Our 20 best New Zealand landscapes

With its swooping green hills, sandy beaches, and snow-capped peaks, New Zealand is effortlessly beautiful. And while anyone with a camera or phone can capture the country’s wild perfection, though photos don’t do the land justice. For you, who hopes to visit, who has visited, or who lives there now, we present our fifteen most breathtaking landscape photos from our two weeks on the North Island. And it’s just a small slice of New Zealand’s beauty:

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People fishing at sunrise near Mangawhai Heads, Northland Peninsula
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Foragers collect cockles on a beach, south of Auckland
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Early morning at a campsite in the center of the North Island
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Sheep run across a grassy hill near Cape Reinga, Northland Peninsula
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The view from the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, Northland Peninsula
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Clouds (shadows) and people (black dots on right) pass over dunes at the Te Paki Sand Dunes, Northland Peninsula
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The endless hills of New Zealand as seen from the Forgotten World Highway
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Volcanic cones rise from the landscape at Tongariro National Park
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Taranaki Falls and Wairere Sream cut through the landscape of Tongariro National Park
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Wairere Sream just before plunging over Taranaki Falls, Tongariro National Park
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Patchwork vegetation grows in the shadow of a volcanic cone, Tongariro National Park
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The Tongariro National Park landscape on a rainy day
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Tawhai Falls (Gollum’s Pool) on a rainy day, Tongariro National Park
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The cooling tower of Ohaaki Geothermal Station disappears into the clouds, central North Island
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Steam rises from hot springs and rivers hidden in the forest, central North Island
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Late afternoon on the tramping track in Puhoi, Northland Peninsula
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Sunset and cloud formations as seen from the Mounds Walk, Tongariro National Park
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Sunset on a rainy day, including a distant rainbow, at Nevin’s Lookout
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Sunset and dusk in one photo as seen from Nevin’s Lookout
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The last rays of sunset over New Zealand’s hills at Nevin’s Lookout

The Last Waterfall, and a Black Sand Beach

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We headed out of the Goblin Forest and drove down the the nearby Dawson Falls. This was our last waterfall for this section of the trip. A nice up and down stair-hike leads to the falls and the pools beneath them. Notice the orange mud layer to the right of the falls? People have left tons of orange handprints around the area, and we joined in the fun.

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The pools are big enough to skip stones in, coincidentally one of my favorite travel-hobbies. Finding the right stone is an art unto itself, and in this otherwise beautiful picture, there I am hunting.

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The throw takes place.

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We wrapped up and went on our last great drive, north and east. On the way we stopped at a seemingly regular beach.

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Except that something was very strange about the sand.

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Here in Mokao the sand is a wonderful coal black. I did a quick search for black sand beaches in New Zealand and this one isn’t listed. This was my first black sand beach, and I was amazed. If you’ve never seen one in person it’s the strangest thing. Alongside the color, the texture of the sand was of fine, wet silt, making it behave like very thick pudding. A strange and wonderful combination.

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Great natural beauty and, unfortunately, pollution. It looks like trash from the nearby town washes down and out towards the ocean. Luckily it’s limited in its spread.

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Walking away from the beach entrance leads to cliffs with small caves in them.

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In a break in the cliffs is a river feeding the ocean and cutting a tar-black line in the sand.

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We collected shells and continued our occasional tradition of post-beach combing art.

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Next up : return to civilization.

The Forgotten World Highway, day 2

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Wild sunset storms over, we continued on the road. Our first stop led us pulling over on the side of the road sometime before it turned to gravel to read about Joshua Morgan.

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Clearly marked and about two minutes off from the road lies Joshua Morgan, the Head Surveyor for in this region in 1893. The sign tells the story – Morgan fell ill while leading the expedition, help was sent for, but to no avail. He died and was buried in the same spot, near the junction of two rivers.

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At 35 he was an accomplished surveyor and fluent in Maori, the first white explorer to cross the Urewera mountain range. His plans for the road we drove on were eventually executed, and it has served the area for many years.

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His wife’s dying wish was to be buried near his grave, which the local authorities honored.

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The next stop on the way was a vista of Mt. Damper Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls on the North Island. It’s a fairly short walk, about twenty minutes one way, and except for the mud is quite easy. There is some farmland on the way, so closing gates is important. The reward is this view of the falls, seventy four meters tall.

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Not mentioned on the parks website is this second waterfall, very near the first. It forks off after the start even after it’s been raining. We found it to be the more interesting of the two falls, despite the prominence of the first. There are back-country hiking trails that come and go through the area, including one marked as closed for safety reasons that had clearly been travelled recently.

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Further down the road, past the hand-carved tunnel of which we got no good pictures but can tell you it’s rough, narrow, and damp, is the republic of Whanga and its capital, Whangamomona. In a border-redrawing in 1989, Whangamomona was placed in a neighboring county, and not the one its residents consider home. In protest, after attempting to correct the error, they declared independence and now have a Republic Day holiday and give out passports to tourists.

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The history is somewhat tongue in cheek, as their first president was placed on the ballot without his knowledge and the following three presidents were animals. The town boomed and declined with local farming and the coming of the rail line, and is now in a fairly sad state. The population is around a hundred people and dropping, and since the post office closed recently, the inevitable decline became even more inevitable.

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Actively used buildings are kept in good repair and the New Zealand Parks services maintains a clean bathroom in one corner of town, but most of the buildings are shuttered and there are no real businesses save the town hotel. The people live in good spirits though. The hotel’s pub was busy and cheerful, and the town’s welcome sign says “Come and increase our population”.

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We enjoyed a snack at the hotel’s restaurant – scones and cake – but the french fries smelled delicious and it was hard to resist sitting down for a full meal.

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Next up : the Goblin forest and saying goodbye to New Zealand.

Taranaki Falls Hike @ Tongariro

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Taranaki Falls (left) peeks out from the cliffs and feeds the river below

At 6.4 km, Taranaki Falls Loop is a brisk little hike you can do in a couple of hours. We chose this hike when cloudy, rainy weather dashed our hopes of doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. And while it doesn’t involve breathtaking summits, it’s a beautiful hike even in gloomy weather.

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The trailhead, with a view of volcanic peaks in the distance

The hike starts from the Whakapapa village parking lot, just north of the Tongariro National Park Visitors’ Center. If you want to reach the falls quickly and have a longer hike after, take the right fork. To have the long hike first and the falls nearer(ish) to the end, take the left fork. The description below is through the left fork, traveling clockwise on the loop. The beginning of the hike isn’t super well-signed, so it doesn’t hurt to pop by the visitors’ center first and ask how to find the hike. They’ll also know the latest info on trail conditions in the area.

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Scotch heather, a highly invasive plant in the Tongariro area

The hike first threads through bushy plains, but much of the bush you’ll see isn’t native; it’s Scotch heather, a shrub originally introduced back when there were plans to turn Tongariro into a grouse game reserve. Though the grouse never quite took (reports online suggest they were never introduced, but we heard from someone that the few grouse released died), the heather did, crowding out native plant species and disrupting the ecosystem. In summer the heather blooms, dotting the landscape with splotches of brilliant purple. It’s beautiful, but worrying for Tongariro’s native plants.

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Where grassland meets woods

The trail then takes you into the woods, a wonderland dense with tree branches clothed in mosses and lichens. If it’s sunny, this will be a chance to get some shade and cooler temperatures. If there’s been rain, expect some of the trail to be wet—indentations along the path turn into puddles and ponds after heavy rain.

 

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A raindrop hangs from a tuft of moss on a branch

 

The woods won’t last long and soon you’ll be out on the plains again but now following a river. After another kilometer or so, you’ll cross a bridge with a plunging waterfall. Though beautiful, it’s not Taranaki, so carry on.

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The smaller waterfall before Taranaki

Less than a kilometer on, you’ll come to the actual Taranaki Falls. There’s a bench nearby to rest on and a few different spots to take photos from.

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People walk the edge of the cliffs over Taranaki Falls.

The trail then continues around the falls and climbs upward until you find yourself at the top. Stare down into the raging waters if you like, but don’t fall yourself.

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The bottom of the falls
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The top of the falls

The hike then winds back toward Whakapapa Village through the plains. You’ll see much of the same grass and bush you saw earlier, but there is one new feature: old lava flows. These flows formed during eruptions of Mt. Ruapehu, and plants still struggle to grow here in the red-brown rocky dirt. Single plants here don’t survive well, as wind and rain carry any dirt away. But you’ll find clusters of plants clinging together for defense against nature’s merciless weathering.

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Plants eke out an existence in tufts along the lava flows
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A close-up of a plant tuft in an old lava flow. These plants survive by growing together, their roots trapping soil and preventing its loss through weathering.

After a couple of kilometers, the plains will give way to woods and return to the starting point. We found ourselves a bit lost, wandering through a patch of ski bungalows before finding the parking lot again—probably the ‘village’ part of the Whakapapa village. From here you can head on to another hike, head back to the visitors’ center, or celebrate with a hot cup of tea or coffee from Chateau Tongariro. Or go all in for a (slightly pricey but oh so good) high tea.

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The trail over the top of the falls, heading home

Huka Falls

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Want water? Huka Falls delivers. 220,000 liters, 58,000 gallons per second. That is a lot of water all at once, and being there you feel it. It’s a rush of water, pounding and shaking, spilling out from a small canyon into a much larger and calmer crystal blue pool.

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The park built around it offers views from all sides, plenty of walking and sightseeing. It’s one of the most popular attractions in New Zealand and it was crowded even in the rain.

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The waterfall is surrounded on all sides by pure green, leafy and thick. It’s a shining sky-blue line cutting through the foliage, an absolutely striking feature of the landscape.

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Visiting is a meditative experience. The flow of water is mezmerizing and if you let it, it can completely entertain your eyeballs while your mind wanders free.

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The area is one of the best developed in terms of catering to visitors. The roads are easy to navigate and there are huge clean signs indicating parking and possible attractions. Since this is such a huge draw, many paid attractions have set up shop nearby.

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We didn’t see much in the way of affordable food there, so if you’re on a budget be sure to grab something in nearby Taupo, which is a natural launching pad for the falls. We had some fairly unremarkable fish ‘n’ chips, though Natalie did suffer from food poisoning afterwards. Not the best dining experience, maybe the noodles next door would have been a better choice. The town of Taupo itself is relaxing and affords lake-front activities of various sorts. We breezed through stopping only for food and a water refill. The town police are very friendly though, one of the officers helped us with the parking rules, which were a bit confusing.

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The most truly remarkable thing about these falls is the color. The world absolutely has higher falls, and ones with faster water. But Huka stands out in its concentrated ferocity and glacier-like colors, something I’d never seen before. It was a delightfully quick and absolutely worthwhile stop.

Whangarei Falls

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If, on a trip to New Zealand, you wish to see waterfalls, fret not. New Zealand is full of waterfalls. Brimming with them. Our first on this roadtrip was just outside of Whangarei, literally on the edge of town. The falls there are a nice horseshoe shape, though when we visited in February it felt like the water was a bit low. The lip of the falls seems to hint at a much broader curtain of water when a heavy or prolonged rain hits.

The area is well built up, and though you wouldn’t know it from the falls, the surrounding area is suburban and even has a tiny visitor’s center and a bathroom. Construction on residential housing was in full swing while we were there, and plenty of locals were enjoying the falls and the surrounding greenery. A bridge lets you see the falls from pretty much top down.

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Then, following a very short hike down, you see the falls in all their beauty. Down at the bottom a small island with picnic areas, small streams, and plenty of trees provide a quick distraction and shade.

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If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, you can scramble all the way to the edge of the island to get an up close view. The adventure here is limited but fun as a break on the long drive north.

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On our way out we saw some kids jumping from a rather tall tree into a pool at the top of the falls.A nearby sign forbade swimming, but we figured the local kids were exempt. They yelled for us to come join them, and while it was tempting, the thought of soaking our clothes just before continuing the drive was not pleasant. We declined, but vowed to wear swimsuits in the future if  we knew there might be a swimming hole on our path.

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Explore Nature Around Quito with Mindo’s Waterfall Hike

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An aerial view of the waterfall hike and surrounding forest from the gondola

The small mountain town of Mindo is a perfect getaway from the city of Quito. Located only 2 hours away, it boasts amazing hikes, a bird sanctuary, an orchid garden, and chocolate tours. For those of you looking for a nice half-day hike, look no further than Mindo’s Santuario de Cascadas, which leads you through tropical cloud forest to several beautiful waterfalls.

Getting There

There are two main ways of getting to Mindo: booking transportation with a tour, or taking the bus. In either case, prep for the trip by bringing hiking shoes (this hike is a real one so don’t just come in flip flops and then slip and fall to your death), a swimsuit, some food, and some cash.

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Waiting to ride the gondola across the valley to the waterfall hike

The tour option: This is better if you want to do multiple activities in Mindo and you’re short on time, since it will work on your schedule. You can book a tour to at nearly any agency in Mindo, but I’d recommend Gabby Segova’s Ecuador Family Tours; we booked our Galapagos cruise through her and couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful person to help us.

The bus option:  The bus may not work for those on a tight schedule, but it’s cheaper ($3.10 as of December 2016) and great if you have a couple of days to spend exploring Mindo. There are a couple of bus lines that run to Mindo, but all but one drop you off outside of town and you have to flag a ride to finish the trip. Only the Flor de Valle line, which leaves from Terminal Ofelia, goes into Mindo itself. It departs Quito->Mindo and Mindo->Quito only a few times a day, so double check the schedule at Terminal Ofelia. For those of you planning a day trip to Mindo with the bus, the ride takes 2 hours; if you’re on the 8:00 am (first) bus out, you have 7 hours to explore Mindo before you have to catch the last bus out. Buy your ticket for the last bus in advance (i.e. when you first get into Mindo), because it can sell out.

It’s a 15-minute ride from the town to the entrance to Santuario de Cascadas. Pick-up trucks here double as taxis, so flag one and ask to go to “Tarabita y Santuario de Cascadas Mindo” or just “Cascadas del Mindo”. It’s not a cheap ride ($6.00 in 2016), so share it if you can.

The Hike

The hike is only accessible by gondola, which costs $5.00 a person to cross — that includes the trip back, so don’t worry about paying again when you return. At busy times you might find yourself waiting for 20-30 minutes for the gondola. The ride itself takes only a couple of minutes, and while the picture below might seem scary, this type of transport is fairly routine in mountainous parts of South America. If you’re afraid of heights then sit, don’t stand, and definitely don’t look down.

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Riding the gondola

There are two hikes you can do from where the gondola drops you off: a 45-minute hike with one waterfall (left when facing the gondola building) and a 1-3 hour hike with six waterfalls (right when facing the gondola building). We chose the six-waterfall hike because we wanted a longer walk, so the rest of this post will focus on that hike.

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Hikers make their way down the steep trail

The first part of the hike was a pretty steep downhill trail with semi-formed stairs that can get pretty slippery when wet. It was mostly packed earth when we visited, but workers along the trail were building new safety rails and steps, so it looks like either the locals or the park service is investing in improvements.

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Workers lay rebar for a railing along the trail

The first five waterfallswere the most crowded so we hiked on through to the last waterfall and had our own private swimming pool. When another group finally caught up with us nearly an hour later, we packed up and worked our way backward, visiting each waterfall.

None of these falls are Niagra or Iguazu, but each has its own personality formed by the flow of the water around the rocks. For those completionists out there (like me), here’s a list of the waterfalls from closest to furthest from trail start:

Cascada Nimbillo

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This is the busiest waterfall, with a dedicated (but somewhat run-down) changing area. We saw a lot several families swimming and playing near this waterfall.

Cascada Ondinas

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A small waterfall that has a small wooden seat near the edge. The pool is shallow, so it’s better for having a picnic or relaxing than getting wet.

Cascada Guarumos

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This waterfall had a fairly deep pool, but I don’t remember seeing anyone swim here. It’d be a great place to check out on the next trip.

Cascada Colibries

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This shy waterfall is veiled by canyon walls, but if you wade upstream a bit you can get a great photo opportunity. It’s popular with visiting locals for photos, so you may have to wait for a few minutes to get your shot.

Cascada Madre

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The penultimate waterfall is surprisingly busy for how far it is from the trailhead. It’s got several easily accessible and deep pools, so it’s popular for swimming and soaking in.

Cascada Azul

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This waterfall is the least busy, since most people stop at Cascada Madre. Several pools around the area are deep enough to soak in, although there’s not much space to swim. We had this waterfall all to ourselves for an hour before other hikers showed up.

The Wildlife

I’m a biologist, I can’t help myself. Here here is some of the amazing wildlife we found on our hike:

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A shield bug (Pentatomoidea) on a leaf.
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Mushrooms grow from a woooden post along the trail
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A caterpillar on a leaf
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A longwing butterfly (Heliconius, probably H. melpomenes) drinks water from a concrete post along the trail.
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Tiny white mushrooms grow in the leaf litter of the forest floor.