Bundle the kids into the car for a short 30-minute drive from Hamilton to Waikato's largest maunga, Mount Pirongia, which dominates the region's western horizon.
Beneath its dense ancient forest canopy, there's plenty to explore by foot or on two wheels. The Mangakara Nature Walk is a good starting point for younger children, while folks keen to head into the challenging interior of this forest park should prepare themselves for gut-busting climbs towards its 959m-high peak.
Listen out for the haunting birdsong of the at-risk kōkako that were reintroduced on the mountain in 2017. Here are five options to grab a dose of nature this summer at Pirongia Forest Park.
Kāniwhaniwha Caves and Nikau Walk
This outing ticks all the boxes if the kids are not squeamish about underground caves or unnervingly close cave wētā encounters.
The trail follows the Kāniwhaniwha Stream along a pleasant flat 4WD route before entering the forest towards the 20m-long limestone cave. Some parts of the cave reach 7.5m high, although there are a couple of relatively tight corners to navigate.
A torch will make this adventure safer, and you can shine your light on the damp walls to spy any ocean-dwelling fossils trapped for millions of years in the limestone rock.
On your return, follow the Nikau Walk signs, which lead to a grassy campsite with toilets that is perfect for picnics. Bikes are not allowed on the Kāniwhaniwha Caves section of the trail.
Need-to-know: Allow about 150 minutes to complete the loop and explore the cave. The car park is off Limeworks Loop Rd near Te Pahū. Suitable for walking and bikes. Buggy-friendly on the 4WD track to the Nikau campsite. No dogs allowed.
If you don't mind clambering up the side of a volcano across tangled tree roots and steep rock formations, then your bucket list just got longer. But despite it being a grunt-feast to the exposed rocky outcrop with its trig, the views across the Waikato from the 723m-high vantage spot are worth it.
It's a good option for groups with moderate fitness. If you are feeling decidedly keen to burn off some summer love handles, little ones can be popped into a backpack. Avoid during winter or after heavy rain as it can become a boggy mess.
Need-to-know: Located at the end of Corcoran Rd near Te Pahū. Allow 60 minutes one way to the lookout. Only suitable for walking. No dogs allowed. Toilet available.
Mangakara Nature Walk
Tucked along the fringes of Pirongia Forest Park, this kid-friendly trail loops around magnificent stands of podocarp trees and past an intriguing rock. This climbable grey boulder has perplexed plenty of boffins who debate whether a volcano ejected it, or perhaps because of its round surface, it may have tumbled down a river.
Either way, you won't miss it on your stroll. A nature trail with interpretative signs provides a healthy dose of education during your outing, and numbered posts match a downloadable Department of Conservation fact sheet.
Keep an eye out for suitable floating twigs to challenge the family to a game of Poohsticks at the bridges or beside the stream.
Need-to-know: At Te Pahū turn on to Hodgson Rd, then Grey Rd. Toilets available. Only suitable for walking. No dogs allowed.
Kāniwhaniwha Kahikatea Tree
There's some dispute about this kahikatea's height; some folks are keen to see it listed as the tallest recorded native tree in New Zealand, while others are a little sceptical. Either way, it is at least 55m tall, which is still impressive.
This track suits older kids and follows the well-maintained Nikau and Kāniwhaniwha Caves trails before heading off across more undulating terrain, with some muddier sections underfoot.
Continue past the swing bridge to get a kink in your neck with this fine specimen. As always, come prepared with all the usual safety and warm gear for this adventure.
Need-to-know: The car park is off Limeworks Loop Rd near Te Pahū. Allow four hours to complete. Only suitable for walking. No dogs allowed.
Mt Pirongia Summit Tracks
If the family has ticked off all the shorter bushwalks, set your sights on the summit of this magnificent maunga. Multiple routes ascend its flanks; some day-hikes are meandering, while others offer more strenuous outings.
All options require a reasonable standard of fitness and tramping experience. Or, split the trip up by staying at the bookable 20-bunk Pahautea Hut near the summit, an achievable destination for young hikers.
Find out more doc.govt.nz
Ceana Priest is the author of family-friendly Outdoor Kid guidebooks. outdoorkid.co.nz
PIRONGIA FOREST PARK
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