Trying to find out what you can do in Rotorua for free? If so, the answer is…heaps! In this guide, we’re sharing our favourite free activities in Rotorua, including free hot pools, nature walks, lakes and other outdoor attractions.
Rotorua is New Zealand’s geothermal wonderland. It’s filled with geysers, hot pools, bubbling mud pits, and neon volcanic lakes (oh, and a pervasive sulphuric smell…which you do get used to after a while).
The Rotorua region is rich in Māori culture and it’s home to some absolutely stunning natural beauty.
It’s also the North Island’s (quite literal) tourism hotspot and is known by locals as “Rotovegas” because of all the touristy activities in the area. You can do everything from ziplining to “zorbing” to mini-golfing with rabbits (not making this up!). There’s a wide range of attractions on offer, and you can easily spend a couple of days in Rotorua without running out of things to do.
The thing is, we never actually pay for activities in Rotorua. The area has SO many free and awesome things to do outdoors, and we prefer to save our money for the delicious local food and drinks!
In this guide, we’re sharing our top things to do in Rotorua, all of which happen to be completely free.
So let’s get to it: here are 7 free, fun things to do in Rotorua.
Map of Free Things to Do in Rotorua
1. Take a stroll around Kuirau Park
Rotorua is a city unlike any other in the world. The township sits on top of active geothermal land, and it’s not unusual to see steam vents in the backyards of some local homes.
While there are some great commercial parks in and around Rotorua (Te Puia, Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, and Waimangu Volcanic Valley are the “big three”), one of the best places to see Rotorua’s geothermal wonders is Kuirau Park. It also happens to be free, and it’s right in town!
Wander through Kuirau Park and see bubbling mud pools, boiling lakes and rivers, and steam vents puffing up from the ground. All of this geothermal activity happens to be in an actual park, with playgrounds and picnic areas nearby. There can’t possibly be a park like this anywhere else on earth; it’s so unique!
After wandering through Kuirau Park, make sure to soak your toes in the free thermal foot pools. They’re not the hottest pools around, but they’re a lovely place to chill out for a bit.
2. Walk (or bike) through the Whakarewarewa Redwoods
Rotorua is home to a beautiful stand of Californian redwoods in the Whakarewarewa Forest.
While there are options here to pay for a treetop walk, you can walk under the redwoods without having to pay a cent. It’s completely free to enjoy these towering beauties from the trails below!
We love doing the Redwood Memorial Grove Track (2 km; approx. 30 mins), which takes you through groves of redwoods, lush fern trees, and an aquamarine thermal pond.
Before heading out on your walk, stop by the visitor centre to familiarise yourself with the area via a trail map.
On a personal note: we’re originally from Santa Cruz, California, where redwoods are a native tree. We grew up hiking and camping in redwood forests, so the Whakarewarewa Forest feels particularly special to us! It’s a little slice of California in New Zealand, our adopted home.
The Whakarewarewa Forest is also packed with world-class mountain biking trails. Of course, this activity is only free if you have your own bike in tow, though. If you’re looking to hire a mountain bike on your visit to Rotorua, check out Mountain Bike Hire Rotorua. (We’re not mountain bikers ourselves, but couldn’t not mention this popular activity in a Rotorua guide!).
3. Watch whitewater rafters at Okere Falls
At Okere Falls, you can take a short bush walk (1.2 km / approx. 30 mins one-way) along a river to view the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall.
The walk itself is lovely and winds through lush forest. As you walk along the path, you’ll find several different waterfall viewpoints. It’s quite entertaining to watch rafters go down the powerful falls!
Once you’ve scoped out the waterfall action, continue along the path to the tranquil Trout Pool. You can sometimes spot trout in the cold, clear water. Then make your way back to your car by following the same path in reverse.
Side tip: after your walk, make sure to stop by the Okere Falls Store for delicious local food and drinks. They whip up healthy and hearty fare in an eco-friendly setting. It’s a wonderful place to refuel after a walk.
4. Soak in natural hot pools
Out of all the free things to do in Rotorua, our #1 favourite activity is to soak in the region’s natural hot pools.
Here are two you should definitely check out on your visit to Rotorua!
Kerosene Creek is a natural hot pool in a mineral-rich river amidst a beautiful setting in the bush. A waterfall drops into the pool and it’s simply magical!
Full disclosure: this is one of the most popular attractions in Rotorua, so don’t expect to have it to yourself. If you don’t mind a somewhat social soak, though, then definitely check out Kerosene Creek.
Make sure to not leave anything valuable in your car while you visit Kerosene Creek. The carpark is unfortunately known for break-ins.
Hot ‘n Cold Pool
At Hot ‘n Cold Pool, you’ll get to soak in a natural hot pool with a cold river flowing past it. This swimming hole is (usually) less crowded than Kerosene Creek, and we love it for the contrasting temperatures it offers. When you get too hot, you can simply float over to the cold river for a refresh. Repeat the whole process until you’re 100% relaxed.
*Some important notes about these hot pools:
1) Don’t stick your head under the water, as amoebic meningitis is a risk in any natural hot spring.
2) We’d recommend wearing water shoes/sandals in the hot pools to protect your feet from any broken glass or other sharp objects. Also, don’t wear silver jewellery in the hot pools, as it’ll get tarnished by the mineral water.
3) We always visit these hot pools during the morning or daytime—we’ve heard that they can become party scenes in the evening.
4) We’ve mentioned this above but it bears repeating: don’t leave valuables in your car at the hot pools. Break-ins are often reported in these carparks.
5) Please, please don’t litter! It’s sometimes shocking to see the rubbish left at these hot pools. We like to bring a rubbish bag and remove bottles, etc. left behind by less respectful visitors, and encourage you to do the same.
Pssst: If hot pools are your thing, you should check out our full guide to free and cheap hot pools in Rotorua and Taupo.
5. Be mesmerised by bubbling mud pits at Mud Pool
Visit Mud Pool for a (completely free) peek at a bubbling pit of mud. This is WAY more entertaining than it sounds! Mud Pool is another one of our favourite free things to do in Rotorua, as it’s a quick stop and is enjoyable rain or shine.
While this isn’t the type of mud you’d soak in (head to Hell’s Gate for that…), Mud Pool is a fascinating place to admire some of Rotorua’s geothermal activity.
You can see and hear mud bubble up and pop and make the most hilarious sounds here. Try watching it without giggling, we dare you!
This is a great spot to pair with a visit to Hot ‘n Cold Pool (see more details in section #4 above).
6. Hike up Rainbow Mountain
Distance: approx. 5 km / 3 hours round trip
For a good outdoor workout with awesome views, head to Rainbow Mountain for a hike.
You’ll walk through native forest past a neon-blue crater lake. Then you’ll climb up and up until you reach the summit, which offers stunning views over the surrounding region.
Tip: For a short (20-minute) walk, you can simply walk to the crater lake viewpoint and turn around there.
7. Visit one of Rotorua’s magnificent lakes
Rotorua is scattered with gorgeous lakes that are perfect for picnics, walks, summertime swims and bird-watching.
There are actually 18 lakes in the Rotorua region, which is one heck of a lot of lakes for such a relatively small area!
The Rotorua township is located right alongside Lake Rotorua, which is a beautiful sunset-viewing spot (look for the black swans; there are heaps).
For the most scenic lakes, however, you’ll want to venture out of the town centre and head to the hidden pockets around Rotorua. You could spend days exploring all of Rotorua’s lakes, but here are some we love:
Lake Tikitapu (Blue Lake)
Lake Tikitapu is just a 15-minute drive from the Rotorua town centre, but it feels like it’s a world away. The lake is a turquoise colour due to its white sandy lakebed, which is made up of rhyolite and pumice. The reflection from the bottom of the lake gives the water its particular shade of blue, and it’s stunning on a sunny day.
A visit to Lake Tikitapu is always peaceful, and the lakefront is the perfect place to relax when the sun’s shining—bring your swimsuit and a picnic, and hang out for the day!
If you’re up for a nice easy walk, follow the Blue Lake Track—this path takes you around the lake and provides lovely views. We like to do the walk in a clockwise direction around the lake; you’ll get the roadside part over with first, then get to enjoy the bush and lake views for the remainder of the walk.
Distance: the entire walk is 5.5 km and takes about 1.5 hours.
Side tip: The nearby Blue Lake Top 10 Holiday Park is a great place to camp or stay in a cabin; it’s removed from Rotorua’s sulphury scent, and you can do a nighttime walk from there to see glow worms along the lake!
And another side tip: While you’re at Blue Lake, make sure to stop by the lookout for the adjacent Lake Rotokākahi (Green Lake). This sacred lake is gorgeous to view but is off-limits to visitors, so enjoy it from afar.
One of the largest lakes in New Zealand, Lake Tarawera is a favourite with boaties and fly fishing enthusiasts. The lake is ringed with fern tree-covered hills and Mount Tarawera, a dormant volcano.
While Lake Tarawera is accessed most easily by those with boats and/or holiday homes along its shores, there are two publicly accessible swimming spots worth noting: Stoney Point/Rangiuru Bay, and Tarawera Landing. The latter is also a popular photography spot, as its picturesque jetty makes for a gorgeous photo op at sunrise or sunset.
Side note/paid activity option: Lake Tarawera is also home to its own Hot Water Beach, where hot springs bubble up along the lakeshore. However, Hot Water Beach is only accessible via boat or a 15 km (one-way) hike along the Tarawera Trail.
If you’re keen to visit Hot Water Beach, you can hike in one way, then book a return boat with Totally Tarawera for $30 per person. Hot Water Beach also has a DOC-run campground ($15 per person per night), for those looking for an overnight option. More information and bookings for the campground can be found here.
If you’re at all into bird watching, you should head on over to Lake Ōkareka. This lake is an excellent place for spotting birdlife; wander along the boardwalk amongst the wetlands and keep your eyes peeled for black swans, ducks, and many other beautiful feathered friends.
Side note: If you’re keen for a camping trip, check out the DOC-run campsite ($15 per person per night) along the lakeshore. It has basic facilities but is in a lovely spot.
If we had to pick a favourite out of Rotorua’s lakes, this would be it: Lake Ōkataina is a gem!
This scenic lake is fringed by lush forest and has a gorgeous sandy shore. There are excellent walking opportunities around Lake Ōkataina, and it’s a wonderful place for a summertime picnic and swim. It feels pristine and peaceful here—once you arrive at the lake, you’ll likely want to linger for a while.
Where to stay in Rotorua: our budget-friendly picks
Camping in Rotorua
We love the Blue Lake Top 10 Holiday Park for cabins and camping.
Another great place to camp is Waikite Valley Thermal Pools: the campsites themselves aren’t anything spectacular, but you get after-hours access to the fantastic onsite hot pools.
Hotels in Rotorua
We recommend Aura Accommodation; it’s our go-to hotel when we stay in Rotorua.
The staff are super friendly, the whole place is eco-conscious, and there are on-site bikes and hot pools for guests to use! It’s also in a walkable location with easy access to the Rotorua lakefront and heaps of eateries.
We hope this list has given you some ideas for free, fun things to do on your trip to Rotorua. It’s a unique and beautiful place to visit, and you won’t run out of activities to try—even if you’re on a budget.
More Travel Inspiration
- For some beach action after Rotorua, head to nearby Mount Maunganui for sun, sand and surf! The walks on and around Mount Maunganui are a North Island “must-do.”
- If you’re after more walks, you should check out the Te Waihou Walkway (Blue Springs) in Putaruru, which is about an hour north of Rotorua. You’ll get to walk along rolling farmland to reach a stunning, crystal-clear freshwater spring—it’s a North Island must-do.
- The Whirinaki Forest (90 km south of Rotorua) offers some excellent hiking opportunities for those seeking off-the-beaten-path adventures (waterfalls, ancient trees, and so much more). A visit to Whirinaki Forest makes for a great day trip from Rotorua.