One of the coolest beaches we’ve visited on the north island of New Zealand is less talked about than virtually any in the Waitakere Ranges and is much less crowded. After climbing Mount Taranaki, on our way north to Auckland we made a brief stop at the beach. Unfortunately the tide was all the way in, so we couldn’t access or even see the sand or the Three Sisters and Elephant Rock that make the beach so special. Since then we’ve made two return visits to the beautiful beach and have found it to be one of our favorite spots on the north island.
Make sure to check the tide as you can’t even walk to the beach if the tide is in. GPS will guide you to the Three Sisters, which is on Highway 3 about an hour north of New Plymouth, or the brown attraction sign on the road will also show you the way. Once you park it’s easy to see which way to go, just head toward the sea and don’t bother trying to cross the large stream ahead of you. After passing a bunch of shallow caves to your left you’ll see a large rock that looks somewhat like an elephant. It’s worth exploring the rock a bit since you can walk through it in a few different places, seeing the inside of some neat, short caves. Make sure to note that this is not the Elephant Rock you came to see!
Looking south from the first semi-elephant you’ll see (hopefully) a big archway that looks similar to an “A” and the three sisters, a trio of 25 meter tall rock outcroppings. The reason I say hopefully is that relatively recently this archway was the edge of a cliff with an arch in it. When we’ve visited it’s looked more like an A as described, and from one day to the next on our most recent visit a small portion of the arch has collapsed.
The third sister is behind in the arch, so despite newzealand.com stating there are only two sisters remaining, there were three as of 2016 – formerly four before the sea claimed one. The rock and cliffs in this area are very fragile as you can tell by climbing a bit on the cliff wall that slants down nearby or grabbing the right rock and breaking it in your hands (probably don’t want to do either as the erosion here is harsh enough as it is!).
Just as something to note, seeing Mount Taranaki from this beach is only possible on a perfectly clear day, which isn’t common outside of summer. For our four visits (three weekend trips, one weekend we visited both Saturday and Sunday) we only saw Mount Taranaki one of the days, even though another day was extremely clear as well. The mountain tends to catch the low flying clouds and cloak itself so don’t expect to see it from here outside of summer unless you get lucky.
The Elephant Rock
For the main reason you’d likely visit this beach, the Elephant Rock, you’ll need to aim for the lowest tide possible, so a half hour or so either side of the lowest point may even be too high depending on how low the tide will get that day. If you proceed south on the beach you’ll come across a cave that hopefully isn’t filled with water – if it is you’ve timed the tide wrong- and you’ll want to walk through it.
Once you get through the cave you’ll be able to see the Elephant Rock if you stand on the right hand side of the beach! If the tide is low enough you can walk around a rocky cliff to the beach near the elephant and check it out. When we got to the elephant unfortunately the lowest point of low tide was still higher than was ideal, so we had to wait for a wave to go out and make a mad dash to the next beach, which resulted in some wet shoes and pant legs.
The rock does look a lot like an elephant, and is impressively big. We were hoping the tide would be out a bit further so we could walk right up to it, but even from a few meters back it was well worth the visit.
Heading back toward the sisters will bring you back through the cave and the shorter cave to the right of it is worth a look, although it doesn’t go too far back. It’s hard to run out of things to climb around on and interesting things to see on this beach, and the beach remains accessible for a few hours either side of low tide.
Roughly an hour drive south of the beach on Highway 3 will bring you to New Plymouth and the base of Mount Taranaki. The hikes in Egmont National Park are well worth doing, and maybe even up to the top of the mountain if it’s summer or early fall and you’re feeling up to it!