Wai-O-Tapu translates to sacred waters, and even without knowing any legends or understanding the science, I was captivated. It’s a surreal, mystical place enhanced by rising steam and nature’s dreamlike palette of colours. Check out the photos below and you will know that Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is a must-see if you are visiting geothermal Rotorua in New Zealand.
Volcanic activity in the area dates back about 160,000 years. Visitors safely walk on boardwalks and paths through the Wai-O-Tapu Wonderland, passing collapsed craters, boiling pools of mud or water, colourful mineral deposits, a forest, and steaming fumaroles. The craters range in size with the largest measuring 50 metres (164 ft) in diameter and up to 20 metres (65 ft) deep.
See it for yourself:
Imagine taking a self-guided tour and looking out over the water and seeing sites like this . . .
The largest spring in the geothermal Rotorua region, the Champagne Pool is also probably the most photographed spot at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. It’s 700 years old (formed by a hydrothermal eruption), 65 metres in diameter, 62 metres deep, and 74°c (165°f) at the surface. Gold, silver, mercury, sulphur, arsenic, thallium, antimony are amongst the minerals contained in the Champagne Pool.
The Artist’s Palette at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
The vivid colours at Wai-O-Tapu are all naturally created by a mix of various mineral deposits. Some of the key colours and their corresponding minerals include:
- Green → Colloidal sulphur and ferrous salts
- Orange → Antimony
- Purple → Manganese oxide
- White → Silica
- Yellow-primrose → Sulphur
- Red-brown → Iron Oxide
- Black → Sulphur and carbon
At the angry bottom of Inferno Crater is rapidly boiling mud.
Another of the surreal views, the Devil’s Bath colours are created as the excess water of the Champagne Pool mixes with sulphur and ferrous salts. While it was a fluorescent green colour when we saw it, it changes throughout the day and is affected by cloud cover and reflected light.
More craters at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Most of these craters have formed as extremely hot water created acidic steam that dissolved the ground above as it rose. The smells are not always pleasant, but the views make up for it.
Wai-O-Tapu isn’t only Geothermal
Lady Knox Geyser
One of only 10 remaining active geysers in New Zealand, Lady Knox Geyser fascinates visitors every morning at about 10.15 am. If you wondering (like I was) how nature can be so precise, it’s simple. It has assistance. First, a short presentation including safety information and the amusing story of the first eruption in the 1800s. It involved laundry and butt-naked prisoners running for cover. Simulating this, the presenter adds a biodegradable soap to the geyser that breaks down the water barriers allowing the bubbling water to rise and shoot out the top. Hitting heights of up to 20m, it’s a sight not to miss.
The geyser is named for Lady Constance Knox, the daughter of the 15th governor of New Zealand, Uchter Knox.
There is also a Wai-O-Tapu geyser on walk 3. Its eruption schedule is less predictable, erupting every 2 to 36 hours. It did not erupt while we were there.
Geothermal Rotorua Tours
If you prefer a tour to a self-guided exploration, here are a few we recommend, some also include other Rotorua geothermal areas:
Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village
Mitai Maori Experience
|11 to 12 hours|
|Flexible Rotorua Tour||Rotorua||Waimangu|
Options of: Wai-O-Tapu, Hobbiton, Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village
|3.5 to 9 hrs|
|Auckland Day Trip to Rotorua||Auckland||Wai-O-Tapu|
Practical information on geothermal Rotorua and on visiting Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland:
PRO TIP: Most visitors try to see Lady Knox Geyser. If you arrive when the geothermal park opens, you can enjoy the thermal wonderland with fewer people.
- Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is at 201 Waiotapu Loop Road, Rotorua, 31 km. See their official webpage here.
- It’s a 30-minute drive from downtown Rotorua, located in the western Bay of Plenty.
- The park opens every day at 8:30 am, closing at 6 pm in the summer and 5 pm in the winter.
- There are three walking trail options, each taking you farther into the park. Walk 1 is wheelchair accessible and allows you to see nearly everything photographed on this page.
- The main trail (walk 1) is 1.5 km (.9 miles) and takes about 30 minutes to complete.
- Adding Walk 2 increases the distance to 2 km (1.2 miles) and total time to 4o minutes.
- The entire park (Walk 1, 2, & 3) is a 3 km (1.8 miles) walk that takes approximately 75 minutes. Therefore arriving when the park opens allows enough time to complete the full trail and see Lady Knox Geyser.
- It is a short drive between Lady Knox Geyser and Wai-O-Tapu’s Visitor Centre, and each has its own carpark.
- The Lady Knox Geyser “show” is daily at 10:15 am.
- Depending on wind direction, if you sit in the front row when Lady Knox Geyser erupts, you may get wet.
- There is NO SMOKING allowed in the park, as some of the minerals are quite flammable.
- While it seems obvious, I remind you not to touch the water or mud. Much of it is boiling, and it will burn you. If you don’t believe me, or any of the warning signs, there is a first-aid office in the visitor’s centre.
Planning tips for your visit to the Bay of Plenty and Rotorua
First-time visitors start here: New Zealand travel guide.
Rental Vehicles: For cars, we always use RentalCars.com, a rental car search engine with no hidden costs. However, we recommend Spaceships Rentals NZ for campervans.
Accommodations: In the Bay of Plenty, we stay and recommend a beachfront villa at Papamoa Beach Resort or the Rotorua Lakeside Novotel.
Activity Discounts: We use Bookme.co.nz to find discounts on entry tickets and tours in New Zealand.
Travel Insurance: We purchase insurance that covers medical and travel emergencies when we head overseas. We start with World Nomads.
Packing Tips: Get a free copy of our New Zealand packing list when you sign up for our mailing list.
**Find more money-saving resources on our Travel Resources page.
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Disclaimer: We worked with Destination Rotorua, the local tourism board. We were provided with complimentary entrances, tours and sample items to assist in the writing of this review. The opinions expressed here are strictly our own.