in time to watch the sunrise. Just me and the duckies.
As much as it sucks getting out of bed early, even I have to admit it was pretty awesome!
10. Go for a little walk along the Okareka Boardwalk
Only 15 minutes from town, Okareka is another one of Rotorua’s best-kept secrets. A little classic kiwi lakeside holiday home spot, it sits on the shore of another warm, lovely lake home to lots of great birds.
See, I’m sold already.
With a beautiful boardwalk that meanders through the wetlands, its the kind of place locals go for a job and families bring their babies our in the stroller for a weekend wander out of the house.
Simple, delightful and beautiful, it’s one of my happy places, and I love exploring around here.
Rotorua Instagram Trail Map here
What do you think? Have any good Instagram-worthy spots from Rotorua to share here? Spill!