© Jeff Pang via Flickr

Thermal Explorer Highway

The Thermal Explorer Highway covers much of the upper North Island, stretching from the northern city of Auckland, through the central plateau and Taupo, to Napier on the sunny east coast. This highway takes you through some of the most stunning scenery in New Zealand, along a path well-known for its geological wonders – from huge limestone caves, to bubbling geothermal areas and volcanic plateaus.


The Thermal Explorer Highway begins in Auckland, giving you the opportunity to explore New Zealand’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, offering all manner of shopping, eating and entertainment. Auckland City is within easy access to some of the region’s best vineyards, beaches and attractions.

Waikato & Hamilton

Heading south into Waikato, you pass some of the North Island’s important cultural locations; the sacred Maori burial ground of Taupiri Mountain & Turangawaewae Marae. Visit Hamilton's botanic gardens or escape to Raglan for chilled out seaside ambience. From Hamilton the route branches into two options:

Waitomo & Otorohanga (option 1)

From Hamilton the Thermal Explorer route takes two paths. One option is to head south to the world famous Waitomo Caves. Head underground to explore this incredible cave system by floating tube, boat or on foot. Visit nearby Otorohanga to see a Kiwi or stop en route at pretty Te Awamutu - also known as 'rose town'.

Tongariro National Park

Continuing south from Waitomo will take you to the central volcanic plateau, and the stunning Tongariro National Park.  Here you can view the triplet volcanoes of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. Trek the famous Tongariro Crossing, go skiing on Mt Ruapehu or try fly fishing in this action-packed region.

Rotorua (option 2)

Veering east from Hamilton will lead you to the tourist hot-spot of Rotorua. The bubbling mud pools and gushing geysers of this town have attracted visitors for well over a century.  Also a renowned Maori tourism area, visits to local Marae (Maori meeting grounds) and Maori cultural performances are a must.


Whether you opt for option one via Waitomo or option two via Rotorua, the route will eventually guide you to Taupo - home of NZ's largest lake. Many activities can be found here – from skydiving, to trout fishing, to jet boating. The spectacular Huka Falls is a must-see attraction before you leave town.

Hawke's Bay

From Taupo you cross the beautiful Ahimanawa range to reach sunny Hawke's Bay. Enjoy the transition as you drive from untamed forest to manicured vineyards, olive groves & orchards. Known for its Art Deco architecture & great wildlife encounters, Hawke's Bay is also NZ's food & wine capital, a great place to end your tour!


 Piha Beach, West Auckland.  Tourism Auckland.


 Sunset at Raglan, Waikato  Tourism Waikato



 Waitomo Glow Worm Caves, Waikato  Tourism Waikato



 Tongariro National Park, New Zealand.  Destination Lake Taupo



  Geothermal activity, Rotorua  Heather Hapeta


Destination Lake Taupo

 Napier Harbour, Hawkes Bay  Gemma Dixon

Route Map

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Route Facts

  • 744km or 446 km long
  • One way
  • Two route options
  • Minimum duration: 2-3 days (depending on route)
  • Start: Auckland or Napier
  • End: Napier or Auckland
  • City life, scenery, adventure, culture, geothermal, lakes, wine & food, wildlife

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