A circuit around Lower Tama Lake gives the Tongariro Alpine Crossing a run for its money, and you’ll barely see a soul.
The silence in Tongariro National Park can be confronting. Away from the park’s busy pockets, it becomes so complete that if you stop crunching over gravel and scree to hold your breath, you meet a wall of silence. There is nothing; no birds, no breeze, no rivers to cut the quiet – it’s like standing in space. You’ll rarely find such an atmosphere on the busy Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but on a loop around Lower Tama Lake, you’ll meet few others, and the silence will be yours to devour.
This loop can be tackled comfortably in a day, or tacked on to the Whakapapa to Waihohonu section of the three to four day Tongariro Northern Circuit. Regardless, it provides perhaps the best scenery to effort ratio of any track in the park, with only a small section of off-trail travel.
From Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre, the Taranaki Falls Track forks into an upper and lower track. The lower track is the more scenic route, as it leads north-west through a gorgeous colour palette of scrub and abrupt copses of mossy beech. It soon reaches Wairere Stream and runs parallel to this until reaching Taranaki Falls.
Past the falls, a short sharp set of stairs leads to the junction of the upper and lower falls tracks and the Tama Lakes Track, which begins a gradual climb over well-graded gravel and kindly switchbacks. A fine day will reward visitors with excellent views of Mts Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe and as the track continues east, walkers find themselves moving into a sweet spot directly between the two volcanoes.
The climb soon plateaus and the track continues east over intermittent boardwalks until it veers north at Upper Tama Lakes Track junction. The walk to the viewpoint over Lower Tama Lake is flat and easy, but walkers will be thankful for the breather before the real climb begins.
At the viewpoint, a poled route continues skyward, wasting zero time in gaining 100m. Likewise, the views waste no time in taking your breath away, as Lower Tama Lake slowly falls into line between the track and Mt Ruapehu beyond, like a volcanic eclipse. The climb is steep, but the ridge is broad and safe. A rock cairn soon marks the end of the poled route, where most walkers turn around. The views here are impressive, with an incredible vantage now over both lakes, each backed by very different but equally magnificent volcanoes.
To complete the ‘loop’, follow the unmarked track as it undulates its way towards Pt1450. The exposure on this section can be unsettling, so take care with footing. Those with energy may like to drop packs and detour down an obvious ridge to a staggering viewpoint on the southern side of Upper Tama Lake. To preserve the lake’s pristine quality, DOC recommends visitors do not swim or touch the lake water.
From Pt1450, follow the broad ridge south for around 1.5km to intersect the track leading east to Waihohonu Hut. The ridge commands incredible views of Lower Tama Lake below, which frankly leave the popular western viewpoint for dead. There are few footprints on this section, however, and care should be taken to zigzag on the scree to avoid trampling plant life.
From the junction with the Great Walk track, the return journey to Whakapapa Village will take 2.5-3hr. For some variation, return on the upper Taranaki Falls Track – there is a small swimming hole right by the junction that will wake you up before the drive home.