The North Island of New Zealand is often overlooked, compared to the South Island which usually steals the attention, but it has nothing to be ashamed of. I personally see the North Island and the South Island as two different countries. The North Island features sublime combination of lush tropical forests, thick native bush, beautiful waterfalls, breathtaking snow-capped volcanoes, freshwater lakes and stunning beaches. Subtropical Northland and the Coromandel Peninsula are home to some of the prettiest white-sand beaches, with crystal clear turquoise water for as far as you can see. The West and East Coasts have rugged dramatic coastlines and incredible black-sand beaches with wild waves making for some world renowned surfing spots. And the centre is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage National Park featuring one of the most iconic volcano on the island.
After spending 14 months in Te Ika-a-Māui, I’m sharing with you my favorite 15 photography spots you cannot miss in the North Island! Includes well-known places as well as hidden gems, this guide will take you through the entire island. I put the list from North to South following the main roads so that this guide can also help you planning your itinerary. It will work perfectly if you arrive in Auckland and drive to Wellington towards the South Island, but you can also start from Wellington and make your way up to Auckland.
Just like the South Island, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So all the photography locations on the east coast are generally better for sunrise and, accordingly, the spots on the west coast are better at sunset.
1. Cape Reinga
The northernmost point of New Zealand, Cape Reinga is literally the top of the top. As touristy as it can be, its very picturesque lighthouse lying at the end of a windy path makes the perfect composition for a photo. Cape Reinga is the most scenic lighthouse in New Zealand because there’s a lot more to look at other than just the horizon line: this is where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. Slightly on the left of the lighthouse, you can see waves overlapping in a patchwork of rising and falling white froth.
It is a sacred place to Māori and a significant anchorage for Pacific voyagers. The famous Pōhutukawa tree of Māori legend, visible on the east side of the rocky cape, is reputed to be 600-800 years old and represents the legendary departure point of Māori spirits on their way to their afterlife in Hawaiiki. It is also the start of the Te Werahi track, one of the best day hikes on the North Island.
2. Te Paki Sand Dunes
Only a short drive away from Cape Reinga, Te Paki sand dunes are a must do stop on your North Island road trip! They’re certainly not Wadi Rum or the Sahara, nevertheless they are quite impressive. The Te Paki landscape has been carved out over millions of years from sand build up by volcanic activity in other parts of New Zealand, creating the dunes as they are today. The dunes are constantly shifting and changing with the wind and weather, so every visit will be slightly different.
We shot the dunes at mid-day at the beginning of summer, which wasn’t the best decision but we didn’t have time to wait for sunset and spend another night in the area. However, if possible, I would explore the dune during the afternoon and shoot at golden hour and at sunset. The golden light will hit beautifully the dunes, showing patterns and gradients of the sand.
3. Poor Knights Islands
If you are already an adept of the underwater world, or fascinated or intrigued by it, then this is your chance! The Poor Knights Islands is one of the top 10 diving spots in the world, according to Jacques Cousteau.
Protected in a marine reserve since the 1980’s, they’re home to an incredibly abundant marine life, both below and above the surface. This is a no-take marine reserve: no fishing, taking, disturbing of marine life whatsoever.
The team at Dive Tutukaka made our dreams come true and I highly recommend you to take this opportunity!
4. Waipu Cave
It is New Zealand largest un-commercialized (yet) cave, a hole in the ground with a magical adventure inside! Once you’ve past the entrance and gave some time to your eyes to adapt to the dark, you’ll see a constellation of bioluminescent glowworm glimmering over your head like a celestial Milky Way of wormlight. You can see it from the entrance room or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can cross the stream (which can be quite high depending on the previous days’ precipitations) twice to reach the third “room”, where we took this photo.
5. Muriwai Beach
Chances are that, during your road trip, you’ll be passing by Auckland, either when flying in or flying out. Although I would recommend you to leave the city as soon as possible, it is still full of attractions if you were to stay a few days. My favorite one is Muriwai Beach, a short drive from the city. Summer time is the best time as you’ll be able to see the HUGE gannets colony. Trust me, they are pretty damn interesting to watch, even if you’re not a “birder”. They fly, they soar, they dive, they mate for life, they nest on the same mound every year! The viewing platforms offer a real show, just feet away from the gorgeous birds.
Besides the gannets, Muriwai Beach is one of the prettiest black sand beaches I’ve seen! It has scenic rock cliffs on one side, a horde of surfers around either side of its rocky headland point, and then, an uninterrupted beach, stretching north as far as the eye can see. And Muriwai Beach is by far the easiest to drive to from Auckland, compared to the other beaches twisty-turny descents.
6. The Pinnacles Summit
The Pinnacles Summit is probably the most breathtaking view in the North Island! You’ll have to work for it but it is definitely worth it as it is one of the best day-hikes in the North Island! It’s a 8-hour return hike but you can split it by staying at the Pinnacles Hut, near the summit. It is the biggest backcountry hut in New Zealand so don’t expect to be alone there! Ideally, you’ll have more chances to enjoy the hike on a weekday, but avoid Xmas/New Year’s time as it becomes a zoo (like most popular hikes in NZ!).
From a photography point of view, I’d recommend staying at the hut to get both the sunset and the sunrise from the summit. Make sure to check the clouds coverage forecast before starting your hike as the summit is often in the middle of the clouds (best chances are in summer!).
7. Cathedral Cove
If I had to choose only one spot from the best photography spots in the North Island, I’d probably choose Cathedral Cove. I know, it is one of the most famous spots on the North Island but it is just so worth it. It’s a picturesque beach paradise boasting some of the most beautiful coastal scenes you’ll find in New Zealand, hands down the most beautiful small beach in the entire country!
I’m pretty sure you’ve already seen pictures of this cove yet let me tell you that nothing prepares you for the amount of beautify squeezed into such a small beach. Get there early, this east-facing beach likes morning light, as the late afternoon is all shadow.
From the closest little town Hahei, it is a 45min walk undulating to the beach along a wide paved path. On the way back, you can also stop at Stingray Beach and Gemstone Cave for some incredible snorkelling sessions in one of New Zealand’s best marine reserves.
The Coromandel Peninsula has some of the darkest skies in New Zealand so astrophotography here is also very good.
Tip: the Cathedral Cove car park is no longer accessible. You will have to park at the Hahei carpark, next to the beach, and walk. I highly recommend to go there at sunrise, you’ll have the best chance to have a clear sand, calm sea and stunning colors in the sky. But sunset is also a winner here!
8. Mount Maunganui
The “Mount”, as its referred to by locals, is Surf City New Zealand. It’s like a quintessential California beach town, with lots of fun cafe, surf shops, hip retailers, and luxurious and expansive appartments and hotels.
I personally didn’t find it much interest except for the extinct volcano rising abruptly off this white sand beach. Mauao, the summit, offers exquisite views on the crescent shaped capes stretching as far as the eyes can see, and the two small islands lying just off shore. It’s a 45 min hike along the easter coast, very busy all year long, no matter the time of the day. We went for sunrise and it was literally a pedestrian highway. But the views from the top are still worth it!
9. Lake Tarawera, Rotorua
Lake Tarawera is one of the many lakes that can be found in the geothermal town of Rotorua. It is one of my favorite photography spots in the North Island with the endless jetties along the lake shores and the views on the resting volcano Mount Tarawera. It is also a spectacular place for viewing the night sky and astrophotography is definitely worth a try with very minimal light pollution.
Tip: due to the sun position, the best time for photography is sunrise. It is also your best chance to have it mirror.
10. Redwood Forest, Rotorua
Another of my favorite photography spots in the North Island, the Redwood Forest is just impressive. In the middle of Rotorua, one of the best cities on the North Island, Māoris have made sure that the land is protected from commercial interests and deal with precision and care with the environmental issues. The protected Redwood Forest is a great example. Commercially it is worth a fortune but thankfully, no amount of money can buy it.
Tip: There are several pathways in the forest and amongst the trees, and it’s most beautiful during golden hours.
11. Tongariro National Park
Part of the UNESCO list, the Tongariro National Park has a photo spot in every corners. It’s no surprise that Peter Jackson chose to film parts of Lord of the Rings here! Rocky landscapes, deserted hills, majestic waterfalls and of course, incredible mountains.
Mt Ngauruhoe, aka Mt Doom in LOTR, is best seen from the Mangatepopo Hut, at the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing; and the Emerald Lakes are part of the Crossing and Circuit (3-4 days). Learn more about the Tongariro Northern Circuit here.
This little-known dot on the north of Taranaki map shouldn’t been “little-known”, but nobody promotes it because there’s no commercial businesses nearby (another great reason to go!). The “Three Sisters and Elephant Rock” lying no the black sand beach, with White Cliffs stretching south to Mt Taranaki make for a breathtaking scenery. Unfortunately, the Elephant Rock literally lost its face during an earthquake in 2016. However it is still worth paying a visit to it and it is a great spot to watch the sunset, giving that it is low tide.
13. Pouakai Tarns, Mount Taranaki
Nested in the far west point of the North Island, Mount Taranaki is one of my favorite areas of the North Island. There are several viewpoints of the mountain but the best ones are the Pouakai Tarns, one of my favorite photography spots in the North Island.
To get the reflective tarns, you need to choose a day where the weather conditions are cooperative: no wind is the key. Because of that, you will have your best chances at sunrise, maybe sunset. Since it’s roughly a 3h hike to the tarns and the Pouakai Hut is one of the best backcountry huts in New Zealand, I highly recommend to stay the night there and visit the tarn at sunrise. It’s only 15min away from the hut!
Be aware though that Taranaki Maunga is a very shy volcano and often hides behind the clouds.
On the eastern shores of Wellington is another beautiful area with a lot to see and do and photograph. It’s quite of a long drive from the closest town of Masterton (67km) but it is definitely worth it! Castlepoint is definitely the jewel of the Wairarapa coast. From the carpark, it’s an easy 10-min walk up to the lighthouse along a sand beach, then a concrete path, and then a ridiculously photogenic boardwalk. The windy boardwalk leads the eye directly to the prominent lighthouse if you set up in the right spot.
Another viewpoint is from the Castle Rock track, one of the best day-hikes in New Zealand. The hill climbs up 162m above sea level and requires some (easy) climbing but the view is spectacular! The area is well-known for its strong winds and it’s even truer from a summit so be prepared.
15. Putangirua Pinnacles
Putangirua has some of the most dramatic and picturesque geology on the island – unique landscapes that are still not so popular and that you shouldn’t miss! Towering spires and pinnacles makes up for a total LOTR oddness, and, sure enough, it was featured in the movie as Dimholt Road in “The Return of the King”.
If you are short on time, you can just walk your way up on a dry streambed and soak up all the eerie atmosphere (1h return – make sure you stay with the left fork when the stream heads right). However I’d recommend doing the 120min loop that climbs through the bush to an upper view platform. I’d go clockwise and do the ascending while you’re full of excitement (and energy).
Here are a few of my favorite photography spots around the North Island of New Zealand! If you’re looking for some more inspiration to plan your next New Zealand adventure, check out my New Zealand travel and photography guides! If you have any questions, remarks or suggestions, please feel free to reach out! And if this articles inspires you, tag me in your stories and posts on Instagram!
If you liked this post, pin it for later!