In the heart of the North Island stands a forest unlike any other: the Whirinaki Forest. It’s one of the world’s last remaining prehistoric rainforests and it’s the most peaceful, mystical forest we’ve ever set foot in, with tons of hiking options to choose from.
Tree branches drip with moss. Raindrops sparkle on the tips of ferns like glitter. Light filters in softly through the leaves. The air smells fresh and rejuvenating. The forest is dense, verdant and wild.
The Whirinaki Forest is home to towering old-growth native trees, namely tōtara, kahikatea, mataī, miro and rimu. Some of these trees are over 1000 years old. It is also home to an abundance of bird life, including rare species such as kiwi and kākā. There are rivers, waterfalls, a lagoon and a beautiful canyon just waiting to be explored.
Despite being just over an hour’s drive from the hubbub of Rotorua, the Whirinaki forest remains mostly untouched—and the emptiness only adds to its mystique. When we hiked around in Whirinaki, we didn’t see any other people for hours. The only sounds were the soft rustling of leaves in the breeze, our footsteps along the paths, and an incredible array of birdsong.
There are heaps of hikes to do in this forest. If you just have a day in Whirinaki, you could either do one of the longer day hikes, or a few of the smaller ones. Alternatively, if you camp overnight in the park, you could tackle quite a few hikes between two days.
Read our full guide to the Whirinaki forest below.
How to get to the Whirinaki Forest from Rotorua
The main entrance to the Whirinaki forest is located about 90 km southeast of Rotorua. Take SH5 to SH38, drive through the town of Murapura, and turn right onto Minginui Road. The road will eventually become unpaved, and you’ll find all of the trailheads along the road with signage to help guide your way.
Hiking Trails in the Whirinaki Forest
While there are some great overnight and multi-day hiking options in the forest, we’ve outlined the day walks that are available. They’re all awesome and fairly easy to do, so you really can’t go wrong with which one(s) you choose!
Te Whāiti-Nui-a-Toi Canyon
Distance: less than 1km
Hiking time: approx 20 minutes round trip
This quick and easy hike leads to a stunning canyon that’s not to be missed.
Distance: 3.2 km
Hiking time: approx 1 hour 15 minutes
This pleasant walk meanders through the forest and ends at a beautiful waterfall.
Whirinaki Waterfall Loop Track
Distance: 11 km
Hiking time: approx 3 hours 30 minutes
A popular loop track to a gorgeous waterfall, once again walking through stunning forest the whole way. Bring a picnic to enjoy mid-hike!
Distance: 6 km
Hiking time: approx 3 hours
This rain-fed lagoon is home to rare birds and is often teeming with frogs. It can dry up in summer and during periods without rain, so time this one during winter, spring, or after a good rainy spell.
Distance: 2.2 km
Hiking time: approx 1 hour 30 mins
The Sanctuary track is possibly our favourite track in the whole park. It’s a section of the forest you’ll just want to get lost in. You’ll feel towered over by incredibly tall trees and feel absolutely immersed in dense, wild forest. Our necks hurt after hiking this one as we couldn’t stop looking up at the amazing tree giants!
At night, you can walk the beginning section of the Sanctuary track along the “Whirinaki Nightlife Walk.” This begins clockwise from the trailhead, and you’ll exit along the same section of the path. Listen for kiwi and look out for glow worms. This would be fun to do if you’re staying at the Sanctuary campground, which is right at the start of the trail.
Distance: 2.2 km
Hiking time: approx 1 hour
This walk leads to an interestingly-shaped rimu tree, and offers some of the best opportunities to spot kākā.
Camping in the Whirinaki Forest
The only “accommodation” in the Whirinaki Forest is rustic camping—but the campgrounds sure are fine.
The Sanctuary campsite feels very remote and is situated along a sweet little stream. This is a small camping area and could fit maybe five campers or tents comfortably. There is a toilet and you can have campfires there (unless there’s a fire ban), but there are no other amenities besides peace and quiet. Bring your own drinking water or collect from the stream (and make sure to filter or boil before drinking). This would be a good place to camp at if you want to walk part of the Sanctuary track at night. It is free to stay there.
The Mangamate campsite is more spacious and has a waterfall and small river right at the campground—it’s amazing! There are picnic tables and fire pits for you to use. While we’d love to stay here one day, we were disappointed to see that it had been trashed by some partiers, who left the place littered with beer bottles, etc. It’s worth checking out just for the waterfall, though, and would be a lovely place for a picnic.
Another option, and what we like to do, is to stay in Rotorua and day trip into the Whirinaki Forest. The drive from Rotorua to Whirinaki is just under an hour and a half.
Another benefit to this option is that on the way back to Rotorua from Whirinaki, you can stop at one of the free hot springs to soak your weary bones – the best way to end an epic day of hiking in the Whirinaki Forest!
We hope this guide has inspired you to visit the many hiking trails in the Whirinaki Forest. It’s a real hidden gem of a place that’s well worth exploring.
MORE TRAVEL INSPIRATION
For more beautiful, forested hikes on New Zealand’s North Island, check out our travel guides to waterfall walks in Tongariro National Park and the goblin forest/Dawson Falls hike in Egmont National Park.
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