New Zealand North Island Road Trip for Travel Photographers

New Zealand’s South Island understandably gets more attention than the north from tourists but the North Island has plenty to offer. More tropical than South, the North Island is known for its geothermal activity, including several active volcanoes, as well as pristine beaches and lush primary forests. North Island is a landscape photographer dream location!

New Zealand North Island Road Trip for Travelling Photographers

North vs South

While the South Island is mountainous with great fjords and snowy peaks, the North is semi-tropical with beautiful beaches and temperate forests. The best thing about the North Island is that you can be on the wild surf beaches of the west coast in the morning, pass through ancient forests and volcanic landscapes and be on tropical golden sandy beaches by the day’s end.

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How much will it cost?

New Zealand can be traveled on the cheap if you don’t mind camping or hiring a camper van. There are numerous campsites from cheap basic DOC sites for proper wilderness camping, to holiday parks complete with bathroom and kitchen facilities. 30 to 50 USD per day is doable.

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Best Time to Visit

Summer is the high season throughout the North Island, where the locals flock to the beaches and tourists pour in from all over the world. As with most places, the best time to visit NZ is at either end of this high season to avoid the majority of the crowds.

New Zealand North Island Road Trip: Sheep eating grass on the mountains
Sheep eating grass on the mountains of the north island of New Zealand

Camping vs Hotels

The best way to see the North Island, and the south while we’re at it, is by camper van. There are several companies that allow you to pick up your van right from the airport to get you on your way. Most towns in the North Island have sites you can pay a small fee to park your van on and there is a network of ‘freedom camping’ sites. These are really just car parks where you can park for the night free of charge as long as you have a vehicle equipped with a toilet! Hotels are of course a more expensive option and you will find it difficult to get around conveniently without your own vehicle.

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New Zealand South Island Map – Road Trip Itinerary

9 Epic Photography spots in New Zealand’s South Island

New Zealand’s North Island has a very diverse landscape, this list starts in the North and zig-zags its way south to take in as much as possible. You will most likely fly into Auckland in the North and if you are including the South Island on your trip then you may take the ferry from Wellington.

1. Cape Reinga Lighthouse

At the very northern point of New Zealand, you will find this lighthouse at the end of a short pathway. Sunset gives the lighthouse and wild coast below a moody feel. The walkway makes for a good foreground element.

New Zealand North Island Road Trip: 1. Cape Reinga Lighthouse
New Zealand North Island Road Trip: 1. Cape Reinga Bay

2. Waipu Cave

As you head south, stop off at this cave and find a different sort of night sky within. Glow Worms! Bring your gumboots as your feet will definitely get wet.

3. Piha Beach

This beach is so photogenic it has made its way into many films and TV shows. Lying just west of Auckland makes it easy to get to and in fact, there are several similarly beautiful beaches in the area. Head out at sunset and low tide for the best conditions.

3. Piha Beach - New Zealand North Island

4. Owharoa Falls

One of many many waterfalls in the North Island, Owharoa Falls is on the Coromandel Peninsula and is best captured with a slow shutter speed to smooth out the water. Remember to bring your tripod!

4. Owharoa Falls - New Zealand North Island
New Zealand North Island: Owharoa Falls

5. Cathedral Cove

Another film location, this time on the east coast, sits 3 hours drive from Auckland. An easy walk takes you down to a beach only accessible by foot or boat. The sea has carved out a large archway connecting 2 beaches which makes for an epic shot. Sunrise is best and aim for low tide!

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5. Cathedral Cove - New Zealand North Island
New Zealand North Island: Cathedral Cove

6. Mt. Maunganui

Continue down the east coast to Mt. Maunganui. A beach resort town with a small ‘mountain’ at the tip of a peninsula. A fairly easy, if a little steep walk to the summit provides amazing views in all directions. The best view includes a look back at the town itself at sunrise with the pacific ocean stretching into the distance.

6. Mt. Maunganui - New Zealand North Island
New Zealand North Island: Mt. Maunganui

7. Rotorua

Visit Rotorua’s geothermal park for otherworldly sulfur pools and action shots of erupting geysers. Getting as close as is safely possible with a wide angle will give the thermal pools an epic feel.

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7. Rotorua - New Zealand North Island
New Zealand North Island: Rotorua

8. Three Sisters Rocks

Continue across to the west until you reach the coast. Here you will find a vast beach with huge rock formations known as the Three Sisters. There is also one called Elephant Rock which recently crumbled but at the right angle, it still resembles a giant rocky elephant.

8. Three Sisters Rocks - New Zealand North Island
New Zealand North Island: Three Sisters Rocks

9. Mt. Taranaki

Next head further west to Mt Taranaki which forms an almost perfect cone. By far the best photo spot here is on a 2 hour hike called the ‘Pouakai Crossing’. Along the hike, you will find several tarns which on a clear day provide a perfect reflection.

9. Mt. Taranaki - New Zealand North Island
New Zealand North Island: Mt. Taranaki

10. Tama Lakes

There are countless photo opportunities in the central Tongariro National Park, mostly involving the three active volcanoes in the area. One of the best is at the end of a 2 hour hike to ‘Tama Lakes’, it’s a strenuous hike but worth it. The lakes are clear blue with Mt. Ngauruhoe rising above. Lord of the Rings fans will recognize this as Mt. Doom.

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10. Tama Lakes - New Zealand North Island
New Zealand North Island: Tama Lakes

11. Desert road night time

Staying in Tongariro National Park, the desert road gives you an amazing view of Mt. Ruapehu rising above the plains. With no light polluting cities near-by this is a great spot for astrophotography.

11. Desert road night time - New Zealand North Island
New Zealand North Island: Desert road night time

12. Cape Palliser

The southern tip of the North Island is home a picturesque lighthouse that can be shot from many different angles and has a resident fur seal colony. Try camping here and getting the tripod out for a long exposure.

12. Cape Palliser - New Zealand North Island
New Zealand North Island: Cape Palliser

Take your Time

There are countless other photo opportunities in New Zealand’s North Island so be on the lookout for signs pointing to waterfalls and take the time to drive the long way. You will need at least 3 weeks to properly fit all this in and you have the time/budget you can take the ferry from Wellington to Picton in the South Island, check out my South Island itinerary here: New Zealand South Island Road Trip and continue the adventure!

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by Viktor Elizarov
I am a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada, and a founder of PhotoTraces. I travel around the world and share my experiences here. Feel free to check my Travel Portfolio and download Free Lightroom Presets.

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