Wairarapa – Guide for Backpackers
Mountains, pinnacles, seals and lighthouses!
Swap windy Wellington for a few days of hiking, seal-spotting, wine-drinking and Lord of the Rings location-hunting. During a working holiday or backpacking trip in New Zealand, it’s pretty impossible to miss the capital city, Wellington. But while you’re there, consider a special trip to the district of Wairarapa, which is just over an hour away from the city.
Wairarapa covers the east coast of the Wellington region. The landscape is carpeted with lush farmland, vineyards, wildlife reserves, rolling forest hills, and untamed coastline. Whether you’re here to hike, bike, drive or stop off at one of the towns, there’s plenty of things to do on a budget in Wairarapa.
For more information on the district, check out the guide below and be sure to check out 10 Reasons to Stop By in Wairarapa.
Things you can’t miss in Wairarapa
- Get the best views in the Wairarapa district from Mt Holdsworth.
- Bike through Martinborough’s vineyards.
- Walk in the footsteps of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimili from The Lord of the Rings at the Putangirua Pinnacles.
- Climb to the lighthouse and watch the seals at Cape Palliser.
- Surf, swim or sunbathe at Castlepoint.
The main and most central town of Masterton in the Wairarapa district is a good base if you are staying in Wairarapa for a while.
The town itself boasts a boutique and cafe culture, most of which can be found in the Kuripuni Village. You’ll also find some budget accommodation options, a feature not to be taken for granted in Wellington’s outer districts! Find out more in our Accommodation Guide to Wellington Region.
As for bars, if you hit Masterton from Thursday to Saturday, relax to some live music at the King Street Live. For a small entry fee you can culture yourself with some New Zealand music.
For a free thing to do in Masterton, head to Henley Lake, just east of Queen Elizabeth Park. There’s a walking and cycling track around the lake, as well as viewing towers to watch the some of the 72 species of wetlands birds.
A likely reason you have visited Masterton is to explore the Tararua Forest Park, where you can access the walking tracks from the Holdsworth area. Read on to find out more about all that good stuff!
Tararua Forest Park (from Masterson)
To get there from Masterton, turn off State Highway 2 onto Norfolk Road, south of Masterton. You’ll reach a car park, campsite (check out Where to Camp in Wellington for more info), and a whole lot of tracks from leisurely strolls to multi-day hikes through the forest to exposed hills. With the epic views and feeling of accomplishment, there’s some rewarding hikes to be had. Make sure you are fully prepared, especially for the longer hikes.
Donnelly Flat Loop Walk (1 hour return)
This is an easy walk through varying forest to an attractive camping ground at Donnelly Flat. There is also the option to do a 1km nature walk.
Gentle Annie Track (3h30min return)
This easy day trip takes you to the Mountain House Shelter, nestled in the forest. The walk includes the Rocky Lookout with views of Atiwhakatu Valley and Mt Holdsworth. You can also incorporate the Donnelly Flat Loop in this walk.
Holdsworth – Kaitoke Track (2-3 Days oneway)
Just one of the multi-day hikes in the Tararua Forest. This track ends at Kaitoke Roadend so transport will need to be arranged. The first part of the track is the Gentle Annie (see above) then continues to Totara Flats Hut (free to use), taking an estimated 4 hours. To the Tutuwai Hut is another 5 hours and then to the end of the track is another 4h30min. The huts are first-come-first-served, with the Tutuwai Hut having a small fee.
To the Powell Hut (5-6 hours return), to Mt Holdsworth (7-8 hours)
If you are pretty fit, then challenge yourself to the climb to Powell Hut which reaches the bushline or the Mount Holdsworth summit at 1470 metres high. Follow the Gentle Annie (see above) to the Mountain House Shelter, then take the Mt Holdsworth Track.
Mt Holdsworth – Jumbo Circuit (2-3 days)
If the hike to Mt Holdsworth (see above) was so amazing and you want to see more, which you will, make a multi-day experience out of it. From the Powell Hut go to Mt Holdsworth Trig then Jumbo Peak until you reach the Jumbo Hut (4 hours). Care is needed on these exposed parts of the hike! The next 4 hour section takes you back into the forest to Atiwhakatu Hut. Be aware that this hut is only open during peak season (18 November-20 April). The track finally ends at Holdsworth Lodge.
Where winos come to get hammered! More than 20 wineries are in the Martinborough area, most of which are within walking or cycling distance. There’s several bike hire options in in the town, so you can winery-hop by bike while sampling the district’s famous pinot noir. On the subject of bikes, it’s also worth hiring a bike for the Rimutaka Cycle Trail. Although it’s 115km long, sections of the trail can be accessed by the nearby Featherston and Lake Wairarapa. But if you want to do the whole trail it’s best to start in Petone in the Hutt Valley.
Otherwise, Martinborough is the gateway to Wairarapa’s south coast, featuring the Lord of the Rings location Putangirua Pinnacles and the pretty Cape Palliser, as well as heaps of freedom camping options. Check out 15 Free Camping Spots in Wellington.
Arguably one of the most impressive Lord of the Rings locations, the Putangirua Pinnacles depicted Dimholt Road taken by Aragorn, Legolas and Gimili to find the Army of the Undead. Just like everywhere in Middle Earth, getting to the Pinnacles isn’t a quick trip. There are two ways to see these rock formations with your own eyes:
The Short(ish) Way (2-3 hours return)
Walk along the streambed with the pinnacles towering above you or take the loop track from the stream junction to the lookout.
The Scenic Route (3-4 hours return)
To incorporate views of Palliser Bay and Lake Onoke into your fun-filled day, walk uphill on a track from the Pinnacles lookout. You will eventually return to the coast 300 metres away from the Pinnacles entrance.
If you just can’t bear to leave the pinnacles, stay at the Putangirua Pinnacles Campsite beside Putangirua Stream for views of Cook Strait – a true backpacking experience!
If the scenic drive along this stunning coast doesn’t impress then the seal colony will! Cape Palliser is the location of the North Island’s largest seal colony. You can pretty close to these native New Zealand fur seals, but remember to give them a bit of space. Visit from mid-November to mid-January for the chance to see seal pups.
You can’t visit Cape Palliser without climbing the 250 steps up the lighthouse. Like most New Zealand lighthouses, you’ll get amazing coastal views but you’ll also see why there was so many shipwrecks in this part of the ocean to necessitate this lighthouse!
If you just can’t get enough of those lighthouses, then you’ll find another one with incredible views, a lagoon, reef, beach and Castle Rock at Castlepoint on the east coast of Wairarapa. The beach is popular with swimmers and surfers, with surf breaks being at The Reef, The Gap and Christmas Bay.
The lighthouse and Castlepoint Scenic Reserve is what many people come to this part of the east coast for. Take the boardwalk over the reef to see fossil shells and sometimes seals. There is also the Deliverance Cove Track to get views from above the lagoon (1h30min return).
A drive 15 minutes north will bring you to some intriguing rock formations, Mataikona Rocks. Time your visit with low tide to see the the spiky rows of rocks – a result of sandstone compression and tectonic plate collision.
If you have more time in Wairarapa…
- Visit Stonehenge Aotearoa near Carterton instead of going all the way to England to see the real thing.
- Have a famous Tui beer and tour the famous Tui Brewery in Mangatainoka.
- Meet the only white kiwi bird at Pukaha Mount Bruce, 20 minutes north of Masterton.
- See a paua aquarium at the Carterton’s Paua World.
- Visit the historic Tinui at Castlepoint, which is the site of New Zealand’s first ANZAC service.
Where to stay in Wairarapa?
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