The Tongariro Alpine Crossing (TAC) is high on the to-do list of most visitors to the North Island and for good reason. Unfortunately, its popularity is also its undoing and in peak season, unless you’re prepared to start really early or after the morning rush hour, you can expect to join an orderly queue that makes its way across an undeniably stunning landscape. Ok, maybe a queue is a bit of an exaggeration but it’s not far off – you get the picture. While the landscape may not be as dramatic as the TAC, nearby Tama Lakes Track is a good alternative.
At around 17 km (10.5 miles) return, the Tama Lakes Track is a little shorter than the Tongariro crossing and, apart from a bit of a climb from the lower lake to the upper viewpoint, it’s far easier. It has lakes (obviously), stunning mountain views and a photo-worthy waterfall. Best of all, it tends to be a lot less crowded than the TAC.
On the day we walked this track, both Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe were in the clouds but a galeforce southeaster (70 km/h according to the weather report) meant that the Tama saddle between the mountains was cloud free. The wind around Tama Lakes is something you’ll want to bear in mind when walking this route. While it was warm, sunny and perfectly calm in Whakapapa village, once we headed up towards the saddle, the wind was biting, and at the lower lake itself was so strong it was hard to stand up at times. So always check the weather report before heading out and take the appropriate gear, but then you already knew that.
The start of the Tama Lakes Track is also the first section of the Taranaki Falls Track, a gentle 2 hour loop that’s well worth doing if you don’t have time to head all the way out to the lakes. We chose to start our walk via the upper Taranaki Falls section of the loop and returned via the lower Falls track. In hindsight this was a bit of a mistake as, by the time we got back to the falls, they were in shadow so not the best light for photos. Bear that in mind when timing your walk as earlier in the day is probably better for views of the falls. It will also be warmer if you decide to take a dip in the perfectly clear water. So, no stunning waterfall shots from us this time, but the top of the falls is also quite interesting as you can see below.
After the falls, the track makes its way gradually up towards the Tama saddle, and looking back there are great views of the central plateau. As you can see, the track is very well formed and well maintained, and continues like this most of the way.
Lower Tama Lake is a stunning shade of blue and although we knew what to expect, it really did stop us in our tracks. The wind may also have had something to do with it. Below you can see Debs getting her lean on. That wasn’t for effect, she was simply trying to stay on her feet. Fortunately, there are a few spots where you can shelter from the wind and relax a bit before tackling the path up to the upper Tama lookout.
Now when we say ‘path’ to the upper lookout, we mean that in a fairly loose sense. It isn’t a properly maintained track. You simply head up the ridge towards the highest point through loose sand and rock. It’s nothing too treacherous or overly steep but the wind can be a factor, and on a few occasions heading up and back down on the day, Debs had to adopt her ‘crouching tiger’ pose to avoid being blown off her feet.
But the little puff up the ridge is well worth the effort, and from the upper lookout you’ll see Upper Tama Lake and of course the imposing view of Mount Ngauruhoe or Mount Doom for you Lord of the Rings fans. Looking back the other way you’ll have amazing views of the lower lake with Mount Ruapehu in the distance.
We spent several hours at the upper lookout, simply taking in the amazing scenery and watching the clouds as they whipped around the summit of Mt Ruapehu. We were really hoping that Mt Ngauruhoe would reveal itself completely but it wasn’t to be. We weren’t disappointed though. This may have been our first trip out to Tama Lakes, but it definitely won’t be our last.
Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Ruapehu region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Ruapehu.