Our Hike To Taranaki Falls In Mt. Tongariro National Park
Receiving word that access to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was once again forbidden owing to risky conditions, Bob and I had our last day in Mt. Tongariro National Park, New Zealand, wide open. The morning looked promising with sun shining brightly when we awoke at our lodgings, at Creel Lodge.
How wonderful it was to see the landscape bathed in soft sunlight unlike the conditions that prevailed over the previous couple of days.
Driving up to Whakapapa Village, we soaked up the wide open views of the landscape previously shrouded in fog or rain. The temperature dropped significantly as we gained higher altitude.
Snow could be seen drifting in the distance and clouds sat low over the mountains.
The grey sky and dark surfaces of the distant mountains made it possible to better see steam spewing from one of the volcanoes.
What a surprise to find road restrictions further up the mountain. Three inches of slushy snow meant that chains or 4WD were required to go beyond Scoria Flats. We made it to the parking lot with no problem.
Bob and I figured that a hike on the Taranaki Falls Trail was a good option. It is even recommended as a good track to ramble if the weather is less than ideal.
Back in Whakapapa Village, a café had everything we needed for supplies. It was within a stone’s throw of Taranaki Falls trailhead below the Visitor Centre at Ngauruhoe Place.
Considered a leisurely walk of 6 kilometres, the trail to Taranaki Falls consists of an Upper and a Lower Track that combine to form a circular loop to the Falls and back. Taranaki Falls is at the midpoint. Bob and I opted to take the Lower Track because it is reputed to be more sheltered on windy, cold days.
The three mountains within Mt Tongariro National Park, Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngauruhoe, and Mt Tongariro, have a significant effect on the weather of the area. There is frequent precipitation, and since the sun had once again given way to clouds and drizzle, Bob and I donned rain ponchos over jackets and fleeces, toques and mitts.
It was very easy going for the first kilometre or so. Despite the inclement conditions, the beauty of the landscape shone through. The elegantly arching slender leaves of Red Tussock Grass seemed to glow from within adding a warmth to the alpine shrub land. This evergreen perennial is endemic to New Zealand.
Descending gradually, it wasn’t long before Bob and I passed into a Beech Forest. The forest canopy provided a little shelter from the falling rain, but there was ample water dripping from the trees.
The Beech Forest consists mainly of large Mountain Beech Trees, Mountain Five Finger and Mountain Toatoa, all species endemic to New Zealand. Mountain Toatoa is also called Mountain Celery Pine.
Frequent bridges and boardwalks served to convey us across numerous streams that were flowing vigorously because of the recent precipitation.
Every so often, a series of steps conducted us further down into a valley.
There was water, water everywhere filling the riverbeds as it drained from higher ground.
The forest of native trees flourished owing to the reliable frequency of precipitation. The luxurious undergrowth was dripping wet, sparkling in stray beams of sunshine.
A slight upward grade brought us to the edge of the forest.
Bob and I were surprised to find that the trail once again opened upon shrubland.
Then, back into the woods we went. Where repetitive runoff of rainwater had made its way to the stream via the trail, all soil had been swept away. River rocks were challenging to navigate given their wet and slippery condition.
This area of Mt. Tongariro National Park is anchored by the three volcanoes, Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngauruhoe, and Mt Tongariro though none of them were showing themselves this day. Even so, passing through this small section of the Park, it was easy to see why UNESCO deemed it a dual World Heritage Site in 1993. For us, being in this place was a visceral experience connected to the area’s cultural and religious significance for the Maori people.
When we emerged at the edge of Wairere Stream, it was time to pause and reflect on the spiritual and cultural importance of the landscape to the Maori community.
The trail followed the course of Wairere Stream and provided excellent views of its narrow, water-worn gorge.
The volume of flowing water being forced into the confines of such a small channel created a thunderous roar that echoed off the rocky walls. It was no surprise given the waterlogged condition of the surrounding plateau.
Being riparian habitat that is well worn from the elements, many large boulders are exposed near the edge of the Stream.
Another bridge spanning the Wairere Stream was a good spot to enjoy a slight reprieve from the rain.
When the sun shouldered the clouds away, the landscape took on a whole different appearance. Looking behind us, we could actually discern other hikers on the trail in the distance.
Based on the occasional distance marker along the Lower Track, Bob and I knew we were getting close to Taranaki Falls. We could even hear a cascade not much further ahead.
It turned out that Cascade Falls was the source of that gushing water.
Cascade Falls is a small plunge waterfall below Taranaki Falls. It occurs at the point where the Wairere Stream enters a narrow gully.
Feeling encouraged, Bob and I dared to remove our ponchos. As we rounded a bend in the track, our objective was within sight, Taranaki Falls.
The push was on to achieve the base of the Falls before another line squall blew through.
Taranaki Falls made quite the sight and sound even from a distance.
Now, within reach of the Falls, Bob and I were excited for a closer look. Even though moving with haste, it was necessary to dodge puddles on the well-maintained track.
Drawing nearer to Taranaki Falls, we noticed some other trekkers on the far side of Wairere Stream close to the bottom of the cascade.
Seeing where other hikers had found their way to the base of Taranaki Falls, Bob decided to follow suit. Not to be outdone, I remained higher up to capture the moment then cautiously made my own way down over the piles of rocks.
Taranaki Falls tumbles over the edge of an ancient andesite lava flow formed when Mt. Ruapehu erupted 15,000 years ago. After falling 20 metres, the cascade lands in a boulder-ringed plunge pool.
The cascade of water, so constricted through the narrow opening at the top of precipitous stone cliffs, had the flow shooting out and spraying everywhere.
You’d think that both Bob and I would have had enough of getting wet for one day, but it was rather exhilarating sneaking in behind the cataract. The main concern was keeping the cameras dry.
By this time, another storm front was approaching. A heavy driving rain with ice pellets was drifting across the plateau, so we had to hustle to put on our ponchos again.
Given that the rain was picking up and that I was nearing the plunge pool, Bob began his return to a loftier vantage point.
Between the precipitation and spray and mist from the Falls, I feared for the operation of my camera even though it had spent most of the day beneath my rain poncho.
A series of switchbacks are laid out to convey hikers to the top of the cliffs once they are ready to continue on their way. The Taranaki Falls Trail connects with Tongariro Northern Circuit up on the lava flow. From below, we could see people looking down over the precipice as they approached the Falls from the Upper Track.
Bob and I began the climb. A strategically-placed wooden bench with a view overlooking Taranaki Falls was placed after the first switchback. It was lunchtime, so we decided that made a good spot to sit and eat our provisions.
By this time, we were being peppered with sizable ice pellets. Each bite I took of my bagel included a mouthful of snow!
Talk about keeping your picnic chilled!
There are 100 steps fashioned into the side of the gully that bring hikers into a forest of Mountain Toatoa above Taranaki Falls.
A last backward glance at Wairere Stream revealed how its meandering bed hugs the fringe of forest at the base of the cliffs.
The track back to the village had us crossing the lava flow where centuries of wind, rain and frost action have carved gullies into the volcanic soil. There was no letup in the sleet that, by this time, had turned some of the gullies into small creeks. Bob and I were walking in streams of water that had claimed the trail as their own abandoning any attempts to avoid the puddles and mud. The sun did finally emerge once more, and we were grateful when the track emerged again into red tussock and manuka shrubland. Our boots were full of water, our feet sloshing about, and our mittens soaked, but other than cold hands, we were toasty warm. The Café treated us to free hot chocolate and chocolate chip muffins that were well earned that day!
Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean