There’s Waiwera in the north, with its outdoor movies and hydro slides. There are the pungent Polynesian Pools in Rotorua, with busloads of tourists. There’s Hanmer Springs in the south with a plethora of pools and hundreds of patrons. But wouldn’t you prefer to soak in solitude surrounded by pristine peaks or native bush; a soak in the wilderness without the price tag? Here are nine of the best backcountry bathing spots in New Zealand. Add them to your tramping itinerary.
A cedar swim
Wren Creek Hot Springs, Westland
The walk to these popular pools is relatively easy, at least by West Coast standards.
From the road-end, a track through grassy farmland provides a decent hour’s warm-up along an old logging tramline. A good sense of balance and footwork is required to negotiate some serious boulder-hopping beside the Toaroha River. Climb the low rock step before entering the thick forest. Zig-zag up a steep spur to bypass the gorge below. A couple of V-shaped incisions in the valley wall must be crossed, before the slow sidle down to the river. A very long swingbridge gives access to the two Cedar Flats huts.
Towering mountain cedars preside over both the historic and newer hut at Cedar Flats. Both are popular over long weekends, however, there’s good camping in spacious clearings. To access the springs, return over the swingbridge to the signposted junction. Climb over a knoll into Wren Creek for about 15 minutes. Look out for the two steaming pools perched above the river. You’ll have a cold crossing of the stream before enjoying that hot swim.
For up-to-date information regarding the hot pools, read the hut’s visitor book. Borrow the hut’s shovel to dig the pool deeper.
Access 30km south-east of Hokitika Time 3-4hr.
Hot in Hurunui
Hurunui Hot Springs, Lake Sumner Forest Park
The route over Harper Pass was a historic Maori pounamu trail for centuries and was briefly used by miners to access the goldfields of the West Coast during 1864-5. In 1939, the government built a series of huts along the route and encouraged people to improve their health with outdoor exercise.
Now part of the Te Araroa Trail, these old huts are getting more attention, as are the smattering of hot springs in the Hurunui catchment. The most accessible spring is situated halfway between the main Hurunui Hut, and No.3 Hut. The best option is to camp on nearby river flats, then search for a well-worn trail into the bush. The hot pool is positioned beneath a slimy green rock face, and may need cleaning out. Temperature can be regulated by diverting water from the main cascade.
Access From SH7, take Lake Sumner Road to Lake Taylor Time 5-6hr to No.3 hut; 1.5hr to hot pool.
A natural Sumner spa
Top Hope Hot Springs, Lake SumnerForest Park
If lack of fitness limits you to less strenuous multi-day tramps, this two or three-day jaunt is just the ticket.
From near Windy Point, a swingbridge over the Boyle River dangles over a spectacular gorge, then a trail circumnavigates Poplar Station on a frustrating detour up the hill. But soon lightning fast progress can be made alongside the Hope River through black beech forest, to reach the rustic Halfway Shelter in less than three hours. Four mattresses have been installed here, though it’s a rough and ready place, better suited for a brief stopover.
The journey gets easier further up-valley, along delightful river flats before crossing another pretty canyon on a tight swingbridge. A 4WD track sidles this gorge and leads into the upper valley, with a more remote wilderness vibe and less evidence of cattle grazing. There’s camping on the soft grass outside St Jacobs Hut, or you can saunter up-valley for another two hours to Top Hope Hut. Both huts are popular with hunters.
A little way farther up Hope River, turn up Hot Springs Creek and smell your way to find two steaming thermal pools. They can accommodate a dozen dozing bathers, with a water temperature of about 35°C. This worthwhile detour is about an hour from the hut.
Access From Windy Point on SH7 between Lewis Pass and Hanmer Springs Time Two days.
An accessible spring
Kerosene Creek/Te Ranga, Waiotapu
This spring is a favourite of kayakers fresh from the Rangitaiki River, or trampers after a wander in the Ureweras.
A short walk alongside a stream leads to a grassy clearing with secluded areas in the pine forest where you can change clothes. A feature of this hot pool is the 2m waterfall which churns and aerates the water, deep enough to swim in. However, signs warn of amoebic meningitis, so keep your head above the water. Also, lock all valuables in your car – this spot is known to be targeted by thieves.
If you wish to build up a sweat first, climb Rainbow Mountain, ‘mountain of coloured earth’ (743m) which takes 1.5hr one way.
Access Signposted off SH5, Kerosene Creek flows through Fletcher Challenge Forests, but is open to the public Time 5min.
Mangatutu and Mangatainoka Hot Springs, Kaweka Forest Park
Arguably the cleanest and most scenic springs in the country, these are a hot favourite.
From The Gums road-end, a moderate three-hour trek up the majestic Mohaka River leads to Te Puia Lodge, situated on sandy river flats. The largest lodge in the Kawekas, it is frequented by fishermen and rafting parties as well as trampers. A gentle half-hour walk over the hill brings you to Mangatainoka, an idyllic riverside campsite shaded by manuka trees. Here, DOC has installed two fibreglass baths, surrounded by wooden decking. The thermal water is hot (41°C), but can be cooled with river water.
A bonus on this trip is the luxurious Mangatutu springs at the road-end – perfect to soak battered feet and tired muscles. These springs are found down a short side-track at The Gums car park.
Access Via Puketitiri, Hot Springs Road and Makahu Road Time 3.5hr.
A West Coast soak
Taipo River Hot Springs, Westland
On the West Coast, there is a string of secluded springs. Between the settlements of Kumara and Arthur’s Pass, a small car park is tucked away off SH73.
Four-wheel-drive vehicles can follow the track over a low bush saddle through private land, and across two feeder streams, parking beside the two huts. Dillon Hut is five minutes further past the antiquated but charming Dillon Homestead.
From here, the crux of the expedition lies in crossing the turbulent Taipo River. If this is running too high, use the Flood Track, which adds considerable time to your progress up-river. It involves down-climbing rock slabs to access an aluminium ladder, hanging from steel cables. A five-wire bridge, constructed in 2017 to replace the ageing Scotty’s Cableway, gives access to the true left. Climb a steep face for some 300m, then descend a dodgy landslide.
Back on river flats, the trip is straightforward, providing you can ford Dunn and Hura creeks to reach Mid Taipo Hut. A swingbridge brings you back to the true right, deep into rata forest. After about seven hours, cross the final walk-wire and clamber up to the historic Julia Hut. Five minutes further, the newer six-bunk Julia Hut sits on a sun-soaked clearing.
To find the hot springs, follow a track past the hut’s long-drop into the Taipo River, then boulder-hop for 150m on the true right. When I visited earlier this year, there were two pools of approximately 35°C and 40°C water. A shovel was hidden in the bush, useful for excavating the pools. In flood, the pools become submerged.
Access 2km east of Taipo road bridge on SH73 Time 6-7hr.
A tub for two
Kaitoke Hot Springs, Great Barrier Island
The track to this hot spring is undoubtedly the most popular walk on Great Barrier Island and with boardwalks across the swampy sections, it would be suitable for your great-grandmother.
A pool is dammed at a fork in the creek where the water varies from warm to quite hot, accommodating up to a dozen bathers. In winter, the water might be tepid, while in summer it may be piping hot. A gnarled pohutukawa overshadows a steamy pool surrounded by bush. Try a moonlight walk but take plenty of insect repellant.
If you want privacy, head for Peach Tree Springs. This involves a more adventurous amble via the Tramline Track for 45 minutes to where the stream flows through a grove of nikau palm. Not sign-posted, the streambed must be followed for five minutes to find a small rock tub, big enough for two. This unique pool was carved from the rock, probably by the kauri loggers in the 1920s. Warning: the water can be hot – up to 44°C.
Access From Whangaparapara Road north of Tryphena Time 45min.
Bathe in the Alps
Welcome Flat Hot Springs, Westland Tai Poutini National Park
Promoted as the best backcountry springs in Aotearoa, DOC has spent millions in upgrading the riverside track to Great Walk standard. It cuts a corridor through rimu forest, through which kereru swoop. This route was originally surveyed by explorer Charlie Douglas, who decided a horse track over the Southern Alps to Mt Cook Village was not feasible. Nevertheless, the government built a foot track in 1910.
If Rough Creek can be easily forded, then the other major tributaries are bridged. There are camping spots or a modest two-bunk hut at Architect Creek en route.
Breathe a satisfied sigh of relief on arrival at Welcome Flat – a two-storey lodge with 31 bunks. The changing shed and pools are within spitting distance.
It seems like a paradox to soak in the hot water while gazing up at the cold, snow-clad Sierra Range. There are a number of pools here, with temperatures up to 55°C. The water flows over silica terraces, only knee-deep, but oh so relaxing.
When you eventually emerge like a dehydrated prune, the warm hut is just a minute away.
Access 25km south of Fox township on SH6 Time 7hr.
A Tarawera thermal treat
Hot Water Beach, Rotorua
Relax in natural hot springs on the shores of Lake Tarawera, literally in the lake. Te Rata Bay is only accessible by boat, or by making an overnight pilgrimage on the new Tarawera Trail. While water taxis can be booked from the i-SITE in Rotorua, a kayak voyage would make a real family adventure out of it.
Because this is an extremely popular place during the holiday season, you will need to plan well ahead.
In the immediate vicinity of the thermal area, take proper precaution as localised patches of sand and water are very hot.
Access From Te Wairoa (Buried Village) Time 5-6hr on Tarawera Trail.