RUAPEHU, New Zealand - the Sneakiest HIDDEN SPOTS
I’ll put my hand straight on up and say I’m 100% someone who scours Instagram daily and reads blogs on end trying to hunt out all the hidden spots in mother nature, wherever I am in the world. If you’re like me then you’ve probably heard of every single one of these bad boys, but for those of you who aren’t and struggle to find somewhere a little further from the norm, this post will include all the deets you need to know to embark on a few of my absolute favourite sneaky and not so sneaky hidden spots in the heart of the Central North Island region of Ruapehu. The go-to region in the north to set foot on a world famous hike, zoom down some of the best ski fields in all the land and scope out a cheeky hobbit or two. You’ll find these gems somewhere between those three mighty, alive and kicking volcanoes of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, and amongst the ridiculously beautiful 796sq km dual World Heritage Tongariro National Park. Exactly where? I’ll get to that in a jiffy.
I know, I’ve just done a ginormous speel about how much I love the South Island in my last post, but I honestly do think the North Island is overlooked for all it’s raw natural beauty, up in your grill volcanic landscape and for being a straight up pure wilderness wonderland. The dirty south thankfully doesn’t quite hog all of the goodness and both are equally as stunning and worth the visit. Ruapehu is the perfect place to come if you want to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
I’ve spent a few years of my life living in the region, on and off between galavanting back and forth around the joint. Like many of the cool kids there I still squeal with excitement and my jaw drops to my knees every time I look outside at the towering mountains. When lit up with one of those striking sunrises and sunsets that are out of this world, I find it hard to keep still and not want to get outside and explore the cones themselves.
The likes of the famous Tongariro Crossing, Tama Lakes, Silica Rapids and array of well known waterfalls including Taranaki, Mangawhero, Waitonga and Tawhai, get recognition in the Ruapehu region, and damn well deserve it in their own right. I totally recommend venturing to all of these at least once. However sometimes I really just don’t want to go on the same path with thousands of other people. I personally find roaming on the path less travelled way more relaxing, refreshing and peaceful.
So if you want to look like a real geek like me with your camera hanging round your neck, backpack strapped on, hiking boots on nice and snug and packed snacks galore, then keep reading. You’re welcome.
A few of the less hidden but equally amazing spots in the Ruapehu area mentioned earlier-
4-5 hour/11KM return via same track
Anyone that knows me well knows me I’m a magnet to a good waterfall, so why not start off with one of my favourites, hidden deep in the dense Erua Forest of Ruapehu. I personally didn’t hear about this one for a long time until I scrolled past it randomly somewhere on the world wide web and was keener than mustard to get there asap.
How to get there you may ask?
Head to the small town of National Park on the Whakapapa side of Mt Ruapehu. Go up Fisher’s Road, cross over the railway and drive up to the carpark where you’ll see the signposted track.
The track is rugged, enclosed most of the way and surrounded by dominant native trees. One step on this track and I immediately felt like I was in the middle of nowhere in a secluded rainforest, hearing nothing but the chirping of birds and rush of falling water as I got closer. After rain fall especially this track can get extremely slippery and muddy, so pack a light rain jacket and wear proper hiking boots, sneakers, or even gumboots. For 20 minutes you’ll follow a pretty mellow track until you get to a wee opening in the bush that looks out onto the perfectly formed Mt Taranaki, a sensible turn around point if you have littlies and are just keen on a Sunday stroll through the bush.
From here on the track becomes much more of a back country adventure one, hopping over rushing streams and scrambling over fallen trees. After following the coloured markers along the ridge the path becomes narrower and much steeper as you descend to a stream then back onto a bluff for an insane view of Tupapakurua Falls. Bare in mind you’ll be going downhill majority of the way to the falls, so you’ll most likely be buggered on the way back up.
When I last went the track was being upgraded and there were random planks of wood and buckets of stones scattered along the way. Be a good sport and carry one or two on to the next sign posted spot.
If you dare to get to the base of the falls after seeing a birds eye view from the lookout, you can then head downhill even more and embark on an obstacle course weaving through the forest and along the river to get right up and personal, highly recommended. I left soaked, but stoked!
Make sure you start this track at a reasonable time of day and get back before the sun goes down as there is almost no reception whatsoever.
Here’s a picture from my journey to the base of the falls. I passed a speedy gonzales goat and was chased by a wild pig immediately after this shot. Gave me one hell of a fright, but a laugh and a half all in all.
MT URCHIN TRIG
3-4 hour/6.6KM return via same track
If you’re on the look out for somewhere higher than a kite, amongst an alpine wonderland of native plants and pretty flowers with almost no other souls in sight, then get your self on up the 1391m summit to the Mt Urchin Trig in the Kaimanawa Forest Park of Ruapehu.
Where on earth is it?
On the Desert Road side of the mountains head south from Turangi on SH1. Drive for 15km and turn left down Kaimanawa Rd. Continue on this road following the ‘Urchin Track’ signs. The road turns into a steep and windy gravel road.
When I went there I almost had the entire track to myself passing only one cute grandpa helping his hobbling, knackered granddaughter back down the track. This track starts off steep and narrow and stays that way the majority of the hike, only flattening out for brief moments. Once you peep out above the bush line and scuttle up the loose rocks you’ll find yourself at the trig smack bang in front of those three mammoth volcanoes. To your right you’ll get a load of the vast Lake Taupo and surrounding lakes. Park up to catch your breath and soak up that lush environment!
If you have a few extra days to spare, from here you can be a trooper and carry on to various multi day hikes and huts in the area, if that tickles your fancy.
DESERT ROAD SIDE ROADS
Keeping on the same side of Ruapehu it’s obviously impossible to miss the photogenic Desert Road, a road high up there in my books with the insane scenic drives in the south. The wild terrain, tussock covered lands and other worldly panoramic views of the mountain range will bring you back to earth.
If you drift away from the main highway and take a few sneaky turns down the many side roads off SH1, you’ll be in for a whale of a time. I’ve been surprised how little known these roads are. When we were youngin’s my dad had a crazy obsession with power stations so I swear we went to every single one in the god damn North Island, which were always tucked down side roads may I add. Gotta admit though the Rangipo one is worth a visit.
A few short and sweet highlights are.
If you head down Kaimanawa Road (the same road Mt Urchin is on) for roughly 2.5km, on the left you will see a road where you cross over a barrage to Beggs Pool and a charming 15m high waterfall. The waterfall isn’t accessible by foot but if you’re a bit of a dare devil it’s the perfect spot for rafting, or like me just scope out the cascading falls from the carpark.
TREE TRUNK GORGE WATERFALL
Back on Kaimanawa Road, if you head down a little further than the turn off for the falls follow the road until you spot a bridge. As far as I know the gorge isn’t marked but once you hit the bridge pass over it and find a safe spot to park. Cruise back onto the bridge by foot for an insane view overlooking the Tongariro river screaming at full force through the gorge, carved deep into the solid rock.
PILLARS OF HERCULES
Once again on the same road, follow the slightly hidden signs to the Pillars of Hercules car park, tucked in a little nook. Clearly this road is a gold mine in the Ruapehu! You’ll spot a long, narrow suspension bridge swinging over the 40m deep gorge. Jump out here for a sweet view over the Pillars. Alternatively hoon down one of the short loop de loop walks from here, or the Urchin Campsite, immersing yourself a little deeper through the forest. The area is riddled with mountain bike tracks too if that’s up your alley.
Tukino is a banging spot if you want to check out a striking sunrise at the crack of dawn or a stellar sunset later in the day. On the right hand side take the pot hole riddled Tukino Access Road, roughly 46km south of Turangi, or 22km north of Waiouru on the left. You’ll pass a pond which makes for some great snaps! Make sure you rug up when exploring anywhere in the area as it can get icy cold.
5-7 hours/10KM return via same track
Keen on a real wilderness mission, the sound of silence and getting lost in the middle of the woods? You won’t get much more secluded than this when venturing the Ruapehu.
20 minutes north of Ohakune on SH49, or 6km south of National Park you will find the small village of Erua. Park up near the railway line and walk along side the track. Look up and spot one of the poles holding up the power line overhead which is held upright by a stay. The track begins here where you should see a slight opening at the bush edge. Thank god I was with someone who knew where the hell they were going!
The track.. well it isn’t so much of a track, just remnants of an old overgrown path mapped out by informal coloured ribbons (take note of these for the way back down) flax bushes tied in knots, random snow poles and a pad underneath your feet if you’re lucky. Be prepared for some serious bush whacking, hobbling over and under tree roots AND a serious climb. This gem isn’t for the faint hearted.
From the start climb steadily through the dense native forest and after an hour or so you’ll reach the tree line and hit a land of shrubs, tussock bushes and some pretty damp and boggy ground. Don’t be a sucker though, you are still well away from the top and have yet to slog (well, in my case) your way up the rest of the hill and clamber up the rocks before reaching the summit plateau at 1519m. You may come across a few forks in the road on your journey but most of them seem to come back together at one point or another.
Once you finally reach the prominent peak you’ll feel on top of the world. A sight worth constantly falling on my ass for. Your eyeballs will be treated with an outrageous panoramic view of Hauhungatahi’s big volcanic neighbours- Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Mt Taranaki out yonder.
This one is definitely some hard yakka but worth it a million times over. This walk along with Tama Lakes are definitely my favourites in the Ruapehu. Next time I’m packing a tent and sleeping bag to camp out and do some serious star gazing!
Keep your eyes and ears peeled for deer and wildlife too.
PLEASE NOTE– Since posting this blog post I’ve been informed that sadly public access is currently not allowed up Mt Hauhungatahi. Private property and trespassing signs are up, so in my opinion it’s safer not to risk it. The local council and DOC are currently investigating this and are in hope to get public access to Hauhungatahi again, fingers crossed!
LUPTON FALLS AND OHAKUNE MOUNTAIN FALLS
Swinging around to the Ohakune side of Mt Ruapehu, head up the Ohakune Mountain Road towards the Turoa Ski Field and take it easy until you reach the 11.5km mark, a well signposted carpark for the popular Waitonga Falls. These falls are well worth the adventure, but a couple of underdogs just moments away are the real stars of the show in my books.
First up, take on the beautiful Waitonga Falls track. Once you reach the falls instead of not only standing in awe gawking at the water tumbling in multiple tiers over the huge cliff face, carefully jump over the river to the other side and follow the river up towards the falls for an even better look. Here tucked away sneakily to your right you’ll be surrounded by a couple of smaller but equally as mesmerising waterfalls trickling over the mossy rock faces. Bloody beaut.
Back at the viewing platform for Waitonga Falls, after veering left to look at the raging waters turn right and walk for a few moments, heading towards Lupton Hut until you hit the first river crossing. Hop, skip and jump over the river then follow the few markers staggered about ahead of you until you see the slight path swing around the corner to your left. There is no official track from here but you’ll see the top of a rather large waterfall, known to me as Lupton Falls. Mosey on down the river side hopping back and forth over the rocks to reach the base of the falls bucketing down literally over you.
After exploring this goodie, on your way back to your car, only 10 minutes or so from the carpark is a slight opening at a corner on your right hand side. If you cruise down here for a few moments you’ll reach a rocky surface where you’ll virtually be standing at the top of what is know as the Ohakune Mountain Falls. The perfect place for a break on the large rock face. Be extra careful when wet.
Alternatively this same waterfall can be accessed by wandering up the river bed at the start of the track. Climb underneath the bridge and walk for 15 minutes or so, or once you’re back in your car take a tiki tour further up the road only a few moments until you see a small parking area to your right. This bad boy that you see here is again, Ohakune Mountain Falls.
2 hour return via same track
Holy, this walk immerses you smack back in the midst of some wicked raw alpine scenery, gigantic waterfalls I didn’t even know existed and of course, cascading rapids that have to be seen to be believed.
How to find it?
Drive up the Ohakune Mountain road for 17.5km. On a sharp corner to your left you should notice a ‘Round the Mountain Track’ sign. Not a whole lot of space for cars so park strategically and safely.
You’ll start off walking straight down a rugged track along the ridge, descending deep into the valley before setting sight upon oodles of waterfalls trickling off the mountain left, right and centre. You’ll stumble upon the upper cascades then descend even further to the lower. I felt like I was walking on another planet on this sucker!
You can carry on from here to Lake Surprise, Mangaturuturu Hut, or the much longer Round the Mountain track. However setting aside just half a day to explore these series of cascades is well worth it. I’ve warned you.
Tucked just off SH47, 3kms north of the turn off to Whakapapa Ski Field, is a sign for Mahuia Rapids that leads you down a short gravel road to a chill swimming spot in the Ruapehu. Explore by the river for a sweet waterfall and view of the mountains. Climb over the boulders at the rapids to find another sneaky pool hidden away!
3 hour return via same track
Off the grid 42 km west of SH4 near Raurimu, or 2 hours 15 minute drive north west from Ohakune is a long windy gravel road named Oio that leads you to Blue Duck Station in Retaruke, Ruapehu. The drive itself boasts some phenomenal views over farmland and from the top of the hills a perspective of Mt Ruapehu you may not have seen before. Once you reach the isolated farm and working station of Blue Duck you can from there take on the flat and easy 3 hour walk along a dirt road that winds around the Whanganui and Retaruke rivers, to reach the steep stair case built into the bush that enchants you to the secluded falls. Jump in for a swim, float about in a kayak, or chill out with the rare and endangered blue ducks (Whio) hanging about.
Have a yarn with the station staff or friendly farmers if you’re a bit confused about how to get there from the station and also how to get up onto the hill above the lodge for an epic view. I went in winter and was treated to squelching, knee high mud along the track, so hiking boots or gum boots is a must! In summer I’m sure you could get away with sneakers.
3-5 hours/4.6KM loop track
On SH47, 11km south of Turangi is the more well known 2 hour walk around tranquil Lake Rotopounamu. The perfect place for a simple walk or lake side picnic. However if you cross over to the opposite side of the road (same side as the carpark) and drive north a few more minutes you’ll reach the Tihia Track. This one is a bit of a mish to find if I say so myself, so slow down and keep a look out for a slight widening in the road on your left hand side, big enough to fit two parked cars. You’ll see an opening in the bush that is an old as heck dirt road only going down for a few metres. I went back and forth down the highway a couple of times before I found this spot. If you reach the ‘Te Ponanga Saddle Road Lookout’, you’ve gone too far.
The track is rough, overgrown and completely in the sticks. Not a tourist in sight and nothing but you and the sound of birds chatting up a storm. You’ll hike higher and higher following the odd marker until your head pops out of the bushes to catch a view over the many lakes and mountains, north, west, south and east. Sadly I wasn’t prepared with my camera, but mate trust me when I say the views are top notch!
God knows where I was meant to end up but I exited the track about 4km south of where my car was parked, so walked back alongside the highway to reach the start.
20 mins return via same track
If you’re still reading, I’ve kept one of my favourite little hide aways till lucky last. Traveling east on SH46 towards Rangipo, 7km after the turn off from SH47 you’ll see a sign for ‘Tongariro Alpine Crossing Track’ on your right hand side. Head down here until you reach the carpark. Typically this would be where you would end the famous crossing but if you’re just up for a short walk about then wander down the track for 10 minutes until you see a lookout pole and side track on your right hand side. Hello Ketetahi Falls, small but mighty and green as can be.
Thanks for reading,
If you still manage to get lost finding these Ruapehu hidden gems, check out this map.
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