If you’re new to New Zealand or planning your first kiwi roadtrip with a map laid out in front of you, the first thing you need to know about Taranaki Falls is that it is nowhere near Mount Taranaki, or even in the Taranaki region for that matter. The falls are in fact situated in the Tongariro National Park and that’s a good thing because no trip to New Zealand’s North Island would be complete without visiting this spectacular central plateau region, home to Mount Ruapehu, the island’s highest peak.
- The total distance of the Taranaki Falls walk is 5.4 km (3.4 miles) and it’s a loop track.
- How much time should you allow for the walk? At a leisurely pace and allowing lots of time for photos expect to spend 2 to 3 hours.
- The track is easy and family-friendly but not suitable for wheelchairs. Baby-buggies/strollers will also prove tricky in places, especially the steep stairs near the falls.
- There are no toilet facilities along the track. The nearest toilets are at the DOC visitor centre near the chateau.
- There is no water available along the track so make sure you take plenty with you, particularly in Summer.
- There are no shops or petrol stations in Whakapapa so best to stock up with your picnic goodies and fuel in National Park Village (15 minutes away) or Turangi (40 minutes away).
Chances are you may already be considering doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (TAC), arguably one of the country’s best day walks, and so you should. However, being an alpine crossing, weather can be a factor so ideally you should allow for some flexibility to be able to choose the best day for your walk. This means spending a few days in the area which in turn means having time to explore some of the parks less famous walks.
Our personal favourite ‘warm-up’ to walking the TAC is the Tama Lakes Track. This 17 km (10.5 miles) return walk is not particularly strenuous and rewards with some epic views of Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe and of course the lower and upper Tama Lakes. The track also happens to go past Taranaki Falls. But if 17 km is not really what you had in mind as a warm-up, you can opt for doing the shorter falls loop which is just over 5 km in total and will take you around 2 hours.
The Taranaki Falls track starts in Whakapapa Village, nestled at the foot of Mount Ruapehu. The village, which serves as the gateway to the Whakapapa ski area, is a 15 minute drive from nearby National Park Village, a popular base for many visitors to the region. National Park itself is approximately 4 hours drive from Auckland and an hour and a half drive from Lake Taupo, the largest town in the region, and another popular tourist destination.
Driving towards Whakapapa on Highway 48, you can’t help but notice Tongariro Chateau with its distinctive green roof, and the turn-off to the start of the track at the end of Ngauruhoe Terrace is immediately after the Chateau. Bear in mind that there is limited parking at the start of the track itself so unless you’re there early, you’ll be better off parking in one of the nearby parking areas off the main road (free as at time of writing) and then walking the short distance to the track. At the same time you should pop in at the Department of Conservation (DOC) visitor centre. There’s lots of really interesting information on the local area and the friendly staff will be able to assist with any questions you might have, including the all important weather outlook for the coming few days.
Being a loop track means you have a choice on which way around to do this walk. Personally, we prefer to go anti-clockwise, heading out on the upper track which after a short forest section opens up to reveal an epic view of Mount Ngauruhoe as you meander gently through alpine tussock. An easy 2.5 km walk will get you to a wooden bridge (a second one) which crosses over the Wairere Stream just above the falls. Like many, you may be tempted to explore the well-worn channel that the stream has carved through this lava flow over many millennia. You may even decide to take a peek over the falls but carefully – those rocks can get really slippery, especially in Winter, and a 20m fall onto the boulders below is unlikely to end well.
Just after the bridge the main track heads up and right towards Tama Lakes but you’ll want to turn left at the marker post, heading down a steep set of stairs (another reason why it makes sense to do this walk anti-clockwise). Shortly after the stairs you’ll reach the first lookout. Don’t try and head down to the bottom of the falls from here. Just a few meters on is another lookout and from here you can more easily get to the boulder-ringed pool.
The walk back towards Whakapapa along the lower track feels altogether different as you follow the Wairere Stream through the dense beech forest. There’s an abundance of birdlife, and the stream presents a few interesting sights along the way – we won’t spoil the surprise. When you reach the junction with the Mangatepopo Track you’re just over halfway back. Just make sure you follow the sign towards Whakapapa otherwise you’ll end up several hours later near the start of the Tongariro Crossing. A little way past the Mangatepopo junction you’ll emerge from the forest and from there the track heads back towards Whakapapa through open tussock with the Chateau ahead of you and the almost perfect cone of Nguaruhoe behind you. All in all, it’s a great little walk that will have you primed and ready to do the Tongariro Crossing, or loosen up those stiff legs if you’d done it the day before. Chateau Tongariro high tea anyone?
Update: Sadly, Chateau Tongariro has closed down with effect Sunday 5 February 2023. There is currently no talk of re-opening in the future but hopefully somebody will save this historic icon.
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.
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