Tongariro Crossing Waterfalls

Tongariro National Park / Ruapehu, North Island, New Zealand

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About Tongariro Crossing Waterfalls


Hiking Distance: 20km one-way shuttle
Suggested Time: 8 hours one-way

Waterfall Latitude: -39.10277
Waterfall Longitude: 175.6514

The Tongariro Crossing Waterfalls page was my waterfalling excuse to talk about the unforgettable hike between three active volcanos in a moonscape that was said to be the finest day tramp in all of New Zealand. We had to wait almost three days due to bad weather before we were finally able to make the demanding 17km (nearly 8-hour) tramp. So we were glad that we were flexible enough in our trip planning to at least wait out the particular series of storms that conspired to keep us from finally doing this much-anticipated hike.

The waterfalls that Julie and I encountered on this hike was Soda Springs and some obscure waterfall that I’m calling the “Ketetahi Hut Waterfall.” There was also another waterfall near the end of the track, but we missed it as we were probably looking forward to finishing off the long hike and so we completely forgot about that last one. That said, we didn’t necessarily have to do the entire tramp to visit all the waterfalls, but this was an example where the scenery and the experience of the Tongariro Crossing far outweighed the waterfalls as motivating factors.

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Hiking on the Tongariro Crossing before Mt Ngauruhoe
Since we were staying in Whakapapa Village, we were able to make a booking for one of the popular shuttle services that took us to the trailhead at the end of Mangatepopo Rd and picked us up from the large car park at the end of the track at the far northern side of Tongariro National Park. We made this booking the evening before when we learned that the weather was predicted to clear up the next day.

When we were picked up from our accommodation at the agreed upon meeting time of about 8am, we were then dropped off to start off the hike at about 8:20am. At that point, we were part of a long train of trampers doing the one-way shuttle hike where the clear day afforded us gorgeous views of Mt Ngauruhoe, Mt Tongariro, and Mt Ruapehu – the three main volcanos providing the reason for Tongariro National Park’s existence. The initial part of the track went through open tussock terrain with a gently increasing slope passing by some obscure tiny cascades in some of the gullies along the track as well as the Mangatepopo Hut. After almost 90 minutes from the trailhead, we eventually reached the Soda Springs waterfall, which was right at the start of the first serious climb.

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View of Soda Springs from the Tongariro Crossing with a stream passing before it
True to its name, the waterfall emerged at the base of some cliffs as a spring. I’d imagine they put the “soda” in its name due to the water being laced with minerals and compounds as it undoubtedly traveled through the rich volcanic soil and aquifers on its way to this point. I was able to scramble to get a closer look at it, but I only went as far as the terrain would allow me as the ground became increasingly marshy and swampy the closer to the falls I went.

After getting our fill of the modestly-sized 15m falls, Julie and I then proceeded onto a steep and rugged climb on an ancient lava flow to the so-called Mangatepopo Saddle. We ended up spending about 45 minutes on this relentless climb that ascended 400m in 1.5km, where some sections even required us to use our hands as well as our legs to continue climbing. Once we made it up to the saddle, we earned some commanding views towards the west and northwest of the park (basically back in the direction we had come).

Next, we then hiked through an eerily flat area called the South Crater. This section went right in between both Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe, and there was even a side detour leading to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe, which we didn’t have the energy to do nor did we have the will as the clear skies were suddenly starting to give way to some clouds.

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Looking back across the South Crater with the poles indicating to us the route
Once we made it past the end of the South Crater, we then made another climb. During this section, we were taxing our legs that were already feeling it from the initial climb up to the Mangatepopo Saddle. Further adding to the drama of the scenery was that we were really surrounded by barren moonscapes where it truly felt like we were in some place that humans were not supposed to be.

We made a climb up to another “gathering place” where we noticed some people were chilling out before continuing the climb. At least at this point, we knew that we would be making way up to the rim of the so-called Red Crater. During this ascent, there was another detour heading to the summit of Mt Tongariro, which we also didn’t do. Plus, this section of track felt more like it was prone to be a little more slippery due to the loose pebbles that almost acted like ball bearings on the hard-packed dirt track. Julie and I felt this climb was perhaps the most dramatic section of the hike in terms of scenery (as well as the drama of expending a lot of energy to make it to the highest point of our tramp).

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Red and black terrain comprising the Red Crater at the very top of the Tongariro Crossing
Eventually after an hour of hiking from the Mangatepopo Saddle, we began our descent from the rim of the Red Crater, and that was where we started to see the colourful Emerald Lakes. This might be the most photogenic part of the hike as the colourful lakes contrasted the moonscapes left behind by the volcanic activity that continue to rule this area. However, that descent was on loose scree so we were essentially sliding our way down, and we couldn’t imagine how anyone would be able to hike up to the Red Crater in the reverse direction.

After making it down to the Emerald Lakes and having a picnic lunch, we then traversed another open and flat crater area called the Central Crater. Eventually after making it to the far end of this crater, the track then left the volcanic moonscapes and began a dramatic change of scenery as we started to return to tussock grasslands with dramatic views of the lakes and settlements just north of Tongariro National Park. After about another 75 minutes of hiking after leaving the Emerald Lakes, we eventually made it to the busy Ketetahi Hut.

Continuing on with the hike, we then continued our descent through the grassy tundra-like tussock lands before we started to notice an interesting two-tiered waterfall that came from a thermal creek. I wasn’t sure if it had a name or if it was more than just another ephemeral waterfall, but I decided to call it the “Ketetahi Hut Falls” because it was so close to the mountain hut we had just arrived at. Just upstream from a creek crossing of the falls, there looked to be steam rising for a hot spring. I wasn’t sure if people used to soak in that spring or not, but perhaps this was what the signs were warning us about urging visitors not to trespass into the Ketetahi Hot Springs area, which was said to be a Maori sacred site. Since the track passed through private Maori lands with permission from the landowners to allow the crossing to occur, it was best not to give reason to close off this hike completely by not respecting their wishes.

So we didn’t go closer for a look, and we merely continued our descent as the scenery eventually turned into lush forest, which contrasted mightily from the barren and unforgiving landscapes we had just crossed to get here. We started to walk besides some stream, and it was probably around this point that we neglected to check out the last waterfall on this track (probably also unnamed). Eventually after about 7.5 hours from the start of the track, we made it to the car park at the end, where we waited for about 15 minutes for the shuttle to show up (one of 2 or 3 different pick-up times) and take us back to Whakapapa Village.

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I believe there were shuttle services from Whakapapa Village, National Park, and as far as Ohakune. If you were somehow able to arrange for your own shuttle, here’s the route that was taken (at least in our experience, where we caught such a shuttle from Whakapapa Village).

From Whakapapa Village, the van drove about 6km back downhill along SH48 to the SH47, then turned right onto SH47. It then drove the next 4.5km to the Mangatepopo Road on the right. The van took the unsealed road for nearly 6km to its end where we began the hike.

In order to drive to the other end of the Tongariro Crossing, we would have had to keep driving for another 13km beyond the turnoff for Mangatepopo Rd to the junction with SH46. Then turn right onto SH46 and drive for the next 6km to another unsealed road on the right, and at the end of that unsealed road (1km from the highway) was the large car park for the other end of Tongariro Crossing. However, with the shuttle service, there were pre-determined pick-up times (made known at the time of drop-off) from this other end of the crossing back to Whakapapa Village.

For context, Whakapapa Village was about 2 hours drive (143km) north of Whanganui, which itself was about 2.5 hours drive (193km) north of Wellington. From the other direction, Whakapapa Village was about 3 hours drive (225km) south of Hamilton, which itself was about 90 minutes drive (125km) south of Auckland.

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