Tongariro National Park, located in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island , is home to one of the most famous day hikes in the world: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. But with upwards of 2,000 hikers per day and a one-way length of over 20 km, it’s not on everyone’s bucket list.
Luckily, you can find some fantastic scenery in Tongariro National Park with very minimal effort. You can even reach some of these places in a sleet storm in the middle of the New Zealand winter, but we’ll get into that in a bit. It might not sound like fun but all that rain makes for some pretty spectacular waterfalls!
One of the most rewarding hikes in the area for minimal effort is the Taranaki Falls Track. At about 6 km round-trip, it’s a perfect walk for anyone looking for something easy and accessible.
I hiked this trail on a very rainy and windy winter day in July, and even though my hiking partner and I never got a glimpse of the three volcanoes nearby, it was totally worth getting soaked for.
The original plan was to connect onto the 16 km out and back hike to Tama Lakes, which starts from the same trail head as Taranaki Falls, and we set off with that goal in mind. The weather wasn’t too bad and it had stopped raining so we figured we would have a decent chance if the clouds lifted. This was my first hike in New Zealand and I had no idea what to expect in terms of trail conditions, scenery, and weather so this was going to be a great learning experience for me.
Being from Canada and living close to the mountains, I am a pretty experienced hiker. However I would now say I was a ‘fair weather hiker’ and if it was too cold, too rainy, or too whatever, I was comfortable postponing my hike to wait for a better day.
My attitude on this trip was totally different though. I knew we only had a few days to experience the area and I wanted to make the most of it. I had come prepared (or so I thought) for any conditions and I was going out no matter what!
Setting out on the hard rocky path, I was already noticing how much different hiking in New Zealand is to the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. First off, I didn’t have to call out a “Yo bear!” on a regular basis or carry my fanny pack of bear spray. Nothing in New Zealand wants to eat you, which is pretty awesome and means I would feel comfortable even if I was hiking by myself.
Secondly, the scenery is dramatically different. This area of Tongariro National Park (New Zealand’s oldest national park) is very volcano-y and looks a bit barren. Almost desert-like. There are lava flows everywhere which was a good reminder that the massive Mt Ruapehu volcano was there, towering above us, even if we couldn’t see him. I’m told Ruapehu is a sight to behold, and with the most recent eruption having occurred on September 25 2007, he’s proving to us that he’s alive and kicking.
As we continued on, it became clear the trail conditions were deteriorating significantly. What started out as a nicely packed gravel trail, quickly turned into a dirt path or, since it had been raining, a path of mud and puddles. We tried to skip and hop our way over the bigger pools as best we could, but it became easier to just walk right through the middle if they weren’t too deep. A couple of missteps by me however meant that my non-waterproof shoes were soaking wet. We still hadn’t reached the junction for the Tama Lakes trail, and as I listened to the “squish squish” noise my shoes were making, I definitely had a preference as to which way to go.
Thankfully the Universe agreed with me. As we arrived at the junction, the wind picked up and the rain started again. Did I say rain? I meant hail and sleet that pelted our faces and made us incredibly happy we were walking with the wind instead of against it. Taranaki Falls it was!
Turns out we made a great choice because those falls were raging! It was awesome to see other brave souls out there, including a few families. I saw a couple of kids with rubber boots on and if you had been standing next to me you would have been blinded by the light bulb turning on above my head. I had a brand new pair of rubber boots in the car and it had never occurred to me to use them for hiking. I was definitely going to give them a try for the next rainy adventure!
We made our way down the path to the edge of the waterfall and took the opportunity to take some photos while there was nobody else around. On a hot day, a dip in the pool would probably feel amazing, and you could totally make use of the picnic tables and have a nice lunch. Today was not that kind of day. We took our photos and started our walk back to the warmth of the car.
Since Taranaki Falls is a loop trail, the hike out was totally different from the hike in. The way back was through a dense jungle-like forest and was so incredibly green it was hard to believe it was real. Such a change from the beginning of the trail!
On the way, there was another nice little waterfall not too far off the track and I recommend checking it out and taking some photos. You can see where the water has worn away the rocks over thousands of years and it looks perfectly smooth. There was also another junction suggesting we take a hike to Mangatepopo Hut but, since we were most definitely experiencing “bad weather”, we didn’t feel like hiking for 5 hours with wet feet. That’s another adventure for another day.
Finally we had the Chateau in site and the idea of warming up with a coffee and a scone was looking better and better. Wet shoes and all, we made it a reality and upgraded to some light snacks of fettuccine alfredo and deep-fried halloumi cheese. I would highly recommend stopping in at the Pihanga Cafe at the Chateau Tongariro. The snacks were delicious and so was the Sunday brunch we had a couple days later.
Even though this area of Tongariro National Park is mostly known for that one famous hike, there is so much more to the area. Rain or shine, winter or summer, go check it out and find your own adventure!
Know Before You Go: Taranaki Falls Walk
Distance: approx. 6km loop
Time: 2 hours- more if you stop for lunch or take a lot of photos, less if you’re a speed demon.
Trailhead: Located just off State Highway 48 in the Whakapapa Village. If you are driving towards Mt. Ruapehu, turn left just after Chateau Tongariro onto Ngauruhoe (pronounced nar-uh-ho-ee) Place. Follow the road and you will find the small parking area with trailhead signs.
Parking: Yes there is a small parking lot (see above), however in the high season (Nov-Feb) you will probably have to park out on the highway and walk to the trail head unless you’re an early riser.
Trail Type: Starts out as hard-packed gravel, turns to dirt or mud depending on how much it’s been raining, then back to hard-packed gravel. The trail is very easy to follow with obvious signage.
Gear: In dry, sunny weather I would recommend a decent pair of walking shoes (runners are fine), some water, a couple snacks, and a light jacket in case the wind picks up. In the wet, colder weather I recommend waterproof shoes or rubber boots, waterproof jacket, waterproof pants (or an umbrella), gloves, warm layers (anything but cotton or denim), water (hot tea would be lovely if you have a thermos), and snacks. No matter when you go bring a camera (put it in a Ziploc bag if you think it might rain) to take photos of the amazing landscape!
Once step outside your comfort zone is a step towards adventure. Happy trails!
Have you visited this area? I would love to hear about it! Comment below or send me a message!