Whanganui National Park, NZ: Whanganui River Paddle

Discover a local favorite: paddling through the heart of a Maori historic homeland.
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Discover a local favorite: paddling through the heart of a Maori historic homeland.

Launch a canoe into the green waters of the Whanganui River and you’ll understand why the native Maori believe that every bend in this stunning waterway had a mauri, or “life force.” All along the 54-mile stretch from Whakahoro to Pipiriki— mostly within Whanganui National Park—sandstone and mudstone cliffs soar hundreds of feet out of the water, creating a nearly unbroken gorge of sheer walls draped with ribbon waterfalls and a jungle of foliage. Life force, indeed.

You’ll explore side slot canyons like Mangaio Stream, and well-preserved Maori villages like Tieke Marae—a cluster of huts with an ornately carved totem pole scowling over the grounds. The route also passes the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, a span built across a deep gorge after World War II to provide access to the river for Kiwi settlers—who eventually abandoned the remote outpost. At night, camp riverside (budget) or stay in a hut or lodge (luxe); either way you’ll go to sleep with the sounds of exotic birds like the brown kiwi echoing through the trees.

The class I-II river is straightforward for experienced paddlers, but some rapids are challenging in high flows. The last major rapid before Pipiriki is notorious for swamping canoes, although it’s an easy-to-swim wave train (and can usually be avoided to river right).

Got extra time? Paddle the entire Whanganui River Journey, a 90-mile, five-day trip from Taumarunui to Pipiriki; it’s the only water-based adventure listed among New Zealand’s vaunted Great Walks.

Do it The three-day trip begins at Whakahoro and ends at Pipiriki. Spend night one at John Coull Hut (inside or camp) at mile 23, and night two at Bridge to Nowhere Lodge (campsites are adjacent and across the river at mile 41).

Guide/gear rental canoesafaris.co.nz and whanganuirivercanoes.co.nz.

Guidebook/map Guide to the Whanganui River, $9NZ Info/huts/campsites doc.govt.nz

-Mapped by Jonathan Dorn and Michael Lanza

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 94.5

Waypoints

WHA001

Location: -39.109003, 175.076715

Whakahoro

WHA002

Location: -39.128988, 174.999699

Mangatepopo Camp

WHA003

Location: -39.114032, 174.992323

Lunch Beach

WHA004

Location: -39.17125, 174.959494

Ohaoura Camp

WHA005

Location: -39.222302, 174.919154

Gorge

WHA006

Location: -39.233088, 174.914963

John Coull Hut

WHA007

Location: -39.283394, 174.905391

Mangawaiti Stream

WHA008

Location: -39.282805, 174.963641

Mangapurua Landing

WHA009

Location: -39.271043, 174.972286

Bridge To Nowhere

WHA010

Location: -39.337458, 174.992576

Tieke Kainga Marai

WHA011

Location: -39.424886, 175.036627

Rocky Bar

WHA012

Location: -39.480366, 175.045015

Pipiriki