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A generous area of the central North Island, 78, 618 hectares to be precise, is the Tongariro National Park. The nearest towns are Turangi, National Park and Ohakune, plus the small alpine village of Whakapapa which is located within the Park itself. A mecca for skiers in the winter, during summer Whakapapa transforms into a hikers' heaven, with a multitude of excellent hiking trails on offer.
The most renowned of the walking tracks is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, 19.4km one way and a good 6-8 hours hike. It can be walked unguided but to get maximum enjoyment from the trip, joining a small group with a guide is an excellent option. Local transfers are taken care of and you can be confident that all safety precautions are being adhered to. The region's weather is highly unpredictable and it can rain or snow any time of the year. The guides have state-of-the-art communications to ensure any adverse weather changes are known sooner rather than later.
If a full day hike is a bit beyond your timeframe, the Tongariro National Park offers a multitude of other great options, one of which is Taranaki Falls Walking Track. This is a 6km loop track, starting and finishing from Whakapapa village, that takes approximately 2 hours. The upper and lower tracks which form the loop offer outstanding views of Mt Ngauruhoe's symmetrical volcanic cone, the older more eroded summit of Mt Tongariro and massive Mt Ruapehu. The terrain ranges from tussock and alpine shrubland, mountain beech forest and the small river gorge of the Wairere Stream. Keep ears and eyes open for small native birds who inhabit the area.
The Taranaki Falls are approximately halfway around the loop and offer generous reward for your hiking efforts. Tumbling some 20 metres over the edge of a lava flow, they are truly magnificent. The Department of Conservation has kindly erected some welcoming seats where you can relax and absorb the dramatic landscape!
When we walked the track we took the upper track to the Falls and returned via the lower track. Speaking with other hikers who walked in the opposite direction, it seems walking the upper track first is better in terms of the uphill incline being better graded.
Taranaki Falls is an outstanding hike for those with moderate fitness and limited time. Check hiking conditions at the visitor centre at Whakapapa Village before setting out, take water, snacks, extra clothing and be aware that volcanic activity can occur with little or no warning. Check the local volcanic alert status at the visitor centre.
So when you're planning your New Zealand vacation with some hiking in mind, create or choose a New Zealand itinerary that offers time in this spectacular region. With KiwiCombo Pass most self drive itineraries can be modified to ensure you have hiking time.