Our Auckland to New Plymouth road trip takes us from our home to one of my favourite New Zealand cities. And when we take the coastal route, it promises a journey through diverse landscapes, from enchanting caves to rugged coastlines.
Located along the west coast of the North Island, New Plymouth is the largest city in the Taranaki region. This awe-inspiring area captured my heart with coastal communities and small towns surrounding its centrepiece, the majestic Mt Taranaki.
There are two optional routes for an Auckland to New Plymouth road trip, each stunning in its own right but quite different from each other. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on our most recent trip, which took us along the captivating scenic west coast, stopping along the way to explore caves, waterfalls, gardens, and iconic landmarks.
I know the Forgotten World Highway tends to get all the hype in this area, but if you drive that, you miss out on this wonderful coastal drive. However, if you are making a loop, you can do both.
Every minute of the drive was stunning as we passed by green pasture and steep hill after steep hill lined with dense flora or grazing farm animals. Even in the rain, it was easy to drive, and there are plenty of stops that we recommend along the route.
As American expats who have been living in and exploring NZ for over 20 years, we see things from both a local’s perspective and from that of a visitor. Therefore, we understand what it’s like to come here and have things be similar, but not always exactly what we are used to. We share the information on this page from this perspective.
Auckland to New Plymouth map
With no stops, we can drive from Auckland to Taranaki region in just under five hours. However, we recommend going a bit slower and making a day out of it, but even with that, you will have to make some choices. Last time we drove it, we spent a night near Otorohanga so we could do it all.
We have highlighted all our favourite stops on the map in red and added the alternative route through the Forgotten World Highway with black markers.
We took the coastal road, but it’s important to note that the road is paved only out to the coast. But once you turn heading south, there’s about 30 km of unsealed road. (Note that there is also a large unpaved section that is currently being paved in the alternative route and the construction results in frequent traffic controls and delays)
Note that this road trip runs through Auckland, Waikato, King Country, and Taranaki.
Key stops on our Auckland to New Plymouth road trip along the west coast
- Auckland Botanical Gardens
- Hamilton Gardens
- Otorohanga Kiwi House
- Waitomo Caves
- Mangapōhue Natural Bridge
- Piripiri Cave
- Marokopa Waterfall and Beach
- Waikawau Tunnel
- Tongapōrutu (Three Sisters and Elephant Rock)
- New Plymouth
What to see and do on each of your Auckland to New Plymouth road trip stops
We love this drive and can easily do it in a day, stopping off at a few key spots but not all of them. The first four on the list generally take a bit longer to visit and enjoy, and our recommendation is if you plan to do two or more of them, you might want to spend a night either in Otorohanga or in Waitomo.
Also, if you plan to do them all, we highly recommend booking the Waitomo caves tour in advance, as this one is super popular, often sells out, and if you just rock up, if there are time slots, you will have to wait a while which will mess up your plan for the rest of the day. Reserve your Waitomo Cave tour here.
Auckland Botanical Gardens
In the heart of Manurewa, Jeff and I find peace at the 64 hectares of the Auckland Botanic Gardens, a paradise for plant enthusiasts and one of many amazing things to do in South Auckland. We leisurely stroll along pathways lined with vibrant flowerbeds and explore themed gardens like the fragrant Rose Garden and the Bog Garden, a personal favourite.
Families with little ones delight in the Potter Children’s Garden, an interactive space sparking curiosity. The picturesque duck pond is our go-to spot for a relaxing picnic or a quiet moment of reflection. As we live just north of the city, for us, it’s more often a day trip than part of our Auckland to Taranaki road trip.
Another cherished destination for us is Hamilton Gardens. We nearly always choose to stop here despite being excited to get from Auckland to New Plymouth. Nestled along the Waikato River, Hamilton Gardens seamlessly weaves together history, culture, and natural splendour in 20 themed gardens.
While some classic gardens like the Italian Renaissance Garden and the Japanese Garden of Contemplation hold a special place in our hearts, newer additions like the Ancient Egyptian, Char Bagh or the Surreal Garden captivate our senses.
We love it so much that we have written our review of Hamilton Gardens here.
Otorohanga Kiwi House
More than just a kiwi house, there are plenty of native birds here. Renovations and remodels have one section at a time closed, and when we were there it was the lake area. But there is still plenty to see.
We walked through two nocturnal kiwi houses, each housing two birds and with the aid of the keepers, we were able to spot them all, but absolutely no photos allowed inside the kiwi house. It is an active breeding facility that has been conserving kiwi since 1971. Releases to preditor-free locations are frequent and impressive.
We probably spent the most time in the aviary, one of the largest we have seen. Here we spotted kākāriki, kererū, ducks, and keas. Check out their official website for more information.
Waitomo Caves and Waitomo Caves Museum
Photo credit: Corin Walker Bain / 100% New Zealand
- Waitomo Caves
Considered one of New Zealand’s best natural attractions, we took the 45-minute tour years ago, including a boat ride into the caves to see thousands of glowworms. I still remember the magic as we went silently gliding through underground grottos illuminated by thousands of tiny glowworms. It’s like being outdoors on a starry night. Waitomo Caves is one of the many unique things to do in New Zealand and is considered unmissable by many visitors. Booking in advance is highly recommended. Reserve your Waitomo Caves guided tour here.
- Waitomo Caves adventures
In addition to the caves tour, Waitomo also offers opportunities for adventurous caving and tubing experiences. Reserve your Blackwater rafting or glowworm cave adventure here.
- Waitomo Caves Museum
We found this small museum a perfect place to learn a bit of history and to get a feel for what we might see in the caves. One of its most unusual attractions was a cave crawl that was once used as a prerequisite activity for those who wanted to go on some of the adventure tours through tight spots (they don’t do these tours any longer). If you want a feel for it but don’t want to crawl yourself, check out Jeff giving it a go:
Mangapōhue Natural Bridge
Nestled along our Auckland to New Plymouth road trip, the Mangapōhue Natural Bridge stands as a geological marvel, captivating travellers with its natural arch formed by the Mangapōhue Stream. This limestone bridge, sculpted over centuries, offers a glimpse into the forces that shape New Zealand’s landscape.
However, it’s important to note that as of the latest updates, the site is partially closed, and it is deemed unsafe to be directly under the natural bridge. It was fully closed when we visited, so no photos from us.
Despite this restriction, visitors can now appreciate the majestic structure from a safe distance, marvelling at the intricate details of the arch and the surrounding lush greenery. Before planning a visit, check for any updates on accessibility.
With a pull-out right on the main road and a five-minute walk to the cave, this is one stop you don’t want to miss.
The trail walk seems about half stairs taking us up and over a small hill as we are surrounded by lush forest with interesting rock formations. Entering the cave we follow timber steps down to a viewing platform, where I took the second shot looking back up.
While this is it, and we couldn’t go farther into the cave, we still found it a worthwhile stop.
Don’t forget to bring a torch (flashlight) as the only light inside the cave is from the entrance, and not really enough to enjoy some of the interesting formations on the walls.
Rather than a handheld light, I took the photos using a headlamp to light the formations.
Pro tip: If you are using GPS to guide you to the pull-out (car parking area), note we came to it nearly a half kilometre before it was marked on our system map.
If you only have time for one stop along this road, this easy 10-minute trail to the stunning Marokopa Falls should be it.
It’s possibly the most beautiful of the waterfalls we have seen on the North Island. Marokopa Falls is a cascade fall dropping 35 metres. Keep in mind it was raining on the day we were there, so the water may have been a little heavier flowing than in other photos we’ve seen of it.
Note that on our recent visit, there had been a slip, and therefore a danger sign closed off the portion of the track that takes you down to the water. But it stops at a fabulous viewing point, so no worries.
Home to the blackest black sand I’ve ever seen. I imagine this beach would have been absolutely stunning had it not been raining on the day we were there.
Of course, the advantage of the rain meant many of the holiday homes and the nearby campground were vacant, so this somewhat popular beach was empty, and we were there by ourselves. It’s worth a visit, even in the rain.
I am not sure if it’s the tunnel or its creation that makes this stop so interesting, but either way, we think it is worth the extra drive as it is 5 km off the main road.
The tunnel is 60-80 meters long (depending on which source we look at), and believe it or not, it was hand-built by only three men with pick axes.
It opens at the other end onto another lovely black sand beach. Again, I’m sure this would be amazing on a sunny day. With the rain, the temperature was a cool 17° outside, but the tunnel itself was surprisingly cold as the wind rushed through it.
Tongapōrutu (Three Sisters and Elephant Rock)
The Three Sisters and Elephant Rock are spectacular 25-metre rock formations sculpted by the relentless sea on Taranaki’s coast that can only be accessed at low tide. They are not kidding with this.
We arrived 1.5 hours before the low tide, but apparently, that wasn’t enough, and we could only make it part of the way out there until we came to water that had not yet receded. We could tell it was initially ankle-deep wading, but we had no idea how deep it became.
The adorable couple that was walking out about the same time as us braved the water. More specifically, he took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants and carried her. That’s simply not our style. So we turned around and went back.
My current favourite city in New Zealand, there is plenty to do in New Plymouth, our ending destination of this Auckland to Taranaki road trip. (And if you are staying for a while, be sure to check out more things to do in the Taranaki region.
Car hire (rental)
Unless you are using your own vehicle, you will need to hire a car. We always rent from RentalCars. They offer a comprehensive list of multinational and local rental car agents, ratings on specific car types, and agency ratings. Importantly, they often have lower prices than going direct.
Whether you rent from them or not, it’s still the perfect place to begin your search. Click here to compare options and check availability at RentalCars.com
FAQ for this Auckland to New Plymouth road trip
- It’s my first time visiting New Zealand. Is there anything special I need to bring for my road trip from Auckland to Taranaki region?
If you are arriving from overseas, be sure to get a copy of our free packing list for New Zealand. It is more than sufficient.
- Do I need a 4WD for the unsealed section of the road?
No, we do this drive in our regular car. We just take the unpaved sections a bit slower to avoid stones damaging our car’s undercarriage.
- Do I need to book accommodation in advance?
If you are travelling in peak season, it’s always advisable, especially if you are hoping to stay near Waitomo. Our favourite spot is the charming adults-only Abseil Inn. You can reserve your stay at Abseil Inn here.
- If I don’t want to drive, are there other options to get from Auckland to New Plymouth?
There is an airport in New Plymouth and a bus option. If this is your preferred travel, we use Bookaway for alternative options to get from Auckland to New Plymouth.
Continue your North Island discovery
Driving the length of the country year after year gives us ample opportunity to explore the country fully. Here are a few more itineraries.
- Auckland to Cape Reinga: New Zealand Road Trip Tips
- East Cape NZ Driving Itinerary: Gisborne to Opotiki Road Trip
- Enjoy an Auckland to Wellington Drive with These Stops
- Auckland to Rotorua Drive: 9 Stops on an Epic Journey
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Where will you stop on your Auckland to New Plymouth road trip?
For more on New Zealand, start here: New Zealand Road Trips: Itineraries for North or South Island Adventures, or you might like …