Taranaki Falls Hike @ Tongariro

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Taranaki Falls (left) peeks out from the cliffs and feeds the river below

At 6.4 km, Taranaki Falls Loop is a brisk little hike you can do in a couple of hours. We chose this hike when cloudy, rainy weather dashed our hopes of doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. And while it doesn’t involve breathtaking summits, it’s a beautiful hike even in gloomy weather.

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The trailhead, with a view of volcanic peaks in the distance

The hike starts from the Whakapapa village parking lot, just north of the Tongariro National Park Visitors’ Center. If you want to reach the falls quickly and have a longer hike after, take the right fork. To have the long hike first and the falls nearer(ish) to the end, take the left fork. The description below is through the left fork, traveling clockwise on the loop. The beginning of the hike isn’t super well-signed, so it doesn’t hurt to pop by the visitors’ center first and ask how to find the hike. They’ll also know the latest info on trail conditions in the area.

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Scotch heather, a highly invasive plant in the Tongariro area

The hike first threads through bushy plains, but much of the bush you’ll see isn’t native; it’s Scotch heather, a shrub originally introduced back when there were plans to turn Tongariro into a grouse game reserve. Though the grouse never quite took (reports online suggest they were never introduced, but we heard from someone that the few grouse released died), the heather did, crowding out native plant species and disrupting the ecosystem. In summer the heather blooms, dotting the landscape with splotches of brilliant purple. It’s beautiful, but worrying for Tongariro’s native plants.

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Where grassland meets woods

The trail then takes you into the woods, a wonderland dense with tree branches clothed in mosses and lichens. If it’s sunny, this will be a chance to get some shade and cooler temperatures. If there’s been rain, expect some of the trail to be wet—indentations along the path turn into puddles and ponds after heavy rain.

 

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A raindrop hangs from a tuft of moss on a branch

 

The woods won’t last long and soon you’ll be out on the plains again but now following a river. After another kilometer or so, you’ll cross a bridge with a plunging waterfall. Though beautiful, it’s not Taranaki, so carry on.

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The smaller waterfall before Taranaki

Less than a kilometer on, you’ll come to the actual Taranaki Falls. There’s a bench nearby to rest on and a few different spots to take photos from.

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People walk the edge of the cliffs over Taranaki Falls.

The trail then continues around the falls and climbs upward until you find yourself at the top. Stare down into the raging waters if you like, but don’t fall yourself.

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The bottom of the falls
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The top of the falls

The hike then winds back toward Whakapapa Village through the plains. You’ll see much of the same grass and bush you saw earlier, but there is one new feature: old lava flows. These flows formed during eruptions of Mt. Ruapehu, and plants still struggle to grow here in the red-brown rocky dirt. Single plants here don’t survive well, as wind and rain carry any dirt away. But you’ll find clusters of plants clinging together for defense against nature’s merciless weathering.

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Plants eke out an existence in tufts along the lava flows
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A close-up of a plant tuft in an old lava flow. These plants survive by growing together, their roots trapping soil and preventing its loss through weathering.

After a couple of kilometers, the plains will give way to woods and return to the starting point. We found ourselves a bit lost, wandering through a patch of ski bungalows before finding the parking lot again—probably the ‘village’ part of the Whakapapa village. From here you can head on to another hike, head back to the visitors’ center, or celebrate with a hot cup of tea or coffee from Chateau Tongariro. Or go all in for a (slightly pricey but oh so good) high tea.

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The trail over the top of the falls, heading home

Tongariro High Tea

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The road out from the Ruatiti Domain campsite, prone to rockslides when it rains. 

 For a second day running, everything is damp. Our clothes are damp. Our socks and shoes are damp. The tent is soaked. It’s still raining.

We spent last night at Ruatiti Domain, one of the few free campsites near Tongariro National Park for those of us not in self-contained vehicles. It was a beautiful mix of field and woods situated next to a river, but heavy rain meant the tent was soaked by morning (even with the rainfly). We woke up damp, ate breakfast in the car with the heater on, and decamped with an irrational haste because really, we couldn’t get much wetter.

Today was supposed to be our big hike; we had planned to trek the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is nearly 20km of mountainous hiking through the park. But when we stopped by the Visitors’ center, the ranger laughed and told us not to bother. “Are we starting too late?” we asked. “A bit,” she replied, “But the bigger issue is the weather. You’re not gonna see anything out there today with these clouds! Just not worth it.”

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A taxidermy kiwi in the visitors’ center. Spoiler, this is the only kiwi we will see in New Zealand.

She walked us through a few other hiking options in the area but conceded the weather probably wouldn’t be clearing up anytime soon. “It’s not too bad to hike in!” she told us with a chipper voice. We looked out the window at the rivulets flowing from the roof and the heavy drops hitting the sidewalk. It probably wasn’t too bad if you had somewhere warm and dry to go post-hike. Maybe with a nice shower, and a dry change of clothes. But we only had the car.

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And here’s us in the car. Damp.

We dashed back to the car and checked our options. The storm system covered the entire central North Island, so we couldn’t out-drive it to find sunnier hiking elsewhere. We could go back to Kerosene Creek, but that meant a couple hours’ drive back the way we came and would mess with our subsequent schedule. Then we remembered a sign: the swanky Chateau Tongariro, just next to the visitors’ center, does High Tea. And when you’re bedraggled, damp, and dejected, what could be better than a cup of tea?

A few minutes’ later we were in the main lobby of the hotel, hoping the staff wouldn’t throw us out for failing at any dress code whatsoever. They politely handed us menus instead. At $28 NZD per person, it wasn’t cheap. But LOOK at it:

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Stoytcho and the Chateau Tongariro High Tea spread

Really, is there anything more comforting on a wet afternoon than two steaming-hot pots of tea and a tower of delicious carb-heavy sandwiches and sweets? No. Nothing.

We luxuriated over the tea for two hours, seeing people come and go. We watched a young family try to keep their toddler from hoarding all of the rocks in the plant displays in her pockets. We discussed life, and how far humanity has come: in the developed nations, we’re so rarely wet or damp for more than a few hours that we aren’t familiar with its misery. We have never known the lives of our ancestors who (with statistically likelihood) toiled or travelled in the rain, or whose roofing almost inevitably leaked and made the home damp. It’s a wonderful world we live in now, free from these discomforts. But on the other hand, after two days of damp chill, hot tea has never felt so warm, so life-giving.

At the end of tea, we glanced out the window to find a lovely surprise. The sky was clearing. Mist still clung to the distant mountains, but the rain had abated and the clouds had thinned. Though we didn’t get to hike, in the distance we could make out a volcanic cone rising out of the landscape. Sometimes, it really is just best to grab a cup of tea and wait out the storm.

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A volcano (perhaps Mt Ngauruhoe) emerges from the mist at Tongariro National Park