Get ready for a short, colorful walk at Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve outside of Rotorua on the North Island of New Zealand. The mountain, which the Māori call Maungakakaramea (mountain of colored earth), has steep red and white cliffs above a crater filled with turquoise water. Crater Lake Walk reaches a lookout above Crater Lake for a 1-kilometer (0.6-mile) walk.
The walk begins from a car park along Thermal Explorer Highway where a small lawn hosts picnic tables. Pass through a pavilion with information about the reserve.
A sign at the start lists Crater Lakes Track at 500 meters long and also mentions two other tracks. Te Tiho o Ruru is a 3.5-kilometer long track to the summit and Te Ara Ahi is a regional cycle track that runs 4.7 kilometers to Waiotapu. These tracks can be used for longer outings in Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve.
Continue through the pavilion and into the forest, passing a toilet. Hike up the dirt track through young trees and brush. Because of fires over the history of Rainbow Mountain, older trees are missing from the forest. Kanuka and manuka provide partial shade, while ferns add extra green along the track.
After 450 meters, come to a spur to Crater Lake Lookout. Turn left to reach the viewing platform, which is 50 meters ahead, on a slope above Crater Lake. Crater Lake is turquoise colored and lined with pale clay. To the left there is a large area of barren white earth. A second pool is out of sight to the right, which is why this area is know both as Crater Lake and Crater Lakes.
The pool is not the only attraction though. On the far side of the crater rise the sheer cliffs on Rainbow Mountain, which true to its name are a blend of red and white with patches of yellow. Brush grows around the cliffs and outcroppings to add green to the painter’s palette as well. A panel at the overlook explains that Rainbow Mountain has some pretty unique geothermal vegetation.
Rainbow Mountain (Maungakakaramea) is a site of very high botanical and scientific importance due to its geothermal vegetation and diverse range of other vegetation types. Over the last 100 years, regeneration of native vegetation on the mountain has been gradually covering the rainbow-colored slopes, suggesting that geothermal activity is slowing down and soil temperatures cooling.
While native plants are coming back (including rare and threatened ferns, mistletoes, and orchids), the soil has high concentrations of minerals that prohibit most plants from growing. Add toxic gasses from the geothermal activity and only select plants are capable of surviving around Crater Lake. The panel explains:
In response to these stressful conditions, distinctive vegetation has developed. Plants will show characteristics such as slow growth rates, needle-like leaves, shallow roots, and intermittent flowering. Prostrate kanuka, mosses, liverworts, lichens, and arching clubmoss are examples of geothermal vegetation. Other unique plants occur in the different microclimates created by steam vents, hot water springs, mud pools, and crater lakes. These include several species of threatened native ferns, such as thermal umbrella ferns and ladder ferns that are restricted to the Rotorua-Taupo geothermal zone. There is also a range of native orchid species such as the sun orchids and bearded orchids.
Nature found a way to adapt to the unique conditions at Crater Lake and around Rotorua. Before you start changing too, hike back the way you came. In all, the walk is one kilometer round trip with just 18 meters (60 feet) of elevation change, making for a short, easy, and scenic outing. Bikes are allowed on the main trails in Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve, but not on the short spur track out to the overlook. Dogs are not allowed. No permit is needed to hike in Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve and no fee is required to visit the reserve. Want to take a dip in a natural hot pool next? Kerosene Creek is just 2.7 kilometers away.
Directions: From the center of Rotorua, take State Highway 5 (Thermal Explorer Highway) south of the intersection with State Highway 30A. Drive 25.3 kilometers on SH 5 to a car park on the left for Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve, which is across from Lake Ngahewa and 500 meters south of the intersection with State Highway 38.
Trailhead address: 2210 Thermal Explorer Highway, Waiotapu, Bay of Plenty, 3073, New Zealand
Trailhead coordinates: -38.3154, 176.3759 (38° 18′ 55.43″S 176° 22′ 33.24″E)
You may also view a regional map of surrounding New Zealand tracks, campgrounds, and lodging.
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