What is a thermal wonderland? It’s exactly that – an exceptional landscape of geothermal features like large colorful hot springs, steaming fumaroles, spouting geysers, bubbling mud pots, sinter terraces, and even waterfalls. Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is incredible, and outside of Yellowstone National Park, there’s almost nowhere else like it on Earth. Wai-O-Tapu is located 30 kilometers from Rotorua and 50 kilometers from Taupo in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island. Explore the thermal park on a boardwalk and walkway in three successive circuits. If you’re short on time, you can just do the first loop for a 1.35-kilometer (0.85-mile) outing. Add the second and third loops to bring the distance to 3.05 kilometers (1.9 miles) and see all the amazing attractions in the park.
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is a privately run area within Waiotapu Scenic Reserve. A fee is required to access the walk. Enter through the visitor center, pick up a park guide, and proceed to the boardwalk. The guide includes a map with 25 numbered markers and a description of each geothermal feature. The three loops are depicted in different colors, going from red to orange to yellow. Along the boardwalk, you’ll see signs for each feature that include the numbers from the guide and the colors of the loops that you are on. The markers make it easy to keep track of where you are in the park. The features come one after another, so there is almost always something impressive to admire.
Leaving the visitor center, walk across a ravine and look to your left toward Weather Pool, where steam rises from the stream. After just 50 meters, you will come to the start of the red loop. Each circuit should be walked in just one direction, and the route is evident. Turn left onto the loop toward the first marker. Look to your left for a view down over Weather Pool. Situated next to a steaming stream of hydrothermal runoff, the pool changes with the conditions. If it has rained recently the water will look cloudy, while sunlight can make the pool like bluer.
You’ll soon arrive at Devil’s Home (marker 1), which is a round pit along the boardwalk formed by a collapsed crater. The walls are subtly painted in yellows and greens by volcanic vapors escaping from the pit. A bit farther up the boardwalk, look down into Rainbow Crater (marker 2), which is much deeper with muddy pools at the base. Oil swirls around gray bubbling pools and steam escapes from vents in the rock walls. Steaming fumaroles line the track around these two craters. At 300 meters from the start, the boardwalk passes Thunder Crater (marker 3), a plunging collapsed crater with bubbling muddy pools at the bottom. Pass the Devil’s Ink Pots next (marker 4), a string of shallower mud pools showing darker shades from oil and graphite.
Things get colorful just ahead after you pass through a strip of forest and approach Artist’s Palette (marker 5). In the background, steam rises from the vivid blue water of Champagne Pool, the largest hot spring in the reserve. A thin layer of water from the pool flows over the Artist’s Palette just in front of you. As the water cools, it drops minerals that contribute orange, yellow, and green patches to the otherwise cream-colored terrace.
The track turns to the left and comes to a junction. To the left, a short spur goes down along the edge of Primrose Sinter Terrance past Opal Pool (marker 6), which is actually a cluster of small pools close to the track with a defined yellowish color.
Go back to the junction and continue up the track, which becomes a boardwalk crossing the terrace. Primrose Terrace curves away to the left and is the largest sinter terrace in New Zealand, completely free of vegetation. Water from Champagne Pool flows slowly over the near white but slightly pink terraces. The red loop meets the orange loop on the other side of the boardwalk. Turn right and then make a decision, 770 meters from the start. Staying to the right, you could approach Champagne Pool on the red loop for the short 1.35-kilometer walk. To see more, save Champagne Pool for later and bear left up the orange loop.
The opening section of the orange loop is called the Sacred Track and goes up into the forest above Champagne Pool. A short distance up the track, come to a spur on the left that leads to a lookout over Primrose Terrace. Bag this overview of the large sinter terrace and then continue up the track to another overlook. This is the 11th numbered marker on the loop, dubbed Panoramic View, where you can look south over Flying Pan Flat and Lake Ngakoro, both visited along the yellow loop. In the distance, spot the plume of steam rising from Ohaaki Geothermal Power Station.
Swing left leaving the viewpoint and descend steps toward Primrose Terrace. As you meet another junction, 1.18 kilometers from the start, you will face Bridal Veil Falls where Primrose Terrace narrows and steepens to form a sinter staircase. The orange loop ascends to the left along the side of Primrose Terrace, which you could take to return to the red loop for a walk of just under two kilometers round trip. Save this leg for later if you are proceeding onto the yellow loop. Turn right and come immediately to a split where the next loop begins. Turn right to begin toward Lake Ngakoro at the south end of the reserve.
Descend a few steps along the yellow loop, following the stream that flows below Bridal Veil Falls. Wai-O-Tapu Geyser (marker 13) is on the left side of the track and can erupt to a height of 3 meters when the water table is low. Ahead, the boardwalk passes between rocky ridges and goes alongside a milky teal pool cradled by alum cliffs. In the stream flowing into the pool you might spot pied stilt, a bird that does not seem to mind standing in the acidic water while feeding on insects.
Curving to the left to pass through another gap, the track approaches a junction, 1.3 kilometers from the start. A spur to the right takes a closer look at Frying Pan Flat, which runs along this section of the track. The flat has a pool filling an old crater. Oyster Pool (marker 16) is one of the bubbling features on Frying Pan Flat, resembling an oyster shell.
Go along the track to a junction with a longer spur. Bear right to see Lake Ngako before continuing with the loop. The spur goes along the other side of Flying Plat Flat, into the forest, and down to a green lake at the south end of the reserve. Reach an overlook above the lake at the end of the track, 1.75 kilometers from the start. To the right, Lake Ngakoro Falls tumbles into the emerald lake. Look across Lake Ngakoro toward Mount Tauhara, a 1,088-meter tall dormant volcano. Mount Ruapheu may also be visible in Tongariro National Park.
Backtrack to the junction and turn right (what was originally a left turn) to ascend into the forest on a section of the loop called Native Bush Walk. The track passes through kanika trees and comes to a geothermal feature that breaks up the forest. The Sulphur Mounds (marker 20) are made up of interesting stacks of mustard-colored earth that look like a sandcastle.
Drop back through the forest and come to the end of the yellow loop, 2.25 kilometers from the start. Turn right and take the right fork to head up the second part of the orange loop. You won’t be on the orange loop for much more than 200 meters as you hike up alongside Primrose Terrace and come back to a junction with the red loop. Cross the start of the orange loop and continue up to the edge of Champagne Pool. This large pool is really something to see.
Champagne pool is 65 meters (213 feet) across and drops down about as far. Steam rises in waves from the deep blue water. The inside walls of the pool are orange and red, creating a symphony of colors. A sign by Champagne Pool explains that:
This large hot water spring occupies a sinter-lined 700-year-old explosion crater that is steep sided and 62 meters deep. Water enters the pool through a deep conduit at a temperature of about 230 degrees Celsius (445 degrees Fahrenheit) and cools within the pool to about 74 °C (165 °F) with a pH of 5.4, making it slightly acidic. As the water flows over the Artist’s Palette toward the sinter terraces, the temperate drops to about 15 °C (60 °F) and the pH increases to 7.6, making it slightly alkaline. The gas bubbles rising to the surface are carbon dioxide, the orange colored edge contains arsenic and antimony sulfur compounds rich in minerals including gold and silver.
Walk along the edge of Champagne Pool and take in the beauty of the central highlight in Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. The pool is similar too, but smaller than, Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone Natural Park.
Continuing on the red track now, there are four more numbered features in the final 550 meters. This does not include Artist’s Palette, which you previously saw but will get another good view of as you leave Champagne Pool. Return to the area the devil calls home and approach Inferno Crater (marker 22) on the right side of the walkway. This deep narrow crater has a mud pool boiling at the bottom. Just after that, and 2.75 kilometers from the start, the track passes Bird’s Nest Crater (marker 23), which is a wider collapsed crater with a smaller mud pool at the bottom. You might not believe it, but as the name implies, birds like starlings, swallows, an mynahs nest on the rock walls, using the ground’s heat to incubate their eggs. Clever birds!
Sulphur Cave (marker 24) comes next, a collapsed crater with mud pools on the bottom and multi-colored rock walls. All the different colors in the earth seem painted rather than natural. The boardwalk crossed a ridge on the edge of the crater. You’ll see the visitor center through the trees, letting you know that the end is near.
Saving one of the best for last, the final feature on the red loop is Devil’s Pool (marker 25). The pool is shaped like the letter eight with intense lime green-colored water. This incredibly unique shade is created with a mix of water from Champagne Pool spiced up with sulfurs and ferrous salts (like iron sulfate). Mud on the edge of the pool forms in square bricks that look like reptile scales. Walk to the end of Devil’s Pool and admire this one-of-a-kind pool from many angles. In another hundred meters you will close the loop, having put in three event-filled kilometers. Turn left and walk back to the visitor center, where there is a gift shop and cafe for souvenirs and snacks. On all three loops, there is only 20 meters (65 feet) of elevation change, so the walk is easy with a few staircases.
Entry to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is $32.50 for adults and $11 for children. Kids five and younger are free. Families of two adults and up to three children can enter for a total of $80 (all prices in New Zealand Dollars as of July, 2015). Purchase tickets at the visitor center as you enter the reserve.
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is open year-round. From April through October, the hours of operation area 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the last admission at 3:45. November through March, the park opens at 8:30 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. with the last admission at 4:45 p.m. Dogs and bikes are not allowed. The walk through Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is memorable and worthwhile, so allot about 90 minutes to complete the 3.05-kilometer hike.
Directions: From the center of Rotorua, take State Highway 5 (Thermal Explorer Highway) south from the intersection with State Highway 30A. Drive 26.4 or 27.9 kilometers on SH 5 and turn left onto either end Waiotapu Loop Road. From the second intersection with Waiotapu Loop Road, it is just 800 meters to the visitor center for Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and a large parking area is a little farther up the road.
From Taupo, take State Highway 1 north to Wairakei. Turn onto State Highway 5 and drive 42.7 kilometers north to Waiotapu Loop Road. Turn right and drive 800 meters to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland.
Address: 201 Waiotapu Loop Road, Waiotapu, Bay of Plenty, 3073, New Zealand
Coordinates: -38.35573, 176.3674 (38° 21′ 20.62″S 176° 22′ 02.64″E)
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