The heated underbelly of earth simmers close to the surface on the Thermal Explorer Highway between Rotorua and Taupō.
There's a simmering hotbed of geothermal activity beneath State Highway 5. And with scientists suggesting that only 16-kilometres of terra firma separate your car tires from bubbling magma, it's tempting to get a little heavy-footed.
But, despite its location on a geological hotplate, this 80-kilometre section of the Thermal Explorer Highway stretching from Rotorua to Taupō shouldn't be rushed. So ease off the accelerator and take a more leisurely drive between the two geothermal townships.
The culprits behind the region's bubbling mud-pools, geysers and soothing mineral waters are two immense tectonic plates colliding deep within the earth's crust. This collision field has created the 350-kilometre long Taupō Volcanic Zone stretching from Mount Ruapehu to Whakaari/White Island. Active for two million years, and despite being only 50-kilometres wide, this zone has produced some of the world's most devasting eruptions stretching back 300,000 years - including the Taupō Volcano Hātepe eruption 1,8000 years ago, which decimated the surrounding landscape.
But if the nerves can cope, here are four easy side-trips to take on your geothermal journey.
Waiotapu Boardwalk | Waiotapu
This boardwalk on the edge of a mud pool gives you plenty of angles to watch the burping landscape release its sulphur scented gases. Take the short walk to the upper viewing platform to peer over the 45-metre-wide mud field, which could be more than a few thousand years old. It's not the biggest mud pool in town, but it's free, fun and you'll feel close to the action. If mud science is your thing, the interpretation panels are worth reading.
Information: Head south from Rotorua on SH5 for about 30 min (30km). Turn left onto Waiotapu Loop Road and follow the Mud Pool signs. Suitable for walking, buggies and wheelchairs. No dogs allowed.
Crater Lake Walk | Maungakakaramea/Rainbow Mountain
Dramatic, barren orange and red steaming cliffs are highlights of this easy walk. Regenerating kānuka provides shade from the car park as you navigate the short 500-metre trail towards the viewing platform. The cliffs provide a dramatic backdrop to two deep geothermal basins surrounded by the Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve, which has significant botanical and scientific importance – including rare plant species unique to geothermal areas. The mountain was originally a volcano, and although it has cooled, the still smouldering landscape remains a crowd-pleaser. Allow 30 minutes (1km) return walking to the lookout.
The dual-usage bike and walking trail continues to the summit of Maungakakaramea/Rainbow Mountain (Mountain of the red ochre) with its 360-degree views of the region and south to the volcanic peaks of Tongariro National Park. Allow an additional 90 minutes one way if walking to the summit.
Information: Head south from Rotorua on SH5 for about 25 min (25km). The car park is just after the SH38 turnoff. Suitable for walking and bikes. No dogs allowed.
These bush and fern-shrouded hot pools are definitely not a locals' secret anymore. The creek's inclusion in popular tourist guides means there's a fair chance you'll eavesdrop on a few different nationalities here. But despite its popularity, this steamy stream and waterfall still offer enjoyable toe-warming opportunities and wallowing spots for families. But, if you are keen to avoid the crowds, arrive early for a more sedate soaking experience. From the car park, walk beside the stream until you reach the dirt trail, which leads to the main waterfall and swimming hole. Due to its natural source, it's not safe to put your head underwater. The vehicle gate closes each night so check the closure times on the sign when you arrive.
Information: Drive from Rotorua towards Taupō on SH5 for about 25 min (26km). Turn left onto Old Waiotapu Road and follow the one-kilometre long gravel road. Only suitable for walking. No dogs allowed. Toilet available.
Butcher's Pool | Reporoa
Settle in for a soak at this mineral pool surrounded by bucolic lush green farmland, with maybe a few farm animals eyeballing you from nearby. The pool is continuously topped up with mineral water from a nearby spring, making it less 'fragrant' than other natural pools. The grassy slopes beside the pool are picnic-worthy, so bring plenty of snacks for your visit. One of Reporoa's first settlers, Mr Butcher, gifted the pool to local families, and it's near his original homestead. Due to its natural source, it's not safe to put your head underwater.
Information: From SH5, turn off towards Reporoa halfway between Taupō and Rotorua. Drive south on Broadlands Road, look out for the signposted pools. Toilets available.
Looking for more family-friendly walks? Our Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Central Plateau guidebook has 250+ adventures from the Bombay Hills to Ohakune - and everywhere in between!