Written by Mary Rean
The beautiful parks, reserves and open spaces in just about every suburb of Auckland are a vivid legacy of Auckland’s fiery and explosive past.
Thousands of years ago, a turbulent Auckland Volcanic Field threw up at least 50 cones of varying shapes and sizes, leaving a landscape of hills, valleys and basins. Today, as we walk, drive and cycle around our city, the landscape is a constant reminder of that ancient violent activity.
Pre-European Māori inhabitants of the isthmus saw Auckland’s cones as a wonderful natural asset. They provided defensive positions and refuge in times of danger, and the rich soil was ideal for cultivation. Estimates indicate Auckland supported several thousand residents, living on and around all the hill pā on the isthmus, with kumara plantations covering nearby fertile land.
Later, Pākehā settlers also saw the value of the volcanoes, quarrying the scoria cones and lava flows for material for buildings and civic structures like roads, walls, private and public buildings, and kerbstones – still a familiar feature of Auckland streets.
While some of the volcanoes have been irreparably damaged or even erased completely, most of those remaining are now preserved, and today Aucklanders enjoy easy access to the reserves, parks and walks on these maunga.
As they are important sites of historical, cultural and archaeological significance, visitors should be careful to keep to formed paths and tracks, and to avoid walking on or through sensitive features like the slopes, craters and obvious features, such as historic pits.
Here’s a selection of our city’s volcanoes, a bit of history, and some information for visitors today:
At 196m high, Maungawhau/Mount Eden is the highest of our mainland volcanoes and the highest natural point in Auckland. The summit offers sweeping panoramas over the city, the Waitematā and Manukau Harbours, and beyond. Mount Eden, which erupted from three craters 28,000 years ago, is now grass- and tree-covered, and its 50m-deep oval crater forms a near-perfect inverted cone. The maunga’s lava flows covered 5.6km2 and its 'bubble' contained enough lava to fill 32,000 Olympic swimming pools.
Walk around the outside of the hill to see surviving features of the original pā, including historic pā tūāpapa (terraces) and rua (pits) from past Māori settlement. A new boardwalk around the rim of the crater and a viewing platform are due to be completed in September.
On the east side is the 2.2ha, award-winning Eden Garden on Omana Road, with collections of camellias, native NZ plants, as well as waterfalls, rock formations and native birds.
Carparking is at the base of the mountain and visitors can walk up to the summit around the outside of the mountain.
Whau Café, in a historic building near the carpark, has indoor and outdoor seating. Eden Garden also has a café, or 10 minutes’ walk down Mt Eden Road is Mt Eden village, with several cafés.
Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill
One of Auckland’s largest and most culturally significant volcanoes, Maungakiekie last erupted 50,000 years ago. The 184m-high hill was one of the largest former Māori settlement areas in New Zealand, with more than 170 constructed terraces based around three Māori hilltop pā sites.
At the summit are a 33m-high obelisk – a memorial to Māori, a bronze statue of a Māori warrior, and the grave of Sir John Logan Campbell – a prominent early Auckland public figure. From the summit, you can see both the east and west coasts of the city at the same time. The volcano is in the 48ha One Tree Hill Domain, adjoining the grassy 172ha Cornwall Park, named for the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, later King George V and Queen Mary.
Both the domain and the park are criss-crossed with paths, grass and dirt walking tracks, there are open areas for sports and games, over 350 species and 8000 trees – both specimen trees for shady picnics and wooded areas, flower gardens, paddocks of sheep and cattle – and lambs and calves between July and September (Cornwall Park is run as a farm), native birds, exotic chickens, a children’s playground, the Stardome Observatory, historic Māori sites, Acacia Cottage (once the home of St John Logan Campbell), a small museum and information centre, and two cafés. Barbecue areas are available for family picnics.
There is plenty of free parking and the park is open from 7am until dusk, when gates are locked.
Erupting over 100,000 years ago, Pukekawa is one of Auckland’s oldest volcanoes.
The 81ha domain is also Auckland’s oldest and one of its largest parks. It was developed around the volcano’s cone, and the 'tuff rings' created by volcanic activity can be seen in the land contours that form a natural amphitheatre and sports ground.
The small volcanic hill overlooking the sports fields is Pukekaroa, the site of a pā inhabited and fought over by many different iwi (tribes) throughout the early history of Tāmaki Makaurau. A totara tree, planted in 1940, marks the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
The Auckland Museum, built in 1929 to honour returned servicemen, perches prominently on the crater rim. Regarded as one of the finest museums in the southern hemisphere, it is renowned for its collection of Māori and Pacific treasures.
The grounds and century-old trees are popular for get-togethers and sports games, and newlyweds regularly have their photos taken here; flocks of Canadian geese and ducks live at the duck pond, which is fed by fresh water draining from the crater. The band rotunda is a lovely setting in the summer for afternoon concerts, and the old grandstand provides seating for cricket and rugby games.
Self-guided walking tours of sculptures by New Zealand artists around the domain are available from the museum foyer, or follow one of the several walking trails that meander through the bush in the gully between the domain, Parnell and Grafton Gully.
The Art Deco-style Wintergarden, near the duck pond, was built during the 1920s, and the domain features many exotic plants and birds introduced by the Acclimatisation Society from the 1860s onwards.
Pack a picnic or pop into one of the cafes in the museum or beside the duck pond. There are also cafes in nearby Carlton Gore Road, at Auckland Hospital, in Newmarket, and along Parnell Road.
Carparking is free on the domain’s roads and carparks.
This 143m-high volcanic cone in Remuera, close to Newmarket, was formed some 35,000 years ago. It was used by Māori as a pā, and later by Europeans as a quarry and pastureland, and a water reservoir installed in its cone supplied the local area. An additional, partially buried, water reservoir was built on the low, southern side in 1955.
Mt Hobson’s summit offers panoramic views of Auckland. In spring, the lower field along the path from Remuera Road is filled with jonquils, commemorating local boys who lost their lives in WWII. Higher up, you can see terraces and kumara pits from the Māori occupation of Mt Hobson.
Park on Remuera Road, where there are two entrances, or Dilworth Ave, also with two entrances. You are likely to bump into joggers following well-worn tracks, families and locals walking their dogs as they watch the sun setting behind Mt Eden.
Te Kōpuke or Tītīkōpuke/Mount St John
This small, peaceful, tree-clad scoria cone is across the motorway, a few minutes west of Mount Hobson. Formed around 75,000 years ago, its peak is 126m above sea level and it has a well-formed crater, which is 20m deep and 150m wide.
Once a pā, it’s still easy to spot Māori earthworks, such as kumara pits and terracing. Like Mount Hobson, Mount St John is enclosed by houses, and footpaths lead from Market Road, Belvedere Street and Mount St John Avenue, Epsom.
Walks on these cones are quite short, so for a bit more exercise, combine the two, with only a few minutes on streets linking them, or add Mt Eden and really stretch your legs with a hilly one-and-a-half-hour walk.
This 800m-diameter explosion crater erupted around 120,000 years ago, forming a lake, and then slowly filling with sediment to become a swamp. It flooded when sea levels rose about 9,000 years ago, and became a tidal basin.
Orakei Basin has a reserve and walkway running right around its perimeter, providing a mostly shady 40-minute walk, part of which links with the cycleway that runs from Meadowbank into the city. There’s a boat ramp and the basin is used regularly by sea scouts, water skiers, yachties, kayakers and model boat enthusiasts.
Access is from Orakei Road (opposite Orakei Village), Upland Road and Lucerne Road, Remuera, and Manapau Street, Meadowbank.
Te Tātua-a-Riukiuta/The Big King or Three Kings
An eruption 28,500 years ago created three prominent peaks and several smaller peaks, now mostly quarried away, leaving one large peak. This was probably the most complex of the Auckland volcanoes, consisting of five larger scoria cones and about a dozen smaller mounds in a large explosion crater. At 800m across and nearly 200m deep, the explosion crater is the largest in Auckland. The three largest scoria cones were the 133m-high Big King, East King at 120m high, and 135m Highest King. Lava flowed from The Big King, down a stream valley for 3km to Western Springs, creating lava tunnels that are still under the surface – so rain falling here drains along underground channels into Western Springs Lake. Many of the tunnels have collapsed, but some caves remain.
Like most of Auckland’s volcanoes, The Big King was a pā site, and kumara pits and terracing can still be seen.
Today, it’s a 5.5ha reserve, popular with families and dog walkers. Trails lead to the top of the Big King and offer views across Auckland. Entrances are from Duke Street, Fyvie Ave and Smallfield Ave.
The westernmost volcano in the Auckland Volcanic Field, Ōwairaka dates to about 120,000 years ago. Once 148m high, the top 15m of the scoria cone was quarried away.
Māori built terraces, pits, ditches and banks to form a defensive pā, although there are few signs of these today. Mount Albert was extensively quarried for almost a hundred years, and the floors of the quarries became sports fields. A large water reservoir on the top gives Mount Albert a flat appearance. The Mountain Green Archery Club operates an outdoor range, welcoming new members and offering courses for aspiring archers.
The sealed road to the summit is no longer open to traffic, but you can walk up to the trig point and enjoy the views. The road entrance is on Summit Drive, off Mount Albert Road.
Auckland’s second-youngest volcano was formed about 10,000 years ago, and at 135m is the tallest of the scoria cones. Two craters are still visible and the third has been filled with a concrete water reservoir and grassed to form a field.
Walking round the crest of the cone you can see Māori earthworks, and on the east side is the Winifred Huggins Woodlands, a mix of exotic deciduous and evergreen trees, planted in 1969 as a memorial to her contribution to the Auckland Tree Society.
You can drive up Mountain Road to a small parking area leading to the summit walkway for 360° panoramic views of the city and surrounding area. Or walk up the road from Mountain or Gollan Roads, about 20 minutes.
Te Pane-o-Mataaho/Māngere Mountain
The largest and best-preserved volcanic cone in the southern part of the field, the 105m-high scoria cone was produced by fountaining from the main cone 50,000 years ago. A second cone is still visible but the third cone was quarried away. A small 12m-high conical plug, considered to be tapu (sacred), sits over the vent in the main crater. Two high areas on the cone rim were extensively terraced by Māori and defended as separate pā. You can also see food storage pits.
Walk around the mountain to the summit, take a picnic and enjoy the views. There’s a playground, playing fields, an education centre and visitors’ centre. School trips are welcome, teaching about the volcano, archaeology, Māori culture, traditional and medicine gardens.
Entrances are from Domain Road (carparking), Wallace Road, Coronation Road, Putini Road, Pikitea Road, Scott Ave and Taylor Road.
This 82m-high scoria cone emerged about 35,000 years ago and now overlooks the coastal suburb of Devonport. Homes are built on the lower slopes, but the rest of the hill is a recreation reserve. Takarunga was an important Māori pā, and earthworks are still visible; after 1842 it became the first signal station for the port of Auckland. Flags were used to signal to boats entering the harbour and let locals know a ship was arriving. It is still a signals station for the Ports of Auckland, although now fully automated.
It was fortified in the 1880s against a perceived threat of a Russian naval attack; then in WWII further fortifications were to deter a possible Japanese invasion. The artificially flat top conceals a buried water reservoir, which is no longer in use.
For spectacular views towards Auckland and up the harbour, you can walk up the cone on tracks from Albert Road, Kerr Street or Church Street. Check out the old European fortifications around the summit, and enjoy a picnic or visit one of the many cafés in Devonport.
The road up the mountain is now closed, and parking is around local streets, or off Vauxhall Road in the Devonport Museum carpark.
This volcano threw itself up about 90,000 years ago and possibly briefly became an island 7,000 years ago following sea level rises. But within a few thousand years, a sand and shell spit closed the gap, linking it with the North Shore.
There’s no evidence of defences, but the mountain was terraced by Māori and may be one of the oldest Māori occupation sites in Auckland. A coastal campsite had ovens, charcoal, moa bones and a midden, now all buried under a carpark.
With its strategic location at the entrance to the Waitematā Harbour, it was marked in 1878 as a reserve for defence purposes. Fears of Russian attack in 1885 led to building a muzzle-loader fort and gun batteries. Since then, various tunnels and defence measures were constructed until the area became a reserve in 1972, and visitors can explore what remains of these.
Parking is available at the base and part way up the mountain. You can walk to the top and admire views of the city and harbour, or bring torches and explore the old fort’s tunnels. A coastal path, partially closed at the time of printing, meanders around the base, and the Naval Museum is at the east end of Torpedo Bay. Drop into the Torpedo Bay Café at the museum and enjoy water views, coffee or a light meal. Alternatively, Devonport is a few minutes away and has plenty of cafes.
The oldest known volcano in the Auckland Volcanic Field, it is about 190,000 years old. Explosive eruptions blasted out a large double crater, forming a 107ha freshwater lake, 1km in diameter and 57m deep.
From 1894, Devonport drew its water supply from the lake, then other North Shore suburbs, until water levels – and quality – dropped too low.
Lake Pupuke is accessed from five lakeside reserves, which variously have carparks, picnic areas, ramps and jetties, but much of the land around the lake edge is privately owned.
There’s a lakeside walking track from Kitchener or Sylvan Park to Henderson Park, or you can run or walk round the lake on roads that follow the crest of the tuff ring. The lake is also popular for watersports – fishing, sailing, windsurfing, rowing, kayaking and scuba diving courses. The PumpHouse Theatre is in Killarney Park on the lakeside and you can get a coffee or meal at the nearby French Rendez-vous Café.
Auckland’s youngest and largest volcano, and the only one to erupt in the sea, Rangitoto Island blew up into the Hauraki Gulf about 600 years ago. The 260m-high, 5.5km-wide island is a symmetrical shield volcano cone, with a land area of 2311ha.
The inhospitable lava-flow surface meant that the island wasn’t widely used by pre-European Māori. Early Europeans quarried basalt from the coast for buildings, like the Mission house in Mission Bay, and the island was made a public domain in 1890. Over the next 40 years, about 140 small baches were built around the wharf and Islington Bay. Many were demolished, but in 1990 it was decided to preserve them – today about 30 remain; a few can be rented, and one is a small museum. Since World War II, a causeway has linked Rangitoto to the much older, non-volcanic Motutapu Island.
Allow at least a half or full day on the island for a two-hour walk to the summit, a steep scoria cone, and back over the lava flow, with perhaps time to peek into the lava caves near the top. There’s also a road-train ride from the wharf that goes around the island and stops close to the summit. Spectacular views from the summit of Rangitoto look into the crater and out across the water.
For a full-day experience, you could walk to the summit, take a torch and visit the 100m-long lava caves and walk back to the wharf via Islington Bay on the east or McKenzie Bay on the west. Both tracks are around 7km. There are also lovely walks along the coastline from the wharf, and other tracks on the island.
After a major pest eradication programme, both Rangitoto and Motutapu are pest-free, and native bird life now flourishes, even with sightings of kaka and takahē. Rangitoto has a contrasting mix of bare open areas with only hardy lichens and the largest pohutukawa forest in the world – the trees grow out of the basalt lava flows.
Swimming at sandy McKenzie Bay is an option, or if the tide is in, cool off in the artificial pool near the wharf. Take all the food and water you need for the day, as there are no shops on the island and the only fresh water and toilets are at the wharf, Islington and McKenzie Bays.
Catch a ferry from the ferry buildings in Quay Street, Auckland, or Devonport Wharf to Rangitoto Wharf. They run several times a day.
Auckland’s fiery past
The origins of the Auckland Volcanic Field date back to the mists of time when Australia and Antarctica were part of the huge continent of Gondwanaland. About 180 million years ago, this super-continent began breaking up, leaving what is now New Zealand as part of the seabed on the fringe of Australia and Antarctica. Our country remained below the sea for another 50 million years, at which time volcanic and earthquake activity under the seabed thrust the compressed sediments high above the sea level, and over the next few million years the mountainous land of New Zealand gradually emerged.
Much of Auckland’s landscape was formed from volcanic forces that burst out and threw up more than 50 volcanoes, all within 20km of the city centre, making the area a rare example of this type of volcanic behaviour. In some cases, a single eruption formed a crater, some cones expelled rivers of lava, and others shot out material that formed scoria.
The Auckland Domain and Albert Park were the sites of the first volcanoes on the isthmus, emerging around 140-150,000 years ago, then St Heliers, Mount Albert, Mount Roskill and the Three Kings, followed by smaller vents from Panmure to Ihumatāo and the North Shore. It is thought most had a short eruption life.
Late arrivals, Mount Eden, One Tree Hill and Mount Wellington produced landscape-changing lava flows that spread large lava sheets, which then cooled to create networks of long, narrow tunnels. The Three Kings lava flow is extensive, with long passages and wide, high caverns, and tunnels have been unearthed near One Tree Hill and Mount St John.
Rangitoto is the newest volcano and probably created havoc among inhabitants of Auckland when it roared into action 600 years ago.
Scientists consider Auckland’s volcanoes to be dormant rather than extinct and, although there are no signs they are likely to erupt, Auckland’s civil defence scheme, formed in 1959, does include plans to deal with the possibility of a national disaster.