Of all of the things to see on New Zealand’s North Island, few capture the imagination (or are as jaw-droppingly stunning) as Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. It’s a must-see destination in Rotorua.
Boiling mud pools, steaming fumaroles and rocks, oddly colored lakes.
It’s stunning and mind-boggling. Probably only Yellowstone National Park in the United States could give this place a run for its money.
Here is everything you need to know to visit Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland in Rotorua, New Zealand.
What is Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland?
The South Island is tectonic. The North Island is geothermal.
When you drive through both islands, you really notice the difference. It’s like being in two different worlds, really. The South Island is famous for huge mountains, like those around Milford Sound, that make you feel insignificant.
When you drive the North Island, you won’t see as many massive mountains. But in the distance – and even along the side of the road – you may see clouds that you’d mistake for fog, if you didn’t know better.
It’s not fog you’re seeing. It’s steam. And that steam is rising from vents that permeate the landscape of the North Island – particularly in the Taupo Volcanic Region near Rotorua.
Wai-O-Tapu (commonly spelled Waiotapu) is the best example of geothermal activity in this area.
Wai-O-Tapu has been a tourist area since the early 1930s. Since 2012, the Maori took over the operations of the park, which covers about 18 square kilometers. The area is a protected scenic reserve.
When you visit, you’ll see the spectrum of geothermal activity in New Zealand – from bubbling mud pools to geysers and sulfur lakes.
Where is Wai-O-Tapu?
Here’s Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland on Google Maps. It’s a quick 27 minute drive from Rotorua by car and just about 35 minutes from Taupo.
Here’s the address if you need to plug it into an online map:
201 Waiotapu Loop Road, RD 3
Rotorua 3073, NZ
Driving from Rotorua to Waiotapu
To get to Waiotapu from Rotorua, take the Thermal Explorer Highway (SH 5) south towards Taupo. When you get to the Waiotapu Tavern, turn left.
The park is 2 km up the road.
Driving from Taupo to Waiotapu
The drive from Taupo to Waiotapu is about 40 minutes. Take the Thermal Explorer Highway (SH 5) north towards Rotorua.
Turn right at the sign for Waiotapu and it’s just 1 km to get to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland.
Both drives may take slightly longer in the summer months.
How long do you need to visit?
Sulfur accumulation at the edge of a pondKeep in mind that Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is a big park that covers about 18 square kilometers. The good news is that it’s fairly easy to see the entire park in a half-day.
If you’re like me though, and if you’re a person who likes to stop and take it all in, you’ll be there much longer.
I stayed here for about 7 hours and was able to really enjoy the park, stop and take lots of pictures, and record some of the park features on video.
Can you do Wai-O-Tapu in one day? Absolutely. What about 3-4 hours? Sure. You can definitely hit the highlights and you will enjoy it immensely. In my opinion though, Wai-O-Tapu is a place where you have to relax and take it all in.
If you read reviews on places like TripAdvisor, for example, lots of people really enjoy their visit and only stay for 2-3 hours. I believe them, though I’d plan for the day.
Things to see at Waiotapu
The reason a visit to Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland can take so long is that there is simply so much to see. From boiling mud pools to fluorescent green colored ponds and more, it’s easy to see why people spend the entire day here and then come back for more.
You may find yourself struck by the amazing view of the Champagne pool and just stand there and stare for 30 minutes!
Boiling Mud Pools
And with each belch, a bit of sulfur and steam spurts into the air.
It’s really fascinating to see.
From small, isolated tiny pools, to vast areas full of them, they are quite something.
Waiotapu Champagne Pool
While the park mostly has a sulfur smell, it’s around the Champagne Pool that it can really hit you. The pool is large, and we visited this area 3 or 4 times, as a few trails intersected here.
One time, the air was clear. Another time, you could barely see from the steam that rose off the water.
It was beautiful.
And even though it was a fairly chilly day in the beginning, you could feel the heat rising off of the Champagne Pool.
I think most people can handle a faint sulfur smell. But if you have a particular sensitivity to it, you might want to avoid this particular area (or rush past it if you must).
The Devil’s Bath
Devil’s Bath was my favorite part of Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. It’s not a thermal bath. There is no steam rising from it. It just sits there. But it reminds me of a place I’ve always wanted to see – Kelimutu in Indonesia.
When I rounded the corner on the trail and saw it, I might have squealed.
No, you cannot swim here – or any place in the park. And there’s so much sulfur in the Devil’s Bath that you’d never want to anyway.
(Would you even consider jumping into something called “The Devil’s Bath” anyway?)
Lady Knox Geyser
OK, I’m just going to come out and say it. Lady Knox Geyser is a bit of a letdown. At the visitor center, they told us that the Lady Knox Geyser erupts every day at 10:30 AM. I was pretty impressed. Old Faithful at Yellowstone has pretty consistent eruptions, too, but they’re not quite this exact.
I had to see it for myself.
What I saw was mildly disappointing, but still sort of cool. It turns out that Lady Knox Geyser does, in fact, erupt pretty consistently.
But it doesn’t erupt on a set schedule at 10:30 every morning. What actually happens is that a park ranger steps up to the geyser and gives a bit of history. Then, she pours some sort of concoction into the opening that acts as a catalyst to make the geyser erupt.
Sorry to spoil the fun.
But the eruption is still worth seeing, though the seating area gets a bit crowded. If I’ve ruined this for you and you no longer want to see it, I’m sorry.
That said, you’ll now have that extra time free to explore other things in the park while all of the people are watching Lady Knox erupt!
It’s really a win for you, to be honest. I think it’s good for you, an adult, to know what you’re going to see and make the decision yourself as to whether or not it’s worth it to see a staged geyser eruption.
If you have kids, it’ll still be very cool. But for you? Maybe. Maybe not. There’s nothing else disappointing in the park. I promise!
As of January, 2019, the following price structure is in effect for Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Prices are in New Zealand dollars.
Thermal Park and Lady Knox Geyser
Adults (over 15): $32.50
Children (5-15): $11.00
Children (0-4): Free
Family (2 adults and up to 3 children): $85.00
Children must be accompanied by adults.
Again, Wai-o-tapu does not accept cash. They accept only major credit cards and EFTPOS.
Safety at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Waiotapu is not dangerous. But like anywhere, it can be if you’re not following the rules. For example, signs tell you not to wander off the trails. If you wander off the trails, you could find yourself neck-deep in a mud pool.
And by the way, some of the mud pools are 100ºC/212°F. Boiling. Visiting Wai-O-Tapu with small children? Hold their hands.
Sulfur is not too bad for you in small doses that you’ll get while breathing in the diluted steam. But get your nose down to within a couple of centimeters of one of the thermal ponds and you just might end up quite sick. Some of those fumes are downright toxic if you get too close. So…
- Stay on the trails
- Obey the signage
- Don’t drink anything – even if it looks like refreshing fruit punch!
You’ll be fine.
By the way, grab a map at the Wai-O-Tapu Visitor Center. It’s quite well put together and you;’ll know exactly where you are in the park at each point.
Our Wai-O-Tapu travel vlog
I visited the park with a friend in September of 2018. Here is my travel vlog of Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland:
More information + Wai-O-Tapu Hours
Payment: Waiotapu does not accept cash. They do accept major credit cards and EFTPOS.
Souvenirs: The park has a large gift shop featuring Waiotapu souvenirs, along with an array of hand-made trinkets, paintings, jewellery, and other cool stuff from local and New Zealand artists. The selection includes Maori carvings and other art.
Food: Although I did not eat at the cafe, and cannot attest to the quality (except to say it looked pretty good), I did enjoy a flat white. But let’s be honest, any flat white made by a New Zealander is going to be a treat!
Toilets: Be sure to use the toilet in the Wai-O-Tapu visitor center before you enter the park. Some of the pools might be yellow-ish. That doesn’t mean they want you peeing in them!
- April – October: 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM
- November – March: 8:30 AM to 6:00 PM
- Christmas Day: 8:30 PM to 5:00 PM
You can enter the park 1 hour and 15 minutes before closing. If you get there after that, you won’t get in.
Photos: Bring extra memory cards. You’re gonna need them!
Lady Knox Geyser: You’ll have to drive to Lady Knox. It’s only a few minutes, but there is a separate parking lot here for the geyser show.
Wai-O-Tapu and more: Join a small tour to visit Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley from central Rotorua. Discover the hot springs, geysers, mud pools, volcanoes and native forest.
More Rotorua attractions
Looking for other things to do in Rotorua, check out these day trips from Auckland, with a section on Rotorua at the end with more adventures in this area!
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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert. Michael has traveled to over 50 countries learning how to experience more for less as he travels.