Lake Taupo, New Zealand: The Complete Guide

Summer sunset at Lake Taupo. Lush clouds and blue sky are reflected in the smooth water of the lake
kavram / Getty Images

Lake Taupo in the central North Island is more than "just" a lake; covering 237 square miles, it's essentially an inland sea. It's the caldera of the Taupo volcano, which has one of the world's largest known volcanic eruptions about 26,500 years ago. Although Taupo volcano is considered dormant, there's still a lot of geothermal activity in the area, which creates many attractions for visitors. The main town on the lake is the small city of Taupo, with about 25,000 residents, and there are a handful of other settlements on the lake's southern, eastern, and northern shores. Being close to the larger city of Rotorua, Taupo is a popular place to visit when traveling around the North Island. Here's everything you need to know about visiting Lake Taupo.

History

Lake Taupo is New Zealand's largest lake. The Taupo volcano that sits beneath it is believed to have erupted 28 times in the last 27,000 years, with an eruption 26,500 years ago forming the lake. New Zealand's longest river, the Waikato River, runs out of Lake Taupo. The modern town of Taupo, on the north-eastern shores of the lake, was founded as a British military cantonment in 1869, but the area has been inhabited by Maori for a long time. The central North Island is still a stronghold of traditional Maori culture. The local Maori iwi (tribe), Ngati Tuwharetoa, consider the lake to be a taonga, or treasure. They own the lake bed and the tributary rivers that run from Lake Taupo, granting the public free recreational access to it. The water level of the lake is controlled by hydroelectric dams on the Waikato River.

What to See at Lake Taupo

The large, attractive lake is a drawcard in itself. Lakeside walkways beside Taupo town provide great views of the huge water body, particularly the smaller Tapuaeharuru Bay where the town is located. On clear days, views of the snow-capped peaks of the Tongariro National Park to the south can be seen.

Lake Cruises and Fishing: From Taupo town, getting out onto the lake is easy. You can cruise on the lake in yachts or other small vessels, which will often take you to some modern Maori rock carvings in the cliffs above Mine Bay, west of Taupo town. If you're feeling more active, you can rent kayaks to paddle yourself on the lake. Keen anglers also enjoy fishing for brown trout on the lake and its tributaries.

Huka Falls: The Huka Falls are an unmissable sight near Taupo town. These forceful waterfalls are a set of falls where the Waikato River drains out of Lake Taupo. This isn't a natural flow but a managed one, and 58,117 gallons of water gush over the 36-foot falls every second. A viewing platform beside the falls allows you to enjoy the views from a more sedate vantage point, while jet boating trips zip right up to the foot of the falls.

Geothermal Pools: Like the infamous Rotorua (infamous for its sulfurous stench, that is!), Taupo sits on a hotbed of geothermal activity. Taupo DeBretts is a holiday park with campsites and more upscale accommodation that has a thermal pool complex that you can visit whether you're staying on-site or not. There are slides and naturally heated play pools for the younger set, and private indoor pools if you're looking for relaxation. There are a few other complexes around town, too, as well as the incredible Craters of the Moon Geothermal Walk near Taupo, and Orakei Korako Geothermal Park a little further away off State Highway 1 connecting Taupo and Rotorua. You absolutely cannot swim at either place! At Craters, you can walk along a boardwalk between bubbling, steaming vents. At Orakei Korako you can make the short ferry ride from the parking lot to the colorful, steaming terraces with mud pools and bubbling vents. It's about a 25-minute drive from Taupo and 45 minutes from Rotorua.

narrow canyon with blue and white waters of a river rushing through


Steve Clancy Photography / Getty Images

How to Visit

Lake Taupo is accessible from most parts of the North Island. State Highway 1 runs along the lake's eastern side and State Highway 32 along its west. Taupo has a small airport but Rotorua's is larger, and the city is just an hour's drive from Taupo.

If you're self-driving—as many visitors to New Zealand are—here are some useful distances to Taupo city:

 City  Distance  Ride Length
Auckland   168 miles (270 kilometers)  3 hours
 Hamilton  94 miles (152 kilometers)  2 hours
 Tauranga  89 miles (143 kilometers)  1.75 hours
 New Plymouth  171 miles (276 kilometers)  3.5 hours
 Napier  87 miles (140 kilometers)  1.75 hours
 Wellington  231 miles (372 kilometers)  4.75 hours

If you're not driving yourself but traveling overland, some long-distance buses pass through Taupo. Add some time to the above-listed journey times when traveling by bus.

Most visitors to Lake Taupo base themselves in Taupo town. However, this isn't the only settlement on the lake. If you're looking for a quieter, less touristy base consider small Kinloch to the west of Taupo or the town of Turangi to the south. It's not quite on the lake's edge but close enough.

Best Time to Visit

There are good reasons to visit Taupo at any time of year. In the summer, the weather is warmest and you can enjoy outdoor activities like kayaking on the lake or hiking and mountain biking nearby. In the winter, Taupo gets somewhat colder than the nearest coastal cities, as it's inland and at a slight elevation, 1,181 feet (360 meters). Although you can't ski in Taupo itself, the ski fields around Tongariro are nearby. Also, the hot spring baths around Taupo are best enjoyed when the weather's a bit colder: warming up in a natural hot bath is much more relaxing than sweating in one on an already warm summer's day!

What to Do Nearby

Lake Taupo is just north of the Tongariro National Park, one of only three national parks in the North Island. There, visitors can ski in the winter (at the Whakapapa and Turoa ski fields) or hike in the summer. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a very popular (read: very busy) day hike through the park that affords close-up volcano views in a moon-like landscape. Some other walks in the park are longer and less congested, but as this is an alpine environment you shouldn't underestimate the challenge of hiking here.

Rotorua, to the north, is another major attraction. This city of around 77,000 inhabitants is set on the shore of Lake Rotorua, a large lake in its own right, although it doesn't compare to Lake Taupo. In Rotorua, there are even more opportunities to see bubbling mud pools and steaming geysers.

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