Walk through a Rainbow – Wai-O-Tapu thermal pools

Walk through a Rainbow – Wai-O-Tapu thermal pools

Wai-O-Tapu thermal poolsThe Wai-O-Tapu thermal pools are amaaaaazing! These must be Rotorua’s best hot springs! This gorgeous walk is on New Zealand’s North Island, near Rotorua (so less than an hours drive from Taupo.)

After seeing the Maori carvings near lake Taupo, we had plans to stay by Okoroire hot springs that evening…but we still had a whole afternoon to fill. Our friends were busy sampling Kiwi wines, but Marc and I fancied a bit of a walk. We looked around the tourist information center in Taupo for ideas. I had heard of Wai-O-Tapu from an awesome blog friend, Melanie from Wandering Darlings. So, once Marc saw brochures for it and liked the idea, we decided to head straight there! I am so, so glad we did!

Wai-O-Tapu thermal pool map

The walk around Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland:

Total distance: 3-6 km
There is an easy walk all around the Wai-O-Tapu thermal pools. It is actually three walks, but once you have paid the entrance fee, you might as well do all three! I realise that as the author of a blog about walking, you might not believe me when I say that this is an easy walk. But I promise! There are plenty of benches all around the walk, so even if you do find it tiring, there are plenty of places to rest. I didn’t time our wander, but I *think* it took us around 3 hours to explore the whole park. We were *much* slower than most other tourists, but you will probably want at least an hour or two.

Having said that, the only toilets are right at the start of the walk, so if you have a weak bladder, use the facilities before you start exploring!

What to bring:

  • It’s pretty warm near thermal pools, even on a rainy day! Bring water.
  • There is some shade, but there are lots of exposed areas too. The Kiwi sun is strooong so bring sunscreen.
  • The paths are very good, but I was still glad of my walking boots
  • Bring a camera! It is way too pretty to not take a few (or a few hundred!) photos
  • The entrance to the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland costs $32.50, so bring money too!

My Virtual Tour of the Wai-O-Tapu thermal pools:

I am going to give you a virtual tour of the Wai-O-Tapu thermal pools, so even if you can’t make it to New Zealand you can see how awesome it is! This is just a taster of how amazing the park is, so if you can visit the North Island, add this to your list of cool things to do!

The sulfur smell will hit you as soon as you enter the park! If you’d like an authentic feeling to your virtual tour, grab some eggs before you start reading. If you can bear it, slightly rotten eggs would be best!


The route starts by circling around some pretty impressive craters. The largest was around 50 meters with sulfur-smelling steam bellowing out. Some of the craters had boiling water or mud at the bottom of them. Some were covered in bright yellow sulfur. These craters were created pretty recently (in geological terms anyway!) in the last few hundred years. The steam rising from the ground is acidic, so it slowly dissolves the surrounding rocks until the floor collapses to make craters.

Devils Ink Pots:

Some of our favourite craters were the ones that were filled with bubbling mud. The colour is due to crude oil and graphite.

You can see the patterns from the bubbling mud in this pool next to Marc. I don’t think these would be good for a mud bath!

The Artists Palette:

Now for the most impressive view of the day! The Artists Palette. This giant thermal pool is simply stunning! There are a huge variety of colours spread over the pool. Apparently they alter as the water level and wind direction changes. That little greeny-blue pool at the edge of the palette is called the opal pool.

About the colours

I’ve noticed most brochures and instagram posts about Wai-O-Tapu really ramp up the saturation on their photos. I thought the thermal pools were spectacular in real life, so I didn’t add filters to make them look more impressive. Or, maybe if you visit on a sunny day the colours will be even brighter and more impressive!?

Anyway, if you are interested in what causes all these stunning (and natural) colours, I took notes!

The water is heated by magma left over from old eruptions. This heats a network of streams to extreme temperatures below ground (up to 300°C!) This allows the water to absorb minerals from the surrounding volcanic rocks. Cool eh?

Here are my notes about the rainbow (from signs at the park and the map they provided)

  • Red-brown: Iron oxide
  • Orange: Antimony (a pretty sparkly mineral) or Arsenic
  • Yellow: Sulfur or Arsenic
  • Green: Colloidal sulfur or ferrous salts
  • Blue: It just said alkali-chloride
  • Purple: Manganese (we didn’t see any purple areas though!)
  • White: Silica
  • Black: Sulfur and carbon
  • Grey: Carbon

Amazing trees:

There are a few little side walks off through the trees where you can see the Artist’s palette from different views. I was a bit sad to see some dead trees, until I saw what amazing colours they were too! The crazy colours are from an algae called trentepohlia.

Crossing the thermal pools:

There is a boardwalk that crosses right over the Artist Palette. So you can walk above the Wai-O-Tapu thermal pools! The whole area is lovely and warm from the hot water below. Marc even managed to snap a good jump shot! Then we kept walking on to the famous champagne pool.

The Champagne Pool

This is the pool on the front cover of lots of the brochures. The center of the pool is a pretty turquoise with bright reddy-brown edges. There is lots of gold and silver in there…but I don’t think it would be very easy to retrieve it!

It is also hot! According to the signs it is 62m deep, so the super heated water comes from pretty deep. At the surface it is 74°C and full of bubbles of carbon dioxide. While we were there it let off a constant stream of steam. We endured a natural sauna as I tried to take photos!

After visiting the Champagne pool you get a pleasant walk through the bush. Although it is still warm and still has a whiff of sulfur. This leads to a lookout point that shows the primrose terrace and the rest of the park that you are about to hike around.

The Primrose Terrace

You can see over the whole area and down to the primrose terrace. Water flows down from the champagne pool and as the water evaporates it leaves silica behind in a gentle slope. Next you get to follow some steps down to see the area below the primrose terrace where the warm, mineral rich water flows down towards Ngakoro lake.

The whole valley is volcanic, so even though this area does not have quite as many rainbow colours as the pools above, there are plenty of sulfur deposits and bubbling pools to see. Even the sides of the cliffs were pretty brightly coloured!

The Frying Pan Flat

The next part of the walk goes past another large flat eruption crater. It is littered with bubbling hot springs, and I guess that means there are plenty of insects. I didn’t actually see many insects, but there were a couple of pied stilts wading through the water catching and munching all of those bugs.

The path then winds around past other volcanic sides like an ‘Oyster Pool.’ It’s a natural sulfurous pool that is surrounded by a ledge that looks like an oyster. Behind the Oyster Pool was a whole cave decorated with sulfur crystals. These form because the top of the cave gives a nice shelter for the sulfuric gases as they cool and solidify into crystals.

This whole area is very unstable, so you have to stay on the boardwalk at all times. It does have pretty impressive views though! Wai-O-Tapu thermal pools are not all bright colours, but they are all interesting.

Lake Ngakoro Waterfall:

I think this might be the first hot waterfall I’ve ever encountered! The water flows down, first from the champagne pool right at the top of the hill, then it trickles down the primrose terrace to be collected in the streams and ponds in the Frying Pan Flat and the area around it. Finally, most of the water is funneled through a narrow point to create a gushing, steaming, hot waterfall! The water then flows into the bright green Ngakoro lake below.

The rain stopped for a second and we were lucky to see Ngakoro lake with a slither of blue sky! The Ngakoro lake is not part of the walk, but you can see some lovely views of it from the end of the bush walk.

Most other visitors came to peek at the lake, took a photo and then rushed off again. We were distracted so just stayed for a while enjoying the sounds of all the local birdies. Once we stayed still for a bit, the birds came over to see what we were up to, so we got to see them up close. I think the little dude on the right is a Fantail. I’m not sure about the other fella though.

Eventually we realised that we should head back before the Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland closed! We followed the paths back around past the frying pan flat and through the bush walk, finishing back at the pretty champagne pool. It was still steaming.

More Craters

We thought that was the end, but there were a few more huge craters to see! There was a huge inferno crater, with mud bubbling at the bottom. There was also a birds nest crater, where clever birdies (swallows and mynahs) nest in holes in the cave, and use the geothermal heat to help incubate their eggs!

Devil’s Bath

The walk finishes with a crazily bright yellow pool called the Devil’s bath. I was not expecting any more thermal pools, let alone such a bright photogenic one, so I got excited all over again!

I’m not convinced it’s be a good idea to take a bath in this water either though. You can see that tree did not do well from a dip in those sulfuric waters!

So, if you are unsure if you like the idea of a stroll around the Wai-O-Tapu thermal pools, I hope this gives you a taste of what to expect. The walk was easy, but it was still one of my favorite sights in New Zealand. If you are interested in volcanoes or geology, then you HAVE to explore here!

What do you think? Is this the kind of sightseeing hike you’d like too? Click on the following link if you need other ideas for Kiwi Adventures.

73 thoughts on “Walk through a Rainbow – Wai-O-Tapu thermal pools

    1. It’s slightly embarrassing that we only decided to go there a few minutes before we set off! I probably should have had this on my plans from the start!

      At least if you want to go, it is waaay cheaper and easier to get to NZ from here (compared to going from the UK!)

  1. It’s an awesome place alright. I live in NZ and have been to both Rotorua and Wai O Tapu. Wai O Tapu is much more interesting and raw. Definitely stick to the paths though! Every year there’s a story about some tourist getting scorched while trying to take a photo, usually Australians for some reason!

    1. Oooh lucky you for living in NZ! We loved it so much!

      The thing is, you can hear all the bubbling water and feel the heat from the rocks. It’d be mad to try to look closer without the proper equipment! Poor burnt Aussies!!

    1. I guess it is the kind of place that if you did paint it, people would assume it was part of your imagination, even if you painted as close to a photo-realistic way as you can!

    1. The smell would definitely remind you of Iceland! I think of Iceland as the rugged black volcanic rocks, covered in ice! I’ll have to go back and see what it looks like there in the summer one day!

    1. Oooh that makes sense! I already wanted to visit Yellowstone! I guess I never considered that it might be named after rocks that are covered in sulfur!

  2. I love reading “easy walks” especially if they have a gorgeous sights. Which this totally does. Would you consider adding that as a “tag” haha for someone like me to search? Was worth re-clicking and checking your site to see all these amazing photos!

    1. Oooh I could easily add that as a tag! Thanks for the idea Hanna!

      I can even go back and add it to other easy walking posts. I can’t wait to tell you about Hooker Valley in NZ. I think that might be the best effort to view-pay-off hike I have ever done!

    1. Phew! I am glad you think so too! I have seen some amazing images on instagram, but it’s sort of sad when you find out just how much they’ve ramped up the saturation!

      I guess I just want to show how amazing the colours seem in real life!

  3. I actually just went here last year! I found it really interesting but the intense heat along with all the fumes made it a bit uncomfortable at times. But I definitely liked it 🙂

    1. Oooh you must have been on a hotter day than us. It rained a little while we were there and the wind was pretty cooling. I imagine it would be sweltering there on a hot day!

      I hope this brought back some good memories though!

    1. No, it was really easy, although we had hired a car. Driving in NZ is really pleasant. The roads are really good and there is sooo much to see!

    1. Oh no! Were you in this area recently? It’s a gorgeous place to visit isnt it!?

      Where did you end up visiting?

  4. Wow! They all look so incredible, beautiful photos too. I love the diversity of the colours and shapes of the thermal pools. I need to make a visit here next time I visit the North Island!

    1. Oooh if you can visit, you really should! I really thought it was worth the entrance fee! Plus the walk is fun, and you might learn a bit about volcanoes! 😉

  5. This place seems to me so interesting, natural and colorful as well. Loving your shot from Devil’s bath pool. Truly photogenic 🙂 I personally don’t prefer using filters. Love the natural looks and feel.

    1. I was sooo happy to see that Devil’s bath! I guess because I hadn’t looked at the map carefully, so I thought we’d come to the end…only to see this amaaazing bright coloured pool!

      I’m with you on the filters!

  6. Omg I want to visit here so much! Love a good hot spring or waterfall. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Wow! This looks so much like Yellowstone in the US which I LOVE. I will have to check these thermal pools in NZ now.. i.e. whenever we go 😀

    1. Lol I have seen that in comments a few times now! I feel like I am going to HAVE to visit yellowstone too! Do you have any blog posts about your visit?

    1. Yay! Thank you so much! I am glad you like it too! I first found out about it from a blog post, so i am really glad I can play it forward! <3

  8. Lovely! This is TOTALLY the kind of walk I love to do. Like Richa said, it is a lot like Yellowstone National Park and I have been there 3 times! I like going back to see how the pools have migrated and changed over time, such as when the boardwalks around them are overtaken with the flows of water. I do notice a big difference and that is Yellowstone is much drier and doesn’t have the pretty algae growing on the trees from the steam. I would love that contrast! Thank you for sharing, Josy!

    1. Yaaaay! I am glad you liked it Shannon!

      Right, when we do get a car and start planning trips South of the boarder to peek at your epic national parks, I will come to you for advice!!

    1. I know right!

      I’ve been to similar volcanic pools in Japan (in Beppu, they call them the seven hells!) But each pool was pretty far from the next, so we spent hours driving around to find them. In NZ they were all in this one stunning spot!

    1. Yay!! I am so happy that you found it through my blog! 😀

      That makes me more keen to share the cool things we find on our adventures! <3 Thanks for making my morning.

  9. It looks so lovely! I love those craters and that boardwalk looks like so much fun to cross over. And I had no idea about what the different colours were caused by.

    1. I LOVED those boardwalks! It’s a good way to have a steam! I guess it counts as a super cheap beauty treatment…during a hike(!)

  10. Josy, this is a fantastic write up! You are so good at being very detailed and interesting! Well done! This place is absolutely stunning, and I think not adding filters to the pictures was a really thoughtful move. I hate that images of famous places are doctored. It’s practically false advertising!

    1. Yaaaaay! Thanks Katie! You made my morning too. Especially as you’re one of the best writers I know! <3

      To be honest, I think some of the travel brochures were slightly false advertising. I mean, maybe most people know the colours won't be *that* bright!? I would have still wanted to go if they showed how it really looks!

  11. Such an in-depth post, loved how informative you made it. These thermal pools reminded me of the ones in Yellowstone National Park in the US and I remember the greens and blues and yellows being very vivid (It was a very bright and sunny day)!

    1. Oooh you got lucky! I think all the colours look best in the sun! But then, you must have been sooo hot with all that steam on a sunny day!?

  12. Josy, what a magnificent place to see. And, thank you so very much for taking us along with you on your journey with your incredible pictures and information. This post makes me want to take my family out to the Paint Pots in Yellowstone National Park. Maybe I’ll plan a vacation there in the next two years. Awesome post!

    1. Thanks Erin! I am really chuffed that you liked it, aaand that you can get to something similar close to home! If you go, will you write a post about it so I can see the paint pots!?

  13. Wow, this looks amazing! Haven’t heard of it before, but will definitely make sure to check it out if/when I am in New Zealand! Love all the colours and the different pools and craters! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Jacqueline! Do you have any Kiwi travel plans? It took me aaaages to get there, but it was such an amazing country to explore!!

    1. Oooh if you’re already interested in geo spots you will LOVE it! We drove past quite a few sign posts for other volcanic sights on the way there…it seems like there are a huge number of hot spots! 🙂

  14. I’ve been there too, and really like that place as well. There is just soooo much to see and experience. Seeing those pictures, I’m thinking I might have to go again 🙂

    1. Ooooh I have never even considered someone might want to reblog my posts! Hang on. I’ll see if I can work out how to add the button!

    1. Thanks Emily! Those pools were really amazing to see. I never expect natural phenomenons to be so crazily colourful!!

    1. Thanks Marian!

      I had never seen anything quite like this before, but now my husband and I both really love volcanic areas!!

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